If you grew up and went to school in Western North Carolina back in the ‘70’s as I did, you couldn’t seem to escape Asheville NC writer Thomas Wolfe and his haunting admonition that “You can’t go home again”. It was one that seemed to threaten an unavoidable and ominous loss, turning up everywhere from lit classes to libraries to shelves in not a few homes.
Thomas Wolfe’s ghost haunted me all the way to my new college as I left home for my freshman year. Following career and family choices led me away from those same beloved mountains about which Wolfe wrote. His whispered doom came to tea a time or three over post-college years spent in the mid-west.
As life took me away, I assumed that the loss was part of the price we pay for simply moving forward through the days and years, another angst-ridden negative talisman hung about the bowed-down neck of life. In those days, it seemed smart and hip to be depressed and cynical. This old set of habitual thought ran head-long into my on-going quest to build a positive life and it demanded a reassessment.
On a recent trip home, strangely, I found a better source of advice and attitude. It was in, of all places, a Bon Jovi song. “Who says you can’t go home?” In this musical homage to keeping the best parts of your life close to your heart, Bon Jovi challenges positively and energetically against the gloom of Mr. Wolfe. The answer is fairly clear—the only one that can really stop us is us.
Having experienced decades of living away and coming home to such shocks as radical growth, economic declines, physical changes, deaths, marriages, friends who had drifted away from who they used to be, and just the simple unavoidable marks of the passing of time, I would find myself grieving with Thomas Wolfe for the loss of the “home” that I remembered and missed.
The harrowing sadness that accompanies the Wolfe perspective is built on the perception that we will always and irretrievably lose what we had, what we love, when the people and places change while we go off into the world. The home that we long for simply does not exist anymore and the loss can cut like a knife into our souls, according to Wolfe. Yes, we can be hurt or we can seek out and embrace the positive in the situation.
Its true—turn your back for a bit, go off to Paris for a semester, pursue a round the world career path, take that scholarship to Harvard, go after a writing gig in NYC, hike across Europe or get married , move to your spouse’s new job —-and while you are gone, your old life and the town it was lived in is going to have the temerity to move on, grow, change, transform and refuse to hit the pause button in your absence. Just as you are moving on, growing, changing, transforming and equally refusing to hit *your* pause button.
change—and in all fairness, we have to allow our hearts, minds and souls to accept change in the people and places left behind us, lest we fall into the trap of expecting pockets of the world to “remain quaint for our benefit” . If we have the right to go out, make our own mistakes, build our own paths, make our own triumphs, so does everyone we left behind. Yes, there are things, situations, and people we miss and it can hurt. However, we don’t have to let that be all that’s left for us.
Homes—and hometowns— are what we make of them. We can sit and mourn with Tom Wolfe that “things have changed” and its never going to be the same again. No, it’s not going to be the same—and neither are we. It can strike us painfully when they tear down and build over the landmarks of our childhoods, when we lose people or the comfortable and familiar transforms into something unknown.
However much change occurs, they can’t take away the memories, the good times, and the lessons those places taught us. Do you have wonderful places that exist now only in memory? Uphold and cherish as best you can the places, people and things that you remember with love:
- Write down your memories so they can be shared with others and preserved for you.
- Find or take pictures of places that you love. There are no guarantees that any place or building will not fall under the ax of time, natural disaster, or urban renewal.
- Take pictures of the people around you because they will change over time.
- If you want to, do go “home”. Don’t let anyone or anything cheat you out of the chance to both keep the best of the past alive.
- Go visit the new shops, the new restaurants, the new places in your hometown and help them become part of what makes that town “a great place to be from”.
- Embrace and celebrate the positive changes in yourself, friends and family.
- Remember – we own our past, it doesn’t own us.
We can appreciate the good, toasting people and places gone before and know that no one can ever take away who we know we have been, and who we are now. That little town in the foothills of Western NC is where “they call me one of their own.” – no matter how much it or anyone else changes, no matter where in the world I may roam. So if Thomas Wolfe comes over for a cup of tea to mourn a bit, I’ll play him some Bon Jovi and smile.
What do you think? Please share your experiences and thoughts on living away and coming home in the comments section below.