I’m back where I went to grad school for the weekend, visiting old friends, in some cases literally old.  The contemporaries I’ve kept up with have scattered to the four corners of the earth, or at least of the U.S., so it’s mostly my professors that I’m seeing.  Places you’ve left traditionally seem smaller when you return, but this one is also bigger in some places, and just the same in others, so the overall effect is weirdly distorted.  The house I lived in for four years is for sale.  I drove past another place I lived and was surprised that it looks like such a dump; I was, briefly, very happy in that apartment, and that glow strongly affects my imagination of the place.

When I left home for graduate school, I fully expected never to return.  But I still had trouble adapting to the new place, especially the extremes of temperature.  And humidity.  And how green it was in summer, how drab in winter.  But at least there were hills, and water.  By the time I finished, I felt very attached to the place, and in the first few years of my job, I returned every year, sometimes more than once.  Now, though, it’s been eight years since I was last here, and the very familiarity of the place feels strange.  It may be familiar, but I’m not the same person I was when I lived here, and the Present Self resists the familiarity, looks for changes, discovers with surprise how well she has adapted to (or at least, how thoroughly she has accepted) various Midwestern traits of landscape, architecture, city planning, and personality.

What is home?  I pine for certain landscapes, the shapes of trees and hills, certain flora.  I don’t want to live again in the town where I grew up.  I don’t want to live here.  I don’t exactly think of where I live now as home, but it is the most familiar place to me now.  But the familiarity has continual elements of strangeness to it, as well.  Once you have been truly exiled, can there be a return?

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3 thoughts on “Exile and return

  1. About 10 years ago, I had been living in my current location for 10 years and was feeling really displaced. This was partly because I was far from family and my friends were all finding partners and new priorities. But I also found myself missing the landscape and the smells, particularly the smell of pine–the kind in the South. But although I was born in the South and my family was there, I had been raised in the Midwest, then lived in the South briefly before moving to CA. When I told a friend about missing the smell of the South, he said, but if you left here and went back there, you’d miss the smell of Eucalyptus.

    It was a surprisingly profound remark, and it really altered my point of view. I think the problem had more to do with figuring out, as you say, what place was really home.

    And as Heraclitus said, “You can never step in the same river twice.”

  2. I come from a family of rolling stones. On my dad’s side, no one’s settled down where they were born in generations going back to the early 17th century. Sometimes the moves are easy: like the way I fell in love with Grad School City. Sometimes they’re not: I still can’t quite reconcile myself to calling this semi-remote city “home”.

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