Thomas Wolfe‘s 1940 novel You Can’t Go Home Again tells the story of a man who returns to his childhood hometown, only to find himself less than welcomed by his old friends and neighbors. Nowadays, the book’s title has become shorthand for a very specific kind of nostalgia: “You can’t go home again,” as an idiom, means that once you’ve carved out an independent, adult life for yourself, you’ll have permanently outgrown your upbringing. The concept vaguely romanticizes the formative years of your life, when you were ostensibly more appreciative of the simple comforts of home, as opposed to HIGHFALUTIN’ MODERN LIVIN’. “You can’t go home again” is a wistful line of thinking, because the phrase implies that, actually? You totally wish you could.
I often hear stories about my peers’ nostalgia for who they were as teenagers, but I come across far fewer people who never wanted to look back once they set out on their own. As a kid, I always knew that, when I left, I was leaving for good, and I was happy in (and excited by!) that knowledge. I imagine it’s really heartbreaking to pine for times gone by, when your life seemed to be at its most ideal and you were surrounded by people you’re sad about not seeing as often. Feeling the exact opposite way sometimes causes me pangs of guilt, like I’m selfish for not wanting to be at home with my family, and generally wanting my hometown (and the people who live there) to stay firmly in my past. But cutting my ties to the people and places I left in my childhood was freeing, and it let me start from scratch as the person I spent my teen years waiting to become.
In my hometown, I always felt like a big fish beating my fins against the edges of a tiny pond that prevented me from growing or exploring. I loved my family, was involved in activities, did well in school, and had a glimmer of a social life (nothing to boast about, but I wasn’t a total shut-in), and yet, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t feel stifled by where I used to live. I hated the way everyone knew each other’s business, and how nothing ever changed (save for the time a new shopping mall opened and the Kmart seemed even bigger and shinier in comparison). There were limited opportunities creatively and academically, and the measure of success always seemed to be, like, “Get a full-time job, get married, buy a house, have kids…and then watch those kids go through the same cycle over again!” It never felt like enough for me, and I knew it could never give me what I needed.
I watched movies and read stories about people who lived in big cities, and I desperately wanted to live their lives—to have the option of anonymity, with nobody knowing my business, or my dad, or my embarrassing childhood stories—while still maintaining a community of my own. I wanted to live somewhere big and bustling, where I could find something to do no matter the time or day (and get to those exciting goings-on without having to call my mom for a ride). I had grand visions of living in a little pocket of a city, eating different food, seeing live music, meeting interesting people— of having a job where I didn’t have to wear a uniform, and living with roommates I’d never even met until we started storing our toothbrushes in the same cup on the bathroom sink.
Within three weeks of my 18th birthday, I was clutching a one-way plane ticket out of my small town. The first night I spent in Melbourne, the faraway city where I’d settled, I had a sudden burst of sadness, but the tears were less about homesickness or wanting to turn back, than they were about releasing all the claustrophobia I’d held inside, and realizing I was *out.* I spent the next few years gradually forging friendships, experimenting with creative pursuits, living with terrible roommates and bonding with awesome ones, making seriously misguided fashion mistakes, and slowly learning to be an adult. But I was in control of my life and my choices in a way that I could never have been when I lived back home, where it seemed like my life could have only gone in one direction. Gradually, I became a person I’m really proud to be. Plus, I get to do all those fun things I dreamed about for real now!
Every year, though, I do go “home” again, on an annual Christmas trip back to where I grew up. Because my hometown is far away and relatively tiny, I need to take two planes (or make a 24-hour nonstop car trip) to get there. Every year, before setting out on these extensive travels, I pack lots of books and magazines, imagining that this time, I’ll drive to the beach to read on the sand for days on end. I pack a pair of nice shoes and a special dress, telling myself I’ll make an effort to go to one of the bars in town where I’m always guaranteed to run into people I knew as a kid. I’ll be mature and level-headed, and I won’t argue with my sisters or spend every day dragging my feet around the shopping malls, trying to motivate myself to do anything more productive. Rather than romanticizing the idea of my youth spent there, I romanticize what I can make of it as an adult on my return visits. It’s like each visit is a miniature high-school reunion: I’m Romy (and/or Michele) rolling into town in my convertible from the big city in one of my signature homemade dresses. The entire place is my Christy Masters, to whom I feel compelled to prove my worth and success, and validate my decision to leave. I promise myself, year after year, that I’ll make the trip back “worth it.”
But right after I spend the family drive home from the airport catching up on who’s gotten married or pregnant and surveying what buildings have gone up or come down since I last visited, I revert to the mentality about my old neighborhood that I maintained as a kid, and I resent the place that I blamed for holding me back. This feeling only increases as I drop my bag on the floor of the same old bedroom I left when I was 18 and remembering that any time I ever want to go anywhere at home, I need to ask my mom’s permission to borrow her car. Instead of inspiring “you can’t go home again”-type nostalgia for my teen years, my return trips make me clamor for the home I’ve created for myself as an adult. Rather than trying (and failing) to grasp at remnants of the person I once was, I try my hardest to escape them, and I spend the rest of the trip texting my friends that I miss them and planning what to do the second I get back to where I really belong.
It’s not that my hometown is a terrible place. It’s fringed with beaches and is the home of both incredible local ginger beer and my family—two things I love a lot. I want to spend time with my parents and sisters, and I feel bad for my moodiness during my hometown visits. But I think my family knows that it’s not being around *them* that makes me mopey—it’s just the lingering resentment I feel when I’m back in a place that was never, ever right for me, and the fact that they can see that helps to ease my anxieties about it: Recently, on one of my mom’s occasional attempts at navigating Facebook, she commented on a picture of me out to dinner with my friends: “I wish you were here, but know you belong there.”
I’m also reassured because I know the concept of “home” is not one fixed thing that fits everybody the same way. It doesn’t have to refer to a place where you spent a lot of time as a kid, or a select group of people who shaped you in your formative years. “Home” is the feeling of finding your niche in the world, and working through its kinks until it’s the perfect fit. I found my home by learning to be independent, challenging myself to be creative, and surrounding myself with people who make me feel good about myself. I’m able to shake off the guilt about leaving my hometown and the people I knew there when I remind myself that that choice wasn’t ever really about abandoning them—it was about forging ahead for my own sake and finding a situation that was right for me. So while I’ll never adore the actual place where I grew up, I can go home again, since that idea is something that I’m finally able to expand and redefine entirely for myself. ♦