Live Through This

Can You Go Home Again?

Why it’s OK to dislike where you grew up.

Collage by Beth.

Collage by Beth.

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. ♦

29 Comments

  • Norlax April 1st, 2014 11:20 PM

    As usual Rookie has been eerily timely and appropriate for my life (as I’m sure it is for so many of us). Thank you for helping me in such a personal yet universal way, and providing a new type of home in a sense.

    • thebrownette April 2nd, 2014 11:03 AM

      Rookie has always been almost uncomfortably on time; one time I had a dream about something and the next day, there was an article about it.

      • simooone April 2nd, 2014 4:31 PM

        The same type of stuff happens to me, the last few themes have been oddly on point and cohesive with the things I’ve been thinking/worrying/talking/writing about. Escape to Consumption to Lost and Found to Together? They’re getting too good at this.

      • Johann7 April 4th, 2014 5:40 PM

        Synchronicity is a function of notability bias (you don’t notice e.g. all the times you dream about something and it *doesn’t* appear in Rookie the next day), but it’s a totally awesome one nonetheless, and I fully believe people should have as much fun with cognitive biases as possible, because we can’t escape them. :-)

  • TessAnnesley April 2nd, 2014 12:02 AM

    This is written so beautifully but I laughed embarrassingly loud at “… my life could have only gone in one direction.”
    ONE
    DIRECTION
    I SEE YOUR POSSIBLY-DELIBERATE-SNEAKY REFERENCE TO YOUR FAVOURITE BAND, BRODIE
    <3

    • Brodie April 2nd, 2014 4:26 AM

      IT WASN’T DELIBERATE, I SWEAR!! Although after typing I realised how weird it was to see those words not written in title case!

    • GirlBuzz April 12th, 2014 8:21 AM

      Oh my! i thought the same thing the moment i read “in One direction”!! i had to pause for a moment to laugh :D :D Guess you’re a fan?! xx

  • Hales April 2nd, 2014 12:15 AM

    Brodie, I feel EXACTLY as you did about where I live! Thank you for assuring me that I’m not a total butthole for wanting to leave. I’ve grown up here my whole life and I’m going to move when I leave for college in late August. Every time I’ve told my mom that I don’t want to live in my state, she acts like I’m spoiled and don’t appreciate where I live. I try to tell her, “I didn’t choose to live here, not everyone fits in and is meant to be where they grew up.” I can’t wait for a change of scenery and some fresh faces. I also feel really constricted and like there isn’t enough for me here.

  • Eileen April 2nd, 2014 12:18 AM

    This is a really amazing piece. I relate so strongly to the fierce experience of getting older and being faced with choices. <3
    I know this is off topic, but does anyone remember the fiction story about a girl with a little brother who hurt himself and had an eating disorder? She had a boyfriend, it was a somewhat destructive relationship… one part that sticks out in my memory, she remembers pushing her "nothing chest" to the window as a child hoping "someone would stop and admire her" I read this like maybe 5 or 6 months ago and I'd really really love to find it again but I don't even know where to begin looking.
    Thank you so much for this awesome interpretation of "home"
    And thanks to anyone who knows anything about the story?? :D

    • AnarchyAndrea April 2nd, 2014 12:32 PM

      Hey I knew what story you were talking about immediately! Its called All I Want.

  • debster99 April 2nd, 2014 12:31 AM

    Arcade Fire knew what they were doing. This is an experience a lot of people revisit. My parents (they immigrated to the US) are not one pf those people. They built a life here, but like to talk about the families they left behind, and still keep in touch with them after at least 20 years. They also want to move back after me and my sisters finish college and stuff.

  • Raissomat April 2nd, 2014 1:12 AM

    Well, this is very timely. It’s now two years that my boyfriend and I have moved to the opposite side Of my country, and our families expect us to get back and have a family there. We both love the places we grew up, and I miss the weather, and sometimes my family. Still it’s not where we belong. Did we find the place we belong to? I don’t know. But we don’t feel like going back. We moved twice out here and are moving again on easter. I like the freedom Of it. Still I’m scared to loose the home I grew up in. My mum is very sick and it’s my dad’s house, so when she dies I suspect he’s moving back in. I’m so confused but scared to lose that beautiful place forever, even though it’s not where I belong right now.

  • VagabondZombie April 2nd, 2014 3:05 AM

    This is officially one of my favourite Rookie articles ever. I could never relate to any other article as much as this could and it actually makes me really emotional. The level of how much I could relate to this is just way beyond.

    The feeling of desperation and longing to go somewhere else and be happy, free, adventurous and learning… every bit and part of this just speaks to me. I was born and raised in a city. However, it’s really small and almost everyone knows everyone. It’s in a country that’s probably smaller than the size of a state. There isn’t much to do either unless you have loads of cash and a driver’s license. It is a city that acts like a town. All there is to go to as a teenager are malls and the beach. Chances are you’ll bump into someone you know. There is no escape. The good thing about it is its multiculturalism, you’ll meet interesting people somewhere along the way but I feel like everyone is being molded out to be just like everyone else. I don’t feel like I belong and I don’t feel that this is the place for me. I feel restricted by its laws and the people around me. I just can’t wait to get a one-way ticket out of the country. :(

    http://vagabondzombie.blogspot.ae/

  • CharmingKitty April 2nd, 2014 4:56 AM

    I couldn’t have possibly read this at more relevant time in my life; having just moved out of an area which I had never liked after seven years, I feel a million miles away to adjusting to leading a new, yet better life, but some changes ought to be embraced if a more hopeful future awaits on the other side.
    What I have not yet understood is that, despite residing in a place near my birth town, I never felt an all-powerful tie towards it and was almost crying with relief when I moved away less than a week ago. But how does one run away from a place which came define you as a person? It is a question for which I hope to find an answer as I settle into my new hope and prepare to make the most of a fresh start, the one of which I had been waiting for as long as I could remember.

    http://www.lifeasamodernteen.blogspot.co.uk

  • thebrownette April 2nd, 2014 11:13 AM

    This was really important for me to read. I’ll be headed to college this year, and though I know I’ll be happy there, I’m going to be much closer to home than I had originally intended.

    I feel conflicted about this because there are a lot of good things about where I’ve grown up; I’m really close with my Mom, there’s apple cider in the fall, we’re fairly safe, and *cool stuff* is reasonably accessible.

    But then there’s the part of me that WANTS OUT. One of my best friends and I have had the conversation time and time again–we don’t want to get Stuck.

    I don’t know what I do want, but I think I know what I don’t: kids, suburbia, and a minivan. I’m almost positive I would resent not having gone my own way, whichever way that might be.

    In the same vein, I’m safe and comfortable here. But I don’t accomplish anything extraordinary in my comfort zone, either. I just get on with life and make minimal impact on my world.

    Currently, I can sum up my feelings with the following lyric:

    “I don’t know what I’m waiting for, but when it comes, I still want more.”
    (From Summer Camp’s “Down” Listen to it–it perfectly encapsulates this whole idea. Actually, just listen to the whole ALBUM. It’s golden.)

    I’m resolute in that I will not let myself get stuck; I just hope that I’ll be courageous enough to take the myriad risks needed to do so.

    • Brodie April 2nd, 2014 4:12 PM

      I LOVE Summer Camp! Their entire first album is so emblematic of this feeling. Xx

  • Sophii April 2nd, 2014 12:34 PM

    I cannot wait to move out of my town. I have met a few cool people here but it’s a small town in the south of England with little cultural diversity and lots of institutionalised racism and sexism. I’m thinking of going to university in Scotland then I’d be so far away that I’d have to get a plane back and forth. The line “I always felt like a big fish beating my fins against the edges of a tiny pond that prevented me from growing or exploring” really resonates with me

    http://prettypassionsfinefashions.blogspot.co.uk

  • Mattie April 2nd, 2014 8:14 PM

    I honestly used to hate my hometown and all the people in it. I’m more of a city girl, so being stuck in a suburban town filled me with an ache to get out as soon as possible. I think a lot of teenagers feel that way. However, I think it’s also okay to love where you’re from! I do! And it’s not where I want to spend the rest of my life, but it’s a place where I grew as a human being. I’m lucky enough to live in a really close-knit community, and not everyone’s my pal, but those who are my friends are extremely loyal. I suppose if I didn’t live in the town I did, things might be different. I’m very grateful for my town because of it’s generally strong and compassionate people. I wouldn’t be who I am now if I didn’t live where I live, and I’m proud of who I am, so I’m proud of where I’m from.

  • Mermaid April 2nd, 2014 9:50 PM

    My resentment phase lasted from about 6th grade until I was a senior in college. Growing up in a west Texas city about two hours away from anything of note, flat as the line on adam’s electrocardiogram, and nearly as dead nearly drove the teenage me to insanity. I wanted excitement, I wanted culture, and I wanted to live in a place where people didn’t get excited 6 months in advance for the new Chick-fil-a. I thought my hometown would crush me with its monotony.

    I went to college. I dreaded having to return home to the dullest place on the planet. And I thought I would lose the new Self I had been cultivating away from home. At first these visits made me feel like I had left the center of the universe and was somewhere on the outer fringes, away from anything important to me.

    During my senior year of college I took a course over Texas literature and lo and behold, we read several books written by a famous author from my hometown about my hometown. My mind was kind of blown. I saw how this author turned all the things I hated about the town into poignant and almost tragic observations. He described the flat dusty land with a type of love that made me take a closer look. He gave my hometown a sense of place and a mood of lonesome beauty I was before too blinded to see.

    Going back now, I don’t look down on my place of origin, or turn my nose up at it. I think my mind has been opened and I can appreciate it for what it is in a way that was impossible when all I wanted to do was escape.

  • sai April 3rd, 2014 4:28 AM

    I left home for the first time when I was 16 for a year abroad in high school. I never intended to go back. I returned to my home town at 17, shamed by something my dad said over the phone during a fight. He told me that if I didn’t return, I would always be running and consequently, turn out like my flighty mother. I think every teenage girl’s nightmare is turning out like her mother, right? So I went back and stayed for a few years. I even went to college there. But I always felt I needed out.

    Last June, I bought a one-way ticket to France and I’m still here.

    I feel more and more assured of my decision with every day that passes and I cannot imagine moving back now.

  • flocha April 3rd, 2014 5:39 AM

    Oh my god I feel exactly like this at the moment. I hate where I live, which is basically in the middle of a field with 1 bus every day. I can’t wait to leave this year.

    http://whimsicalprocrastination.blogspot.co.uk/

  • Maradoll Mynx April 3rd, 2014 9:04 AM

    I LOVE this article. I want to say Thank You. Thanks for validating a whole new concept of “Home”. Mine is the same as yours has been…forging ahead with myself and making the most of my life ~ THAT’S “Home” for me too. Welcome Home to all of us!

  • Monq April 3rd, 2014 10:25 PM

    I feel the exact same way about my hometown. I’m glad I’m not the only one who feels this way and that I’m not a complete jerk for wanting to leave and be done with this place. Thanks, Brodie & Rookie for another great article!

    xoox

  • chestnutsumo85 April 4th, 2014 8:09 PM

    Really resonated with me right now – I’ve just come back home to my tiny island for a week after spending a year at university in my favourite city in the world and it feels wrong. It feels too small and out of synch with everything I’ve experienced this year. I feel so guilty having an upbringing with loving parents, who were excited to see me, on such a beautiful island. But I just can’t make myself be happy here.

  • April 8th, 2014 1:15 PM

    Going home makes you feel young again doesn’t it? Which isn’t always great. Sometimes being young means being unheard and “stuck”, but sometimes it means getting your laundry done for free and a home cooked meal.

    I’m from Texas and never really cared for it much. It isn’t awful, but it never really felt like home. Now I live in NYC and I can’t imagine living anywhere else. The acceptance, vitality, and freedom I feel here is amazing…I only wish my family were all here with me, then it would really be a home.

    As big as Texas is, there are many small minds there and it is difficult to go back…I feel I can only move forward, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t look back over my shoulder and remember all of the good times I had at my parent’s house.

    I hope everyone here finds their true home someday :)

    http://deathnottoday.blogspot.com/

  • elliejamc April 29th, 2014 12:38 PM

    I’ve read this numerous times in the past few days. It’s calming to know that someone who thought the same way I do now ended up turning out alright. I feel guilty about not liking my small town, but like you said, I just haven’t found my “home” or my “niche” in the world yet, or at least I’m not living there.
    The part with your mom’s fb comment made me tear up a bit. Thanks so much for sharing this wonderful story! :*

  • margheritacuore May 1st, 2014 6:33 AM

    As an exchange student, I left my small town ten months ago and moved on my own to another country.
    Most people judged my choice and told me that I needed to stop running away. I was leaving my life, the people that loved me, and everything that made me who I was.
    What they said hurt me. Especially when it came from people close to me, such as my relatives, or childhood friends.
    But I left anyway. And turns out: it’s beautiful out there. As you said, Brodie, home is not a place, rather the feeling of finding your niche.
    And I have found it in another country, where people understand me, where I feel understood, loved, and exactly where I am supposed to be.
    My time here will be over soon and I will have to go back to my home town to graduate. If it wasn’t for the fact that I miss my parents, and a few of my closest friends, I would not come back at all.
    I will, however, come back to this country for University straight after my graduation and never, ever, ever look back. Because I know this is where I am meant to be.
    So Rookie readers, do not be afraid and take risks. Leave. Because there is so much more out there.
    And then, if you feel like it, come back. Because that is okay, too. But if you feel like never before in a new place, then hold on to that fucking feeling and never let it go.

  • georgiinnaaa May 19th, 2014 9:49 PM

    wow scary how accurate this article is.