Some things will never change. Some things will always be the same. Lean down your ear upon the earth and listen. ― Thomas Wolfe, You Can’t Go Home Again
Most of the time I feel like an expatriate without a homeland. My life has been divided right down the middle, with the first twenty-five years in New England and New York City and the second half in Austin with a three-year spawning hiccup in Minneapolis.
I don’t feel like a New Englander or a Texan. I’m an Inbetweener.
It’s not a bad thing. I find the lack of attachment to place liberating. Up until the time I married Matthew, almost twenty-three years ago, I was a chronic geographic Houdini. When we meet, I was months away from a move to Alaska. Back in those days, a spontaneous change of scenery could fix just about anything.
Slip away, no goodbyes, and off to a new life.
It’s been over two decades since I’ve disappeared to somewhere new, but that doesn’t mean the urge has left. It’s just under the surface. To this day, I think about escape plans like other people play word jumbles or crossword puzzles. I have a brain full of blueprints of lives imagined.
It’s just a habit, a mental exercise.
My husband does not share my restlessness and his hardwiring has him happy to stay put with our kids, animals and the internet. Although he respects my wanderlust, he prefers that when I travel I take at least one of our kids as an insurance policy that I’ll return home – sort of like an alcoholic might take their sponsor to a cocktail party.
Day trips to state parks and what on the surface looks like boring out-of-town gymnastics events are the mainstays to my anti-bolting program, but a summer vacation road trip is the best preventative and has a far longer therapeutic half-life. That being said, most of my days belong to Texas and although I do not feel like a Texan I have acclimated well.
That’s why I was so surprised to feel like such a down-to-my-soul New Englander when I arrived in Maine last week to visit my parents. They retired to the small beach community where six generations of my maternal line have summered or lived.
For years, the beach has not felt like home to me. The characters who had populated my childhood have died, moved on, or their families sold the summer cottages to new families who tore them down and built big winterized homes. Every time I returned, the community that I knew was fading and evolving, as everything does, but it didn’t feel like my place.
My children are Texans and do not have the primordial smell of the sea imprinted on their biology like I do. I used to feel guilty that I didn’t try harder to cultivate in them an understanding of where I came from, or as my grandmother would say, where my people came from.
I used to think I should have coaxed them into becoming New Englanders. Now I believe that we are all here to find a place of our own. We do not belong to each other. Instead, our sense of identity is an inside job. Like Ram Dass says, “we’re all just walking each other home.”
When I arrived in Maine last week something was different. I felt the pull of my past as well as the generational forward momentum everywhere in the landscape. It was off-season and the summer people and vacationers were gone. The autumn solitude that replaced the hustle of the busy season was so exquisite that I had to swallow hard and close my eyes as not to cry.
The beach and marshes looked like the backdrop of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights; and as in the novel, the sense of place became the central character in my experience, like it was when we were kids stomping through the squishy sand bars exposed during low tide.
At that moment, I knew that I belonged to the smooth granite stones on Timber Island; the bright blue October sky, the umber fertile-decay of the kelp washed on the soft white sands; the slender, reed-like grasses of the dunes; and the salty cobalt ocean that turns lips blue even in August.
I walked along the water’s edge alone, remembering what it felt like to be home.
“All things belonging to the earth will never change-the leaf, the blade, the flower, the wind that cries and sleeps and wakes again, the trees whose stiff arms clash and tremble in the dark, and the dust of lovers long since buried in the earth-all things proceeding from the earth to seasons, all things that lapse and change and come again upon the earth-these things will always be the same, for they come up from the earth that never changes, they go back into the earth that lasts forever. Only the earth endures, but it endures forever.” ― Thomas Wolfe, You Can’t Go Home Again