A very thoughtful meditation on the meaning of place, and the gravitational pull of “home”, from the perspective of a professional academic over at Chronicle
As I have said before, I have the same bittersweet memories of 20 Prospect Avenue. It is a place that shaped and formed who I am. I left not because of a desire to get away from any small town – small minded confinement, (although I admit to having those thoughts) but because of a belief that my mission in life was to “better myself” by getting a college degree, and gaining professional employment. I call it the George Bailey Syndrome http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Bailey_(fictional_character) Alas, no death in the family caused me to stay behind to save the Building and Loan.
The economic climate of Western New York in 1990 was abysmal, which is pretty much what it is today, and has been since the 1970’s. I was raised to believe that I should make the most of the opportunity to move up in social class. I was the first person in my family to get a 4 year degree, and now the first to get a Master’s. I have absolutely no regrets about it. But the price of achieving it was surrendering my ties to place, and enlisting in the global meritocracy. I did so willingly, but without many alternatives. When I graduated I had two job offers, and a lot of debt. The offers were from the same transnational engineering firm, one for a position in their Corporate HQ in suburban Hartford, CT, and one for a position as a field service engineer. I leapt with both feet and chose the one that required 100% travel.
It seemed to me to be a gift. Wander the country from job to job, all expenses paid. Over the course of the next 4 years I would spend from 3 days, to 3 months, working and living in 40 different states. My job was to provide technical service, and consulting at coal burning power plants, and paper mills, sometimes as part of a team, but more often alone. This led me to places as diverse as Paducah, KY, Chicago’s & Philly’s South Side, Mobile, AL, Nekoosa, WI, Morro Bay, CA, Washingtonville, PA, Price, UT, Colstrip, MT, and Lawrence, KS. For all of the homogenization of American culture that has occurred, I can tell you first hand, the U.S. is still home to a wonderful diversity of local culture. It is a beautiful country, and American’s would be wise to visit it sometime.
I must say I loved it. As a working tourist, I had many a lonely night, but I learned more about the world, and myself, in my 4 years of rootless wandering that in my 4 years of college. But through all of those travels, the thing that I always yearned for was roots. I knew that no matter where I was at the moment, my time there was short. I was an outsider to the people and places that I visited. As much as I might fall in love with the beauty of the Appalachian’s, or red rock canyons of Utah, they were not my home, and my accent and history betrayed me to the locals. My transience prevented me from making a connection to people and place. I lived everywhere, and therefore I lived nowhere.
Whenever I crossed paths with my colleagues who also lived the transient life, we would share dinner, and drinks, and stories, and come to know each others pasts and dreams in a way we couldn’t with the locals we encountered. We loved the freedom, and money that our position brought, but most of us hoped to find a way to plant roots. Ultimately, one by one, we would tire of our life on the road, and find a place, or more likely, a pretty face, that led us to drop out.
And so Andy from Corpus Christi found an Iowa girl in KC. Kent from Michigan brought a girl from Massachusetts back to the family business in Michigan. Cathy from Worchester returned to the orbit of her Irish Catholic family. Sarah from Connecticut landed in Indianapolis. Rajesh from India quit to attend Kellogg where he met a girl from Detroit. And on, and on. We either abandoned our careers to move back home, or we kept our careers and settled somewhere else.
As for me, I met a girl from Wisconsin, and settled in St. Paul. A place about as close to home as I could get culturally, and economically, if not geographically. The descendants of Germans, Irish, Poles & Ukrainians help it to feel like Western, N.Y. But I miss the crazy Sicilians of my hometown, who never made it this far west. And I still can’t thaw the icy demeanor of the local Scandinavians. After 15 years it is home now. Soon I will have lived here longer than I did at 20 Prospect. So why will it never replace 20 Prospect in my heart? I think because it is the place and culture in which we are raised that forms our identity and sense of self. Minnesota has become home, but it can never be “Home”. That will always be 20 Prospect. Even though it belongs to another family now, it still exists inside of me and it always will.
Someday Minnesota will mean the same thing to my children wherever they eventually end up. I’d like to tell them to stay here and never leave, but when the world knocks on their door and calls them out, who am I to tell them no? No one in the last 4 generations of my family has been born and died in the same place. Despite my desires to preserve a piece of place and call it home for generations, it is a nostalgia for a past that has never existed in our family, and doubtless ever will. It is the 2nd law of Thermodynamics. Water runs downhill, heat flows from hot to cold, children move away, and borders fade into memory.