. . . a stone, a leaf, an unfound door; of a stone, a leaf, a door. And of all the forgotten faces.
Naked and alone we came into exile. In her dark womb we did not know our mother’s face; from the prison of her flesh have we come into the unspeakable and incommunicable prison of this earth.
Which of us has known his brother? Which of us has looked into his father’s heart? Which of us has not remained forever prison-pent? Which of us is not forever a stranger and alone?
O waste of loss, in the hot mazes, lost, among bright stars on this most weary unbright cinder, lost! Remembering speechlessly we seek the great forgotten language, the lost lane-end into heaven, a stone, a leaf, an unfound door. Where? When? O lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost, come back again.
– Thomas Wolfe
As the date stamp in the picture says, Christmas Eve 1990. I was home for the first time since leaving college to start working on the road. After summer in the South, and autumn in the Midwest, I was home again.
I’ve said before, I had always felt that bittersweet longing to leave Batavia behind and get out into fresh air. A place where no one would know me, or have me fixed and pinned to the wall like a bug in a museum case.
Home had become a prison that I longed to escape. The previous six years of my life had been focused on achieving just that. The sole purpose of my final two years at N.D. and my time at Clarkson, had been to get a degree and secure a job that would get me out. I had wanted it so long, I had forgotten why. Perhaps because in the world that I inhabited, leaving home behind for somewhere else was the definition of success.
So here I was, Christmas Eve 1990, the conquering hero returned. Yet I felt no joy. No victory had been won. No, the town, and life there had moved on without me. In fact, it didn’t even seem to notice that I was gone. This is perhaps the greatest irony that faces all of those who work their whole young lives to leave their small town behind. The town was bigger than them all along.
It’s been a long time since I read Thomas Wolfe. I can remember reading “You Can’t Go Home Again” during the long hot summer of 1988, as I spent countless hours riding the back roads of WNY in a Niagara Mohawk pickup truck. Sweaty, dirty, bored, sitting in the shade of a tree at some remote electrical substation during my lunch break reading. At the time I felt the truth that Wolfe was trying to communicate was that once you have grown beyond the provincial, and expanded your self in new and different ways, ways impossible without leaving home behind, that you could never fit back into that home. It was a theme that was no stranger to fiction, and has been mined for ever, dating back at least to the Greek Tragedies. The hero leaves home on a journey. The hero grows. The hero returns to find that he no longer belongs.
But coming home myself that Christmas of 1990, something felt different. It wasn’t that I no longer fit through the door, it was that the door had closed behind me. Whether I wanted to return or not, there was no way back in. The door was locked, and the keys lost. Poised there on that doorstep as a stranger for the first time, I realized that the door that led out, was not the same as the door that would lead back in.”]