“You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood, back home to romantic love, back home to a young man’s dreams of glory and of fame, back home to exile, to escape to Europe and some foreign land, back home to lyricism, to singing just for singing’s sake, back home to aestheticism, to one’s youthful idea of ‘the artist’ and the all-sufficiency of ‘art’ and ‘beauty’ and ‘love,’ back home to the ivory tower, back home to places in the country, to the cottage in Bermude, away from all the strife and conflict of the world, back home to the father you have lost and have been looking for, back home to someone who can help you, save you, ease the burden for you, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time–back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.” ― Thomas Wolfe

I left home twenty years ago this summer to begin a life and, before long, a family with my new husband. I was the third of seven children to do so, but only the first of my siblings (and for many years I would be the only one) to move away from the town in which I was raised. I wasn’t happy about this. I loved my hometown and it was only after countless tears, and a promise from my husband (then fiancé) to reopen the discussion of residence two years hence, that I agreed to the move. So from the little suburban town I adored, I relocated to the city. And for the next twelve months or so, each time we visited my parents, I shed a few silent tears as soon as we got on the road that led into town. These days I live only half an hour away from my parents (and four of my siblings, all married), but I don’t get to spend as much time as I’d like visiting with them.  Last week I attended a three-day conference and was scheduled to arrive back home on Friday afternoon. When my parents suggested that I spend Shabbos with them, I gratefully accepted the invitation.

My parents’ home has not changed much, at least not in ways that are important. The teakettles I boiled water in as a young teen are still there; although they’ve been retired from kitchen duty, moved to the garden, and are now housing live plants. The refrigerator door is still obscured by photographs and clever quotes; only now some of the children in those photographs are mine. And my parents are still as delightful, open-minded and curious about everything in the world as they were when I was growing up.

My siblings – the individuals I shared a bedroom with, babysat the neighbors’ children with, tussled over nothing-in-particular with, and shared the most intimate details of my life with – have changed in more significant and observable ways. Three of us have moved very much to the right, religiously. Two of us have remained solidly in the middle. And the other two, my youngest brother and I, have moved somewhat to the left.

My hometown, too, has changed. For one, the population in this formerly small enclave has grown dramatically. Surprisingly, the current population of more than 5,000 now appears to be even more homogeneous than it was when my parents first moved there in 1979. Conformity now emerges as one of the most important values within the system. School dress codes are more clearly delineated than ever. During my visit I was told that cameras had been installed on various street corners some time ago. Nobody I spoke to knew exactly who was monitoring those devices.

On Shabbos afternoon my two older sisters came by to visit, and so we got to spend time some time together. Both of my sisters are highly intelligent and well-read. I admire and respect them, and have consulted them on everything from toilet-training to home construction. They are also pretty opinionated (hey, we’re sisters!). I’m very cognizant of our philosophical differences, but still find it hard to avoid the kinds of topics that will spark controversy. And so before I knew it, our conversation had turned into a heated debate about Internet policy, religious authority, technology use, and yes, those cameras on the street. Genetics and life experience have turned me into a fiercely individualistic person, and I am constantly on guard against persons or systems that seek to curtail my right or ability to choose how to live. But when I stopped talking and listened more carefully to the arguments my sisters were making, I realized we were considering the ‘facts’ through very dissimilar lenses. “We want to protect our values and educate our children without media influences,” they were saying. “We don’t care to be players in the modern world – we think modernity is eroding a way of life that we believe in and hold dear. These things you call ‘restrictions’ are actually guidelines we want to live by. The authorities you describe as ‘controlling,’ they are our role models. We look to them for leadership and advice. We are trying to be proactive with regard to our dependence on gadgets and the shortening attention span that comes along with it.” And: “Who cares about the cameras? We have nothing to hide.”  The more I listened the more I realized that for a few minutes there I had fallen trap to a habit I criticize others for: judging people by my own set of values.

So I lowered my voice and toned down my rhetoric. I paid attention to the discourse and the underlying emotions. And I walked away, not convinced, but certainly with a better understanding of my sisters’ position.

But in accepting these fundamental differences I also had to admit that the concept of home would never be the same for me. People talk about the reverse culture shock they experience when returning after a long period abroad. No matter where you’ve lived, it’s hard to rival the romance of home. The smell of my mother’s potato kugel on Friday afternoons will always remind me of more carefree days. The pink carpet in my old bedroom will highlight memories of sisters sharing clothes, sharing stories, sharing secrets. But the sense of oneness, that feeling of total belongingness, that one-for-all-and-all-for-one-no-matter-what consciousness, has been mitigated by difference and change. I know my family will always have my back, but I’m not sure we’ll ever see the world in the same way again.  And that makes me a little sad.

In literature (Dimension of Miracles, The Odyssey, You Can’t Go Home Again), film (Inception, The Searchers, Zombieland), music (see below) and television (Red Dwarf, Sliders, Star Trek), the question has been repeatedly raised and explored:

Can you ever go home again?

Of course I can.

But my home has changed.

And so, I guess, have I.

It doesn’t matter where you are, it doesn’t matter where you go
If it’s a million miles aways or just a mile up the road
Take it in, take it with you when you go,
who says you can’t go home

(Who Says You Can’t Go Home)

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Comments
  1. mikeage says:

    Excellent post.

    Maybe I’m too practical… but whenever I wound up visiting family and noticed the same things you did (though yours were stated much more eloquently), I found myself wondering whether I’d really want to go back. My life took the direction it did primarily because I wanted it to; I suspect this is true for the majority of people where the major changes are brought on by their own actions, and not some external tragedy as was common in the past.

    Why would I want to give up on everything I’ve achieved to return to where I was (literally, but more importantly philosophically, mentally, and even emotionally) as a teenager? For all the fond memories I have, the ideal days were, at best, the ideals for a kid.

    [also, I can’t stand my family for anything more than two or three days; even in college I used to arrive Friday afternoon and often left Motza’ei Shabbos on the occasional weeks I came home, so maybe I’m more of a misanthrope than a philosopher…]

    • Thanks for the comment, Mike. For most of us, it’s not a matter of ‘giving up everything to return to where I was.’ Instead, I think our home almost becomes part of our DNA, and no matter how much we achieve, there’s a sense of nostalgia associated with ‘going back.’ But as you point out, once we do, reality often sets in and we find we’re no longer as compatible as we imagined – a sign, perhaps, that we’ve finally grown up? (And perhaps misanthropy and philosophy are not mutually exclusive – for good reason!)

      • mikeage says:

        I was actually thinking of more than you said. It’s not just “reality often sets in”, but an active choice we’ve made.

        I sometimes find myself nostalgic for the trappings of earlier days, but as for the entire package? No thanks.

      • I can appreciate your point (even if I don’t know the specific circumstances or choices you refer to). On a side note, you speak of ‘active choice’ as though it is a thing that we do or accomplish once, when in fact many of the difficult choices we make, especially ones that affect our lifestyle in significant ways, need constant maintenance and sometimes even revision. Going back to the topic we were discussing: Usually a trip ‘back home’ prompts reflection on all those choices which have taken us away from where we started out. Maybe we’re proud of the choices we’ve made and (like you) wouldn’t have it any other way. Perhaps there are regrets (or even a mixture of both – it’s rarely simple). But always (I think) there’s reflection: We’re forced to think about who we are and how we got here.

      • mikeage says:

        I wasn’t necessarily referring to any specific circumstances; my point was, I think, applicable to anyone who has built his (or her, of course) own life.

        [I didn’t mean “active choice” as a one time event, but, as you note, as active choices. The key point was the “active”; whereas in the past, the most dramatic changes tended to be as the result of war, famine, death, poverty, or other external circumstances, nowadays we are not commonly forced to uproot ourselves physically (which often leads to emotionally and philosophically) and pushed into new circumstances against our will.]

      • Although I’m not certain it can be neatly divided into ‘past’ and ‘present,’ I’m glad you raised that (parenthetical) point. In literature and film (and other popular media) the ‘you can’t go home again’ trope has been framed primarily in one of two ways. The first is where the hero is separated from home and prevented from returning by some natural or supernatural occurrence or disaster. The second is where the hero returns home after a long period away to find that s/he no longer belongs. In the first scenario, the notion of home becomes fossilized in the mind of the hero – the good is remembered, the bad is usually overlooked and forgotten – and that romanticized version of home forever remains. I was thinking about the second one when I wrote this post, but reading your comment made me think of my grandmother, who was seventeen when she and her family were deported from Czechoslovakia to Auschwitz. She and three of her sisters survived, the rest of the large family (I forget how many they were now) perished. What comes to mind now is how she would describe her home to us, her grandchildren. (She never, of course, went back there. I imagine if she did she would be a bit shocked and even disappointed). In her mind, home was the most beautiful place on earth. She would describe it to us in detail, the rooms, the atmosphere, mother tending the home and the general store, father tending the bar… In a way it’s like that heart-wrenching question posed at the outset of a short story we read in high school (the title now eludes me, it will come back): “Which is worse, the loss of love or the loss of a loved one?” The loss of a loved one, or the home that one has loved, is devastating. But ultimately, the person or place takes up residence in one’s heart and remains there, forever. Falling out of love, or discovering that you have mixed feelings about the place you called home, leaves a duller ache, a sense of loss which is in some ways even greater than the first, since you find yourself mourning not only an earlier version of the person or place (which you’ve outgrown), but also that wonderful feeling of love. I guess what you and I are pointing out is the difference between changing circumstances (which are beyond your control) and changing attitudes. Both are difficult, but in a very different way. (I apologize for going off and getting all philosophical about this here – my morning coffee always has that effect)

  2. RFiedler says:

    Lovely post. I like your self-awareness, particularly this line: “The more I listened the more I realized that for a few minutes there I had fallen trap to a habit I criticize others for: judging people by my own set of values.”

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