I went home last weekend. Thomas Wolfe said you can’t do it, but I do it pretty frequently.
My relationship with my hometown is complex. Loaded. Symbolic. The worst version of myself lived there. There are bits of myself there that make me ashamed. Bits that embarrass me. That frighten me.
There are memories there. Memories that make me sad, anxious and fearful. Most of my nightmares were born there. No amount of change heaped on it’s streets and neighborhoods will erase them. I see my old neighborhoods, the places I lived, worked and grew, and I’m not that far from that guy. I never had the chance to create new memories there that bandaged the old ones. And in every one of those cases, my hometown was merely the backdrop. It is, largely, blameless.
However, I remain convinced that this life I love, the one I live now, would have gone unrealized had I stayed. In the Cheyenne of the 80’s and 90’s my passions would have found no purchase. My talents and interests, unfocused and directionless as they were, would not have been inspired or given purpose there. Perhaps not it’s fault, but the Cheyenne of my childhood was not a good partner to a young, undisciplined, and unaware artist. I was adrift there.
But I have people there too. People dear to me. People I love. And they’re enough to bring me back to a place that is at times very difficult for me. I know that I am occasionally insensitive. I allow my messy and core-deep relationship with Cheyenne to spill out in the form of raw sarcasm or criticism. And that can get in the way of nuance and sincerity.
I miss the sky there. On a clear night, the dome of the universe is everywhere. You’re looking up and the earth is down there, under your feet. You can’t see it. All you see is everything else. In most other places I’ve been, the sky is the backdrop. It’s seen through the cracks and spaces of the commonplace. In my hometown, you just have to raise your hands to touch it. It’s everywhere. As a young man, I loved sleeping under it, watching the universe go around until I could stay awake no longer.
I miss the grass. Not the lawns. The grass, the prairie. The unpeopled, often-ignored wild spaces. The spaces there that go unchanged and unfilled, a sea of grass moving with the wind. I understand some people find it stark, even bleak. I think they’re missing the point. It’s a masterwork of simplicity. It’s the perfect meal prepared with two ingredients. It’s a painting done with just a few colors. Pure, simple, and wonderful.
I miss the air. It fills your lungs easier there. You feel in the air there what the world must have been like before we filled it with other stuff. I always felt like the air is happier there, lighter, playful even. When you live in Cheyenne, you understand when people joke that the air in Utah is in a hell of a hurry to get to Nebraska.
I miss the mountains. Man, do I miss the mountains. In many ways the mountains represent to me the same freedom and possibility as the ocean. They’re always there. Always riding shotgun, providing a literal and rhetorical sense of direction. When I retreat to the deep woods and lakes of northern Minnesota, I can leave my problems in the city. I can sit on a clean lake, surrounded by friends and the North Woods and imagine that my problems can’t find me there. It’s peaceful. But in the mountains, I’m small. A speck. And I find that comforting. If I’m so small, then so must my problems be. I find perspective.
In all of this lies the poetry of my hometown issues. When I’m in Cheyenne, I feel the pain and anxieties of my youth. I breathe the clean air and remember the version of me that lived there. I visit the people I love and drive past memories I wish I didn’t have.
And yet, when I’m there, I’m but a long walk from the places that helped make the best of me.