Thursday, 17 April 2008

You Can't Go Home Again

Musings on my recent trip to Texas . . .

I've never read Thomas Wolfe's best-known novel, but I have always admired its title. In fact, I think that it is one of the all-time great book titles -- encompassing, as it does, childhood, memory, family legacy, sense of place, and questions of identity. Furthermore, it manages to do all of that it in such a simple, memorable way that it has become part of our cultural phraseology. Certainly it has been echoing in my mind since adolescence, and every time I travel to a place that I once lived I think of it.

"Home" is a complicated concept for me. Is it a family, a house, a town, a national identity? These have all been fluid containers in my adult life. I consider well-known definitions:
Home is . . . "where the heart is;" "where you hang your hat;" "where they have to take you in." I don't know about you, but I could easily name more than one "place" -- and yet, there is no one place. It has been a long time, and maybe never, since I could think to myself: I belong here. Even when I was a child, living in Temple, Texas from ages 5-18, I would secretly think to myself: Yea, but I was born in Germany.

Revisiting a place is never the same as belonging to a place -- as being a part of its daily rhythms. As a visitor, even a welcome one, you are an irrelevancy. You just don't matter anymore because you belong to the past tense. Even if you once belonged, that little space in which you once resided has since filled up -- and then you have been changed, too, and probably wouldn't even fit that space even if it were available.

You realize that you have been relegated to a Christmas card list -- you are no longer on active duty, friendship-wise. All of your old favorite places are just trips down memory lane.

It has been two years since my family left Houston -- a place that surely qualifies as a frontrunner, should I ever be required to name a "home." I have lived there, on and off, since I was 23 years old. Important friendships happened there. Meeting my husband happened there. I received influential education there. I have so many layers of experience and memory there. And yet, I don't really belong there anymore. As if to confirm that fact, during my recent visit I kept on getting lost. Not really "lost" -- but more of a subtle disorientation. I had lost my edge; I had forgotten which lane to be in, and misplaced some street names. Some of that was due to my faulty memory, and some of it was due to the fact that Houston is always, always changing. As my friend Laura said, (borrowing from that genius Joni Mitchell), "they paved Paradise and put up a parking lot." If Houston is about anything, it is about the future. It is about constant construction and the need to widen yet another freeway. Every year, new places spring up while others are torn down. Yes, I know this happens everywhere . . . but in Houston it seems to happen in double-time.

I was terribly saddened to discover that the West University JMH (the little grocery store that has been part of West U since the 1950s) had closed its doors for good. It had been a link to the past; it had been the antithesis of corporate sameness and the strip shopping center; it had been a link to my past. When my oldest daughter was a toddler, we lived down the street from JMH and we used to walk there nearly every day. When I was a full-time working mother, I would swoop in for that evening's dinner. When the weather turned hot and humid, the girls and I would go for coke Icees or ice cream. Two years ago it was there; now it's gone.

There are native Houstonians, plenty of them -- but "my" Houston has always been a commuter town in flux. Graduate students and oil-and-gas executives -- they come and go. When I think of "my" Houston from 13 years ago I realize that no one is still there. Everyone is somewhere else, and for some, I don't know even know where.

My children think of themselves as Houstonians -- still, after two years in England. They pouted all the way to the airport; the youngest one cried on the plane. When we arrived back "home" to our current house in England they both sulked and refused to talk to their father -- He who made us leave Houston.

My children slip in and out of accents as easily as they change their clothes from coats and boots to shorts and sandals. How long, I wonder, will they hold stubbornly to this notion of being Houstonians? When will they become more English than American? My oldest daughter has lived in Texas for 6 out of 14 years; my youngest daughter has lived in Texas for 5 out of 10 years. With every passing year these proportions will become less solid, less significant. I realize that, like me, they will probably never be one or the other -- but some strange homeless hybrid always a little prone to "the grass is greener" syndrome. When we lived in Houston, my oldest daughter dreamed of going to Oxford. Now that we live near Oxford, she dreams of American universities.

Over the years, the girls will probably continue to be sentimental about Texas -- especially if we only visit in April (as opposed to the summer, when the heat and humidity and mosquitoes are unbearable). Their feelings about their Texas "home" will be less and less rooted in what is real. Can a place be "home" if you don't actually live there? I doubt it; I really do.

However, just living in a place doesn't make it home either.

I am most "Texan" when I am in England; when I am actually in Texas, it can feel very strange and foreign to me. When I am in Texas, I am reminded why so many of my decisions have led away from that place.

My parents were both Army brats and they lived all over the world. They chose life in a small Texas town so that my brother and I could have settled childhoods -- so we could have both an internal and external definition of "home." But they brought their outsider outlook with them, and I grew up dreaming of big cities and other cultures. My brother and I left that small town and have continued to move and move. Our children have peripatetic childhoods. They are confident and insecure in that way that people are when they have to learn how to constantly "fit in" to something new. They will have the rich identities and language skills that I always longed for . . . and they will probably hate me for it.

20 comments:

Brave Sir Robin said...

It would take me months to craft a proper response to this post.

I think you have hit on the very essence of Houston and what it means to a Houstonian. I lived there 9 years, and still like to consider myself a Houstonian. I too, have experienced, the “I know that turn is right here” moment of disorientation when driving around Houston.

Your comment about West U saddened me. The thing that always made West U and the Village so special was the eclectic mix of Mom and Pop meets glossy chic. When DeFalco’s (home brew shop) closed in the Village, I swear I felt like I lost a family member.

In some ways the Houston I knew doesn’t really exist, except in my memories. I don’t have contact with a single person from those 9 years that I didn’t know before I moved there. Driving around the area I lived in, got married in, and watched my first child born in fills me with emptiness. It drives home the idea you present in your post. What is home?
I feel like a stranger in the place I long to be.

In celebration of National Poetry Month, a Fib:

Home
Place
Belong
Alien
I long to be there
It no longer belongs to me

Just a Plane Ride Away said...

Wonderful post, Bee. We went home to Houston after our first four months here in England and saw so many changes. We were there again over Christmas break and couldn't believe it--even more transformations. Things run down, torn down, spiffed up, built up. Well, that is Houston.

We were sad about JMH too :-(

Anne said...

I just returned to Houston in early March, having left it last June, and the transformation over even those months was astonishing. I will likely be going back early next week, and expect to find it further changed.

"Home" is such a funny thing. You can feel at home the moment you arrive somewhere, long before it becomes part of your daily life. This was the case when I visited the university where I would eventually do my undergrad, even though at the time I hadn't even applied yet.

But I have never returned to a place I once called home and felt as comfortably at home as I did when I lived there. I can remember what it was like to call it home, a curious sensation akin to how I imagine phantom limbs must feel, but it's clearly not the same. As you say, when returning, you are part of the past.

Sarah Laurence Blog said...

That's cool about your kids slipping in and out of accents. My kids can handle the lingo fine but tend to keep their American accents with just a hint of English expressions. Although 4 years ago, our last long stay in the UK, my daughter at age 6 picked up the most plummy English accent in a month. This time only a few words sound English such as "I cahn't be buvahred. (I can't be bothered)." She’s been picking up Texan expressions from her Texas buddy here in Oxford.

My kids say they are American (not half and half) and by the time we'll go home to Maine, they'll have lived almost 2 years in England spread over their 10 and 13 years. I'll have lived 3 years here spread over 2 decades.

I noticed that you come from a navy brat family. Interesting, because the novel I'm working on now (S.A.D.) takes place in Brunswick, Maine (my hometown and a navy town.) The protagonist is a navy wife, raised a navy brat. She traveled all over the world, but Brunswick feels the closest to home for her – where she spent her teen years and met her husband.

For me home is both Maine, where I have settled, and New York, where I grew up and visit family, friends and my agent. But England feels like a second home too. At heart I’m a New Yorker, but I’m in love with Maine. Maybe it’s outlook as much as location.

Interesting questions you raise in this blog!

Lucy said...

What a lovely, wistful read! As Robin said, it would take months to craft a proper response.

I enjoy being displaced, and yet by virtue of the time we've spent here, and the effort it's taken to carve out and build a place for ourselves, I feel very attached to this spot on earth as home, though not really the country or culture. When we travel, outside France at least, including to England, I feel miserably homesick initially, then enjoy it, then grow homesick again. It's really for the comfort of a place where I can just relax and not be a guest.

I've observed your children's attitude in a lot of the British children here, who long for the UK as home, and who frequently head back there as soon as they're old enough, often to be disappointed.

I suppose most of us have a sense of not belonging, it's handy to be able to pin it to having actually come from somewhere else, which if we could only get back to...

Bee said...

BSR,
I wonder if there is a more transient place than Houston? I have been on the fringes of a more settled Houston -- that whole country club world -- but I never quite fit there. I always feel more comfortable with the more nomadic crowds!

And speaking of Texas cities that have changed, don't even get me started on Austin! What happened to that sleepy, hippie little city of my girlhood?

I never went to DeFalco's. When did it close down?

I like your FIB; I didn't know about FIBs. Last night, when I was sleepless at 4am, I was trying to remember the rhyme scheme.

Just a Plane Ride Away -- Welcome to the ranks of former (and future?) Houstonians. I am so happy to meet another hybrid!

Anne -- I like the way you touched upon another facet of the "home" concept. I remember feeling "at home" in London, on my first visit when I was 15, even though it was absolutely nothing like any of my former reference points. It was a city that appealed to who I WANTED to be, though. Also, it was a city with all of the historical layers of all the books that I had read. A city of my imagination. Can you pinpoint what about Chicago felt like home to a CA girl?

Sarah,
What kind of school do your kids go to? My kids only know English kids, so that really makes a difference accent-wise. I think it's funny that your daughter is picking up Texas expressions from her friend. We just talked to some friends who moved to Perth from Houston, and all of a sudden their daughter is saying "ya'll" -- although she never did before! (The parents are from Connecticut.)

Either your "difference" becomes your identity, or you do everything you can to eradicate that difference, I guess.

Actually, my family was Army -- not Navy. But there's probably not much difference. Military service is military service. How far along are you in your book? Is it specifically about the experience of being a military wife?

Maine: I've never been to Maine, and I've longed to go for years. I have met many, many people for whom Maine is a special place. Also, there seem to be ever so many writers and artists from Maine! (Particularly in children's literature.)

Lucy,

You really captured a lot of my feelings. I, too, always long for "home" -- wherever my books, and desk, and pillow are. Even though I love to travel, I am never sad to come home. (Unlike my mopey children.) I love my privacy and alone-time.

I have also noticed the "longing for England" phenomenon -- which often ends in disappointment. I think that England is a place that is easy to sentimentalize and mythologize . . . and books and the BBC help us with that. Also, England always looks lovely in pictures. But the reality, somehow, is being wedged in a filthy little carpark -- trying to scrounge up some change as the rain drips down your neck.

Anne said...

I forgot to mention that if you have not yet seen Persepolis, you must! It touches on some of the same themes of home, of feeling the most of one identity when you are in another place, and vice versa.

Anne said...

It wasn't so much the city of Chicago that felt like home, although I did grow to feel very much at home in the city, as the UofC campus. I can't put my finger on what exactly it was about it... but I think it's simliar to what you say about London, in that it appealed to the person you wanted to be. Something about UofC gave the impression of like-mindedness, and of being a place where I could develop a part of me that had germinated in high school but hadn't really taken off (that is, the hopelessly nerdy part of me).

Sarah Laurence Blog said...

Bee,

Sorry -you did say Army, but I had Navy on my mind. The protagonist of S.A.D. comes from a Navy background, but the story is more about her stepping out on her own and finding an individual identity. I'm revising it now after reader feedback. I hope to get it back to my agent this summer and then she'll look for a publisher when it is ready.
More on S.A.D. and the process of getting a book published here: http://blog.sarahlaurence.com/2007/10/shaping-novel-sad.html

My daughter is in an English state elementary school (ie same as American public) but the secondary state school for my son was full so he's a day boy at a very English public school (ie private) where he's one of very few Americans. My daughter is one of 2-3 Americans in her class of 31 and her other closest friend in English. My posts about their schools are "Wall of Inequity" and "Public School Day Boy" you can find them by the search function in the left corner of my blog. Last time they also attended English schools. We go back home in July.

Are your kids in state or public school? Why the move to England (other than your husband is English)?

I'll answer the other question you left on my blog there.

Maine is great. I have 3 friends in my hometown of Brunswick that write for kids. Maria Padian has a YA out last month which is getting good reviews, Cynthia Lord's Rules won a Newbury Honors and is one the best kids books ever and Charlotte Agell wrote one of my favorite YA girls books, Welcome Home or Someplace Like It, and has a fabulous YA book coming out this fall, Shift, which I will review then. Her writing is quirky and original, like Maine.

It sounds like your hometown is special too.

Bee said...

Sarah,

I just read your S.A.D. post -- fascinating!

I also dipped into your Goring-on-Thames posts -- which were rich with personal details. Goring is a town I know pretty well. I have played tennis there many times -- and eaten many post-tennis lunches at the Catherine Wheel.

Regarding Halloween: My girls have just the same complaint! I try to compensate with a big Halloween party every year, but they complain that without trick-or-treating it just isn't the same. So true.

To answer some of your other questions: my daughters go to private school. The youngest goes to a mixed prep, and the oldest goes to an all-girls day school. The youngest was just moved up to a "scholar" class -- and had to go to Saturday school for the first time this morning. We are devoted to our weekend lie-ins, and found the early morning wake-up call very painful!

Our move back to England was a little bizarre and circuitous. My husband was headhunted to take a key role in a new start-up, which was based in Rotterdam but was supposed to move to London. He had always worked for big, established companies -- but thought this might be fun. (He was also offered a piece of the company, and had pie-in-the-sky dreams of early retirement.) We still had our house in the Berkshire countryside -- because he had worked, for many years, for a company based in Reading. Long story short: new job stayed in Holland, we had a commuter marriage for 18 months, new job was a disappointment, which led to another new job this autumn. Husband, who used to love U.S., is now showing strong emotional attachment to staying in home country! Who knows how this narrative will end?

BTW, I am so envious that you know so many writers! I am still trying to find friends who like to read!! (Blog has helped!)

Sarah Laurence Blog said...

My son has Saturday school too - it makes travel and socializing harder, but he is learning a lot. We really enjoy our time living in England, but Maine will always be our home since Henry's tenured at Bowdoin College, and we love it.

What a relief your husband is no longer working in a different country - that must have been hard. It sounds like your life is still in transition, but you are living in a special place. Berkshire is beautiful country and great for walking.

Oxford is the place to go for books and readers, although I'm not in a book group by choice. I have my own list of things I want/need to read. I love living in college towns - full of book lovers.

It can take time to break into English social circles - people are less welcoming at first, compared to Americans, but once a friendship starts, it tends to last.

Thanks for your nice comment on S.A.D.

Bee said...

Anne,
I've noticed Persepolis in your "favorite movies." Why do I have the sort of brain that grabs these kinds of details??

I will check it out.

Meanwhile, tonight little daughter and I are going to watch Pan's Labyrinth. I'm so excited!

ttp://multitude-audrey.blogspot.com/ said...

I too can relate to the part of this place and yet part that (to paraphrase a Raymond Carver poem) as a fellow American living in the UK now for 13 years. My three kids, all dual nationals, identify more then you would think in their American nationality and enjoy their time there every summer when we go to see family. I find it strange when we are in the States and my kids are chirping away with their little British accents and it causes so much confusion at my parent's neighborhood pool. In fact, when my mother has tried to introduce my children to other similar age children in the neighborhood the other children say that they can't understand my kids. I do think the older they get the less that will happen but it does feel really strange for me.

So, Bee, thanks to you, I got my own blog. Check out http://multitude-audrey.blogspot.com/

I may have to write my own post on home because I can really relate to how complicate it is for us international gals.

Bee said...

Audrey,

I really look forward to trading commentary with you -- both in real-time and blog-time.

Will you check your URL again, though? I couldn't make it work.

Alyson said...

Wonderful post! You have such a way with words! I love that you say you feel more of a Texan when you're in England. I sort of feel that way in Connecticut. I'm more of a Californian out here. I notice the differences between me and everybody else, but I will never move back to California. Every time I do visit, my stomach gets in knots and I feel like I'm returning to something that isn't me anymore. I love where I am now.

I also think it's harder to go home to a place that is ever changing; it can never feel like home when it's very appearance has morphed. My husband's from Utah and we lived there for a few years before coming here. Whenever we visit Utah and CA, they look so different from when we were there, and in such a short amount of time. New England is different (at least where I am). They seem to oppose change. There is very little new development. They seem to relagate their new stores to a tiny little part of town and the rest must stay the same. You'd also be hard pressed to find a home that's under 20 or 30 years old here. If you want a new home, you're probably going to have to build it yourself. I love that about this place - this sense of things remaining constant and secure. I think I've been looking for this my whole life.

Bee said...

Alyson,

I'm really happy for you that you've found a place that feels like the right sort of home for your family. (BTW, my girls and I are HUGE Gilmore Girls' fans and we always joke that if Star's Hollow was a real place we would have to go and live there!) I hope that I will manage that someday . . . I don't want to be a wanderer forever!

It is harder to move away from places that change really quickly -- it does just emphasize that feeling of not being able to fit back in. Like you, I can't help but prefer the attitude toward the past that you are more likely to find in England or New England.

Alyson said...

How funny, my eldest daughter and I are HUGE Gilmore Girls fans too! Stars Hollow was truly based on small town, rural Connecticut. I see it all the time when I putter around town. That's how it really is here. Sometimes I notice things about my town and think, "hey, that's what they'd do in Stars Hollow!" hehehe There are always town festivals going on here. They use any excuse to put on a festival! We also tend to have restaurants that are locally owned and not chains, so it kind of reminds me of Luke's.

Bee said...

Alyson,

I want to visit your town!!

BTW, do you have a Luke's?

Alyson said...

Unfortuneately, we don't have a Luke's. Although I'm sure we have plenty of privately owned diners run by crotchety middle-aged men! :-) Also, our town selectman is a woman, so she's no Taylor. But it more or less reminds me of Stars Hollow. I'm so bummed the series was cancelled.

Bee said...

Me, too.

I really wanted to see Luke and Lorelai work their problems out. (I think that I was little too invested in that relationship.)

See my comments on Gilmore Girls in my Tagged post!)