You Can’t Go Home Again

In the 1940’s, Thomas Wolf wrote a book called You Can’t Go Home Again, in which protagonist George Webber quips, You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood … back home to a young man’s dreams of glory and of fame … back home to places in the country, 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.

Since that time, the phrase has proved profound enough that it has worked itself into the American lexicon. And though I myself have returned to the place of my birth a scant several times in the forty plus years I’ve remained in absentia, I have purposely avoided it.

My excuse is that this location lies in a metropolitan area, and I possess a sensitive rural soul, one that threatens to bail from my body when entering the conditions of chaos cities invariably thrive upon. And yet. Something draws me thither, as if somehow I could return to gather fragments of that lost girl and transport them, faerie-like, back to my forest dwelling; stitching them together and reattaching them to my physical template with sticky invisible threads. Then somehow I could breathe that long, jagged sigh, fathomless as the ocean’s depths and as broad – while the psychic dust settles me into a renewed sense of wholeness.

Fantasy: I return, ambling alone through the gentrified older part of downtown, popping in here and there, smelling and sensing textures and aromas wafting from the many stylish boutiques. Complimenting restored buildings that used to house the retailers of my youth, I fasten upon architectural flairs missed while young. Energy generated by pedestrians fills me with kinship for humanity. Strolling aimlessly, I tuck into an Indian café for hot chai, then surprisingly find myself on the east side of town, having walked the full ten miles I once accomplished with ease. Popping into a bistro to enjoy a hearty meal, I phone a cab to return me back where I began. Then driving along the wide boulevards, I recall a time when Japanese gardeners punctuated landscapes of the wealthy, transforming lawns and trees into lovely zen-like gardens. Stopping at a now famous art museum, my vision is catapulted by colors and textures skillfully manipulated by the artists’ hands.

Reality: I enter the city from the west end, trying to find a parking garage in the crush of madness that is Old Town. Women my age cover grey with dyed blond that is pickup stick-straight, echoing shapeless hips and too much plastic surgery. I feel as though I’ve entered an alien world. Once I exit the garage, I’m aware that parking will cost me at least twenty dollars for a couple of hours, so I’d better scuttle along. Boys skateboard through carport puddles, cigarettes hanging from mouths tender as unbroken horses. I am jostled and swept past like a ghost, snatching glimpses of storefronts now bearing identical names to those in Any downtown, Anywhere. The old structures of my youth remain, but tacky awnings in primary colors yank them out of time and into a cookie-cutter present. I’m so depressed and deflated, I return to my car, panicked that I might not discover a stretch of grass or trees where I can sit and recharge. And where on earth is the bathroom?

 

What I am looking for ... (credit: oldpasadena.org/blog)

 

What I get ... (image credit: oldpasadena.org/blog)

And if you ever want to know what song runs through my head as I ponder this post, it’s Can’t Go Home, by Brewer & Shipley. Unfortunately, copyright infringement prevents me from linking you to this lovely ballad via You Tube. Sorry ’bout that 😦

11 comments on “You Can’t Go Home Again”

  1. Such a sad sentiment though. You know Bela, I write TO GO HOME, when I write about it i am there again.. c

    • Morning, Ms. C – it’s strange. I can go home in memory, and it’s ever preserved that way. If I actually do go there however, it’s much as I’ve written. In the case of Pasadena, I left when 18 – as a huge freeway began carving through the town’s midsection. The entire aura of the place changed, and has attracted untold hundreds of thousands more into its midst. And it’s still a pretty city, as far as Large Cities go – just, of course, not the same. Not the same at all – which is the nature of things, yes? “The only constant is change.”

  2. What a nice piece of writing! Interesting that I immediately thought of Pasadena in the fourth paragraph, before I knew. My aunt, uncle, and grandma lived there on Michigan Avenue for many years, and I used to visit them every few years when I was growing up. So I have a feeling for that place, as well as your thoughts. I have several special places in my head which I don’t want to pollute by re-visiting them physically.

    • Yeah, it was a sweet town when I was growing up – though we lived nearer Sierra Madre up in the foothills of the mountains. But when I was older and could ride my bike everywhere, I loved the older parts of the city. And the Huntington Museum! That was an oasis, with its dripping arbors of roses and such …

      I do suggest you keep your memories locked safe inside, for it has definitely changed as only LA could – and honestly, what else might have happened, really, with that many people? Urban planning has done well, it’s just too chaotic for me anymore.

      Thanks for visiting and commenting!

  3. We keep poking at the realities to try to rip a hole in them to see our memories. It’s too bad that this journey has to be linear. Someday, maybe we’ll discover that it isn’t.

    • Margaret, hello! Thanks for commenting. And I agree with your premise that that journey might not have to be linear. I don’t think it is, although it’s not something I’ve ever attempted to write about. I’ve actually experienced the time/space continuum in a conscious sense – just for an eyeblink, years ago – and I’ve never lost the feeling that it surely does exist. Tapping into it at will is another thing.

  4. Haven’t read your post, yet, but I love Thomas Wolfe and particularly this book. I have been to his home in Asheville, NC. Okay, I’ll read your post now. HF

  5. You can’t recreate what has been. No matter how hard you try, a moment in time once gone, is gone. Even if the locale was the same, the feelings can’t be. Bela, you and I have both written of our first kiss, but we can’t go home to it. We can go to the place and close our eyes and remember, but that’s the best we can do. Every moment is self-contained and cannot be revisited. That’s what Thomas Wolfe was saying, I believe. And, sadly, for people like you and me, Bela, he was right.

    • Yes, HF, I agree, and I do know these things you speak of. Still, ‘exploring’ those feelings remains important to me – another layer of understanding of time’s impact on places, people and nature; of thoughts and memories and concepts around them. It will always feel a bit strange to me. Thanks for your always-appreciated comments.

  6. My rural beginnings (Alberta) are so vastly different that I was lost in openness when I returned after about 30 years. The trees had been cut down, the waterways had changed and distances had shrunk with all the new roads. That has not stopped my enjoyment of my memories as I leave change to itself. I’m probably living in a rural location that someone else would find very changed.

    Also, Bela, I have had enough moves in my life to know that my world is the one contained within me. How I dress it up or down can be fun, but it is window dressing for the real me. I am so much more at home in natural settings and with people who love nature.

    I believe we share that in spades.

    • Oh, we do indeed! I don’t know why I like to reflect on such things – perhaps it’s simply to contribute my voice to the wilderness of rambling thoughts, as history has always been written by scholars seated in high places. I love perusing historical accounts that are made up of commoners’ perspectives. And so I add my own two cents worth!
      Thanks souldipper, for your insights and input. Much appreciated.


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