Thomas Wolfe once wrote, “You can’t go home again.” But I believe you can and, sometimes, should.
I was an exchange student at fifteen. It was an experience blessed by my parents who believe every child needs “roots and wings.” My time abroad, in Australia, was valuable. I had cross-cultural experiences before I’d even heard the term cross-cultural. It was a bummer to go home after my stay was over, but I did.
Home was an agricultural community in rural North Carolina, a place I couldn’t wait to leave. When I turned eighteen, I did. I lived in Mexico and Ecuador. I met people of diverse backgrounds and interests. I learned to speak Spanish. I took up photography. I feel in love with wonderful people and places, but something was missing. Much to my surprise, by the time I was twenty-five, I wanted to go home again.
I was living in Boston, by way of Maine, and it shocked my parents to learn I was returning to live within a two-hour drive of them. They were thrilled with the announcement of my return, but they questioned, “What’s wrong?”
I believe there is an unmerited stigma of failure that accompanies returning home for my generation, even if it’s not to the cliché of parents’ basements. The corporate ladder may have been in place a generation ago, but we’re the ones for whom the rungs have been spread out across the country and all over the world.
Keeping the same job in today’s business world for an obligatory thirty years would seem a failure to the outside world, as would be living in one place for the same amount of time if it wasn’t a center-of-the-world city like New York. But there is more than one way to gauge failure. Over the years I have come to believe that, for me, failure would mean not knowing my next-door neighbor and not knowing the natural world in which I live.
I thought of my parents’ “roots and wings” philosophy on a recent trip to a local nature conservancy. While there, I noticed a placard noting the habits of the Golden Eagles that swoop through the mountainous landscape of my home region. It explained that when these birds come into the world, they have an innate imprint of the landscape where they were born.
Despite the fast pace of our culture, I believe that humans have this imprint too. I’ve begun to notice others returning to their roots. They’ve come home to save the family farm, care for their aging families, raise their children, or to simply reacquaint themselves with the landscapes they were imprinted with.
I believe it is important to explore the world and the diverse cultural and natural riches of our planet, but it is also important to land somewhere with a sense of community. Leaving home is worthwhile, but I believe it’s the going back that gives life’s lessons the opportunity to take root.