Weather on the Oregon Coast this past week continued a streak of sunny skies on that line of cool mornings, warm afternoons, then cool evenings. Early in the week, though, I hopped a couple of planes back to the South, where I grew up, which is in the spring transition of dropping tons of pollen along with a rise in humidity that will temper the air for the next 6 months or so.
This was my first trip back to Kentucky and Tennessee, the part of the country I’ve spent most of my life, save these past three months spent in my new home in Oregon. With my wife Allyson finishing up her work in Murray, Kentucky until July, we’ve lived separated, except for a monthly visit. April was my month to visit. Allyson met me at the Nashville airport–she had snuck our dog, Digby, in, stuffed into a totebag with her jacket over the top. I had this exhausted relief to see Allyson–we hadn’t seen each other in a month, and I had been traveling since 5am. I knew seeing her would have some emotional heft that would leave me a little weak. But, then she pulled her jacket away, and I saw my little brown companion who I hadn’t seen since January. It hit me with a wallop, and I said, “Hey little guy,” but was a little choked up. I hugged them both at the same time, not really knowing what to do next. So, I just kept hugging.
My friend Philip asked me how I felt coming home, if I was experiencing a “reverse culture shock.” The word that keeps coming into my head is “familiar.” Oregon is great, fantastic, awe-inspiring, a comfortable fit even–but it is not yet familiar. There isn’t much in Oregon that I know with my whole body. I’ve been away for three months, which is by far the longest I’ve lived outside of the South. That’s really nothing–I’ve thought about soldiers coming home after years of traumatic experiences in a completely foreign place. I’ve thought about immigrants who leave their native country and return decades later. It must be an emotional wrecking ball to have those feelings rush back when entering a place with those kinds of removals. I don’t know exactly what to make of my experience, and I was only in another state for a few months.
I remember the first time I went to Knoxville after graduating college. The place had been most of my world for the last 4.5 years. I had grown to know so many people. I had spots on campus that felt like mine. I had napped there, studied and learned there, had conversations with friends there. It had been less than a year, and as I hit the spot where I40 and I75 merged, I had that familiar feeling of coming back to school after a weekend visiting friends and family. Coming back to visit college friends, no longer a college student, I had this feeling the world of the University of Tennessee had kept moving, and I had not been moving with it.
I remember riding with my friend Kristi down the strip to downtown, past the restaurants I had frequented on the weekends. Coldplay, which was still cool at the time, was playing and the lights from the city glittered in the windshield. I watched so many people out there on the sidewalks, on campus. People I would never have a class with. People I would never meet. People who would go on with their lives without me there at all. The campus would go on without me, even though it had been my home, my normal for 4.5 years. Kristi would move very soon too. She would move to Arizona, get published, teach writing. I would spend 12 more years in rural Tennessee at a church camp.
My mom picked me up in Murray on Friday, and we went to Springville, Tennessee to put flowers on the graves of the elders, and then on to visit my land, which I may not see for several months. Winding around the country road outside of Paris, TN we were in a place where my great-great grandparents, great grandparents, and grandparents had spent significant parts of their lives. My mom told me about a time she was bringing my great-grandfather home from the hospital when he was in his 80s. He looked out the windows on this road, his eyes wide like he was trying to soak everything in. My mom said she realized that he wasn’t just seeing the road as it was, he was seeing 70 years of that road and all the ways it had changed over the years. Pa probably remembered when it was a glorified logging road for horses and buggies, he remembered when the railroad ran through regularly, remembered the land totally cleared then full of forest.
I had feelings that I should look and listen closely here witnessing the Southern Spring. On my land, I smelled the wildflowers, listened to the songbirds, took in that bright green light filter of new hardwood leaves. There are parts of this that don’t stir up nostalgia–I’ll be happy not to have gobs of pollen in my throat and eyes. I will not miss the humidity in mid July, when I’m feeling an ocean breeze and temps in the mid-80s. But, there is a profound affect on a person when he/she is surround by something familiar after being in unfamiliar territory for a long time. The body knows how to adjust to the familiar, the instincts are more tuned into the familiar place. There are good and bad sides to this, for sure. But, I’m convinced you don’t understand it completely unless you spend time removed from something.
I went back to Knoxville last year and got to walk around campus. I went into the library, where I had studied or fell asleep in the comfortable purple chairs trying to study. I walked the grass lawn near the humanities building where I laid in the spring, watching people throw frisbee or rest off a day of classes. I saw this whole new generation of people who were forming similar experiences, but not exactly my experiences. I had mine in my memory, but that was the only place they existed anymore. If I tried to pick up where I left off, it wouldn’t work. I’m not 23 anymore, I don’t exactly fit into that world, that lifestyle. I could feel it already happening at 24 when I came back to visit. This world and I had moved in separate spaces without each other. I was different and it was too. Now, 15 years later, some of those buildings I spent so much time in are gone or slated to be demolished. New students won’t care about those memories, mostly because they can’t know them. They’ll go through this someday too.
In Murray, visiting Allyson, I can even see how her Murray life has continued and mine hasn’t. It keeps moving on, and I am here this week, but no longer in it. I have an Oregon life now that I move through. I wish I could reach across time and hold all these things together, know them all at once. But, I realize that even moving through one is an incredible blessing. Because, we will be separated from our places someday, no matter how long we stay. They will change without us to the point we do not recognize them. As I smell the wildflowers on my gorgeous land, as I walk next to my parents’ lake, as I’m reminded the feeling of Allyson’s head resting on my chest, and as I turn the curve of highway 101 and see the Pacific Ocean again and know I’m back in what is home for this phase of life, the biggness of life washes over me if I think too much. A flood of powerful feelings well up. A surge of questions that don’t have answers. What calms me back down, though, is the hand on the shoulder and the voice that says, all those times, those places were gifts. This one is too. So will all you see after. Accept each one. Hold them while you can.