Thomas Wolfe said it. “You can’t go home again.” And he was right.
This past weekend, I visited my hometown. The one I was born in. The one where I grew up. The place I went to school, wrote my first stories, received my first kiss, made my best friends, had my heart broken by a childhood that flew away all too swiftly.
It is a small town, a boring town, even. But for me it’s a town full of ghosts and memories. And when I visited there, I found myself wanting to walk with those ghosts. I wanted to climb into the memories that were some of my happiest and live in them. Pretend I was a child again and that the world didn’t hold nameless horrors in the future for me or those I love.
But I can’t. No one can.
Because you can’t go home again.
I took my son to the beloved library that was “mine” as a child, just a block away from where I lived. I watched him climb the same stairs that I used to, touch the same books, walk the same creaky floorboards. Yet nothing was as it had been when I was a child myself.
Rooms had changed. The library itself is more than three times larger than it used to be. Walls had been taken down, others had gone up. Squeaky floors and new floors met together beneath fresh, flat carpeting the color of a robin’s egg.
I went to stand in the same spot where I had stood so many years ago, gazing at the bookshelves, dreaming of crawling into the worlds between the pages … the seeds of what eventually grew into The Word Changers. But it was no longer a children’s book room, and the space I stood in was awkwardly between magazine racks and “new release” shelves.
You just can’t go home again. Not really.
I watched as my favorite “story-time lady” talked to my son. She had always been my favorite as a child – you know, the type who does the voices, makes the faces, practically jumps out of her chair with animation. Her face – the one that was so familiar and yet somehow so changed – had been a large part of my growing to love books. I saw the eventual recognition come into her eyes when I began talking to her. She shook her head, not believing so much time had passed. She told me my son would be my age in the blink of an eye, and it would be him taking his own kids to story-time. After I left I realized I should have told her what her stories always meant to me … what they still mean.
Perhaps I’ll do it next time I go home again …
Then we drove by the house I grew up in. It’s practically the only one left standing on the block, and it’s barely standing at all. In place of the roses my mom used to grow were sparsely-leafed bushes and broken cement. The fence my grandpa had put in had lost so many panels you could see straight through into the yard. And that was the worst shock of all. Because there in the backyard was the playhouse my dad had built for my sister and me. It was leaning sideways against the garage, hovered against the bushes like a huge, sad, beaten animal. I saw the tea parties that had been had in that playhouse, the dolls and sleepovers and board games and neighborhood clubhouse meetings, the laughter and even the arguments …. Ghosts and memories.
I want to go home again … I long to go home again. This past Friday, visiting my old haunts, remembering that fleeting, thoughtless joy I had as a child … I ached to go home with every fiber of my body.
That’s when God spoke.
“This world is not your home.”
Simple words, stern and gentle at once.
It came to me, slowly at first, and then in a rush. And I realized what I had really known all along. That you can’t go home again because “home” isn’t a place. It’s a state of mind, a feeling, an age, a group of people, a combination of events and objects, a transient, bittersweet moment of time that you don’t realize even happened until it’s over and gone and irretrievable. A wisp of cloud, a sweet, faint scent in the wind.
You can’t go home again because you’ve never really been home at all.
Thank goodness the home God has in mind for me isn’t made up of these things. Worldly things. Fleeting things. No, the home He calls me to, the home I should be spending all my longing on, is entirely different. It’s heavenly, and eternal, and all else pales in
comparison to its splendor. I’m blessed to have that hope. And I’m a fool if I let myself stay locked and lost within the past, beautiful as it may have been.
So I have a choice before me, one I have to make every day, in fact. I can take the memories and the happiness and even the sweetness that feels so much like sadness, and I can either mourn over them, or I can let them remind me of where I’m going…. through the narrow gate, to a place where tears and sorrow will be gone forever. A place that my heart yearns for, though I’ve never seen it. A place that’s in front of me, and not behind.
My home, of course.