Thursday, March 01, 2007

You Can't Go Home Again

And sometimes, that's a good thing.

I went back to my alma mater--and maybe it's the peculiarity of leaving that makes the return sweeter--or rather, bittersweet. I don't think my school ever looked more beautiful or the campus pretty--all those days in all those three years that I trudged to school, slump-shouldered with the weight of my backpack and looking obtusely at my feet, I never really looked at my surroundings. Or maybe I just needed a clean pair of eyes.

The more schools I travel to for academic or personal reasons, the more contextual my surroundings become. Everything looks the same and yet different--all schools strive for that august brick-and-marble look, and the resounding hollow sound my heels make on the floor remind me of the diminutive position I have within the academy. A small voice within the cavernous space. Then again, one could say I announce myself boldly before I am seen, and seen I shall be.

My school was beautiful, and for the first time since my very first heady, first flush days of that 1L Fall semester, I saw it for its beauty and appreciated how the elevated setting made the very enterprise of learning noble. I ran into old professors and chatted amicably about my career. I even ran into 1Ls (now 3Ls) I had met my last year of law school. I stopped by the Records Office to say hello. The entire experience left me a little misty-eyed.

Oftentimes, you have to leave in order to want to return. And the return is lovelier than could be expected, throwing into high relief all that was good and sublimating all that was bad. I vaguely remember hating law school the first year and a half, and how the brick and marble once felt cold, and how the large space made me feel not just small, but insignificant. It's the common complaint of all law students. No one can really love law school if you stay there till midnight studying everynight and eat heated-up leftovers in the student lounge. No one loves being at law school, no matter how pretty, on a Sunday afternoon.

So what I realized in "coming home" again is that Thomas Wolfe had it half-right. You can't go home again, and sometimes that's a good thing. The home I returned to was different, better. It wasn't changed in a bad way. I'm in a far better position now than as a law student, and happier with my career path and very much assured that this is what I want to do (I kept dreaming of dropping out of law school while I was in law school). It's a bittersweet return, to be sure, to ruminate on the good memories and bemoan the good times passed up (why didn't I go to more movies at the Film School, or more student-priced performances at the Performance Hall? Why didn't I explore this lovely campus more or have lunch outside on the grass under a tree? Why didn't I head Downtown more often to the Worldclass Concert Hall?). But I think everyone should return to their old schools and see whether the feelings about it change.

It certainly makes me want to spend my time here at Liberal College Law differently---I want to make time to go to the school museum, have lunch on the grass, and head into the Awesome City more often. Going back and enjoying the company of the friends I left behind and the city I never fully explored or properly enjoyed makes me want to re-live the experiences I'm living now. I know I could live and work here better. I don't want to regret being blind to the beauty here the way I was at my old school and city. I don't want to let grad school drama or the hysterics of my cohort affect my sight and perceptions. I want to see my current situation the way one does after one leaves: with open appreciation.

I am home now, and I want to see this home with a clean pair of eyes.

He loved this old house on Twelfth Street, its red brick walls, its rooms of noble height and spaciousness, its old dark woods and floors that creaked; and in the magic of the moment it seemed to be enriched and given a profound and lonely dignity by all the human beings it had sheltered in its ninety years. The house became like a living presence. Every object seemed to have an animate vitality of its own--walls, rooms, chairs, tables, even a half-wet bath towel hanging from a shower ring above the tub, a coat thrown down upon a chair, and his papers, manuscripts, and books scattered about the room in wild confusion.

The simple joy he felt at being once more a part of such familiar things also contained an element of strangeness and unreality. With a sharp stab of wonder he reminded himself, as he had done a hundred times in the last few weeks, that he had really come home again--home to America, home to Manhattan's swarming rock, and home again to love; and his happiness was faintly edged with guilt when he remembered that less than a year before he had gone abroad in anger and despair, seeking to escape what now he had returned to.

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As he stood upon the hill and looked out on the scene that spread below him in the gathering darkness, with its pattern of lights to mark the streets nad hte creeping pin-pricks of the thronging traffic, he remembered the barren nighttime streets of the town he had known so well in his boyhood. Their dreary and unpeopled desolation had burned its acid print upon his memory. Bare and deserted by ten o'clock at night, those streets had been an aching monotony, a weariness of hard lights and empty pavements, a frozen torpor broken only occasionally by the footfalls of some prowler--some desperate, famished, lonely man who hoped past hope and past belief for some haven of comfort, warmth, and love there in the wilderness, for the sudden opening of a magic door into some secret, rich, and more abundant life. There had been many such, but htey had never found what they were searching for. They had been dying in the darkness--without a goal, or a certain purpose, or a door.

And that, it seemed to George, was the way the thing had come. That was the way it had happened. Yes, it was there--on many a night long past and wearily accomplished, in ten thousand little towns and in ten million barren streets were all the passion, hope, and hunger of the famished men beat like a great pulse through the fields of darkness--it was there and nowhere else that all this madness had been brewed.

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What was it he had said on the train: "Do you think you can go home again?" And: "Don't forget I tried to warn you." Was this, then, what he had meant? If so, George understood them now. Around them in the cemetery as George throught these things and spoke of them, the air brooded with a lazy, drowsy warmth.

There was the last evening cry of brins, and the thrumming bullet noises in undergrowth and leafe, and broken sounds from far away--a voice in the wind, a boy's shout, the barking of a dog, the tinkle of a cow bell. There was the fragarance of intoxicating odors--the resinous smell of pine, and the semlls of grass and warm sweet clover. All this was just as it had always been. But the town of his childhood, with its quiet streets and the old houses which had been almost obscured below the leafy spread of trees, was changed past recognition, scarred now with hard patches of bright concrete and raw clumps of new construction. It looked like a battlefield, cratered and shell-torn with savage explosions of brick, cement, and harsh new stucco. And in the interspeaces only the embowered remannts of the old and pleasant town remained--timid, retreating, overwhelmed--to remind one of the liquid leather shuffle in the quiet streets at noon when men came home to lunch, and of laughter and lwo voices in the leafy rustle of the night. For this was lost!

--- Thomas Wolfe, "You Can't Go Home Again"