When I was a teenager I used to fantasize about traveling the world: I was an overseas news correspondent covering the Chinese New Year festivals; I was an English teacher to well-dressed French children; I ate baguettes and various cheeses in parks filled with attractive mustachioed men; and I may or may not ever come back to my home state of Kansas. I couldn’t wait to get away.
So, I did what any self-respecting, lower-middle class, high school graduate would do: I went to the local university because it was the only one I could afford. Truthfully, I had a nice scholarship, a nice boyfriend, and an opportunity to study abroad. I stayed home so that I could really get away. And I did.
In college I studied abroad in a little town in France, and after graduation my new husband and I traveled to Europe before moving to Austin, Tex., and then to St. Louis. I’ve moved eleven times in fourteen years. I never became an overseas correspondent, but I have taught English to Chinese internationals and eaten various breads and cheeses in French parks. (No mustachioed men, but my husband skips shaving every few days, so I count that as a win.)
We recently moved back to my hometown in Kansas and we bought a little house just a few blocks from where I grew up. Seventeen-year-old me would have had a panic attack if she saw where we are now, but here’s the thing: my view of the value of home has changed dramatically. I no longer consider travel and adventure the only measures of success. They’re invaluable ways to learn about different cultures and they made me who I am today, but what my travels most markedly gave me was an appreciation for what I already had.
Kansas may not sound exotic or exciting; it’s rarely a destination in and of itself. But I have a newfound love for the vast, untouched nature of it. It’s purer than its neighboring states in many ways. The cerulean sky is divided in half horizontally only by the golden wheat and encumbered only with sparse green trees and grain silos. At night, I can always spot the Big Dipper, when it’s in view, and I can hear owls hooting not just from our neighborhood but from the nearby woods, as well. I see now what is unique about my home, and I have grown to appreciate its quiet beauty.
My parents live just down the street, and I’m amazed at how much joy I feel when they show up and my children run out to see them. (Almost as much joy as when my parents take them away for a few hours.) My kids explore trails in the neighboring woods and play in the park where I used to go to summer camp. The air is clean and our community is abundant. It’s hard for me now to see what it was that I wanted to escape.
I fully expect my kids to harbor my wanderlust tendencies. I imagine that they too, at seventeen, will want to explore the world. I hope they do. I have more travels ahead of me, as well. But if I could tell my younger self one thing it would be this: Don’t freak out. Nothing stays the same forever. See all that you want to see, and then come home.
In T.S. Eliot’s poem, Little Gidding, from Four Quartets, he talks about returning home:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of our all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, remembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, her, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
Where the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and rose are one.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to get away. I actually believe it’s a key component to maturing as a human. We long to escape our perceived or actual faulty childhoods to discover a new reality. For some of us, staying away may be the only wise or healthy choice. I count myself fortunate to be among those for whom home is a welcoming place.
When it was the right time, Kansas opened her wide arms and ushered me into a new era of my adulthood—one of peace, contentedness, and gratitude. When I was young, I did not cease from my exploration, but at the end of my exploring, I arrived where I first started. I know this place for the first time. I didn’t know it before because I wasn’t looking.
Now that I am home, I have a renewed desire to learn and explore my opportunities here because I’ve landed in my safety net. I value all of the many gifts that this place has to offer. And I believe that all shall be well. All manner of things shall be well.
What is unique about your community or neighborhood? Do you notice and enjoy all of its distinctive qualities? Has leaving and coming back helped you to appreciate your community’s uniqueness?