Of Woods And Words: The Culture of Leaving

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In this land of summer vacation homes, people are naturally curious about where you’re from. But people always seem to want clarification when they ask me where I’m from and I tell them, “Oh, I’m from here,” “Where’s exactly is ‘here’?” they ask. “What do you mean by town?” In the end, when we’ve gotten it sorted out that I grew up outside of Grand Marais, it seems as though most of the questioners view my answer as uninteresting, almost disappointing. 
 
When you’re from small town America, an unspoken understanding exists. It’s an understanding that involves graduating from high school, going to college, and eventually, getting a job some place else. Our hometown is meant to shape us, but it seems we’re supposed head out into the great unknown to find a new locale that will sustain us during our adult lives. Returning to our hometown is often held synonymous with failing to launch. 
 
Of course I thought I would leave, and for a while I did leave. For all my dreams of sipping cosmos in New York City or grabbing a pint in a Dublin pub, I never imagined that in reality, I would be grabbing a diet cola from a gas station in town to perk me up for the 60 mile drive to my home in the woods.
 
But things happen: love and luck, degrees and decisions. At some point, before we are truly conscious of it, life takes off independently on a crash course for some set destination you didn’t know you’d decided on. It wasn’t clear that I was back in my hometown for the long haul until I realized that for years, deep in my heart I’d been making concessions about the beauty and comfort of the place where I grew up. That I’d grown exceedingly fond of my hometown over the years came as a bit of shock.  
 
I had a professor in college who told about how discomfiting an adult homecoming can be. After receiving his MFA, he returned home to his parents’ house for a bit while he plotted out his next move. That first morning home, he woke up to find himself lying in a twin bed in a small bedroom filled with Hot Wheels decorations. “What’s wrong with me?” he thought.
 
But if we can leave the Hot Wheels and the baby dolls behind us and find a way out of our childhood bedrooms, our hometowns often offer a unique place to carve out a life of our own. I spent a winter in the Twin Cities and never learned the names of a single neighbor. How different it is at home where I seem to bump into someone I know whenever I run errands. What’s more, in our little community, we have a vested interest in each other. Here both our successes and failures are more tightly woven than they could ever be in a large city.
 
I certainly didn’t expect to be the person who would buck this culture of leaving. I never thought I would stay. I know a bigger world than the one I currently exist in is out there. And at times I’m overcome with a need to flee to that bigger world: to sip cosmos in New York City, or grab a pint in Dublin. But in the end, I find a peace here in the Northwoods, in these stomping grounds of my youth. A peace that compels me to stay.
 
It’s like that saying you see on greeting cards sometimes: I live in my own world, but it’s okay. People know me here.
 
Airdate: June 24, 2010
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