I try to tell Step-daughter: leaving isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. She’ll be a senior this year, and although I don’t think she plans to go away to college, I know it is nevertheless her intention to get as far away from Illinois as possible after she graduates. I think she believes–as I once did–that happiness isn’t possible here, that there’s nothing so boring and ugly as the prairie, and that there have to be better, nicer, and smarter people in bigger cities elsewhere in the country. Unless and until she leaves the state and takes those steps herself, I have no doubt that she won’t believe a word I have to say on the subject; she’s almost 18, and no one is as smart as she is. Of course, on this point, I can’t really say much. I was a teenager once. Hell, when I left Illinois for North Carolina, I was 27 years old and in some ways I was STILL a teenager. No one could tell me. My life was waiting across those mountains and I was never coming back. Who in their right mind would choose to live in Illinois? Certainly not me.
To this day, I’m still not sure what changed my mind. Maybe it was the discovery that it was entirely possible to be terribly unhappy in a breathtakingly beautiful place. Maybe it was the years on end that I spent hundreds of miles away from anyone who really knew me or who had ever walked on the streets where I grew up. It’s more important than most folks might imagine to wake up every day and feel known. For 13 years, I didn’t. And then I came home for a visit, sat for a few hours with a terrific man I’d known since I was 17, and realized (quite miraculously) that I was wasting my life (and my potential happiness) by spending it so far away from the place where I’d grown up.
I guess it’s possible that I had to leave in order to ever come to that conclusion. But I promise you that I didn’t leave with the intention of learning anything. I left because I imagined that I already knew. If you had asked, I would’ve told you…I didn’t belong in Hicksville. There was nothing to be learned from those people or that place, and I would never think of either of them without contempt. I was wrong, of course. And I was so wrong that I can’t imagine that anyone who feels like I felt has ever been right. They say “wherever you go, there you are,” but that whole concept seems to escape most people for the majority of their lives. I suspect that if they were more willing to look at themselves and make an honest assessment, they would recognize that they cannot get away from their problems simply by beating a path out of town.
More than almost anything, I wish I could impress that upon Step-daughter. She might think that she’s just putting as much distance as possible between herself and her POS mother, but in reality, the distance is just in her mind, and only temporary at that. Our problems follow us, sure enough, though I imagine that all of us wish [at some point] that physical distance was enough to make a true escape.
Anyway, I wish she wasn’t so bound and determined to blame the place for her unhappiness or to think that happiness isn’t possible here. There’s beauty here on the prairie, especially on nights like tonight when the heat lightning bounces around the night sky behind the clouds and you can watch it playing in panorama, miles in the distance. No one could feel fenced in under a sky like this. Plus, it’s just home. You’ll know the smell of it always, carry it with you wherever you go, and wish like hell you could go back once you get as well and truly gone as you once thought you wanted to be.
Maybe that’s what I wish for her: the wisdom I gained from leaving home without actually having to leave or endure the intervening years of tragedy and trauma and drama from a bunch of people she doesn’t know, who don’t know her. I want her to look at the blue and wide open Illinois sky around her and see only freedom and possibility and all the room she has to move around and be herself. I want her to wake up every morning surrounded by people who know who she is without having to ask, because it’s a special kind of hell to live half your life in a place and still feel unknown. I want her to see home like I do…with a kindness that has softened the hard edges and forgotten whatever ugliness there was. Because whatever happens along the way, going home should always be the option that makes your soul remember how to sing.