story and photos by Richard Rossner
Life is slippery. Just when I think have it in my grasp, it slithers away like an eel. It twists, writhes and slips from my grip, leaving me empty-handed. And feeling empty in many ways.
That’s when I ache for some place of intense safety and familiarity to regroup.
Johnny Mercer wrote, “Any place I hang my hat is home.” I wonder about people who are that comfortable. Frank Sinatra…George Clooney…the Dalai Lama (if he had a hat). They exude such ease with everything.
I’m not on that list. I’m on the list of people who never feel at home. And I’m not talking about a geographical place. I’m talking about feeling at home in life.
Sure, I’ve accomplished some wonderful things, but it’s all been hit or miss with no mastery. In quiet moments I’m haunted by my sense of ineptitude at navigating something that seems so simple for others.
I recently had the chance to return to my state of origin. No, not the womb as a zygote. New Jersey.
First, I went to the town where I was born. It’s been in an economic slide for decades. Sweet memories I knew of bright Christmas lights gaily strung down the main thoroughfare; the heady smell of popcorn and candy wafting through the glorious department store; summers of big-leafed trees and fat, fuzzy caterpillars; the sweet breezes off the Raritan Bay – they’re gone. Downtown is all bargain discount stores now. The place looks like a dump.
When I was four, we moved to a town about twenty minutes away. I decided I had to go there again. This was “home.” This was where I really grew up. This was where my friends and I experienced landmark moments and made lifelong memories: bar mitzvahs, high school, dating, make-out parties, puppy love, first kisses, adventures and misadventures.
There were a thousand memorable moments in the crunch of autumn leaves; the bite and beauty of snowy winters; the unmistakable smell of crayons that fell into the car vent and melted every time we put the heat on. I had almost forgotten about the magic of fireflies, or hearing the Good Humor truck bells that triggered a stampede of neighborhood kids.
I remember smaller moments – like the peculiar hue of greenish-grey clouds holding the coming rain, while my father, brother and I rushed to plant hundreds of plugs of zoysia (a creeping grass that resists grubs). And after the rain, the distinct smell of the nitrogen-rich air.
There were the big moments, too. Asking my leading lady to the prom during the final curtain call of our high school musical…and her saying yes. This was the home that embraced me through my high school graduation, college acceptance and college graduation. The home that gave me the courage to have adult conversations with my parents, and yes, even their friends.
Walking the streets of my town gave me confidence when I was growing up. It was “my town.” I owned those streets. I hoped going there again would plug me back into my sense of the familiar. A touchstone where I could recharge, get my bearings…breathe again.
I guess I thought I would always own that place, and it would never change. But like Wendy in Peter Pan, it did change. Or perhaps like a duplicitous lover, it simply lied.
When I returned to “my town,” a pain burrowed deep, like a poison arrow into my soul.
I recognized no one. The streets looked different. My block looked different. My house looked different.The sapling my father, brother and I planted in the front yard was now a big, gnarled tree. Zoysia was replaced by sod. I was an alien observer…an unwilling Stage Manager in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town.
I suddenly realized that what I thought was life only existed in my mind.
I watched as unfamiliar families went to “their” stores, did “their” chores, were busy making “their” memories…in their town. I felt the ice-water shock of knowing that I owned none of it.
I realized that even the wonderful memories I thought I made with friends may only exist in the electric synapses of my mind. The people I shared those moments with probably remember them differently…if at all.
We live under the illusion of ownership of a place until we move away and then try to return. Staying emotionally tethered to the place helps maintain the fantasy of belongingness, but only for so long. We sleepwalk through the grind of daily living, without recognizing our lack of truly owning anything. Then we get a discomforting wake-up call in the guise of a trip to one’s birthplace… or a sense of one’s mortality. Either way, the fuzzy veil lifts to reveal the stark truth.
In “Old Friends,” Paul Simon wrote, “How terribly strange to be seventy.” You don’t have to wait to be seventy to feel terribly strange.
Thomas Wolfe wrote You Can’t Go Home Again. I think he was talking about that longing to recapture some part of our lives that we thought we owned. Perhaps it's life’s necessary conceit – almost a kindness – that we don’t realize we never have ownership of anything in a world that is constantly changing.
Maybe life is simply a construct of one’s imagination; a weaving and blending of remembered sights, smells, experiences and observations that are unique to an individual.
It is a bitter pill to recognize that we come into this life alone, we live it alone, and we leave it alone. Along the way we distract ourselves with family, friends, our extraordinary consciousness and creativity.
But I can’t go home again. You can’t go home again. No one can. At least we all share that experience. In that way we’re all passengers on the same rented bus – traveling to our Ultimate Home, wherever that may be.
Richard Rossner is a writer who has written for television and film. When he isn’t writing, he is working with his wife, Rahla Kahn, teaching Adaptive Applied Improvisation to cancer patients, corporations and private clients who want to experience the healing benefits of laughter, joy and creativity through their experiential program, The Power Of Play (www.ThePowerOfPlay.com).