Surprising New Emotions

Since the time of my last post, I have, once again, moved to a new apartment.

This brings me up to a total of seven addresses where I have resided since March of last year. And while I’m happy to report that this was my best move by far (I’m sharing a renovated rowhouse in the city! I had a real flesh and blood friend to help me haul my stuff!), I learned something kind of shocking about myself this month. Namely, that I am capable of feeling homesick.

Seriously?! my brain demands of me, outraged by its own short term memory. How can you be homesick for a place where you were miserable and lots of bad things happened to you and also, as a teenager, your metric for personal success hinged on whether or not you were still “stuck” there as an adult? 

I agree, brain. It’s very confusing. I mean, I grew up in Raleigh. It’s a city of a million people, yet it always comes as a kind of shock when people from out-of-state have heard of it. And it’s not as if anyone still lives there. My parents moved to Kentucky two years ago. My high school friends are all in places like Chicago, D.C., Boston, New York. My college friends are teaching abroad or finishing up Ph.D.s in different parts of the country. By contrast, this time last year, I was living down the street from my old high school. I’m not saying this made me a failure, but by the time I left, I felt like I really needed to get out of North Carolina, if only to prove to myself that I could.

Have you ever had to find a new place to live in the middle of a really ugly patch of winter weather? No matter what neighborhood you’re in, the sky is always grey, the sidewalks are always Slip ‘n Slides, and the most attractive real estate on earth looks like a blasted nightmare-scape because it’s buried under half a ton of filthy black slush. I didn’t find a place to live until I had mere days left to arrange the move, because every room I went to visit made me want to cry when I tried to imagine living there. I was determined that, for once in my life, I would take my time and hold out until I found something I really like, and in the mean time I looked at about a hundred identical tiny rooms in identical brick houses in places like Dundalk. Is this what I moved north for? I wondered, as I scratched one address after another off my list. At least in rural North Carolina, everyone’s got their own driveway and no one shares walls. Plus, it didn’t matter so much that it was gross, because it was home. Home’s not supposed to be interesting.

People talk about the “lazy” Southern lifestyle, and I used to think it was just part of that thing where yankee writers like to stereotype us as linen-clad, verandah-dwelling julep-sippers. Now, I’m not so sure. I don’t know if life happens faster here, but I know it’s just a little bit harder. The day to day business of getting places, parking the car, standing in line, buying food, finding entertainment–it all takes just a little more effort than I’m used to, and the cumulative effect is really wearying. Plus, my surroundings are just a little bit uglier. I’m used to more trees.


My favorite picture I ever took in Raleigh: a statue of a cat staring down a bird bath.

The differences between Baltimore and Raleigh are small and the awareness of them has crept over me very slowly, but the apartment search clinched it: I’m homesick. Maybe not so much for the place I used to live, as for the life I could have had there if I hadn’t been so sick and out of touch with myself and afraid of everything when I was living there. How much more could I be accomplishing if I were as well-recovered and active as I am now, but still living in a city that I know like the back of my hand? Someone told me once that people who aren’t great at relating to other people tend to get really attached to places. I have framed photographs of landmarks in my room and none of human beings. I guess that’ll pass for evidence.

I can’t go back to Raleigh. Raleigh doesn’t want people like me, that’s been made abundantly clear. Just for example, I’ve got health insurance now for the first time since before I could legally drink; I’d lose that if I went home. Yet it does feel like home, and that’s kind of weird, because this newfound sentimentality doesn’t reflect my experience of having lived there. What do I remember with such fondness? Houses I used to drive past, that neither I nor anyone in my family could ever had afforded to live in. Universities where I never went to school, but whose gracious green campuses nonetheless form part of my mental image of what I would be returning to, if I did return. The Raleigh that I miss is a story I enjoy telling myself, just like the Baltimore I chose to move to, which bears so little resemblance to the Baltimore I live in now. I can tell myself any story I like wherever I happen to be living. And I could easily waste a lifetime being discontented everywhere I live, because it’s not the story I think I belong in.

Maybe when the snow finally melts, I’ll find a Baltimore that’s a little more like what I hoped Baltimore would be. Maybe in a few years, when I’ve got more money and stability and fight in me, I’ll want to go back to Raleigh and try working to make it the sort of place I want Raleigh to be. For now, I’m just waiting for the last of my mental fog to dissipate, for the last of the nicotine cravings to peter off, and for the sun to come out and melt the ice on the narrow little sidewalks in my new neighborhood, so I can get out and feel unfamiliar brick under my feet, find out if I’m living in a place I can finally love.

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