Of Time, Thomas Wolfe & Me

[The Thomas Wolfe House, Asheville, NC. Photo is mine]

“Each of us is all the sums he has not counted; subtract us into the nakedness and night again, and you shall see begin in Crete four thousand years ago the love that ended yesterday in Texas,”…

You, my readers, have no idea how long I’ve waited to use that quote in a blog or short story. Now, I sit in the 9th floor room of the Marriott Renaissance in Asheville, North Carolina. Just steps away from the hotel front door is Thomas Wolfe’s House. I can feel his presence. The quote puts into clarity the feelings I’ve always had about everyone’s shared history and the unbroken continuity of human relationships. I must be careful. I must be wary. Something I say or do, however small, will set in motion a chain of events that may not be apparent for a hundred centuries.

I grew up in Owego, New York, a small town in the south-central part of New York State. I am not ashamed to admit that I’ve had a difficult time coming to terms with the fact that that is not my home anymore. I’ve grown up and I’ve moved away. But something deep inside me tugs away and whispers in my ear: “You want to go home, don’t you?”

“A stone, a leaf, an unfound door; a stone, a leaf, a door. And of all the forgotten faces.”

The spare, nearly naked choice of words…the sentiment…I’ve felt this too.

Many years ago Bob Dylan wrote these words:

“…she opened up a book of poems

And handed it to me

Written by an Italian poet

From the thirteenth century

And every one of them words rang true

And glowed like burning coal

Pouring off of every page

Like it was written in my soul…”

–“Tangled Up in Blue”

That’s the way the writing of Thomas Wolfe strikes me. The man knows me. He understands me. He has seen into my heart and he writes words that are usually just out of the touch of my fingers, on the tip of my tongue or just behind my eyes, or only in my dreams…on the rare midnight hours when I do dream. Dylan, of course, has the same effect. But this post is not about Bob. It’s about how Wolfe’s books reflect my take on life. The titles of his most popular novels are ones I would have chosen.

-Of Time And The River

-You Can’t Go Home Again

-Look Homeword, Angel

[The Angel. The inspiration for Wolfe. Now located on a private plot (not Wolfe’s) in Oakdale Cemetery in Hendersonville, NC. Source: Photo is mine]

I’ve read a fair number of books on the craft of writing and I’ve learned how the story arc is supposed to play out in fiction. The secret to almost all stories is the “Hero’s Journey”. Most, if not all, great tales use the common archetype: The protagonist sets out on a journey, he/she must overcome challenges (conflict)…the ultimate goal? To Go Home. Everyone wants to go home.

[Cover of a new edition. Source: Google search]

Examples abound: Dorothy wants to go back to Kansas, Odysseus wants to return to Penelope in Ithaca and most of the characters in Game of Thrones want to go home, wherever that is. For many years, Owego, NY, was that lodestone. And to some extent, it still is. I was happy growing up in that small river town. The cemetery on the hill. The river. The backyards. The children attending St. Patrick’s playing in the school yard. Standing on the Court Street Bridge and looking down at the Susquehanna River ice floes crash against the abutments. The autumn leaves that covered the Bluestone sidewalks. The smell of the burning leaves, back in the day. The snow piles. The smell of newly mown lawns.

It’s been said many times: “You can’t go home again”. In my late middle age years I went home again, to live. It was an act born of necessity. But, I found the adage true. You really can’t go home again.

But the urge surfaces every so often, when I’m not looking, when I’m not listening. The urge to go home.

In the end, though, where is home for me? I don’t know. Perhaps that’s the root cause of my restlessness…and my loneliness.

Yes, But Why Can’t You Go Home Again?

It’s a cliché.  It’s a meme.  It’s been repeated a hundred billion times by three hundred billion people.

“You can’t go home again”

I’ve read Thomas Wolfe’s book by the same name.  It was a long time ago.  I may be wrong (correct me if I am), but I do not recall Wolfe ever saying exactly why that fact is true.  I’m sure it was part of the subtext, but it got by me when I was nineteen.

I’m writing a book (a short memoir) of my childhood memories of our family home in Owego, NY.  Perhaps that’s why this question is on my mind these days.  Or, maybe it’s because I’m looking hard into the eyes of my 68th birthday.

Nearly everyone I know has this same feeling.  There are a few people I know that continue to live in the house where they grew up.  For them, there may not be the sea-change like those that do leave.

They wait for a turn on the swing set.  They dress for a prom.  They turn around and they are telling their children where the peanut butter jar is located.  They go into the kitchen to get a cup of tea or a beer and they return to find six grandchildren.

And on it goes.

I’ve lived through my own “you can’t go home again” moment, but I’m at a loss to explain the small details.

Exactly when did that moment occur when I realized it was not my home anymore…just my parents house where I could spend the weekend?

When did that moment enter my mind?

How long do you have to be away before the comfort and magic of home become only a room to find a bed among storage boxes?

Is it a month?  Six months?  A tour of duty?  A year at college?  Getting married and buying a home of your own?

When did you cross that line?

I realize I’m speaking only to those who have (or had) a home in the first place.  I’ve never been homeless in America or lived in a shanty-town, like so many of people of the Third World.

I can’t speak to that.  I had loving parents and siblings.  I had a fireplace to warm myself in a drafty house.  I had stairs to climb, in tears when I knew I would not be able to fall asleep.  Those stairs were there when I was carried in the arms of my father when I fell asleep…exhausted from the heat of play in the heat of summer, or worn out by rolling a giant snowman in January.

Often I feel cursed by the fact that I live so deeply in the past.  Memories keep me awake at night.

I worry about whether someone I haven’t seen in fifty years, still thinks good thoughts about me.

In the end, I still don’t comprehend when the moment comes when the home fires go out, and the living room where I fell asleep on the floor (and my mother covers me with a blanket), is now empty.

The laughter has stopped, the crying had ended and the arguments are over.

The bedroom I slept in while I struggled through my teenage years is empty now and waiting for someone else.

If a child gets to use that room…someday in the distant future…they will move away and then come back to visit.

Then they too will know that you can’t come home again.

MyChildhoodBedroom

 [The bedroom where I studied and slept when I was a teenager]