That saying (or some permutation on the old Thomas Wolfe quote) has rippled through my head quite a bit over the last few weeks, and it's been the biggest life lesson I've learned in the two months since moving back to Ohio.
The idea that we can re-create the same experiences and get the same emotions we had the first time around is naive, romantic, and impossible. I never knew this for sure, because I've never had the opportunity to learn it until now. I think this is something that only comes with seasoned adulthood, when you've had the opportunity to move around a bit and come full circle to the place where it all started. When you think you know a place, leave it for ten years, and then come back, you might as well be moving to a new city entirely. This is particularly true if you return to a place that is worn ragged from economic turmoil. Favorite haunts and entire strip malls are likely empty shells, and even the places that haven't changed look and feel alien.
I last lived in Dayton, OH in the 90s and my most vibrant memories of the town are through the idealistic filter of a teenager who got her first sips of freedom roaming the streets with her friends doing the sorts of carousing activities that would make anyone think they own a the world. I'd been back to visit several times throughout the decade, but I never looked at the place too closely because I didn't need to. My "home" was back in Washington and I had no time to reforge sentimental attachments to bridges I thought I'd burned. As long as I could still remember where my folks lived and where to meet some friends at the local watering hole, I could get by for a week or two in tourist mode before hopping back on the plane.
But it's different when you go back for good. And it's frustrating. I recognize street names and many of the buildings. I can look at a landmark and pull up a distant memory of something I did there. I even drove by the tree under which I had my first kiss at age 14, but none of it really registered the same way I expected it to. I couldn't even remember the exact house my best friend during high school used to live, even though I had spent countless nights and eaten countless dinners there. I eventually found it after a half hour of driving and trying to pry open that rusty memory bank with a mental crowbar. It was like those memories happened to someone else. And I suppose they did. I'm not fourteen anymore. Any study of the events and emotions and hormones I experienced at that age are now purely academic.
For years, I used to fantasize about returning to the place I lived my early childhood in Lake Orion, Michigan. In my dreams, I could recall the way trees shaded the streets where I'd ride my bike with fearless abandon (something else my adult mind and body seems to have trouble appreciating). I remembered standing at the edge of the giant field that separated my neighborhood from the open road and yearning to be behind the wheel of one of those cars to go wherever I wanted. The world, with all its distant hills, secrets, and unexplored nooks and crannies was like a giant ripe peach just waiting for me to devour it down to the pit. Michigan back then was a magical kingdom that held a child's dreams of adulthood. I now know that if I returned today, I wouldn't experience some grand regression to my nine-year-old self that once thought I'd be living in a Manhattan penthouse by the time I was my current age. Instead, I'd probably notice how much smaller everything seemed. Then I'd observe how worn all the buildings and houses had likely become, and how all the trees were probably gone. And that big field that separated me from home and freedom? Easily skirted around with my own car. That is if the field was even still there. It's likely now a parking lot.
And when I return to Olympia after a few years of being gone, I'm liable to feel the same way. That disconnected, fuzzy alienation that comes when old neural pathways are rerouted from a place of security, comfort, and familiarity to the giant neon sign in the brain that says "You Are a Visitor Here."
I'm positive my adult self will eventually wise up and snap out of Visitor mode. I will have to recreate my perceptions of this place through the mind of a 30-year-old mother who now cares more about where to find good quality groceries for a decent price than an awesome place to play miniature golf or go dancing. I've learned that the concept of "home" is always formed in the present. It doesn't preserve itself after you leave it, and you can't go back thinking you're going to have the same experience and emotions.
At any rate, this is not the place I once knew. But more importantly, I'm no longer the person who once knew it.