How strange it is to find myself moving back.
Back to the parks with the swings on which I learned to swing—the swings of my earliest dreams. I remember the smell of them in the sun, the heat of the metal, how I learned eventually to pull myself up after I’d pumped myself high, from sitting to standing, and how I moved like the leaves on the trees, my head flung back, the clouds and the blue and the green rocking back and forth.
Back to the streets where I first learned to ride my bike, to the paths where I walked my first dog, to the first snows that soaked in through the tops of my boots, to the rain and the river and the front yards and the back. To the place that was home, and then wasn’t, for so long.
David Broza sings a song about going home again after 20 years. It’s been worming around my head, as I prepare to move with my family, after 20 years of calling other countries and cities my home, to live in the New York area, in the neighborhood in which I grew up. I have lived outside of this neighborhood longer than I lived in it. I have been an adult longer than I was a child. And yet, when I am in that space, my childhood storms the streets, leaking through the cracks in the sidewalk, peeking out from behind the trees.
Will I know how to be in that space and be the adult me? Or will returning somehow transport me back in time? Will I wake up and find myself that mischievous, twinkling kid, out to prove herself?
I walked around the house we will be renting with the owner, who used to be a little kid, four eternal grades younger than me at school, now with kids who are older than mine. She showed me the front porch, which had a jump rope hanging off the side. I almost blurted out, “What an awesome escape hatch from the house to the garden—perfect, that’ll be my getaway!” before remembering that in this house, I’ll be the mother. How strange, when my parents still live in the neighborhood. It has always been the place where my mother is the mother, and I am the daughter; to this day, when I visit, and we go for a walk, or out to the store, I manage to forget my wallet, my keys to the house, my phone.
When I visit I am constantly looking over my shoulder. Do people recognize me? Worse—should I recognize them? What happens when you bump into someone who knew you then, and does not know you now? And how much of who I am now is a result of where I have been living? A result of living somewhere I’m not from, letting its rays seep into my bones, reshaping them? And then what happens when you’re back in your native habitat—does muscle memory kick in? Do you revert to your old self?
I am looking achingly forward to being close-by to family, to celebrating holidays together without shlepping across the country, to casual spontaneous coffees with my siblings, to my parents taking my kids to museums, coming to school plays, simply coming over for dinner. And yet I wonder – how to parent when you’re living in streets overwhelmingly populated by the ghosts of your past? “You know that scar I have on my knee?” I’ll point out as we walk down the street, “I got it right here.” “And that’s the block where I was allowed to walk alone for the first time.” “And that’s where I got hit by the car.” Will I even see what is happening in the present around me? Will I be able to make the shift from who I was then, to who I am now, while surrounded by the streets and people and trees and scents that defined my childhood?
Children experience time and space differently from adults. In the 20 years since I’ve moved out of my parent’s house, and especially in the 11 years I have lived across the country, building my own, eucalyptus-scented, sun-drenched, humidity-free Northern California family, time has always slowed and become somewhat warped when I visit. I have been both present in the moment of the visit, amazed, almost, that my new reality can be superimposed onto that old one, at least momentarily, and caught in the past, memories flooding me, old patterns peeping out. What will happen to time and space and reality and identity when the two are completely intertwined?
Perhaps I will experience the words of T.S Eliot in “Four Quartets”: “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
Or, at least, upon arriving where I started, know myself for the first time.