(Ryan Arnold)– To the left of my seat in this poorly ventilated smoking lounge in the Nashville airport is a guy with a Confederate flag tattooed on his bicep. The sunlight coming through the blinds catches the tobacco smoke and glares off the flat-screen television on the other side the room. The television is set predictably to Fox News; coverage about vehicular manslaughter committed by a bicyclist is interrupted to cut to breaking developments in a scandal involving Michael Jackson’s doctor. The tattooed guy pulls out a flip-phone and relays the newscast to whoever had called him. (They’re both really surprised that Michael Jackson did drugs!) I have not been to Nashville in six years; it has changed much less than I have.
I was 18 the last time I was in Nashville; I had just dropped out of college, and wanted desperately to evade the many hopes and expectations I had recently deflated. Jennifer, my half-sister who at the time was twice my age and as foreign to me as the city she lived in, invited me to stay with her “for a while,” believing the impact of my crash would be softer there than at home. There were many reasons for why I had left school: some of them were my fault, some of them weren’t, but they all made me feel incredibly shitty about myself. Foregrounded among them was the sectional conflict between my parents, which lately focused on the financing of an education I didn’t particularly understand or want. I welcomed the chance to escape, and fled south as fast as a Greyhound could take me.
This summer, I returned to celebrate my dad’s birthday and my own (which are on consecutive days). We’re staying at my sister’s house in East Nashville, the same one I found myself in half a decade ago. The space of the house itself, like the city around it, is virtually the same as it was when I left. The futon where I treated my insomnia with TiVo’d episodes of COPS is still unfolded and covered in cat hair. The glow-in-the-dark stars that I stared at every night as I fell asleep remain stuck to the ceiling of my nephew’s bedroom closet (though the mattress I slept on has been removed).
On the back porch, I sit in one of the wrought iron chairs where I spent innumerable hours chain-smoking (and occasionally crying) after everyone else had fallen asleep. Six years ago, this porch served a very specific function for me – it was additional and necessary solitude in my already-lonely retreat. The experience of dropping out of college is about as alienating and humiliating as one might expect, and I was not yet ready to exist in the world in any capacity other than as an unmoving pile of implacable misery. I quickly began to resent myself for imposing my crisis on others; the porch was a place where I could be out of the way of the functional lives of the people around me. The nights on the porch were mine to write, to call friends, to feel sorry for myself, to begin the humbling work of figuring out what the hell had just happened – and to assess, with naked honesty, how much of the responsibility was mine.
During the daytime, the porch remains in almost constant sunlight. It’s hot outside, but about ten degrees cooler and far less humid than in Amherst, where I’ve been living since the end of the semester. I’m presently a senior at Amherst College; I transferred in last fall after graduating from a community college near my home in New Jersey. In total, three years passed between when I dropped out and when I went back. Many great schools, like Harvard, are strong advocates of the gap year, and if I know anything about math, I know that three is definitely more than one. I’m the same person now as then, only a bit older – still sad but not crippled by it; still anxious but no longer crushed by the need to make reparations for my failures; still making dumb mistakes, but no longer avoiding difficulty by hating myself wholesale.
There’s parallelism in my residency on this porch: I ran away to Nashville because I fucked things up, and I obsessed over it for the six weeks I lived there; I’m now at the opposite point on the spectrum of fucking things up. The purpose of this isn’t to highlight how awesome I am (if I made it more explicit, it would lose its masterful nuance) – the defining anxiety of my time in Nashville was the belief that I had done irreparable harm to my future and foreclosed on the chance of ever being happy. Coming back now, after having succeeded at what I thought had been my defining failure, gives me a chance to resolve all of the worrying I did here; in turn, it becomes real to me.
In American culture, we’re very fond of the idea that “home” is a fixed temporal location, a place that exists only in cherished nostalgia. You Can’t Go Home Again, wrote Thomas Wolfe, in the title of a book that nobody ever reads but that has been distilled into a platitude your mom can hang (without irony) on the wall of the kitchen. You leave, time passes; everything changes. The porch, acting as a metonym for Nashville at large, has not changed, or has only changed very little. Instead, I am the variable element, both in my sense of self and in my relationship to this place. The porch, my sister’s home, embraces me now as it did then: without judgment, without question; simply with apathy to my failures or successes, but respect for my right to struggle and succeed or fail on my own. This is maybe what Camus, at the end of his book on making huge mistakes, calls “la tendre indifférence du monde,” and I find myself as comforted by it now as I felt the first time.
The truth of Wolfe’s aphorism, which through countless repetition has been distanced into planetary orbit from the phrase itself, is that the places we occupy are entirely apathetic to us. We commit something like the pathetic fallacy, attributing our emotional states to our environment, and thereby attributing to a place whatever meaning it “holds” for us, but they’re just spaces. In this way, we can’t go back to something that only exists for us at one point in the constant attenuation of time. This attribution isn’t wrong; to the contrary, we need this kind of sentimentality to cope with the fact that every second of every minute is irretrievably rushing away from us, and that we are constantly being moved closer to our own end. However, the nostalgia in Wolfe’s cliché – that tragic longing to return to a place we’re eternally in exile from – leaves us alone at the mercy of Time, fooling us into believing that geography will make us happy (“If only I could go back to college…”). Allowing places to hold our emotions means that none of us is ever really that far from home, because home has more to do with us than with where we are. We just need to look around instead of backwards.