You Can’t Go Home Again


My high school class will have a 50th reunion this year. I am not going. If I didn’t live 2000 miles away I might go, but I doubt it. For one thing, I went to a Catholic High School and anyone who has read my writings knows that I rejected Catholicism fifty years ago. So I would feel somewhat out of place around a lot of Catholics. For another, I don’t drink alcohol and I eat a whole food plant-based diet. So there is almost nothing I can order from a typical restaurant. Call me crazy but I want to reduce my chances of getting heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. And for another thing, Missouri is a Trump state, which could make conversation with about half the attendees problematic. Finally, I haven’t seen any of these people in many years so any connection I once had between them has been lost.

These sentiments also somewhat apply to family. For example, my siblings and their spouses and my nieces and nephews are, for the most part, Trump-supporting, Catholics. Fine people just not my preferred crowd. However, the connection with family runs deeper so more compromises must be made in order to accommodate these differences. Nonetheless, this is difficult as religious fanaticism and fascist politics repulse me.

But all this got me thinking about the idea of seeing old friends. While there is something bewitching about the idea of returning to the past, recapturing lost youth, and rekindling old friendships, there is also something futile about the attempt.

Yes, there are a few old friends that when I see or talk to them it’s as if not much has changed and we pick the conversation right up from when I last saw them even if it has been many years. There are others with whom it was pleasant to catch up but not much more comes of it. After all, I have lived all over the country and no longer live near my old friends. The fact is that I will almost certainly never see them again.

And then there are others that I realize that we have, to use a cliche, grown apart. This reminds me of a Leave It To Beaver episode I watched as a kid. Beaver can’t wait to have his old friend over but when his friend arrives he finds that both he and his old friend have changed. They no longer have much in common. This would be the case in which, for example, the religious or political views of old friends or family members are foreign to me and we can thus no longer recreate our past. Perhaps then we should focus on our current friends, the ones we are connected with now, rather than chasing chimeras.

Still, I realize these sentiments may have to do with the fact that I left my hometown over 30 years ago. If I had stayed there, perhaps I would have grown closer to those friends instead of making new ones along the way. But as I moved the old friends are slowly lost and replaced by new ones. With rare exceptions, my old friends from St. Louis, Las Vegas, Cleveland, Austin, and Ellensburg are no longer a part of my life primarily because I just don’t see them anymore.

Now don’t get me wrong. I can think of some old friends I would be delighted to see but my emphasis is now on my friends in Seattle. They are the ones I see and interact with; the ones I can help and who can help me. Moreover, there are lots of potential friends out there to meet in the future with whom I might find myself compatible.

To sum up these “off the top of my head” remarks I refer readers to a theme of Thomas Wolfe’s novel You Can’t Go Home Again. In it the novel’s protagonist states,

“You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood … back home to a young man’s dreams of glory and of fame … back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting, but which are changing all the time – back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.” 

And the reason is that things are radically impermanent. As Heraclitus‘ says “One cannot step in the same river twice”

Despite all this, I’m guessing that many of my old high school friends will find joy in seeing their old friends.  I certainly understand that. And they won’t have my “can’t go home again” problems because they never left home—physically or psychologically. Perhaps they’ll even find something new in their old friends, or make new friends by meeting old acquaintances, or find new friends they didn’t know back then. Any of this would be great.

But I can’t go home again. Whatever I would return to wouldn’t be the same as what I left, and I am different too. For the Buddhists life’s transitory, impermanent, fleeting, ephemeral nature is one of the three marks of existence. Nothing—no idea, being, state of mind, or thing—endures.  To reject this is to be blind to what life really is.

I’ll end with a quote first shared with me by a colleague when I was a young assistant professor over 30 years ago. It’s from Tennyson’s Ulysses,

I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough
Gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!
As though to breathe were life. 

Liked it? Take a second to support Dr John Messerly on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!

4 thoughts on “You Can’t Go Home Again

  1. O’ John, your question on going home again and attending your HS reunion opened my heretofore locked Pandora’s Box of bad memories. I also attended the largest Catholic High School at the time–Cardinal Doughtery, Phila., Pa. Those four years were mind numbing and soul sucking for me; it was all about discipline and conformity. It was only to satisfy my parents desire that I graduate that allowed me to reluctantly co-operate and graduate. I never felt the desire to attend any reunion. The day I turned 18 I left and spent the next four years traveling the world, making my own choices and looking for my place in it. The same applied for my hometown, which I liked the pond I was spawned in. After all, it’s not the place but the people in it that leave memories on our mind. But those early and mid-sixties were a turbulent time. White neighbors were fleeing to the suburbs, mills were closing and Vietnam was on the horizon and would claim 23 of my younger classmates. I still ask why? Was it all hubris or a defunct “Dominoe Theory” that took the lives of so many peers? I have kept in touch with some of the old friends, but after the passing of my folks, I stopped returning home. Thankfully, at an early age I realized there was no future for me in Philadelphia, so I pulled out my Rand McNally Road Atlas and selected a little town in SB, Ca., some three thousand miles from “Home,” and off I went, taking that other least traveled path. With the aid of some wonderful professors and mentors, I was able to enjoy the love of school once again after it had been nearly beating out of me in HS. And that has made all the difference, as Frost put it so well.

  2. thanks for sharing Kevin. You sound just a few years ahead of me in school but our stories sound similar.

  3. My graduating class was around 200, near as I can recall. Pretty small, as time and socio-economics went in 1966, but larger than that of my brother in 1962. I went to the twenty-five year get-together, the only one visited—the only one that will be. The jerks were still jerks. A small few people remembered me, and I, them. One cigar smoking person remarked on how smart I was. He would never have admitted that in 1966. Not to any of his friends, anyway. Another person who showed up had been reported as a Vietnam war casualty. Very much alive and well. No one, of the half-dozen or fewer people I spoke to, asked where I had been all those years. They really did not want to know. Nor, did they care. My wife of around six years and I left the so-called reunion after about half an hour. We had spent most of those moments with her ex-husband and his second wife. Friends of ours.

    End Note: twenty years later, I met another person. He looked somehow familiar, like someone I had gone to school with. His demeanor was cordial and our mutual friendship with another person ten years our senior was comfortable to all. The other person, besides looking familiar, had a surname, coincidental with the high school acquaintance: only the last letter was different. An ‘r’ instead of an ‘m’. I don’t know if Mr. ‘m’ and Mr. ‘r’ are the same person. I don’t know they are not. I do know people of ways and/or means knew how to circumvent a worthless war. One way, or another. Their children were better than that. They just knew it. Ahem.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.