A landing spot for reviews of interesting books, films, and objects what cross my path
as well as the occasional essay on whatever's pinging the old brain pan.

Monday, July 18, 2011

I began to get cross-eyed, I thought I was lost, I'd begun to see things as they ain't.

Before we moved just over two weeks ago, I'd been living with my husband, M, in Roanoke, Virginia, while he finished a residency program there.  Before that I was in Knoxville, Tennessee, for five years doing a PhD.  And before that it was Athens, Ohio, for two years in a masters program.  I moved to Athens from my parents' home in Newton Township, Pennsylvania, a rural area abutting the West Side of Scranton, but really I'd been living in college dorms and apartments in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, for the four years preceding my time in in Ohio.  And that's where M and I have moved to now.  Not just "to" Williamsport, but "back to" Williamsport, the city where we both spent four years at Lycoming College.  To the city where we both agree we've each spent some of the best times of our lives.

We are excited about the move; we made a home in Roanoke, but it wasn't home.  And long before M landed the job we've moved for, we had agreed that north-central or northeastern Pennsylvania would be an ideal place to try to settle for good.  We are closer to our families, and we are both looking forward to Pennsylvania seasons and weather.  That we will be moving to a city we both know and like is simply a blessing.  But perhaps a bit of a mixed blessing.

Having gone to college here does make Williamsport a home for both M and I, and it fell into the triangular section of Pennsylvania that I would have considered home territory as an adolescent and young adult.  My parents both attended Lyco, so I had visited the college campus and the city of Williamsport with them well before I was old enough to consider seriously where I might be going to college. 

Home, 1981-2003.
But it was really Lyco that was home, not Williamsport.  When I return to the campus now, I feel like I'm going home, and while I feel that way a bit when I drive west along I-180 and approach the city the way my parents and I would have several times a year throughout my time at Lyco , that feeling is associated with going back to school, not with the city itself.  I didn't have a car in college, and while a few of my friends did, we still mostly stayed on or close to campus.  With rare exception, my understanding of Williamsport in college was limited to that which could be found within a three- or four-block radius of campus.  That area included a lot of what is wonderful about the city, but it sure left out a lot as well.  And it didn't give me any kind of understanding of what it would be like to live here as anything other than a college student. 

Of course, I knew that living in Williamsport in our thirties would be worlds different from living in Williamsport while attending Lycoming.  It couldn't help but be anything but completely different, really.  But the notion of returning home made me expect the transition--from six years of living in the south and a total of eight years away from the slice of PA that was home for twenty-two years--to be easier than other big moves I've made.  The move to Ohio was a bit of a shock.  (Athens is hilly, but venture out of town a bit and it is flat.  I had no idea that such a thing could have such a profound effect on one's mood.  And southeast Ohio is a sauna from May through September--a sauna that even the most muggy, soupy August day in PA had not even begun to prepare me for.  I learned how to submit to weather in Ohio, how to lie low under the heat there.)  And Tennessee was a different world, a world where everyone was weirdly polite and strangely friendly but where no one seemed to see the world quite the way I did.  But I expected those places to feel strange, to take some getting used to.  I expected Pennsylvania to feel like a breath of fresh air after all those years away.

And it has been.  But it's been like the first breath of bitterly cold air on a crisp winter morning--welcome and refreshing, but a bit sharp as well.  I've slotted back into some things with hardly any notice.  Even after eight years living below the Mason-Dixon line, certain accents and turns of phrase would strike my ear as singularly odd.  Even accents I liked and regionalisms that delighted and intrigued me reminded me, consistently, quietly, that I wasn't home, that I didn't exactly belong.  So hearing the Pennsylvania regionalisms I grew up with again is a bit like putting shoes on the right feet.  I only notice how right it feels because I'd been wearing my shoes on the wrong feet for so long.

But other aspects of living away have wiggled their way into my expectations and my ideas of "normal."  When I first moved to Tennessee, I was forever impatient in check-out lines.  Was it really necessary to get into a full-blown conversation with every customer?  Couldn't the cashier hurry up?  By the time I moved to Roanoke, which, though further north, has even a slower pace than Knoxville, probably because it is a smaller city, I had mostly perfected the stroll, and learned to live with the unhurried.  Now I'm back up north and most public interactions feel rushed.  Would it kill you to ask how I am while you ring up that fruit?  Can't you wait til I've put my wallet away before you move on to the person behind me?

At first I thought I'd never learn to drive in Knoxville, which in many parts of the city is a mass of multi-lane roads and boasts a  six- or eight-lane interstate as the most practical way of getting from one side of town to the other.  But after a year or so, I could navigate all that high-speed merging and maze of exits like a native (southerners, in my experience, drive faster than they do anything else), and the roads in Pennsylvania now seem hopelessly pitted and narrow.  Driving through downtown Williamsport feels tricky and complicated (one-way streets seem to pop up out of nowhere, other drivers appear to understand which lanes are turn-only by magic, and the left-turn arrow apparently is a rarely-bestowed gift), and it is only now that I've left Knoxville and Roanoke that I've realized how blessed those cities are with wide thoroughfares with room for multiple lanes and common-left turn lanes (I'd give a lot for a common left-turn lane on The Strip).  Of course, in a year, I will hold my ability to navigate downtown and its one-way streets as a proud accomplishment, but for now, like my slight discomfort with the pace of life here, these difficulties are a reminder that Pennsylvania isn't as much home as I thought it would be.  Yet.  

When I think back on Roanoke, on Knoxville, on Athens, I think of them fondly, I think of them as places to which I would like to return and rediscover old familiar places.  They have become a part of me, of my past.  And they got that way partly because I had to work to make them home.  I had to seek out the places that I would come to think of as in some way "mine," I had to learn to let the place show me what it had to offer.  And I'm slowly realizing that I will have to let Williamsport do the same.   I was looking forward to coming home. Now it may be time to let home come to me.  


  1. You made me tear up on that last line, wretch.

  2. "Can't you wait til I've put my wallet away before you move on to the person behind me?" See...that has irritated the skin off me forever. And I don't associate it (the irritation) with the transition from the southland. I think it's just a rudeness that may have nothing to do with Place. I sometimes get the same bum's rush when there's NO ONE behind me.