Fiction Poetry Life
Elizabeth Bishop’s wonderful poem “Letter to N.Y.” is one of my all-time favorites. The narrator starts with…
In your next letter I wish you’d say
where you are going and what you are doing;
how are the plays and after the plays
what other pleasures you’re pursuing:
I imagine that the narrator and the one she’s sending the letter to are hometown friends and that the narrator may never leave their place of birth. The best she can hope for, some might think, is to experience the big city vicariously through her friend.
There Are Two Kinds of People in the World…
The world is full of people who are known as the restless kind. They can’t stay put anywhere for too long. They often uproot their lives and move from city to city and they travel to new places all the time.
Then there are the homebodies. Vacations are always staycations, whether they have the money to travel or not. They would never dream of moving away from the city or town they were born and raised in.
What if You Don’t Want to See the World?
In December of 2008, the Pew Research Center released a social and demographic trends report called American Mobility: Who Moves? Who Stays Put? Where’s Home?. The study found that 37% of Americans have never left their hometowns and 57% have never lived outside their current home state.
If Bishop’s narrator never leaves her hometown, she will have experiences that her friend with the wanderlust will never have. Although conventional wisdom says that those who stay are missing out on life, not ever moving from the place you were born gives you a perspective you can’t get when you go out and see the world.
Staying put and getting to know one place so well that it becomes part of you provides a singular insight into life.
All of this made me think of the well-known T.S. Eliot quote: “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.” I used to take this quote literally, thinking you have to physically leave and return to a place to truly know it.
But it can be interpreted another way. Those who never physically leave home can explore other places in books and film and in the life experiences of those they know well. Exploring the cultural and social differences of other people and places, regardless of how we go about it, helps us reflect on our own situation and gives us an idea of where and how we fit into the world.
When I was younger, I had an affinity for the restless kind and did a fair imitation of one. The excitement and pleasure of moving to a new city and getting to know the streets, the people, the cafes and the museums was too great to resist. I believed it was the best way to get an education away from the classrooms and lecture halls. And I wondered, why would anyone not want to leave the home of their childhood and explore the country or the world beyond?
On reflection, I think that’s a myopic way to view things.
I’m originally from Cleveland. Growing up, I liked my hometown, but once I was away I looked down on it. I thought it was too conventional, too boring, lacked creative energy. Throughout my twenties and thirties, I lived in some great American cities, all with their own charms. But you know what? Not one of them compares to my Cleveland, the home of rock and roll. As the years go by my affection for that old steel mill town grows and grows.
My perspective on my hometown has shifted through the years, and, no doubt, has been enriched by my travels. Moving away gave me the chance to compare and contrast, to see how it holds up against other places. So I have no regrets, but I’ll also never know what life would be like if I’d stayed. Both I and Cleveland change from decade to decade. What if we had grown and changed together?
Leaving home means losing connections. Relationships suffer. Homesickness can crop up at the most inconvenient times. On the Thought Catalog blog, Chelsea Fagan writes this about those who move away: “Returning to your hometown will, from now on, have a quality of nostalgia to it that prevents you from fully embracing the moment.” This is so beautifully and accurately put, I wish I’d written it myself. It’s what Thomas Wolfe meant when he said “you can’t go home again.” Certainly, in leaving, there’s also loss.
Always Be Curious
The key to experiencing life is not a U-Haul truck, its curiosity.
Bishop ends “Letter to N.Y.” with
—Wheat, not oats, dear. I’m afraid
if it’s wheat it’s none of your sowing,
nevertheless I’d like to know
what you are doing and where you are going.
In this moment, the narrator seems to have a certain wisdom that comes from observing others, namely her friend. She tells her friend that she’s too innocent to sow wild oats, what she’s actually doing there in New York City is sowing wheat.
Those of us who left our hometowns shouldn’t think our life experiences are any richer than those who chose to stay. After all, you can travel the world without your mind ever expanding. On the other hand, you can get to know all types of people by getting to know a few people very well. That’s because, regardless of culture or geographic location, what’s common to all humans is the desire to love and be loved, the capacity to feel pain and loss and the need for community, to belong to something.
The one thing that’s common to a fortunate few is a grand curiosity about our existence and what makes people tick. We can fulfill this curiosity by examining life either in cities or towns thousands of miles from where we grew up or right in our own back yard.