The thing about the city is that, from the very beginning, it felt more like home to me than my hometown ever did.
I used to be extremely wrapped up in staying in my hometown, in loving the house I grew up in, in having a sense of identity that hinged on living there. More than anything, this was just a little kid thing. My brother and I had always hated change, and growing up under the constant threat of moving to another town (a threat which never actually came to pass) we were, well, pretty clingy about our town.
I always dreamed of traveling the world and seeing new places, as pretty well everyone does, but I don’t think I ever truly imagined enjoying living anywhere else. I was a pretty miserable kid, but I was generally so firmly entrenched in my angst that it never occurred to me that I might be happier under different circumstances. Feeling like an outsider had been my experience for so long that I took it for granted as part of my identity.
When my friend The Snark first visited me at my new apartment in the city, the first thing he said was, “Whoa–you’re so…happy.”
I really was, and it really was kind of noteworthy. When I started university, it took a long time for me to realize that my intense cynicism about it was actually, for the most part, misplaced. I rolled my eyes at the ads for student services, scoffed at the clubs and societies and was generally dismissive of all the things that purported to be cool or useful.
Those were an awkward few weeks, because I was basically wrong about everything.
University was, quite honestly, everything I could have wanted it to be. It sounds ridiculous, but it actually was the free-thinking, diverse, politically aware and well-run place of my dreams, only forty-five minutes away from the conservative, racist, run-down and narrow small town where I’d spent the first eighteen years of my life. Rather than dragging my cynical, sad old self along with me, I basically checked most of my baggage at the door. I was no longer isolated or limited to friends who liked me but didn’t really know what I was talking about. I wasn’t the odd one out of every conversation, I wasn’t constantly being made to feel like my interest in classes was coming off too pretentious and I wasn’t the smartest or most radical person in the room anymore. I was in a place where upward mobility was possible all around me, and it changed everything.
My first semester of university was stressful, sure, but it was also punctuated by bouts of sheer euphoria. It was filled with all these little moments where I was so goddamn happy to be alive I didn’t know how to fully express it. It took a while to place the feeling, but eventually I recognized it for what it was: belonging.
Miss Elisabeth once told me, near the end of grade twelve, “Well, you don’t really fit in here, after all.” She was referring to our mutual hometown, and the comment was made in a positive enough way–she was supporting me when I said I couldn’t wait to move out–but man did it ever sting. As much as I hated the place, it was hard knowing that for all years of trying, all my friendships and connections, all my eighteen years of citizenship, my whole childhood, my neighbours, my two jobs, my entire life as a native of that stupid town, it was still so apparent that I was an outsider. A misfit.
I was never really in sync with the culture of the place, and neither were my parents. They were both transplants from different parts of the GTA, and came out here with no connections at all. I have no idea what possessed them to move to what now appears to be a rapidly deteriorating redneck dump of a town, but I guess that twenty-odd years ago it must have looked quaint or something. Back before the Wal-Mart moved in and sucked the shops on the main street dry, and before they knew what it would be like trying to put kids through a rural public school system or watch said kids have asthma attacks while the neighbours held gleeful, illegal bonfires in their suburban backyards and the fire department wouldn’t do a thing, I guess it must have seemed like a great little place to start a family.
If I’m honest, it was a good enough place for a childhood. I can’t imagine being a little kid in the city. There just isn’t enough grass to go around. Not enough nature, not enough quiet streets for road hockey and cops and robbers, not enough free-roaming neighbour kids, not enough trees. I’m grateful for the woodland trails and the neighbourhood shenanigans, and for the relative safety we had.
But that town was no place for a teenager. To quote Harper Lee, “There was nothing to do, nothing to buy, and no money to buy it with.” After the church-basement movie theater finally got run into the ground by a wildly incompetent owner, the only activities for us were to stay home, go out for coffee or go out to eat. That was all we did, and we did it over and over.
I was often literally bored to tears, but more importantly I was frustrated. Every group or club or service or store failed to meet even the most basic expectations. Everything was bureaucratic and poorly done. Everyone I knew loved to have big ideas and start new programs, but had no concrete plans and never followed through on anything, and years and years of this trained me to believe that this was simply how things were done everywhere.
It was rural, so of course we lacked the activities and special programs that city kids are showered with–IB courses and gifted programs in our schools, fancy arts classes, fancy sports–not to mention our mental health support systems were underfunded, understaffed and generally awful.
It was redneck. It was ignorant. It was exhausting.
There are all kinds of ways to deal with the concept of home, and I tend to alternate. Sometimes I romanticize the place, making it into the same sort of quaint little idyll that my parents must have first visited. Other times I look back to it with plain disgust. But mostly I know that it is what it is, and there are thousands of other towns just like it with thousands of other kids like me who became part of the tried-and-true rural exodus and ran off to the big city.
That said, tomorrow I’m going home for a visit. I don’t do this often, and the last time I did, I was hit with a horrible sinking feeling as soon as the town came into view on the highway.
The sight of the dilapidated shops on the main street depressed me. The astonishingly poor-looking locals wandering around depressed me. The groups of rowdy white tweens in faux gangster gear depressed me. I had the most powerful feeling of regression, and felt all my hometown baggage weighing me down again all at once.
When I go home, I want to be the person I am here, just visiting. I don’t want to be the person I was when I lived there. I want to be able to take up the roots of my sadness dispassionately and turn them over in my hands. I don’t want to have to feel like an outsider in the place where I was born and raised, and I don’t want to feel like a victim of it, because it can’t hold me anymore.
This time, I’m going to try harder to remember that nobody can drag me kicking and screaming back there, and that home is where you make it. I won’t let the town ruin another day. I’ve given the place eighteen years already, and I don’t know how to stop it, but I don’t want to let it take one day more.
I’m going to visit, and this will be my mantra:
It’s a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there.