It was the blue heavy heat of a late summer afternoon in August when I stepped out of the car. Me standing there got me thinking are the reasons why I left my hometown 20 years ago improved?

Covid had me breathless after months alone in the city, running on exhaust fumes of taxis and woken nightly by the sound of sirens.

I drove to the small town I was born in, the one I fled from as fast as I could, into the great wide open, barely out of high school. I felt like there was nowhere to go but there, like gravity, “Come home”. I hadn’t thought of it as home in twenty years. I packed for a two-week break. I ended up moving there for half a year.

Can a place love you, I wondered six months later, back at my desk looking out at the lights in the city towers, my face reflected in the window, changed. Can a place love you — so you start healing?

Why I Left My Hometown?

There wasn’t a time I could remember when I didn’t hate the town, its narrowness, its narrow-mindedness.

Through my nephew who’d grown up there long after I’d gone, I made new friends when I had visited before.

They welcomed me, gladly, with a warmth I’d forgotten existed in places like this. One gave me her apartment, “stay as long as you need, I’m happy you’re here,” handing me her key, wheeling out a purple plastic suitcase of her own clothes to her boyfriend’s.

The first four walls to be myself in there. For the first time, I felt safe.

The Subtle Changes that Triggered My Curiosity

Work was remote; my nephew gave me a desk in the office next to his saw shop; my work got tough.

Layoffs, restructure, my boss fired at a day’s notice; a new one, “So I get your job is essential for the future of the company, but do we need you to be doing it right now?”, all work soon to be paused.

I had no ready answer to give myself; and curiosity made me look at people again. If my view on them hadn’t shifted in so long, had I been at a standstill too?

The Memories of People and Life I Used to Know

Once you get in the habit of examining, it’s hard to not follow the rabbit down that hole. Another habit I’d picked up was a bottle of wine a night.

Most often, more than that. I’d work on my addiction on and off, regretting the drinking already while filling a glass, wishing it to magically be different.

“So, let’s examine why you’re doing that, what pain are you trying to numb,” the blonde therapist said, adjusting her glasses and readying her pen. I didn’t examine, I was in the blame game: infallibly the overly restrained and frosty parents, and being forced to live in a place that threatened who I was.

As I started to look at the town with kindness, I was viewing myself through the same, softer lens.

Memories of a small-town kid rushed in like a mountain river, determined and cold. I thought I had already boxed them, filed, categorized, and stored them away; photo albums, fading snapshots held by yellowing sticky corners.

I didn’t look at them with nostalgia, or love, they didn’t show me someone worth loving in return.

The past doesn’t change for anyone; but what we can see looking back is malleable, shaped by who we are able to be when we turn our heads to look.

Feeling at Home

What is love if not safety and belonging, and a calling card of growth? Fall fought with a never-ending white fog before winter’s black and grey took over.

Christmas came and went, passing me by. Our family didn’t have Christmas traditions other than drunk shouting.

My mom and dad had passed some time ago, both of few words, much left unsaid. I drove by the house I grew up in a few times, empty except for echoes — a memory palace.

After my mom’s funeral, I’d gone in every room one last time, looked in, and closed the door; left, never went back.

I’d been back four months at this point.

An otherwise unremarkable cold Winter afternoon was the day I put down the wine bottle and picked up the pen again. While the ink dried on page after page of words filling an unlined notebook, both became possible again.

I bathed in a pool of peace. The pain had stopped just long enough.

I’d been there long enough to think of it as home, a new home I belonged to, one I’d never had there before.

A home that I’d slipped into choosing because it had chosen to show me love. I’d come home to a place of love, not to a postcard-perfect small town, but home to myself, at last.

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