I've been jogging with Lucy at our neighborhood middle school track, which also happens to be where I spent seventh and eighth grade gym classes and cheered on my high school classmates in cross country meets. It's quiet during these cool(ish) summer mornings, and my sneakers are soaked by the end because Lucy, a somewhat distracted jogger, always trails into the field where they filmed Remember the Titans and the grass is heavy with dew.
Past the track is a short spurt of forest with a trail that leads to my elementary school, with its new playground, old blacktop, and two fields that we aptly called "top field" and "bottom field." ("Bottom field" is now home to an actual gym. Dammit, no more Mary Lou Retton exercise videos in the classroom when it rains.)
I moved back to my hometown--not just my hometown, my home neighborhood--four years ago next month. And while something in my heart told me it was a good idea, there were a lot of other internal and external forces battling it out when I made the decision and lived with its immediate repercussions.
Why was I leaving a city I loved and had gotten to know for one that I already knew and didn't always like that much?
Why was I saying farewell to the rewarding independence of making my own way without my family nearby in order to return to our home base, where I could lean on them when I had a flat tire or yard work to do or a doctor's appointment that scared me?
When I had been moving forward, why was I suddenly turning back?
I struggled a lot with my interpretation of society's messages about what success looks like. A big part of the shiny American Dream is adventure, right? Getting out of your comfort zone and starting fresh in new places and building your own community ("friends who become family") and not relying on who or where you came from (but always thanking them in acceptance speeches). The further you go, the more you grow, right? Lingering in the back of my head was also the image of my thick white AP US History textbook, and the Manifest Destiny tradition of American white supremacy masquerading as wide open freedom. Keep pushing until there's no one left to get in your way, until you run out of gold-pan land and hit the pure Pacific.
Moving home--even with a job lined up and a fiance and family that I didn't have issues with (which made the move an option in the first place)--felt, both internally and externally, like I might be settling.
The flip side of the coin, of course, was that I knew plenty of people who had moved back to their hometown--or hadn't ever left--and I thought it was perfectly normal. I didn't judge them for it, and if they were in my vicinity, I was grateful they were there. The majority of my father's side of the family lives within half an hour of each other, has since before I was born, and I can't imagine it being any other way. A couple of years after I made the move back, I stumbled upon a 2015 New York Times article titled "The Typical American Lives Only 18 Miles From Mom" (or as the Good Housekeeping report on the trend put it, "Average Americans Live Surprisingly Close to Mom"). I also found an Atlantic piece published about a month before the 2016 election that trumpeted the non-surprise that "Many of Trump's Supporters Never Left Their Hometowns," and cringed, reminding myself that I had left, I had, it wasn't the same--and then I'd made the choice to come back.
So what does all of this have to do with my middle school track on borderline muggy summer mornings as my 30-year-old self huffs and puffs for a mile while my dog, tongue flapping, gallops easily over the concrete I walked as a barely-teenager?
That. Just that.
Walk up a tall flight of steps from the track to the school, and you'll see the door to the chorus room, the room I walked into one eighth grade morning and saw what I can't unsee, two towers burning on the television, my teacher's face snapping not with adult annoyance but childlike fear.
Stay on the track but move past the baseball field, the wet grass smells just like what the best parts of being alive should smell like, mixed with sweat where all the cross country runners would gather after they finished the weekly Tuesday race, where I got asked breathlessly on my first date and answered just as breathlessly back.
Walk through the cool forest to the elementary school and witness the ghosts of what have become my foundations, books and words and singing and stage, friends and teachers who helped my quiet self find space to bloom.
It feels somehow important to again inhabit these spaces, in a totally different phase of life, married and dog-parenting and working full-time. And by important I don't think I mean necessary or even monumental. I could be somewhere else. These jogs are rote and routine and soon the day takes over, a day so different from when the middle school bell rang.
No, by important, I mean that I feel like I'm living into myself, who I have been and who I am now. And somehow, who I will be. It's less about the ache of nostalgia--something I have almost perfected--and more about holding all the pieces of life in my hand. It just is. I can see it all laid out before me here, in a different way than if I were living away from the place of my birth.
Does this even make sense? I don't know. After all, the morning jogs are early, at this writing it's getting late, and I may feel completely different about it all tomorrow.
But I wanted to mark it, somehow. The fullness of space and memory and presence, the alive smell of grass, the happy tongue of my dog, the only sign of any kind of ache showing up in my calves about two laps into the mile.