It’s 1:22 p.m. on the Friday this column is due. I’m sitting at my parents’ dining room table, where I’m visiting them at their home in Fitzgerald, Georgia. I hesitate to say “my home,” “our home,” or even just “home” when I describe this place, because I never really lived here.
The last house I shared with my family on any sort of extended basis was actually in Augusta, during the weird, purgatory-ish years that comprised my post-college, pre-graduate school period, where I worked, alternately, for the Soul Bar; a crappy local radio station with Glen Beck on syndication and whose two flagship radio hosts were, I’m fairly certain, an epic troll job by Tyler Perry; for a now-long-defunct Hollywood Video branch that suffered from alleged fund mismanagement and an unsettling, Mountain Dew-centered corporate policy; and as free labor for this publication.
It was, in some ways, an unsavory and unsatisfying collection of years, and I don’t often deign to recall it fondly.
This is also the last day my wife and I are spending in Fitzgerald with my family before heading back to Wisconsin, where the cheese is better and the people more stoic. That impending departure is, I think, what’s sparking me to harp on these tired old concepts of home and family. Funny enough, this is probably the first time that I’ve thought of the two as mutually exclusive; looking back on the last eight or so years of Christmas season homecomings, I’ve never really meant it when I’ve told friends or co-workers “I’m heading home to Augusta” or “I’m heading home to Fitzgerald” or even “I’m heading home to Adel,” where I lived the greatest number of combined years.
No, what I meant was “I’m heading home to my family.”
That gap of mutual exclusivity has been widening ever since I settled in Wisconsin. For whatever reason, the place suits me: polite but distanced people, a culture that celebrates physical fitness, beer and cheese equally, and a fierce dedication, for better or for worse, to personal involvement in regional politics. As much as I’ve liked living in Georgia for various reasons (mostly involving a combination of fried things and hilariously fundamentalist conservatives), I just never found myself fastened to the culture, the terroir or the people in such an en masse sort of way.
This visit home — my first extended one since I left for the north — has only served to heighten my awareness of the dichotomy, mostly because I’ve felt it physically manifested. In Wisconsin, I run or go to the gym three to five times a week, generally eat a balanced diet and don’t ingest much sugar unless Michelle is making some kick-ass dessert.
Here in Georgia since Sunday, we’ve subsisted mostly on a diet of meat, sugar and starch which, while pretty awesome for a day or two, begins to take its toll after a few days. You know the feeling: you might not look any different, but you feel like you do; in the mirror, you convince yourself that your jawline is settling a little closer in to your neck; clothes feel like a spotlight, illuminating all your phantom ailments.
On the whole, that aspect of it isn’t really a big deal, and I’m certainly not here to discuss body image and the holiday season. But I’m almost 30 years old now — a little, I like to tell myself, wiser than before — and this visit has, more than anything else, served as a reminder. Of what, I’m still trying to figure out.
In general, I think, it’s a reminder of who I used to be, how I used to live, the things that used to be so important to me, the values I so rabidly cherished. I wouldn’t say or think for an instant that I’ve completely left any of that behind, but they’ve taken on fresh nuances, more complexities. They show some age, which scares, thrills and frustrates me.
As I look in the mirror, as I stretch in the morning and prod the places on my body that I deem softer or more pliant, I wonder: Is this who I was before I left? Is it who I truly am? Nothing is so existentially terrifying as the prospect of floating between identities.
Truth is, this is the way life is — deliciously, maddeningly nuanced — and we should all be aware of it, whether sitting alone on a day off, navigating family matters over the holidays or deciding how to vote. It reveals its nature in our feelings on Edward Snowden, on Utah residents’ handling of same-sex marriage, on how to coordinate colors in family photographs. So defined, especially, as it is by how we relate to the myriad and divided pockets of humanity that make up our civilization, it is forever tangled, and I revel in it.
Developing a final sense of self — whether at age 29 or at age 99 — is a death knell for your own humanity.