Minnesota Avenue is glowing. The streetlights combined with a black spring night create a hue that feels so specific to this one street that I’ve dreamt of it when I am far and away. It’s quiet on this Thursday night but not unfamiliar. My car climbs up the hill and all of downtown shimmers for me. I’ve been here before, I know, in a before that is confused with yesterday and a lifetime ago.
I seek out nostalgia. I try to return to the places that I’ve been to see if I can remember who I was and if that version of myself has any advice for the me of now. Going back can be complicated and scary. You feel removed in a place that is meant to be comfortable or you feel so comfortable in that you aren’t sure you should return back to the life specifically chosen to detour from the one you had.
This past week I returned to South Dakota for work and a weekend with my family. I hit all the places I have lived – Brookings, Pierre and Sioux Falls. I had a grasshopper at Zesto, coffee at Queen City Bakery and popcorn at O’Hare’s. I watched the Missouri River shift slowly from its banks, I sipped a beer from the sidewalks of downtown Sioux Falls and made my own pathway between buildings of South Dakota State University.
It was a short trip but enough time to sort of remember who I was in all of these places.
A high school girl who didn’t know much about the world outside of her own.
A college student who struggled to be everything to everyone.
A woman lost and focused on a dream.
These versions of myself seem disconnected and unique on their own but they are the points on my dotted path. They each played a part in bringing me to where I am now, in the highs and lows, in ways that don’t make sense to me even now. But I no longer live in those places and am no longer those versions of me for very specific, higher reasons.
It’s been nearly five years since I left my job in Brookings and moved out of my apartment in Sioux Falls to do something different with my life. In some ways time seems to barely have passed as I run into familiar faces in familiar locations and we condense the years into a few sentences. In other ways it feels like I was born into another life and the one I left is barely recognizable.
I couldn’t see all the people I wanted to while I was home – I never do – but those I do comfort me in the choices I have made and those that I will make. I feel very lucky in that I’ve made some good friends in Chicago and that my social life keeps me busy, but it’s quite comforting to come home to those who know a great deal of my history. These people have informed insights about the men I should date, the path I should take, the things I should focus on. Because I am sometimes too far in my own head, they get things that I don’t. It’s frightening yet completely comfortable.
While sitting in the airport waiting to board the flight to Chicago, I read a New York Times article a friend had sent me. That airport is sort of the backdrop to many big changes in my life – tears streaming down as I waited to board a flight to Idaho after a holiday break and dreading the return to my job; seeing Kieara atop the escalator after being kicked out of Niger and then Egypt; and then looking back before entering security to wave my mother one last goodbye, the next time I would see her would be two years later. The piece by David Brooks is about shifting one’s goals in life from professional and financial success to moral standards and striving to be a good person. The last paragraph hit me so hard that I was saying ‘yes’ out loud:
“The stumbler doesn’t build her life by being better than others, but by being better than she used to be. Unexpectedly, there are transcendent moments of deep tranquility. For most of their lives their inner and outer ambitions are strong and in balance. But eventually, at moments of rare joy, career ambitions pause, the ego rests, the stumbler looks out at a picnic or dinner or a valley and is overwhelmed by a feeling of limitless gratitude, and an acceptance of the fact that life has treated her much better than she deserves.
Those are the people we want to be.“
That perfectly summed up my trip home.
Sometimes I worry that going home will convince me I made the wrong decision in leaving and it will insert welts of doubt in my current life, and sometimes it does. After Christmas, I returned to Chicago with lots of uncertainty and little optimism, sort like after that first semester of college. This time, I am a sophomore going back to campus and I am confident. Being home has been comforting and soothing, but I also feel more reassured than ever about my life in Chicago. I’ve been able to go back and see the dots connected. I don’t know where my path is going but I’ve seen where it’s been and I am not concerned. I do not feel the need to worry or manipulate. I will be OK because I always have been and that’s the kind of reassurance only home can really give you.