Almost exactly a year ago, Austin and I closed on our fabulous 1960s basement rancher in Knoxville, TN, fully solidifying the fact that I was moving back to my hometown. Hell, I was moving within two miles of where I grew up. We’d lived six of the last seven years in Jackson, MS, and while we had some good times and met some great people, we both wanted to go home.
Knoxville has turned into a fantastic little city. It’s a university town with a healthy nightlife. It’s within an hour’s drive of the Smokies. It has four distinct seasons. It has a good beer culture that grows with each year. It has lots of bike paths and outdoor festivals. What’s more, my parents, sister, nephews, and a handful of close friends also live here.
I have to say, though, I was originally dead-set on NOT moving back to Farragut – my past neck-of-the-woods and Knoxville’s far-west suburb, known for its good schools and downright snobbishness. I didn’t want anything to do with the community I knew from middle and high school: its privileges, its lack of diversity, its religious and ideological closed-mindedness. My high school was practically ruled by one particular mega-church, which we nicknamed “Six-Flags Over Jesus.” It wound its self-righteous tentacles around nearly every aspect of that community, a hold that’s still as vice-like as ever.
Can you tell that I have a chip on my shoulder? I joke that I’m probably missing an entire shoulder it’s so big. But in all seriousness, I’ve been nurturing a pretty impressive disdain for such aspects of conservative culture over the past decade, for which Farragut has become the representative in totum. I’m not proud of this antipathy. I like to think of myself as being open-minded, and yet I can be so incredibly narrow when considering those people I consider closed-minded. It’s a frequent blind spot in my self-awareness. Needless to say, then, moving back to Farragut was a contentious issue in my household and in my psyche.
Also at issue was my perception of “people who moved home” or “people who never left their hometown.” When I think of these supposed sorts of people, I envision the cheerleader who married the star football player, the failure-to-launch deadbeat son, the cliquish group of friends who never branched out after high school. I don’t ever place myself within these categories. If anything, in my mind, I am positioned contrary to them. In an odd and completely misguided sort of way, I hold such people static in my mind, reifying old grudges and social hierarchies in a way that denies them the possibility of personal agency and growth. I know them no better than when I was in high school (which means I don’t know them at all), but I’m completely willing to judge them in the harshest light possible. Good lord, who’s the asshole now?
I know I’m not the only one in my peer group to wrestle with these issues. One of my good friends – who has stayed in Knoxville but moved to a different area after high school – recently bought a house near us. Like me, he resisted moving “home,” didn’t want to end up exactly where he started because, to him, that represented some sort of personal failure. Sure, he’s got a good job, finished college while working fulltime, married a great woman, and has a new son. But he felt that staying equated to personal stasis, that he figuratively or literally hadn’t gone anywhere.
Like me, he also has a hard time dealing with the combination of social/religious conservatism + sense of privilege/entitlement often apparent in this community. He told me about running some errands one Saturday and thinking, “Okay, I could live here again. It’s changed since high school.” Then, as if on cue, he saw a woman with platinum blonde hair and a fake bosom leave Petsmart with her tiny dog in tow and thought, “Oh, HELL no.” His wife and he did end up buying the house, but I think he had a hard time shaking the feeling that he was also somehow committing himself to the ideals encapsulated in that stereotypical image of superficial excess.
What I’ve realized, though, is that no community is perfect. I’ve spent a good deal of time in different parts of Knoxville (and the South in general) through my teaching, and I have encountered hypocrisy and excess in all of them. I have also found an equal measure of kindness and openness, sometimes in the same space. What I disliked about Farragut growing up still remains, but these qualities are only a part of its community character. I simply let them monopolize my view in the same way that I held onto past perceptions of my fellow classmates. I realized that it was probably about damned time I let go and moved on, if only so I could move home.
Even beyond my personal issues with Farragut in particular, I am curious as to why this concept of “moving home” or “never leaving home” has earned such a bad rap in general, why some of my friends and I so forcefully resisted doing so. It has to do, I think, with how our society frequently glamorizes personal independence to the detriment of consistent familial interaction. To strike out on one’s own and make a life separate from one’s kin has become the gold-standard in earning an “I am an adult” merit badge. We can go to school, get jobs, get cars, and move across the continent if we chose to do so. Personal + financial independence has become the leading paradigm by which we conceptualize adulthood.
This logic is actually relatively new and goes in the face of years and years of communal family living. I’ve been thinking a lot about family recently, about where and how past generations spent their time. In the process of fully embracing the possibility of personal growth through movement and change, we’ve perhaps lost sight of the value of roots, of ties to community and family. Of literally being within walking distance of one’s kin. For the past 150 years, much of my family lived in a couple small communities in the Midwest, namely Iowa, but before that, several branches emigrated from Yorkshire, England. Only in the last thirty years, really, have members of my immediate family ventured out of the region. My mom and dad recall getting together to play cards with aunts and uncles. Having lots of cousins around, for better or worse. While I only have my parents and my sister in Knoxville, it’s the nearest I can get to having that sort of familial community, short of moving back to Iowa. (And I’m not going to do that. It’s May, and they just got snow.) My mom sees the Beastie an hour or so each day. She helps out when I need time to work on the dissertation or when I just need some non-toddler human interaction. (Really, how much peek-a-boo and Elmo can a person handle before going all twitchy?) We eat dinner at my parents’ house several days a week. Sometimes my sister comes by with her two boys. My mom gives me dishwasher detergent when I’m out, and my sister sometimes lets out my dog. I try to return the favor. We all live within two miles of each other, and I love that we can walk to each other’s houses on sunny days.
My intent here is not to glamorize or mythologize the supposedly close-knit families and communities of the past. Some people’s family members (or entire families) are complete assholes. Some hometowns might be populated by such assholes, might prove entirely too conservative, or might drastically limit educational and career goals. Luckily, the past 150 years have brought with them some pretty incredible technological innovations, which, combined with a greater access to higher education, allow people to escape the confines of an unsatisfactory or oppressive existence. I also think that gaining exposure to disparate people and other cultures breeds sympathy and compassion and ultimately helps defend against bigotry and violence. It’s awfully hard to have such experiences in many smaller and more insular towns, although the ubiquity of social media and the internet clearly helps break down barriers.
As I’m sure I’ll describe in future posts, my family is C.R.A.Z.Y, if quietly so, and some of our more, shall we say, colorful qualities (anxiety, depression, addiction, personality clashes) occasionally bubble over into full-on nutso. Overall, though, we are pretty even-keeled and loving, and we generally get along. I’ve realized that I have more in common with these people than anyone else in the world. There’s an immediacy and a closeness about having them around that I find comforting as I go about living my own life, a sense of belonging and place that I want for myself and my family.
That chip on my shoulder…I still have it. But being aware of it makes me want to deal with it, and in doing so, I get to be in this place, with these people. It’s a good trade-off.