A story by Elisabeth Miller.
If I had never left home, my life might look like this: I get up and get ready for work. I drive across town to the school I attended as a child and go to my eighth grade classroom to teach English. I eat lunch in the teacher’s lounge sandwiched by a former teacher and a former peer turned educator. I gossip after work about so and so from high school who got arrested and so and so whose mother works for the school district and will never face any consequences. At night I go out for drinks at a bar a couple of towns over, run into several classmates who I have grown to love and admire since high school’s end. I spend an hour with my friend’s mother, another caught up in talking about how time just keeps moving with a former teacher of mine on the brink of retirement, and a few with my mother in which we are both our best selves.
On quiet nights, I drive outside of town until I am surrounded by only wide open spaces. I am both in awe of the beauty of this place and terrified of the isolation that comes along with it. I feel pulled between the privilege of witnessing the quiet, nearly imperceptible, hum of life in the night air and the longing to be somewhere, anywhere else, where I can be less lonely. Where I can be new and shiny and fade into the background of unknown people far away from their hometowns.
I grew up in a small town in central Illinois. My town was, is, will always be called Paxton, but I hardly ever share its name. It’s easier to say two hours south of Chicago, thirty minutes north of Champaign-Urbana, home of the University of Illinois, a first rate university in the middle of a cornfield. There are beautiful things there, like the cotton candy sunsets and the way the sky goes on for forever and ever, and the quiet happiness of hours spent outside the Dairy Queen with friends, laughing about how we were doomed to never leave. All of my friends have since left, but in my self centered adolescence, I believed that none left with quite the same urgency and permanence as me.
I always believed in the inadequacy of the Midwest. As a child I listened to adults dole out grievances about how the jobs just seemed to keep leaving, the schools just seemed to keep getting worse, the kids just seemed to keep staying around with nothing there for them. I listened and learned that the way through life was by getting out of the rural Midwest. I became obsessed with the idea of cities, of the east coast with its old buildings (the Midwest only had old, decripate things, but the East Coast had old, revered things). For years my dream was to go to New York City for college, to become an anonymous girl on an anonymous street surrounded by the buzzing of life that I had been deprived of for the entirety of my young life. Those dreams shifted over time, but whenever I thought of my future, I dreamed of a place that was the complete opposite of the Midwest, where everything shone with purpose, where nothing had been forgotten by the rest of the world. I dreamed of a place that I would only later come to find out did not exist, but as a child, it was easy to dream of a place without problems.
I recently went to the beach for the first time since I went to Florida as a child and brought home a jar of broken shells and dirty sand. We were in New Jersey, in the hometown of one of my roommates. This was also my first time in New Jersey. I once read as a child that Americans were moving out of New Jersey more than any other state; Illinois was a close second. I looked out at the water and wondered why anyone would ever want to leave.
When my friends got into the water and kept walking further than I was ready to, I stayed on the shore and got into the rhythm of taking one step forward and two steps back each time the tide came up too close to my knees. I wasn’t afraid of water; I have always loved the water and hated living in such a landlocked place. I just hadn’t thought about how difficult waves made it to keep your balance. I didn’t know how deep the water would be. I wasn’t used to the sting of saltwater in my throat yet.
Why don’t you come out, my friends called.
I’ve never really been in the ocean before, I called back. I don’t know what to do.
And so they came back to the shore, took my hand, guided me through the drop off and leveling of the ocean flood, taught me how to jump with the waves and dive under the stronger ones. I jumped back up with a child’s enthusiasm as I was knocked around by the waves time and time again. I was so content just standing in waist deep water and watching the waves.
It always strikes me how many things remind me of Paxton. Something about that place must have held onto me, because as I looked across the endless water in front of me, I felt the same kind of wonder I do when I stare out the window of a moving car and admire the ubiquitous blue Midwestern sky as it touches the open fields.
I came to college with a chip on my shoulder. I believed that my elite college had done me a favor by plucking me from obscurity to enter the world of northeastern academia. I believed that I had a humble background. When people asked where I was from, I said the middle of a cornfield. People laughed; I laughed with them. I heard friends and peers talk about rural places or the Midwest in general, and I let their misconceptions roll off of me. I didn’t defend or correct. I answered politely when people asked me how I got so woke growing up in a cornfield, or who my parents voted for, or if I was taught to read “out there.”
But one day I realized I had been doing it all wrong. No, I wanted to scream at my classmates, I forgot to tell you all about the good things! You don’t know about the sky and the cool night air and the comfort of always knowing where you’re going and the way it feels to ride on the street in a golf cart and sing along to Cake and Taylor Swift and Elton John and Billy Joel. I began to walk the line between staunch defender and gentle critic of rural communities, and in that balance I found the freedom to love parts of home, to honor the anger I felt when blatant classism fell from the lips of classmates, to sit comfortably in the lack of one right answer. I refused to be ashamed of where I came from any longer.
I am still trying to forgive myself for the lost time.
I think that when I left for college I left Paxton for good. I was so excited to leave. It became the only thing that propelled me, that gnawing desire to be somewhere new. I was misguided and naive in a lot of ways, but I think I was right when I decided that I would never live there again. At the time, I would say that it came from a place of malice. I regret that now. I wish I could go back and love my home. I wish that I had acknowledged the problems of my small town while also recognizing the beauty there. I wish I had been kinder.
But now I can say my stance is not out of malice. I love parts of it, but I don’t feel like it’s home. And that is okay.
My nostalgia for Paxton takes me off guard most of the time. But this, I shout as I gesture wildly around the bus I take to work in the city and the rush of living things around me, this is what you worked for! This is what you escaped to. And you know you would not be happy there. It is true; I would not be happy at home. I daydream about perhaps returning to the Midwest, but it is always to the Twin Cities or Chicago or St. Louis, never to a town of less than 50,000, let alone the rural enclave I come from. I never imagined myself staying, never envisioned myself as the plucky heroine of a Netflix movie who returns to turn everything around and reconnect with home. I am learning to make peace with the idea that two things can be true at once, that I can hold love in my heart for the rural Midwest, and also know that I will never return.
I believe in the potential for rural communities to be beautiful for everyone, I believe in the need for resources, I believe in the possibility of change and preservation. But I am not there pushing for that change. I have left, and one day I may return to a totally different place. A town with new roads and a library with all new books and schools with technology and teachers to spare and a thriving downtown and an influx in jobs and more love than hate. It will be beautiful. I will most likely have nothing to do with it.
I went home this summer for a whole month. Time was marked by crop growth and lazy summer days blending into one another, and I spent much of my time reflecting on the past, as one does when they reach the simultaneous end of one era and beginning of another. Adolescence slipping into young adulthood slipping into whatever was next.
I found myself making lists of things I loved. I know that nostalgia is often just rose colored glasses aimed at the past. And yet. And yet when I’m home the skies in Paxton leave me in awe at least twice a week. The blue blue blue sky dotted with cotton ball clouds cut straight out of a magazine (I have never ever seen that shade of blue in the Northeastern sky). The sun sinks into your bones more there than it ever did on my well-manicured college lawn. The cool early evenings of summer conjure up the mood of my childhood, one purple blue evening blurred with another and another, peppered with make believe games involving my friends and I married to celebrities and raising our children (dolls or stuffed animals, depending on the day) in our hometown, lives imagined and never lived, storylines tossed away and rewritten, rehearsed, and reshot the next day all over again. Racing the sun home as it sinks beneath the cornfields is to witness cinematic beauty. I have never been able to recreate the freedom I felt when sitting in the passenger seat of my friend’s car as she sped down a country road, half of my body sticking out the window, rejoicing in the speed and exhilaration and danger of being alive.
As I write this, I’m listening to the song “Golden Slumbers” by The Beatles on repeat. Paul McCartney is singing to me, in my little Philadelphia apartment, the one with the tall ceilings and windows that let in the light, telling me that once there was a way to get back home. He tells me to sleep pretty darling, do not cry. He will sing a lullaby. But oh god, sometimes we never really do figure out how to get back home, do we?
Prompt: write about getting back home. Write about its possibility, its impossibility, the urgency to do so or not. The contradictions that never seem to quiet.
Elisabeth Miller is a writer and teaching artist from rural Illinois. She enjoys Taylor Swift and Midwestern sunsets. You can find more of her writing on Instagram @elisabethiswriting.