I am writing this from a coffee house that didn’t exist three years ago. It used to be a pizza place. I used to eat lunch here all the time in high school. It is one of the only places a student could walk to during open campus lunch and still make it back for fifth period. One year I had Mrs. Driver for fifth period English, and she didn’t care if we were a few minutes late. Annie, the boys, and I are spending this week ‘back.’ It is code for Dixon, Ill., the place where I grew up. Annie grew up 10 minutes down the road in another small town that I won’t mention. Civic rivalries die hard where I’m from. The people where she grew up think they are better than us. They are probably right, but I will never admit it.
“When do we plan on going back?” One of us will ask the other. We know what it means. It took us a while to stop asking, “When are we going home?” Home is in Greensboro now. This is the longest period between trips ‘back.’ The last time I was in Dixon was in January 2019, eighteen months ago. It feels like longer. The same stuff is going on. I’ve run into a few people I knew, but no longer know. I was forced to drive 10 mph under the speed limit on the way into town, there was a tractor on the state highway. I don’t miss that. Dixon feels even smaller than I remember. Driving through town is like looking at shadows. The outline of things I remember are the same, but they have different features. If I’m honest, it’s the first time I’ve felt like this is the place I’m from and not the place I belong. I feel like a visitor in the town I grew up in. It’s because I am.
I’m thankful for the experience of ‘going back.’ It allows me to evaluate things more clearly, as on outsider who was once an insider. There are things I laugh about, am proud of, and am embarrassed by. This place shaped me. There is a question about ‘going back.’ It’s a question I try to push off, but it exists at the end of every memory of Dixon. How many more ‘going backs’ are left until…? How many more times will I get to hug my grandparents? How many more times will I visit my boyhood home before it’s sold? What do my kids think of going back? Do they want to go back more or less often? Mostly, it gives me a feeling so intense that I refuse to sit with it too long. I’ve cried enough in this place. It reminds me of what Paul wrote to the Philippians, “I have you in my heart … I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus.”
I am grateful for ‘going back.’ The first night back in Illinois we stayed with the best man in our wedding. He and his wife have a daughter. Watching our kids play was worth the entire day in the car. My brother is a man now. He could beat me up, but he would rather roll around on the floor with his nephews. My mom cried when she saw her grandkids. It had been too long. I met a close friend at the bike trail, a place where I have logged a lot of miles. He is the son of my high school cross country coach. We ran for an hour without a pause in our conversation. My sister is on her way to meet me now. Her son and I share a birth date. He is 19 years behind me. I can’t wait to see him. Another close friend is coming back from Nashville on Friday. We already have plans for a beer and a basketball game. My younger sister enrolls in the honors program at the University of Illinois in the fall. She is studying aerospace engineering. Her intelligence intimidates me.
I don’t know how many more ‘going backs’ are left, but they will be cherished. I am reminded of the words of the poet Philip Larkin, “Of each other, we should be kind. While there is still time.”