You can’t go home again

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Things I didn’t do on my Thanksgiving trip to Washington, DC:

  • Drive past the White House.
  • Go to a single museum.
  • See a monument.
  • Visit the Library of Congress.

I flew nearly 5 hours and 3,000 miles and hardly made it out of Georgetown, where my daughter is attending school. I did walk past John Kerry’s house 5 times and saw a Secret Service car idling out front each time we passed it. We ate at Five Guys, which Grace noted is, just like at  home, right across the street from Panda Express. And I watched at least 10 episodes of The West Wing and all 6 hours of the Gilmore Girls revival.

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I never watched Gilmore Girls when it originally aired. I knew of its story about a single, thirtysomething, former-teen mom raising her teenage daughter, but I was deep in the land of parenting young children and surviving a failing marriage. TV wasn’t part of my life. Late one afternoon, while I was making dinner in the house I’d moved into after a long and contentious divorce, Grace, then in 5th grade, landed on it while channel-surfing. I remember coming out of the kitchen with a spatula in hand to see what all the fast-talking was about. Dinner was late that night.

The Gilmores’ town, Stars Hollow, and its quirky residents enchanted both of us. Rory, the youngest Gilmore, lived a life Grace envied. Like Rory, my daughter was whip-smart, introverted, and driven, often a half-step off from most of her peers. Unlike Rory, who got to live alone full-time with her cool, fun mom, Lorelei, and attend a challenging private school that would set her up for an Ivy League college, my daughter only got me half-time and had to share me with her twin brother. She had no wealthy grandparents footing the bill for a great education, and her mother was not cool.

(I did let her wear roller skates in the house, though.)

(I did let her wear roller skates in the house, though.)

It wasn’t so different for me. We also lived in a small community, but I was never part of mine in the way Lorelei was hers, even though I longed to be. I couldn’t imagine life without Grace’s brother and wouldn’t have wanted to–but single-parenting only one child sure looked a lot easier than parenting two. And not to have to share time and decision-making with a hostile ex-husband? Yeah, the Gilmore world of Stars Hollow–the “town constructed in a giant snow globe“–was fantasyland for me, too.

Gradually, things changed, as things do. Grace came to live with me full-time, but she and her brother and I left our small community and moved to a bigger house in a bigger town that we shared with Cane and his daughter, making our family life look even less like the Gilmores’. Grace became so busy we rarely watched the Gilmore Girls or anything else together, and the series faded into something that was part of our past.

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Last summer, though, thanks to the wonder of Netflix, Grace and I revisited Stars Hollow one more time. In the weeks leading up to her departure for college, we watched season 3, Rory’s last year of high school. Grace wanted us to get to the episode at the beginning of season 4, when Lorelei takes Rory to college, before she left for Georgetown.

Grace’s transition to college was nothing like Rory’s. Instead of being driven to her dorm by me, where she could call me back within an hour and I could swoop in and eliminate all the scary awkwardness of that giant first step away from home by organizing a party that would make her the cool girl with the cool mom, Grace simply walked out our front door and into her father’s car and her new life. He, not I, ushered her into her new existence on the other side of the continent. Until Thanksgiving, I had to imagine its landscape from the photos she sends me on Snapchat.

In the first raw days of her absence–when I knew that the way we’d chosen to make this transition was all wrong–we decided that I would visit her for Thanksgiving. When we learned a few weeks later that Netflix would be releasing the GG revival the day after that holiday, we rejoiced. We made plans to spend most of Friday binge-watching our show and eating her favorite Panda Express.

As it turned out, we spent much of Friday shopping. Winter’s coming, and my baby needed new shoes–and a coat and some sweaters and pants. By the time we got back to the hotel after dinner, the terrible cold that had kept her up for much of Thursday night was worse. Snuggled up in bed, we watched one episode and half of the next, but then she fell asleep with her head in my lap. As she slept, I stroked her hair the way I used to when she was a little girl, and I let go of all the plans we’d made to see the sights I wanted to see.

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Inside the bubble of our room and Georgetown and our too-few days together, I didn’t care about the important places I wasn’t seeing. It was better to simply be with my girl. In between old TV shows and naps and lazy mornings, I got to see her dorm room and sit on the bed she sleeps in every night. I got to eat in the dining hall that she sends me snaps of her meals from. I got to walk all over her campus at night and take her picture after she climbed up into the lap of Bishop John Carroll’s statue. I rode the bus she rides to her work study job at a pre-school, and I walked to the Georgetown public library where she gets her for-fun reading, and we ate ice cream from her favorite shop. We took a selfie in the sun.

As the weekend unfolded,  it felt like were living as much of a snow globe existence as any resident of Stars Hollow. Just like all the characters in the revival episodes, we were together again and the same–yet we were different, too. I could never fully lose awareness that our time together was to be as brief and transitory as the reprisal of our favorite show:  Both were going to end too soon and leave me wanting more.

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Inside the dome of our long weekend, I was able to mostly forget about the world outside of it. Since November 8, I have felt as if we’re all now living in what we’ll come to think of as After. In these past few weeks, I have been longing to go back to a time Before–before Cane moved out, before Grace left for school, before my already-cracked illusions about my home and our country and my role in both shattered–a time when the world seemed, at least in retrospect, almost as sweet and simple as Stars Hollow. For those few short days, I got to feel almost like I was back in Before, and even though I knew it wouldn’t last, I basked in the comfort of being there.

Thinking about our return to Stars Hollow now, though, firmly back in the land of After, I can see clearly for the first time the shadows that always existed at the edges of life in that quaint Connecticut town:  How overwhelmingly white it is. How racist the depiction of the few non-white characters is. How mean-spirited some of the humor is. How, although steeped in pop culture, it is devoid of political commentary. How the very privileged lives of Lorelei and Rory make any issues the show raises about social class superficial and artificial. Although the revival gave a few nods to cultural shifts that have happened in the years since the show’s end, Stars Hollow and its inhabitants still seem to be existing in a world apart. It is more of a fantasy than I ever knew, not unlike many of my Before ideas about my world.

I want so badly to wrap this up on a positive note, to stick a bow of optimism on it and tell you that we should all remember what was good about Before and focus on that, or that all this burning down creates ashes necessary for the rising of a better Phoenix. But I don’t know if either thing is true. I’m afraid that if we look back we won’t see what’s coming at us, and I don’t know if anything better will emerge or if the flames need to be as fierce and searing as it seems they will be.

What’s true is that the Before I long for–in my home, in my country–never really existed the way I thought it did, and I don’t really want to go back there, even if I could. That would require my daughter to return to the cage of childhood dependence, and me to return to the cage of denial, and our country to return to the cage of lies we all swallowed about equality and opportunity and our common values. I know that cages provide safety, but I also know the truth about truth and freedom, and in past weeks have repeated to myself often the words of Sue Monk Kidd that a friend gave to me at the end of an earlier Before “The truth will set you free, but first it will shatter the safe, sweet way you live.”

I know these truths, but damn. So much burning and shattering right now.

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9 thoughts on “You can’t go home again

  1. Rachel H. says:

    Thanks for another insightful post Rita. I so look forward to yout posts. You describe very well the chaotic feelings many of us are experiencing in our post election world. A new agey friend of mine said we are living in another Age of Aquarius where all our brokeness is being brought out into the light. She says things have to be seen in order to be healed. I hope shes right. Thanks for sharing your light with us!

    • Rita says:

      Thank you for your kind words, Rachel. Your friend’s thoughts remind me of a poster I have in my office at work with a quotation from James Baldwin: “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” It’s an old poster, from the 60s. I know what’s happening is necessary and it’s an opportunity. I also know that nothing is guaranteed. I know that’s how things always are, but it’s hard when we get stripped of our illusion that things are rock-solid beneath our feet, isn’t it? I think we all just have to keep telling our truth to each other, so we remember we’re not alone in it, whatever it is.

  2. Hillary says:

    Yes indeed – so much burning and shattering.
    I feel like the education forced upon me in the last month is greater than much of the rest of my adulthood. Or, maybe I shifted direction and I can no longer look at the world from the same vantage point. In this still new After, I feel like I am needing to pull myself up to my full height and be an adult in ways I did not have to be previously. I don’t usually go around not feeling like an adult, but now there is a seriousness to the role that I did not feel I needed to carry before. Perhaps that is what part of this shift is about.
    I still wish we lived closer so we could share a cup of tea and a good walk regularly. I so appreciate your writing – now more than ever. You are also preparing me for the (now soon) time when my own child will be leaving. I am glad to start preparing now, because otherwise I think it would be overwhelming.

    You still have those of us who think of you and support you from a distance in this ever After. Love to you –

    • Rita says:

      Yes and yes and yes. For me this shifting started in the spring, when I realized I had made an unconscious decision to opt out of participation in public life/discourse. Trump did that for me. Then in the summer, I began a year-long program for educators on leading for racial equity (in large part because of that spring realization), and that pushed (shoved) me further along. But the election–somehow that blew everything wide open for me. That night, when I first realized how close it was, I understood for the first time how much I haven’t understood. And I felt what you describe here: that I am going to have to show up differently than I ever have, that I have not done so in ways that I probably should have. Let’s try to get together for a cup of tea and a walk. I love walking. And tea. And you.

  3. Leilani says:

    Another echo: shattering. Cages have been shattering in my own life and it’s loud, frightening and yet so right. I’ve been teeming it “deleting code.” It’s like the little quirks in my brain halting me from living like a normal person are being discovered and deleted. Shudder. Hurray.

    You are such a dear mama and it’s been fascinating to read your thoughts on your daughter. I didn’t realize mothers longed so much for their children. Maybe some are better at hiding that longing than others. Warm embraces to you. I’m glad to know you, Rita.
    Leilani recently posted…“Beyond the Cookie” Cookie Party Ebook Is Here To Get Your Holiday Started!My Profile

  4. Kate says:

    I am so glad you got to spend that time with your daughter. How wonderful. I’m sorry she was sick (though sometimes I do love the chance to baby my babies a little extra when they are under the weather – as long as it isn’t serious).

    And I love the picture of her in her roller blades in the kitchen! Makes me think of V!!
    Kate recently posted…Tuesday ThingsMy Profile

    • Rita says:

      That picture of her in the kitchen is one of my all-time favorites. It captures so much of who she was then. Something about how she still had her little-girl legs gets me every time.

      I’m with you–it does feel good to baby our babies. I got to spoil her all weekend, and it was so nice. The whole weekend really was wonderful, even though she was feeling pretty crummy.

  5. Marian says:

    Hugs to you, Rita. I had wondered, this August, how Grace had gotten to college, and now to know how it happened … ? My gosh, no wonder it was such a difficult time for you. That seeing and knowing — the cursory glimpses into the details of our kids’ lives: their dorm, the library, the places they’ll sit to eat — that was the solid framework for my mind’s eye, and allowed me to imagine them in their new lives. I’m so very, very glad to know you finally have that, Rita.

    I really appreciate what Hillary said in her comment above: “I feel like I am needing to pull myself up to my full height and be an adult in ways I did not have to be previously”. This is actually the gist of a post I’m writing (but will likely never publish) — one is of those hard and brutal truths I’ve been pondering, which I mentioned a while back. I think that in many ways our first world societies, and most especially our economies, are predicated on adults NOT being adults. And while I think “adults not being adults” is not at all a new thing, I wonder if we’ve perhaps reached a critical mass — percentages of millions upon millions of people who have been sold a fantasy of polished and perfect … ? This is a huge problem.

    • Rita says:

      I hope you will publish that post. I’d like to know more of your thinking on this. I’d agree that much of our economy is based on indulging our desires for more, better, bigger right now! We now plan to throw things away after just a little bit of use, so much so that I think we no longer expect things to last. I’ve struggled to do things differently. Just in the area of clothing, I’ve tried buying less of higher-quality (paying more for it), and though the prices are higher the quality really hasn’t been. While doing it, I’ve realized that I’m shopping in pricey boutiques that are part of the gentrification that’s splintered Portland’s African-American community. Yeah, I’m shopping small and local, but I’m contributing to a different kind of destruction. I’ve decided to stop shopping in those neighborhoods. But that feels like doing really nothing much.

      And thank you for your words about Grace’s departure. I think it was OK for her, but it was all wrong for me. I know it would have been better for both of us if I’d taken her. Live and learn, I guess. I do like that I got to see her in her new environment. It is a wonder to me that my child gets to have the experiences she’s having. I’m profoundly grateful for all of that. Still miss her, though.

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