Two years ago, my husband and I left my home, a place I was born and raised. Just at a year ago, we picked up from our mid-Atlantic adventure to move back closer to home. Closer to the family, friends, and mountains that make up our hearts. And here we are, settling into a sweet little spot. Chattanooga. We’re learning to love the river and just beginning to cultivate a new community. We have a favorite bakery, and a I have a favorite yoga studio. Chattanooga is starting to feel like second-home. As we move closer to the one-year-mark, I’m spending an amount of time thinking about belonging. Hoping we belong here, missing the sense of bone-deep belonging in Asheville, knowing without pause that I belong to so many people stretching out across miles and time zones.
In the midst of these reflections, and no matter how much I love Chattanooga, I’m having to come to terms with two really disconcerting facts. First, people here will only ever know me as I am now. Second, I’ll never live in the same place my whole life.
When we moved here, we introduced ourselves as the people we are. The people we are now. And when I went to work, it was as I am. There was no – history. As I live here longer, I find myself writing my history all by myself. Back home, we write our history together. You don’t get to decide which parts to share and which parts to quietly omit. Or which embarrassing moment to bring to light and which ones to let stay in a dark corner. Here, we are as we are. I am as I am. To be honest, it makes me feel a little adrift. A million years ago my brilliant friend and artist, Jason Watson, had a show titled Tether/Leash. He beautifully showed how the same things that keep us from floating out into oblivion keep us shackled. Some people think of their history as a leash, keeping them bound. For me it’s a tether. For me, home keeps me in orbit. I know this isn’t the same for everyone, and some people crave that anonymity and break from familial narrative. I, however, find myself wondering how long it’ll take me to get some of that family-narrative feeling here. How long until people have memories enough of me here to keep me grounded? It won’t ever be like home, there will never be people who knew me when I was a little girl or a bratty (yet totally charming?) tween. I’ll be spared some of that humility here. And yet, the sweetness of this city gives me hope it won’t be too long before there are stories of “when Ariel” that we can all draw on. And that the folks here will be generous in allowing me into their Chattanooga narrative. The beauty/weirdness of time is that the right-now is immediately history. Even though people only know me as I am now, it’s already been a year.
As my look-back has lingered, I’ve become aware that people and place make up so much of my identity. The where and the who are part and parcel. Back home, everywhere I went was filled with memories of “that time”. That time we found the clay pit behind the co-op school, that time we went wandering in the woods after Shakespeare in the Park, the millions of times we wandered around in What Do You Want?, or that time we hiked up Craggy and watched the storms roll in. Or that time, or that time, or that time a million little memories over. At home I’d drive around I’d have these memories. Of Ideal Drug, or when we would hang out in the park just bumming around on warm nights. The old skate park and where the Squash Pile was. I think, I think the ground comes up to meet you a little more in your hometown. There’s a knowing that just exists. And I don’t have that now. Every drive is new. Exciting, but new. Every music club, every greasy spoon. There are no memories. There’s no time I was there and. Even though I left for a few years in high school, and a few more for grad school. I’ve never not had home as home. Now I’m coming to grips with not living where I’ve always lived. I’ve stopped making as many memories in those places, and with my people. I mean, we have holiday memories and sneak-attack visits, and a lifetime of memories. But those random-summer-night trips all around town to find an Arby’s with a working Jamocah shake machine or just driving around listening to mixtapes or CDs. That’s not our current life. And I ask, how long until I have memories here that keep me grounded? How long until the ground here kindly lifts up under my feet? And again, the sweetness of this city gives me hope that it won’t be too long. And the folks here are generous of heart and time, and they are helping me make new memories. And somehow, I will keep vigil over those memories that have kept me grounded for a lifetime while making new memories.
There is no place in the world like home. No place at all. There are no memories like the ones etched into my heart from a lifetime of love. Home will always be home, no matter how in love I am with Chattanooga. Maybe that’s not how it really works though. Maybe there’s more room, more grace than this. Maybe there’s room for both places to have infinite love in my heart. Humans are expansive. I’ve never thought of love-and-life as some zero-sum game. It is quantifiably true those memory-and-love tethers of home hold me fast. But there’s enough room for more love and more memories, too. Loving Chattanooga has only shown the light of my past to be as bright as it is, it has shown the richness of my love. The heart happens to be a magical organ, bent on giving us enough. Chattanooga, we’d like to keep you if you’ll have us.