As often as not

Carson McCullers’ childhood home in Columbus, Georgia, as seen in 2009

“We are torn between nostalgia for the familiar and an urge for the foreign and strange. As often as not, we are homesick most for the places we have never known.”
Carson McCullers

The older I get, the harder travel seems to become. I don’t know if that’s due to changes in the industry itself– when did air travel become so stressful?– or because I’m more easily tired and discouraged now that I’m older, often without another adult to help when the going gets tough.

Yet I still long to travel, and dream of going back to places I loved on first visit, and also to places I’ve never been. I wouldn’t describe this feeling as homesickness, but maybe McCullers is right. After all, isn’t homesickness often a longing for something that may not still be there when we return? And isn’t nostalgia a hazy, rose-colored view of the past that filters out the very real struggles we endured during a now idealized period of our lives?

When I travel, I’m typically so caught up in the sights and sounds that surround me that I don’t consciously experience homesickness, other than missing loved ones who aren’t with me. Yet returning home to what is familiar is always a balm to a weary body and an overstimulated soul. For a brief time, the longing for what McCullers refers to as “the foreign and strange” will subside. But eventually, I know the wanderlust will return and I’ll start planning future trips again, dreaming of faraway places or nearby towns I’ve yet to see.

Some people seem to be content with returning to the same place year after year, where they spend their vacation in a place that is comfortably familiar yet different from everyday life. I can sympathize with this preference too, because it’s how I feel about going back to our York home. For over nine years now, it has been only a part-time home. I was recently surprised to realize that’s three years longer than it was our full time home.

Nostalgia is unquestionably part of the appeal of going back so frequently. But I doubt I will ever feel nostalgia for the times I’ve spent there since Jeff died. Still, I find it hard to think of parting with the home. When I do, I imagine it will be partly because the longing to travel to places I’ve never seen will outweigh the pull of returning to the familiar.

What about you? Do you every feel homesick for places you’ve never been? Or are you happier to return to what is familiar and well loved? And has this changed as you grow older?

39 Comments

  1. commonplacefortheuncommon

    A thoughtful post, Julia. You are so right – the older I get, the harder travel becomes. The world seems different as well – more crowded, less friendly, often dangerous. I don’t know if that is just my perception or if it is really true. But I am content now to travel only in the country of books.

    • If it’s your perception, it’s mine too…it’s hard to deny that the world is more crowded, and with crowds it often becomes less friendly and even dangerous, with fewer resources to go around and fear-mongering media outlets to exacerbate every bad situation. Having said that, how lucky we are that there still are friendly faces and lovely places to be found. And how very, very lucky that we are able to travel so easily in the country of books! Emily Dickinson was right. Thanks for being here and joining the conversation!

  2. I’d suspect it’s a little of both. The travel industry is horrific anymore. As I get older though, I’m more of a home body myself. Funny, as a kid moving or traveling was new adventure to me

    • I was the same way as a kid. Everything was an exciting adventure, and inconvenience, or even illness or injury didn’t weigh so heavily when I had Mama and Daddy to handle all the rough spots. Now I am quite the home body, and I know it’s partly because we are blessed to enjoy so many things that make home a difficult place to leave. As I used to tell Jeff, “it takes a very, very special place to be better than home.”

  3. Just finishing up Pascal Mercier’s “Night Train to Lisbon”. Loved this quote: We leave something of ourselves behind when we leave a place, we stay there, even though we go away. And there are things in us that we can find again only by going back there.” Location is an interesting concept for it plays into our imagination of what happened in the past. Another excellent post.

    • That’s a great quote! The book sounds very intriguing. I checked it out at the library awhile back but didn’t get to it before it was due. I’ll keep trying, though. Have you seen the movie? Generally I like to read the book before I see the movie, so I may put that off until I’ve read the book. I’ve always believed that places retain some trace of what went on there before, and in some locations, it’s a very strong, almost haunted, sense of the past that lingers there. Perhaps it’s my imagination that makes this so, but the three places that jump out to me in my mind– the Shiloh Civil War battlefield, the Donner Pass, and the lonely stretch of the Natchez Trace Parkway where Meriwether Lewis met an untimely and mysterious death– are all places that are relatively unchanged since tragedy unfolded there. Thanks for being here and contributing your thoughts and encouragement!

      • I just looked up Meriwether Lewis (love following a trail of something that I didn’t know about). I agree – there is a profound sense of destiny in places where pivotal events occurred that changed the course of history. Twice, I have visited Culloden, Scotland. Both times, a eerie silence presides where even the sound of birds are missing. I enjoy our conversations! Thank you…

        • Now it’s my turn to look up a haunted place…I couldn’t immediately remember the significance of Culloden, so I just read about it, and I can imagine that it really does have that vividly felt sense of a momentous past. I hope to visit Scotland someday, as a good part of my ancestry (and Jeff’s) is connected to the Scottish borders– Jeff’s maternal grandparents were Armstrongs, and mine were Richardsons. I have a clear memory of visiting Westminster Abbey in 1972, and seeing the Stone of Scone at the base of the Coronation Chair. (Apparently it has since been removed to Scotland; I wonder whether it will be returned for the next coronation, as I think was stipulated? Perhaps you know more about that and can give me the details.)

          In any case, I think there are many of us who feel this sense of places tied to history. One of my favorite posts of all time was by Sidney Fong, writing of the surrender of the British General Percival to the Japanese in Singapore. It’s a very brief post, but the music, photographs and especially the evocative closing sentence are etched into my mind. That, too, is another place I’d love to visit. But how fortunate that, in one sense, I have seen it, through the eyes of a local with a poetic spirit.

          • Thank you for your marvelous response. Sorry for the delay – my mother (Frances) and I spent the weekend in St. Albert, Alberta visiting family. I love the beginning of September – the smell of books and classrooms energizes and rejuvenates my delight in life-long learning. I will check out Sidney Fong’s post. Thank you for the introduction.

            • How wonderful that you were able to visit family with your mother. Alberta is a lovely place and perhaps some day I can go there again.

              • You must and I’ll meet up with you!!! Life has a way of bringing kindred spirits together “in spirit” if not in actuality. Hugs!!!

                • 😀 ❤

  4. raynard

    Julia, you find this hard to believe but me being from NYC, I don’t care much for visiting since my mother died in 1990. I have only my oldest brother and an older sister still there. My cousins on my mother’s side of the family are there also. It’s too quiet for them and most NYers out here they say. Funny I was talking to a young man from church over lunch with Mary and his wife. He’s from”Da Bronx but never been to Coney Island or The Statue of Liberty. Most Nyers don’t go around and visit” sites”. I have not been on a plane since I’ve come back from Iraq then went to Arizona the next day” treated like royalty as I went in my now old army uniform. We don’t do many Cannonball Runs out of town just doing mini day trips to local sights. As you know I’m not a beach person which Delaware is known for or the casinos with those 1 arm slots. But until the diet kicks in I’m more of a Foodie”( the term the kids use”..Hope you and Matt enjoyed your summer as we approach fall and” they are selling Halloween candy since early this month( go figure) I did a”Ma Bell and reached out to you or was it ” E.T phone home,” can’t line disconnected” I digress. Mary brought me a new phone for my birthday and” I still don’t know the number as she said” Call yourself” Least I got it connected to my Bluetooth in the car for” hands-free calling”Almost had a Freudian slip and started singing” Give my regards to Broadway” I digress

    • Raynard, it’s so easy not to visit the famous sights in a place where we live. We tell ourselves we can go anytime and somehow “anytime” never comes. When I went to see a friend on Long Island back in the 70’s I was surprised that he knew hardly anything about Manhattan and never went there. But I do think that living in NYC would be hard to resist in terms of travel. In fact I have plans to go back there this fall; I’ll keep you posted on that. Hey I need to text you my new number because you are right, the old one is no more (although at the rate they are giving numbers back out again, I’m surprised somebody else doesn’t have it by now). But wait! If you have a new cell phone I can’t text you at the old number! We’ll have to let Mary figure this one out since she is the go-to person who literally taught me how to answer my own cell phone which I couldn’t figure out on my own. Susan was asking about another birthday meet up at the Shady Maple but maybe we can shoot for the DuPont Gardens this time — I have STILL never been but I keep reading about it. I hope this finds y’all enjoying some cooler weather. I actually got out and worked in the yard a little bit today until it started raining.

  5. I d feel a magnetic pull to certain places–one of which I finally live in! I am drawn to Nova Scotia, Ireland and Scotland, Italy, Santorini and other Greek islands, the Amazon, Argentina …and many wilderness areas and more. But I love my home area so much. Nostalgia s exactly as you noted–but not a bad thing, as it can give us happy feelings and it is good sometimes to feel a kind of guileless glow that speaks to the heart’s need of peace and joy that may even be imagined….travel fascinates me and unnerves me, as well. Nice essay- thanks.

    • Cynthia, it sounds as if your taste in places is similar to mine, though I’ve never been to Ireland, Scotland, Santorini or South America. All places I hope to go someday. I wonder if the un-nerving is part of the fascination of travel? I’ve had very few scary times while traveling but oddly, those times (with the safety of time and distance and knowing everything came out OK in the end) are among my most memorable. Thanks for being here and sharing your thoughts!

      • Yes, I do think being jostled from our comfort zones is a good thing often. You’re welcome and thanks!

        • 🙂 ❤

  6. Good morning, Julia!
    Yes, I am familiar with these feelings you describe.
    I remember as I was driving down through Vermont and New Hampshire on my way to start my gig in the Nashua area (having come through Canada). I was so stressed out about the unknown future (and unmarked roads) that I was actual in tears! It’s hard to believe that the place where I was headed would somehow become the place I’d come to consider “home.” Like John Denver’s “home to a place he’d never been before.”
    That experience has made me more welcoming of the unknown, and possibly even bolder in traveling.
    It does help, if there is someone I know that I’ll meet at the destination, or along the way. 😀

    • Susan, it’s interesting to read this, knowing how much you came to love Nashua. Walking bravely into the unknown (even with the tears streaming) is easier said than done, but so many great things began in just that way. And yes, it helps immensely not to be TOTALLY unknown and alone…to know there are people, or at least one person, who is there to greet you. Thanks for sharing this hopeful story. I had never realized it was so difficult for you! ❤

  7. Julia,
    Since my disability has intensified with age I too find myself less motivated to travel. A one to two hour trip to visit friends might as well be to Mars. Yet even a local outing is somewhat uplifting as a simple change of scenery heightens the spirit. But if home is where your heart is, then must I agree with that. For no more comfortable and productive am I than there. St. Augustine tells us: Our hearts were meant for God and restless they remain until our hearts rest in Him. So wherever we may roam, whether in body, mind or soul, we still find solace at home.
    -Alan

    • Alan, until I read your book, I had never heard of post polio syndrome, but now I realize that was what my mother had during the last decades of her life. That certainly would render travel all the more difficult, and like you, Mama rarely ventured far from home as she grew older, despite loving travel. Regarding our preference for home and the quote from St. Augustine — it reminds me of this quote from C. S. Lewis, taken from a letter to a woman named Mrs. Johnson: “I think I can understand that feeling about a housewife’s work being like that of Sisyphus (who was the stone rolling gentleman). But it is surely in reality the most important work in the world. What do ships, railways, miners, cars, government etc exist for except that people may be fed, warmed, and safe in their own homes? As Dr. Johnson said, “To be happy at home is the end of all human endeavour”. (1st to be happy to prepare for being happy in our own real home hereafter: 2nd in the meantime to be happy in our houses.) We wage war in order to have peace, we work in order to have leisure, we produce food in order to eat it. So your job is the one for which all others exist…” (pg 447-Letter of CS Lewis 1988 ed.) This quote made me feel a bit better after my primary care nurse practitioner asked me, in a surprisingly snide tone, why I listed my occupation as “homemaker” which she obviously found demeaning. I was stung by her disdain for the term. I wanted to tell her than when she is as old as I am now, she might realize why I chose that over “librarian” or “writer” or “graduate student” or any number of other things I might have listed. In any case, home is indeed a comfort unlike any other place here on earth, and, as Lewis and St. Augustine hinted, perhaps a preview of even lovelier dwelling places to come.

      • Julia, So wonderfully said.
        The nurse you spoke of is clearly governed by ego. She seems inclined to be more concerned with what others think of her rather than what God thinks of her. A homemaker, I dare say, who gives glory to God in being a successful homemaker finds more favor with God than the successful politician who seeks the favor of his colleagues. No greater joy is there than finding solace in one’s own home. Just ask the poor souls who don’t.
        -Alan

        • Alan, good point. We can’t really appreciate a safe, comfortable, supportive and well-kept home as much if we’ve never experienced being without one. There are many, many people who could teach us a lot in that regard. Of course, those are the type lessons none of us are eager to learn!

  8. Susan

    Julia, you’ve really captured the dilemma! I’m always torn (but in a good way) between going somewhere new, and returning to places I’ve loved. And sometimes in places I return to, it’s a hard choice between staying in a place I really enjoyed (hotel, b&b, inn, etc.) or a new place that looks really nice.

    I understand the pull of your York house. I hope you’ll be able to keep it for a while, until you’re truly ready to say goodbye to it. Places like that hold such priceless memories. Just the way you write about it, and the photos you share, make it seem to be an important part of who you are.

    • Susan, you and me both…almost everywhere I go, I find myself saying “next time I come I want to…” even when I know that I’m not likely to return anytime soon. Thanks so much for understanding about the York home. I’ve had a friend or two who were almost rude in their comments about my loving to go there, but I told myself that I could not expect them to understand. I’m happy that you do! Thanks so much for being here. ❤

  9. Harry Sims

    Sometimes, now oftentimes it speaks me to find out what was going on right in my neighborhood.
    I’m from Lagrange Georgia, just forty-five minutes away from Columbus Georgia, Carson McCullers homebase.

    Harry

    • Harry Sims

      It spooks me.
      Harry

      • Yes, the past can be an eerie place at times, not least because it surrounds us with invisible influences.

    • Harry, I have not been to Lagrange in many years, but I remember it as a lovely place.

  10. Chris

    Julia, I will send this comment. I believe it will go. I think I know what happened. I had not “refreshed” the site from the previous visit. I just started typing in the comment section. There were no comments this morning; but obviously there were!! 😁
    So, it was operator error! ☹️
    Have a wonderful day!

    • Hi Chris, this one did come through. With your permission, I can copy and paste the comment you sent to me via Facebook message when the WordPress got cantankerous on us. Thanks for your persistence! Incidentally, the reason no comments show sometimes is that they are moderated (I don’t want any advertisements or hateful comments showing up) and when I haven’t gotten around to doing it, they don’t show until I have time to check them. Some people let anybody post anything but I never intended to do that despite the time involved in moderating the comments. The online world can be an uncontrolled and hateful place at times, and I want to keep things congenial here. So that’s why the comments don’t show up for awhile sometimes. I try to get to them quickly but some days I do better than others! I appreciate everyone’s patience.

    • Hi Chris, this one did come through. With your permission, I can copy and paste the comment you sent to me via Facebook message when the WordPress got cantankerous on us. Thanks for your persistence! Incidentally, the reason no comments show sometimes is that they are moderated (I don’t want any advertisements or hateful comments showing up) and when I haven’t gotten around to doing it, they don’t show until I have time to check them. Some people let anybody post anything but I never intended to do that despite the time involved in moderating the comments. The online world can be an uncontrolled and hateful place at times, and I want to keep things congenial here. So that’s why the comments don’t show up for awhile sometimes. I try to get to them quickly but some days I do better than others! I appreciate everyone’s patience.

  11. mike

    It is funny that I have never had a desire to visit the middle east. Though I consider myself a believer and by the way am reading-H.T. Smith’s simply Christian. It is supposed to be a modern day ” Mere Christianity ” i’e. Lewis. I am not sure about that.
    And Flannery O’Connor is on the list and apparently the Southern Gothic genre did well with her. But where did it come from in the first place?? Wuthering Heights? I still have not read that many Southern writers -outside of James Dickey. And Some Faulkner “As I lay dying.”
    Apparently O’Connor was also a master of the short story form.
    Did you ever visit the Big House in Macon?? Allman Brother’s studio and museum? Hope to go.

    • Mike, are you possibly thinking of N. T. Wright’s book Simply Christian? I’ve never heard of H. T. Smith but I’ve read some of N. T. Wright’s other works and I really like him. I wouldn’t put him on a par with Lewis, but he does have the same broad appeal to contemporary readers from various denominations. I haven’t read Simply Christian, but I’ve heard of it. I would say Flannery O’Connor is pretty much the definition of Southern Gothic. If you haven’t read any of her stuff, read “A Good Man is Hard to Find” or “Everything that Rises Must Converge,” the latter of which is one of my favorite of her works, which bear no resemblance whatsoever to Wuthering Heights, in my opinion. I do think she is an exceptional short story writer, but not everyone enjoys her work, and perhaps “enjoy” is not the best word that even her fans would choose. For some of us who grew up o
      in the deep South prior to the 1980’s, her stories have a hauntingly realistic atmosphere and perhaps an uncomfortable truth or two that we’d just as soon not think about. I’ve never spent any time at all in Macon so far as I can remember, but I bet it would be an interesting place to visit. I should go sometime but I’m usually only passing through there.

  12. mike c.

    Yes N,T. Wright is the book. Funny how the engine works when I try to remember names. I used to be good at that. Oh well. And the book is “Simply Christian” where he talks about these echoes from the past that touch us and point us toward something deeper. One of these echoes is the “beauty of the natural world.”
    And just now I started a little book by someone you probably know who wrote a bio on Lewis, “The Narnian.” Alan Jacobs- “The pleasures of reading in an age of distraction.” Quite a hopeful little book which I came upon accidentally when checking out another work at the R.T. Jones LIbrary in Canton. He says au contrare that reading is not a dead fish, but doing rather swimmingly well.
    Now I am intrigued as to Flannery and will have to check her out and there is a famous short story of hers about a Gardenia??

    • Mike, you may be thinking of her story “The Gardenia,” which I have not yet read, but it’s in The Complete Stories, which you probably can find at your local library. I’ll read that story today or sometime soon, and then if you read it we can compare notes. Meanwhile, here’s one reviewer’s list of her top five recommendations as an introduction to O’Connor; I agree with her placement of the first two on the list, but have never read the next three– now I’ll make it a point to do so. O’Connor’s stories are always eye-opening and thought-provoking, though some are not very pleasant to read.

      I had to read The Narnian as part of the course I took at Oxford on C. S. Lewis. I think I still have a copy of that book. We had to read several biographies about Lewis and each gave a slightly different angle on him and his work. Some I liked more than others, though all were interesting. I can’t remember where Jacobs’ version fell on the like-to-dislike scale, but probably I liked it. In 2012 I did read his Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction and enjoyed it. I agree with him that reading is not going to disappear anytime soon– but if humans eventually lose their humanity (which seems to be happening incrementally, to some, in some ways) reading may one day go underground, as many dystopic novelists have imagined.

  13. mike c.

    And what is the male equivalent for homemaker?

    • Mike, the word “homemaker” is gender-neutral, which is one reason it’s such a lovely word. Though Jeff might have listed “Air Force Colonel” or “Dentist” or “Post-doctoral educator” as his profession, he was a homemaker as surely as I was, and a very good one, too.

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