I stepped out of my door into the biting wind; the kind of wind that can only be felt in a small town like Herscher, Illinois, as it flies unabated through the small number of houses that are engaged in a desperate battle with the cornfields for supremacy. That was almost enough to turn me around and send me straight back up into the warmth of my bed, but I hadn't been for a good run in what seemed like years, so I soldiered on. I skipped the stretch; it seemed more likely I would hurt myself trying to touch my toes than if I just took off down the street. There was, and still is, something peaceful about running in Herscher when the sun was on its way down. Unlike a bigger town, there's no mad rush from the office towards home, no convoy of cars racing for their fast food fix. Not a moment is wasted waiting on traffic lights, and there's no need to constantly look over your shoulder to avoid joining the unfortunate squirrel on the side of the road. The absence of congestion is the perfect atmosphere for silent contemplation, whether running or sitting on the porch memorizing a night sky that can only be seen far away from city lights. These were facts of life in my small town, but even I was impressed by the solitude I experienced as I made my way slowly but surely towards the park, and I was reminded of something I had read, not particularly enthusiastically, in a recent literature class:
sinking in stone
the cicada's sound" (Matsuo Basho)
I couldn't believe it. I've never been a fan of the haiku, never understood poetry for that matter, but these sentimental poems were popping into my head willy-nilly.
I entered the playground of my childhood at a slow jog which petered out into a walk as I neared the spot where I likely spent half of the free time of my youth. The giant red tornado slide was gone, torn down like everything else from my childhood to make way for new and better equipment. Should a young man of twenty-one feel old? I sure did as soaked in my past, forgetting my original plan of running until my head hurt.
There was just something about that day; I was being overwhelmed with the feelings of nostalgia that were, to me, and on-again off-again cynic, completely alien. I might have stood that way all day enjoying these foreign emotions until the sound of laughter jerked me back to reality. It was then I noticed a group of young boys on the cracked and dilapidated basketball courts, shooting an equally rundown basketball at the drooping baskets that swayed whenever a good westerly wind kicked up.
For an instant I saw myself, maybe nine years old, in the place of the little blond boy running and playing, and I'll admit, teasing with all the other youngsters. My best friend was there, slowly scaling the basketball hoop to perch on the rim and bellow his vivacity to the Mid-Western sky. I can still remember his triumphant shout, and how we mere mortals still grounded joined our voices to his and screamed with all the fury and passions nine year olds can muster.
A forceful yearning for the past swept over me, only to be replaced by the most intense feeling of contentment I've ever encountered, and once again, I found myself thinking of poetry, this time my own.
I was scaring myself. I began to wonder if maybe all that soy milk was beginning to escalate the estrogen levels in my blood. It's been known to happen. But just as soon as the thought crossed my mind another revelation came my way, one I've grappled with many times before, swooping vindictively into my thoughts like the pissed-off bluebird who tried to remove my ear every time I passed her nest on my porch. The irate bird in my head was telling me to stop dismissing every creative and emotional thought I had, which were elbowing their way into my life more and more consistently.
It's not that I hated thinking that way, but as most boys brought up in this great but often backwards town will tell you, creativity and emotions will earn you the infamous "gay" label faster than kissing your cousin Randy. I count it as a miracle I held onto reading for so long, and I thank my dear old mamma for that.
Back to reality. I realized the park was pulling me in, and my pleasant feelings were being replaced by tumultuous ones. With a concentrated effort of will, I turned and fled.
"Damn't" I thought to myself as I jogged on towards the school. "I'm twenty-one years old. I thought I buried all this teenage angst a year ago." Fortunately for me, I've always had a rather limited attention span, which allowed me to dismiss the thoughts that would have sent me sprinting back home. Instead, I embraced the nostalgic feelings and honed in on the ideas that kept me running on what I was beginning to see as a pseudo–spiritual quest.
Most will agree that few buildings can recall such mixed feelings of hatred and love as the building where you attended school. As I stood in front of ol' Herscher Grade, I could vividly remember the joys of the first few days of kindergarten, followed very closely by the burning hatred I felt for that damn school and its state-guided curriculum. I cannot describe how much I despised the teachers who would snatch my books away and replace them with math homework or something equally depressing.
I could remember second grade; desperately wanting to know why R.L. Stine's puppet was so goddamn evil, and spending many recesses in the classroom because I refused to stop reading during math hour. I could see myself running down the halls, aware that I wasn't supposed to, but determined to stick it the man somehow, even if I wasn't sure who the man was. I could smell the library, and feel the warmth of the reading corner with all its pillows and blankets surround me.
Standing in front of the school then, in the midst of my own flashback, I finally saw the importance of god-forsaken algebra homework, or heaven forbid, chemistry tests. Perhaps it really did take me twenty-one years to realize it, but learning to attempt things you don't enjoy, and I mean not just attempting but really giving it your all, reflects positively on the things you do enjoy by making them that much more enjoyable.
It's hard to explain what I felt at the time, because as much as I want to, I can't put that one line of thought on paper that would eradicate the need for all the preceding crap that I've spewed out. But at that moment, lovingly remembering the tortures of my youth, I was devoid of hatred.
I left the school and headed due east, this time at a walk. It wasn't that I was tired, but the torrent of thought in my head seemed to weigh down every step. I didn't look where I was going because I didn't need to. Even if I hadn't been in my hometown of twenty years, I felt like I could have walked wherever I was going without opening my eyes. It was the first, and probably the last, time in my life where I felt guided by something greater than myself. I'm not going to say Providence, because I don't believe in fate, and even if I did, why would a higher power take time out of their busy day to trot me around a town of 1,600?
Regardless of whether I was walking a path already chosen for me by some divine being or, more likely, I was suffering slight hallucinations from the week-old Chinese food I found in my fridge, I ended up on my original stomping ground, Vernon Street. Growing up, I cultivated an intense loyalty to this street. Battles would rage up and down its quarter-mile expanse, furious struggles between neighborhood children that, at the time, seemed as important as anything ever could be. As a newly coined "adult" staring north to south down its short expanse, I was overwhelmed by the same feeling of nostalgia I had at the park. What I saw stunned me. I've been down that street hundreds of times since I moved across town. Pretty easy, since there's about eight roads in Herscher. But at the moment it took on entirely new characteristics that I can vaguely remember seeing as a small child but had completely lost sight of as a young man. Not only did the trees seem to glow a pale green in the setting sun, but I swear on something important (I still haven't found anything good to swear on regularly) that I could see the grass growing and the bushes stretching out to absorb that last little bit of life giving light for the day.
I think was I was feeling was a complete synergistic experience; nirvana, some would call it. It was at this point I was really starting to suspect that Chinese food and especially the funny little mushrooms mixed in with the fried rice, but I was ready to give myself up completely and without a shred of doubt to this spectacular experience. Taken in as I was by my surroundings and still being guided by some invisible hand, I realized I was standing before the house of my youth without any memory of how I'd got there. I'm sure I was quite the sight, standing at the foot of a driveway staring with the eyes of a religious fanatic at a yellow, two story home that was inhabited by strangers who were probably picking up their phone to call the local sheriff. Perhaps they did call the police because by that time it was dark, and such behavior is frowned upon in such a small town, but as I think back, I don't think it would have mattered. If a dispatch was made to come and get me, the officer would have passed the scene of a fender-bender, or blown out a tire, or had an unexpected bowel movement caused by some old Chinese food found in the depths of the fridge.
I had to see what I came to see. But the question of what that was still up in the air. I had no idea, not even the slightest inkling, of what I was doing, although in the very back of my mind I realized I had to be there. I was in it for the long haul. Minutes passed, or maybe it was hours. I'm not sure. But there I stood, staring, until the faintest breeze rolled by my ears. On that breeze came a voice, one that I found fairly familiar. I turned to face the unwanted intruder, ripped from my reverie back into the waking world.
It was my long-time friend, who grew up with me just a few doors down on the exact street I stood on now. He looked puzzled. I couldn't blame him; it felt as if my feet had sunk into the concrete and I was becoming a living statue, right in front of my old home. There was a moment where my heightened state of emotion seemed to affect my friend, and he too turned to stare at my house, where he had spent enough time in his youth to feel the pull I was feeling. Then it was gone, just like my childhood, my friend's childhood, the red tornado slide, the old Chinese food, my will to run, and, most importantly, the feeling that I was looking for something in particular. It had slipped through my fingers, that realization I thought myself destined to make. The rigors of my present seemed eager to find relief from something in the past, something intangible yet powerful at the same time.
What had I been looking for, out there in the only few roads in the boondocks? Why did I run, like a man possessed, from my childhood haunts to the home of my youth? What was I missing? These thoughts plagued me on my way home, alone, my friend already heading to his new side of town, away from the street that shaped us. Are there answers in our past that can give us clues to our future? If there are, would I want to know? Maybe that's why I didn't come to any conclusions, or have a life changing epiphany. I simply didn't want to know.
But I did. I really did. Knowledge is power, they say. To know something is to control it, and to know my past would be to control my present. Doesn't work that way though, at least for me. The more I remembered my past the more I worried about my future, and the less I understood the present. The previous euphoric nostalgia was gone, replaced by a simmering fury. Remembering can be pleasant, for a moment, and then you remember that remembering can lead to regretting, to longing, to the desire to jump back into your pre-pubescent days and hold on for dear life. Fuck Winston Churchill. Learn from the mistakes of the past…blah, blah,blah. Spend too much time studying past follies and you end up succumbing to regret. Regret leads to despair. Despair leads to the desire to return to the past. A spiteful wheel is all it is, one that won't suck you under and spit you out the other side but rather hold on for dear life, crushing you again and again beneath its suffocating weight.
Herscher was different on the way back. There were too many cars on the road. The sun had set, but the beautiful night sky refused to come. The children were at the park, but I didn't look at them. I could feel the menacing atmosphere, feel them staring at me as I walked by. I had traveled the only few roads in the boondocks, submerged myself in time, and for that mistake the present no longer wanted me. It wouldn't reveal its beauty, but it thrust its ugliness at me instead. I noticed the trash lining the curb, the sickly-sweet smell of the rotting corn that had spilled out of the trailers and collected over the pit of the elevator. Where was the happiness from earlier? Why had the village turned its back on me? Why the hell was I accrediting my emotional swing to a geographical location? I had thought of this place as paradise unlost, paradise rediscovered. No crime, no poverty, no traffic, nice people, clean air, pretty girls, friendly guys. Two bars! Now I only wanted to get out, now, and not look back. I had attempted to solve the village, my home, and through that puzzle I had hoped to solve myself, but I had been thrown back, my siege equipment broken and my troops scattered. I had no horn to shake its foundations, and it knew. The town I had grown up in, Herscher, Pleasantville, Eden, I knew it many ways. It wanted me out though, I could feel it. Or I could imagine I felt it. Is there much difference?