August 18, 2011
YOU CAN COME HOME AGAIN
JOHN J. MILLER
When I moved away from Michigan almost 20 years ago, I didn’t think I was coming back.
I was born in Detroit, raised in the suburbs, and had just earned my degree from the University of Michigan. And I was anxious to go somewhere else–the allure of a new place was too much to resist.
My destination was Washington, D.C., where an internship at a magazine awaited. I had planned to make a career of writing about politics, which is more or less what I did. I’ve interviewed the president in the Oval Office, listened to speeches from the press galleries of Congress, and sat through sessions of the Supreme Court. I’ve written hundreds of articles and five books.
As recently as last summer, I figured that I’d do this for the rest of my working days. My wife, who is also from Michigan, thought the same.
But now we’re back in Michigan–I’ll be running the journalism program at Hillsdale College–and we’re starting to wonder why we ever went away.
COMING HOME AGAIN
The novelist Thomas Wolfe (1900-1938) insisted that “You Can’t Go Home Again”–it’s the title of his best-known book as well as a phrase that has entered the American vernacular. He intended the line to mean several things, including the idea that returning home after a long absence can be a painful experience and perhaps isn’t worth it.
At a time when a rotten economy is forcing tens of thousands of Michiganians to leave each year, these new expatriates (and their families) are probably wondering if they’ll ever go home again. My guess is that even among those who are saying “good riddance,” many of them will want to return.
Sometimes it takes leaving a place to realize how much you miss it.
MICHIGAN ON OUR MINDS
One of the first things my wife and I noticed about life away from Michigan was how we talked about our roots. When we planned trips to see relatives, we weren’t headed just to Detroit or Grand Rapids. Instead, we were heading “home,” as in: “When do you think we should get home this summer?”
We kept on talking this way even when we’d lived in Virginia for almost as long as we’d lived in Michigan.
We also made a fetish of all things Michigan. We covered our walls with familiar images: an antique map of the state, a photo from Tiger Stadium, Pewabic Pottery tiles, the Diego Rivera murals at the Detroit Institute of Arts, and so on. We ordered wine from Old Mission Peninsula and Paw Paw. Our oldest son was born in 1997, a month after the Red Wings ended their Stanley Cup drought, and so we named him after Brendan Shanahan. We have a cat named Magglio. We have another one named Pete, which is short for Petoskey.
On a professional level, I found every excuse I could to write about Michigan. I wrote feature stories on the state’s governors, senators, and congressmen. I wrote about famous Michiganians for Traverse magazine.
I also developed a fondness for Ernest Hemingway, especially the Nick Adams stories set in northern Michigan. I had not read any of these as a resident of the state, not even in Ann Arbor, where I had majored in English. Now I know them so well that I’m teaching a class this fall called “Hemingway in Michigan.”
A few weeks ago in Gaylord, I visited a bookstore that has a special section devoted to all things Michigan. This was where I had discovered the novelist Steve Hamilton, who sets his crime thrillers in the Upper Peninsula. I found former Detroit News reporter Bryan Gruley, another author of mysteries set in Michigan, the same way.
The owner of the store said the locals rarely go to the Michigan section. They don’t want to read about home. They want stories that will transport them to faraway places.
Yet the tourists flock to it, especially the ones who have ties to Michigan but don’t live in the state anymore. They’ve gone away and want to keep returning, at least on the pages of the books they read. Their escapism is to go back home again.
The act of going somewhere new makes you appreciate where you’ve been.
UP NORTH, OVER THAT HILL
When I was a kid, I would spend a chunk of each summer Up North, mostly with my grandparents. I remember the long drives on I-75 and M-33 and then hitting the back roads. There were no DVD players to pull my gaze or iPods to fill my ears–just a vision of green forests and the hypnotic hum of tires on asphalt. We always went the same way and I knew every curve and bump.
Toward the end of the trip, we’d go west for five or six miles on a straight stretch of blacktop. Then we’d turn right at a four-way intersection. This was the sign that we were just a few minutes away from lakes and creeks and trails and bug hunting and perch fishing and blueberry picking and all the things that made Up North so special, then and now.
Yet that final right-hand turn vexed me. If we hadn’t made the turn–if we had kept going straight–we would have come to a small hill. It didn’t rise very high, but it rose high enough. From the intersection, it was impossible to see beyond it.
I desperately wanted to know what was over that hill.
Each time it came in sight, however, the car slowed, the blinker flashed, and grandpa turned to the right. I was a quiet kid and didn’t say a word. For years, the far side of the hill remained terra incognita.
At some point, probably when I was 10 or 11, it became too much. As we approached the turn once again, I explained my anguish.
“Fred, let’s see what’s over the hill,” said my grandma.
So we didn’t turn right. We went straight through the intersection and up the hill. At the top, my grandfather stopped the car. For the first time, my gaze settled on what lay beyond.
I saw more trees, more blacktop. A vision of more of the same.
“It’s just like the other side,” I said.
My grandmother smiled at my disappointment. The drive and my comment entered the rotation of stories she told and retold. I failed to see its significance: I had merely provided a literal description of the scene. She acted as if I had uttered a profundity.
At any rate, we turned around and went the way we always did.
MAKING SENSE OF IT ALL
Now I think I understand. We’re all drawn to the glamour of places unseen, but when we finally lay eyes on them, they’re often less enchanting than we had imagined.
I enjoyed my time in Washington, D.C. Yet I can already tell that I’m going to enjoy Michigan even more.
It brings to mind the title of another novel by Thomas Wolfe and borrowed from a poem by John Milton: “Look Homeward, Angel.”