I continue today with my three-part series on going home again. As I wrote in Part 1, I returned to my alma mater to give a reading and presentation on the digital revolution in publishing. Along the way, I discovered quite a Heraclitean dichotomy.
A Lifetime Ago
I was 23 years old when I graduated from St. Norbert College in May of 1991. I’m 46 now. Thus, I’ve lived an entire second life since leaving SNC with a shiny new BA in English.
Back in ’91, I was filled with a young man’s anger and a certain resentment for how my education turned out, and I was eager to leave. I didn’t look too long in my rearview mirror as St. Norbert receded on my way to graduate school at the University of Kansas. While I did return to campus several times in the intervening years — notably for wedding receptions for my brother and me and for my brother’s graduation — I invested no energy in keeping up or catching up with life at the college’s ivy-covered walls.
Thus, while I was cognizant of the fact SNC was changing, growing, I hadn’t seen the campus for about seven or eight years when I returned for my reading.
To say it was different is an understatement. There was an entire outer ring of buildings I had to penetrate before I saw anything I recognized. Streets I used to take to find a place to park no longer existed or went somewhere different now or ended in new buildings or parking lots.
I wanted to find the bookstore, so I could buy presents for my children. When I asked where it was and for directions, I got walking instructions from a staff member that made no sense to me . . . until I realized she was talking about what used to be the library when I was a student.
(The irony of the library being converted into a bookstore amused me to no end.)
Statues were in completely different locations, and the one of Abbot Pennings that sat in front of the fine arts building named for him was completely gone! I felt as though I had wandered into an alien place — a foreign country that reminded me of somewhere else I’d been in the past.
And yet, when I got to Boyle Hall, where the reading was to be held, it looked exactly as I remembered it. The only differences were the color of the paint on the walls and the updated A/V equipment in the classrooms. It was as though someone had transplanted this place I knew intimately to a completely different location.
I had the same feeling all over town. As I came up Highway 41 through the Fox Cities, there were so many sights I remembered from the numerous times I’d made this trip in the past. But I was also struck by how much more there was. Bergstrom car dealership, which had been successful when I lived in Northeast Wisconsin, seemed now to have a monopoly on selling vehicles, with huge locations in several cities. From Appleton to Kaukana used to be nothing but farmland, but now it was filled with businesses of every variety. And the number of billboards from Oshkosh all the way to Green Bay seemed to have quadrupled.
When I arrived in Green Bay, it seemed like the entire city was under construction. There were orange barrels and cranes and pavers and construction workers everywhere. The exit for Highway 172 I needed to take was closed. I had to call the friend I was staying with and get his help to figure out how to get to him.
I drove through Green Bay knowing exactly where I was but unable to figure out how to get to where I knew to go. It was that same surreal feeling of everything looking familiar and completely different at the same time. I remembered how things fit together and what I could expect to find at any given location. But so much was different, it didn’t flow the same way it used to, and the construction made it harder to get around.
I drove by my old house and almost missed it, because it was painted a completely different color. The bridge that spanned the Fox River to take me to SNC had been moved 100 feet to the left. It now began where Hardee’s used to be. The Pizza Hut at which I worked when I was in college had moved to the other side of the river, and a completely different business was in its old location — the famous, red roof long since made over.
Yet once again, some things were constant. The Post Office was still the Post Office. The Exclusive Company, where I bought all my CD’s and cassette tapes, was still in its original location on Dousman Street. And the Starlit Motel was still out on Ashland Avenue, with the same outrageous sign that had been there since I first arrived in Green Bay in 1974.
You Can’t Go Home Again
One of my professors introduced me to the ancient philosopher, Heraclitus, when I was a student at SNC. Specifically, he taught me Heraclitus’s quote, “A man can never step into the same river twice; for it’s not the same river, and he’s not the same man.”
As I drove through town and walked across the campus 23 years later, I marveled, enthralled both by how much was new and how much was the same. In this way, I truly came to understand the phrase, “You can’t go home again.”
You can’t go back home, because Heraclitus is right. Twenty-three years later, St. Norbert College is different. So is Green Bay.
And so am I.
“You haven’t changed a bit,” my former advisor said to me after the reading.
But I have. I am no longer a fiery 23-year-old just looking to get out and start life in a new place. I’m not so sure I know everything I need to. At the very least, I am now an experienced liver of life, who had a little wisdom to impart to those who follow in my footsteps a lifetime later.
St. Norbert and Green Bay look terribly familiar and completely foreign to me. I am still that kid from Northeast Wisconsin who left for Kansas 23 years ago. But I’m all grown up now. I am different and exactly the same all at once.
A living dichotomy — just as Heraclitus described.