Not many people are likely to see a connection between novelist Thomas Wolfe, who died in 1938, and the still-living comedian Bobcat Goldthwait, but there is one. Everyone knows the title of Wolfe's famous novel, You Can't Go Home Again, which wasn't published until two years after his death. The title has subsequently crossed over from literature to philosophy. Bobcat Goldthwait does a comedy routine in which he says, “I lost my job. Actually, I didn't lose it...I know where it is. It's just that when I go there, someone else is doing it.”
And therein lies the connection. I had occasion, last week, to return to my home town of Rockford, Illinois, for a family funeral. I've been back very seldom in the past decades, and—even without the funeral—it was a sadly disturbing experience. If I didn't know I'd been born and raised in Rockford, it could have been my first time; and I would have had no particular desire to return for a second. I recognized some of the streets and buildings, of course, but all the warm memories and associations of the wholesome, all-American middle-class home town in which I grew up—of friends and families and familiar places and growing-up experiences—had been stripped away, replaced by the blur of endless, faceless, emotionless strip malls. All feelings of warmth, of belonging, were replaced by an odd, sad, overwhelming sense of loss. I was—am—no longer a part of Rockford, and it was no longer a part of me. I had been dismissed.
A couple of days after returning to Chicago, I got a glossy, professional looking magazine put out by my college alma mater, Northern Illinois University, and I had the same reaction as I'd had to Rockford. My college years were probably the happiest of my life, and to this day I have only to close my eyes to be there again among my friends and classmates and teachers—to be with them; to belong. When I began college, in 1952 (and yes, children, there was a 1952), Northern was a State Teacher's college with fewer than 3,000 students, of whom three-quarters were women. Today, enrollment is somewhere around 45,000 and what was a small and intimate haven, a cluster of familiar buildings in a parklike setting, is now a sprawling, cheek-to-jowl jumbled mass of...structures. Northern is no longer my school, and that knowledge fills me again with the sadness of indescribable loss.
Those who have read these blogs are well aware that I unquestionably spend far too much time dwelling on—and dwelling in—the past. I truly do realize the dangers in attempting to do so, yet, against all logic and all counsel, my own included, I continue to do so. It is an addiction as real as any drug.
I have, in effect, been pushed off a dock into the swift-flowing current of the river of time, and no matter how strongly I swim against the current, no matter how badly I want and try to return to the dock, I cannot.
So Thomas Wolfe posed the philosophical issue, and Bobcat Goldthwait provides the simple, if far from satisfactory, solution: it is not so much a matter of not being able to go home again. You can. The problem is that when you go back, it's not yours anymore.
Knowing all this, why can't I just stop swimming against the current and let the river take me where it will? Everyone else seems to. Two reasons. One, because I am not everyone else. And, two, because I am always aware of the increasingly loud roar of a waterfall just beyond the next bend.