I don’t know whether it is because I have been sick for more than two weeks, or because my sleep patterns have been so disrupted during this time, or because I have been home alone through this whole period, or whether the death of my godmother has been working on me (or some combination of all these things), but I have been spending an inordinate amount of time lately revisiting memories of my childhood.
I have the strongest impression that I have been closing a circle by returning to the feelings of love and safety that nurtured and supported me as a child. This has been a time in which I have been coming to terms once again with the impermanent elements of life, mourning and accepting the passing away of people and things which had always seemed like granite landmarks in my life but which, in the context of age, time, and change, are now shown to have been made of sand all along.
Yesterday I received an e-mail from a reader who has been very disturbed by my recent postings. I think what has been most upsetting to him is the acknowledgment that my own presence in this world and work is so impermanent and fleeting… that I, too, will pass away some day… and worse yet, that I am mindful of this reality, embrace this eventuality, and am so open in speaking of it. I think he may have interpreted my writing about these thoughts as depression (it wasn’t) or, at the very least, a riff that had simply gone on too long and had become tiresome (if so, I apologize). Anyway, he made it clear in no uncertain terms that my recent essays were weirding him out.
I recognize that in our death-denying culture it is unusual for one to dwell as much as I tend to do on people and things lost and on my own inevitable passing. Yet, far from its being a negative and even melancholy obsession, this line of thought serves a positive purpose for me. By thinking about the transitory nature of life and mortal existence, I seek to convert these concepts into a basis for visualization and a positive force for future action. For example, vivid images and memories of the caring, generous, and influential adults and mentors from my past shape the ways I envision my relationships with the kids in my life. By emulating deceased adults from my childhood I am in a very real sense keeping them alive.
Coming to terms with one’s childhood and mortality can thus help transcend the sense of loss one feels about the passing of the past and help cultivate and recreate the love and caring we once experienced.
I had a very interesting conversation today with Santa Clara University psychology professor Jerry M. Burger, the author of Returning Home: Reconnecting with Our Childhoods (2011, Rowman & Littlefield), the first book published about the common phenomenon of people visiting a childhood home in order to reconnect with their pasts.
“My surveys tell me that roughly one-third of all American adults over the age of 30 have made such a trip,” Dr. Burger said. “These individuals aren’t necessarily interested in seeing the people from their past. Rather, they visit the houses, apartments, playgrounds, schools, neighborhoods, parks and other places that once made up the landscape of their childhood.”
”The vast majority of people who make the trip select the home they lived in during their elementary school years (around 5 to 12 years old). One’s home is a part of personal idenrity for many people—an extension of their self,” he said.
I had reached out to Dr. Burger because last year my sister and I visited the street where we lived until I was in fourth grade—a place that has figured prominently in my thoughts of the last two weeks. It was a remarkable visit because the neighborhood was almost exactly as I’d remembered it—totally intact.
“That’s very unusual,” Dr. Burger said. “Many people are disappointed because so many things have changed.”
I understood what he was saying. I cannot bear to visit my old hometown because so much has changed in so many negative ways. Yet this one neighborhood is an oasis that preserves my old world. Were it not for the later model cars, I might have believed it was still 1954. “It was a gift,” I told Dr. Burger. The feeling was almost magical. It was like I was six again.
“The most common reason people return to a childhood home is to re-establish a psychological link between the child in the black-and-white photographs and the person they are today,” Dr. Burger said. “Many of the people in this category talked about their childhoods slipping away from them. Others felt it was simply time to renew memories about who they were and where they had come from.” (I clearly fall into this category.)
“People we placed in a second category used the visit to help them deal with personal issues they were facing,” Dr. Burger said. “These are people for whom life is not going well. Some were wrestling with relationship problems, financial setbacks, and even trouble with the law. They were motivated by a general need to reflect on where their lives were going and to re-evaluate important decisions. Each of these individuals wanted to return to the place where their values were established and where important life lessons were learned.”
“You mean, like they need to re-boot their systems?” I asked.
“Yes, that’s a very good way to put it,” he said.
“People in a third category visited a childhood home to take care of unfinished business. Most of these individuals did not have happy childhoods. Some visited homes where they’d been victimized. Others went to cemeteries and gave themselves permission to grieve for parents who had died too young. For most of the people in this category, retrieving and facing unpleasant memories was but one step toward addressing issues they had been carrying around for years—like Jenny throwing stones through the windows of her old house in Forrest Gump.”
I asked Dr. Burger if he had reached any conclusions about whether it is healthy for a society to be as mobile as ours is and he replied that children whose families move too often commonly exhibit psychological problems unless they are naturally extroverted and socially versatile. He sent me a couple studies on the subject I’m looking forward to reading.
I am an introvert, and a homebody, and I always set down a deep taproot that keeps me anchored in one place. For a person preoccupied with the transitory nature of existence, I have lived in remarkably few places in my life!
I’ll be interested to see if these studies provide any clues as to why I am not depressed so I can further reassure my troubled reader and friend.
Groove of the Day