This time of year, as late fall fades into winter, has become very tough for me. Six Novembers ago my grandmother died, a person who had been so present in my life I could not really conceive of life without her. Two years ago in early December my aunt Joann passed away. Last November my aunt Kathleen's health started failing, she died this past January. Too many trips home to rural Nebraska in the past few years have been marked by death. Three times I've talked with people I've loved over the phone halfway across the country, knowing in my heart it was the last time I was ever going to hear their voice.
Every morning when I ride the subway to work I can't get over that I grew up in a place so far removed from the world of New York City. It's not anything I could have imagined when I lived there. I love my job and I love my life here, but every now and then I feel like part of myself is missing. A big chunk of my soul is still out there, 1500 miles away, beneath the skies so vast they feel like they could crush all the world beneath them. When I go back to Nebraska I can feel that part of me reawaken.
I don't necessarily want to go back and live there, but living away from there weighs on my soul. It's the paradox of being a self-inflicted exile. Sometimes I fantasize about buying an old Nebraska farmhouse and making it a kind of low rent, countrified summer home. You can have Newport and Martha's Vinyard, I'll take the prairie.
I think I've always liked Neil Young partly because he too grew up in a small town, moved to the big city, but never really left rural Ontario behind. He was never more forthright about this than on "Journey Through the Past." It comes from the haphazard 1973 live album Times Fade Away, such a document of a low point in Young's life that he kept it out of print for decades. While there are decadent tales of junkies like the title song, or cries for help like "Don't Be Denied," "Journey Through The Past" is far more straightforward and sentimental in its emotions.
It's about homecoming as a journey through the past. When you leave where you are from, it's almost as if time stops there. For years I would come home to my old teenage bedroom, the same shelf full of Stephen King novels, the same Rolling Stone cover of Nirvana on my closet door. Even though my room has been made over some, it's still a place where I access feelings and memories that would otherwise disappear from my mind.
However, the people I knew and loved there keep disappearing, and this time of year I spend a lot of time remembering them. I can go back to my old room, but I can't ever talk to them again. So the years go by, the past fading ever more, and the ache that comes each November can't be nourished.