Home isn’t what it used to be – thoughts triggered by ‘Ohio Behind Us’ by Jacqueline Woodson

I’ve been slowly reading my way through Jaqueline Woodson’s ‘brown girl dreaming’, a life told in verse. I’m going slowly because the verse is so easy to read that my eye can slip over it faster than my brain takes it in.

It’s beautifully written but what makes it stand out is that it manages to be both honest and affectionate. Avoiding both nostalgia and bitterness, it shows a life as it was lived and as it’s now remembered.

Given that I’m white, male and British, I didn’t expect to find many similarities between my life and the life told here. Most of what I’m reading is as different from my own life as it’s possible to be. But not all of it.

Today I was reading Part II of the book, after the family leave Columbus Ohio and return to South Carolina where their mother grew up. When I reached the verse, ‘ohio behind us’ I found an experience I recognised from my own life: reassessing what ‘home’ means.

The verse ends with:

Everyone else 
has gone away
And now coming back home
isn't coming back home
at all.

I left my home town when I went to university and never lived there again. I lived in lots of different cities since. Until recently, I lived in a foreign country and then returned to the same house in the same town that I’d left sixteen years earlier.

Is it home?

Yes. Mostly.

Why yes? Because my wife is here. Because I have memories here.Because there are many things about the town that I love.

Why mostly? Because home is where you belong and, apart from at my wife’s side, I don’t know what that means.

There are people and places that we are at home with but the people and places barely overlap.

There’s a point in the verse where the mother is considering whether to follow her brother and sister to New York City:

Maybe I should go there too, my mother says
Everyone else she says has a new place to be now.

It made me ask if I need a new place to be and if so where?

What I take from this poem is that I can’t go ‘back home’. It isn’t there anymore. My wife and I need to make our own place to be. Our own home. And we need to do it soon. That might mean moving or it might mean staying and connecting with more people. Either way, it means thinking about how we would know that we were home.

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