No Place Like Home

I’m a fan of a good homecoming story, the idea, of course, being someone who has left home for a while, years, only to find there way back for whatever reason, to the place they grew up in. There are a lot of options in how to tell them, for one: they can be heartwarming or sad, they can be a return to the past or a displacement story about someone returning to a place that has moved on without them. They can be comedies, dramas or romances. The best are some combination of these things.

Now, there are a couple things that have to be there for it to work. First off, it’s got to be a long period of time. This isn’t a case of someone moving away for a semester at college and then coming home and meeting up with their high school buddies. This isn’t someone showing up to visit family once or twice a year. I’m talking eyes-forward, home in the exhaust, build a life away from past-me until a death or an unemployment or something drags me back to my roots.

There has to be little to no contact with the people back home. A good homecoming story needs surprises on both sides. Who got married? Who had kids? Who has died, and how? Are you divorced? What do you do? Oh, she inherited her dad’s bakery. Oh, he opened a little bookstore. There needs to be high school loves that have moved on, though there will always be a little spark. There needs to be a resentment that either stays as fresh as if it were yesterday, or one that has softened over time so that now all that’s wanted is an explanation over a beer. Was it because I was fat? Did I offend you so much? You know, it was always you she loved, deep down I knew that.

The other thing about a solid homecoming story is it’s almost always a small town. There are exceptions, of course. There is a film called A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints that I love and recommend all the time because it seems nobody I know has seen it. It’s set in New York, sure, but focuses exclusively in a neighborhood in Astoria. The film alternates between the past (with stellar performances by both Shia LaBeouf and Channing Tatum, and I don’t say that lightly) and the future,  when Robert Downey Jr. returns home to see his ailing father. Rosario Dawson is also in it.

There’s another film that plays on a different homecoming trope: that of a reunion. You’ve seen reunion films before (10 Years, which is sad, beautiful in parts, and a little funny; American Reunion; Grown Ups; The Judge – RDJ again – which I want to see), but indie flick Beside Still Waters might be one of the best. I don’t know, I haven’t seen it yet, but I helped fund the Kickstarter and it got so much buzz that it went from a small independent venture to an upcoming theatrical release. You can find out more about it here, as well as see the trailer.

Why do I like that so much? It just seems so earnest and so honest. The chemistry feels natural, the relationships awkward and complex. It focuses on the simple things and the inside jokes and the layered relationships and past hurts and lingering loves. It looks like a goddamn beautiful film.

There is an inherent humanity in a homecoming story, whether it’s happy or sad or dramatic or hilarious. That’s because it’s about a person’s relationships with others and all of the history therein. These stories echo our feelings. Our fears, our dreams, our hopes, our loves and our failures. We relate because we, too, said the wrong thing once, or we didn’t say anything at all. We relate because we’ve wanted to escape, because we’ve had to watch people we love love someone else,  because we have had some action that we’ve taken torment us on long, rainy nights.

These are things we’ve experienced even if we’ve never had a homecoming. Many of us grew up in large cities or with a big group of friends, with a close family or no family. We haven’t necessarily needed to move out of state or to a “bigger” place to escape. All the same, those relationships that have been strained or forgotten or pushed aside in the name of a career, those mistakes made and loves lost, those are all things that happen anyway, because we’re human.

Setting it in a small town strips away the busyness, pares down the clutter of a cityscape and focuses on intimacy. It takes the time to explore all the thoughts and feelings that we don’t give ourselves time and energy to do the same with in our own lives. That’s why, no pun intended, those kinds of stories hit home so clearly.

Though Anchorage, Alaska isn’t exactly a small town with its 300,000 residents, it feels that way sometimes. Having been born, raised and lived here for over 20 years, I can find someone I know at just about any given time in any particular place. It’s not difficult to get around the city, either. It’s small, but not too small. It’s big enough to lose yourself in if you want to. But man, it’s easy to fall into a routine. The familiarity of the city is a comfort, but if you make yourself known enough, it’s easy to develop a rep. The funny thing about a reputation is that, for most people, twenty percent truth is enough. Whichever version is the most exciting can fill in the other eighty.

I had aspirations of being an actor rooted in a brief stint on theater during which I performed adequately and no better. I moved to Los Angeles in 2009 and lived there for eight months before having a mental breakdown. I moved back to Alaska for four months almost to the day, then back to L.A. for three more months. After I lost my job, I moved to Washington and lived there for nine months.

20 months gone away from home with a brief break in the middle. I lost a lot of friends for a lot of reasons during that time, and I grew distant from several more. While it’s not really like the pattern I described for the stories I like so much, it felt as such to me. By the end of my time in Washington, I missed those people. I missed hanging out with them and partying with them. I had just finished my first novel and I wasn’t really sure what to do with my life or where I was going, so I decided to move home for six months or so.

That six months turned into three years and counting. At the start, though, it felt weird to be back. I had that homecoming feeling. The four months I had spent trying to get my head in gear was largely spent drinking, reading and sleeping around Anchorage. I didn’t really pay attention to much else. When I came back for good (for now), I opened my eyes up a bit more. I wasn’t going anywhere for a while, might as well see what’s up.

A lot of construction had gone on in two years. There were some marriages,  some babies, a divorce or two. Some people were in jail. I didn’t let people know I was back for a while;  I just kind of wandered around being introspective and mysterious and shit. It was nice, honestly.

I have mixed feelings about this city. I don’t think it’s healthy for me in long stints, especially during the winter. I think other places might afford me better opportunities concerning my writing, and I like the busyness of a place like Los Angeles, and the weather,  and the sounds the waves make crashing against the sand while I write on the pier. I don’t like seeing the people I graduate with pity me, because I already feel disappointed in myself.

But I also love this city. I’m proud to be Alaskan. I like knowing my way around town and the best places to eat and having a bar I can walk into where everyone knows my name and my drink is ready for me. I get to have my best friend drop by with my little nephew out of nowhere and have the kid give me a big hug.

Long term goal? To have a place in a city better suited for my personality and my craft, where I can go as long as I want without seeing someone who knows my history. I’d live there for 8-9 months out of the year. The other 3-4 months of spring/summer, I want a place in Alaska to come back to. As much as this place drains me, I do have a fond spot for it somewhere in me.

That doesn’t fit the homecoming narrative, but it works for me. After all, that’s what stories are for.

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