“It would be a long while because, quite simply, I was in love with [the city]. I do not mean “love” in any colloquial way, I mean that I was in love with the city, the way you love the first person who ever touches you and you never love anyone quite that way again.” -Joan Didion
There’s something I’ve been trying to figure out for the past 10 years or so–ever since I left my first year of summer camp in North Carolina–and is this question of how to be present in one place when your heart is so fully entrenched in another. How can I be present to the moment and and place in front of me while still honoring what has affected me deeply? Last year, this was a constant struggle in Boston, and this year, I am facing the same problem but in reverse this time.
Somewhere along the way, I’ve picked up this image of leaving pieces of my heart in the places that I’ve loved, that have felt like home. Some of these places are unspeakably grand and famous–St. Peter’s Square, for instance–while others are much more humble: my grandparent’s lake, my family’s farm, the football field I spent so many Friday nights at back in high school.
As happy and grateful as I am to be back in Missouri, I feel different here… I am not always as willing to make mistakes. This place is mine because I grew up here, first in my hometown for 18 years and then at college. They belong to me because of choices that were not mine to make (well, I did choose SLU, but less so). They belong to me in an effortless sort of way, my default almost. This doesn’t diminish the love that I feel for them at all, but it’s a different kind of love.
Rome was my choice. Boston was my choice. They belong to me because I made them mine. I chose them–and they choose me. I pulled out maps and took it upon myself to explore new neighborhoods. I found my favorite places and spaces not because I always knew them, but because I discovered them.
Last year, I belonged in Boston. That is a certainty in my life full of questions. And while I still have my moments where I wonder why I ever left, my heart and my head knows it was the right choice. Even though, for awhile after leaving, I didn’t feel like I belonged anywhere.
St. Louis will always have a place in my heart as the first city I ever called home, the first city I ever loved as mine. For that reason, it will always have a sense of comfort to me, the sense of “I knew you when you were just becoming who you are. My love has shaped you in a different way than any other.” They say you never get over your first love–maybe cities are that way, too.
(Also, if St. Louis is my first love, my hometown is the next store neighbor, who you grow up with. Practically speaking, they should fit you because of all of your history, but they ultimately just end up being the wrong fit, as your lives grow in different directions. While I still love that little town, it’s not where I belong anymore.)
And then came Rome. Rome was a brief, passionate love affair that I knew from the beginning would never last, but savored every moment all the same. It’s the intoxicating feeling you can’t drag yourself away from, free falling and loving every second of it. Leaving them is over-dramatic and irrational, and you almost have to be pulled away kicking and screaming because you can hardly bear the thought of life afterward. Walking away feels like something you might never get over, but after you’ve gone, you’ve left, and it’s done, you smile and treasure every moment with nothing but the fondest memories.
And Boston? I think Boston was the first city I ever learned to love in an adult–a mixture of all of the love that came before. The comfort and ease of St. Louis with a dash of the passion of Rome, and the sense of belonging that I can’t quite put my finger on. I don’t know when I felt that for the first time. It was fast, but it wasn’t dramatic. It was just natural, effortless, matter of fact. Like, of course I’m in love with Boston, of course I fit here, hasn’t it always been that way? Boston felt real in a way that Rome never could. While leaving Boston was easily one of the most emotional things I’ve ever done, it was not like leaving Rome.
Leaving Boston was like a progression into adulthood–still very difficult, but also resigned. Because by that point, I knew that for me, it was absolutely what I needed to do. Boston taught me how to love people well, as an adult; and ultimately, that love meant learning when to walk away even when everything looks perfect, if you know in your heart of hearts that it isn’t quite right for you. And maybe it’s just a simple matter of bad timing. Or distance. Or the first love beckoning you back in the distance. Or a combination of all of the above.
I’m still trying to figure that out.
But in the meantime, here I am back in St. Louis, learning to love this city and make it mine in a way that I never could in college because so much of surroundings were chosen for me. Even though I’m still only a few minutes away from SLU’s campus, it feels different knowing that I chose this neighborhood, I chose my coffee shops (and chocolate shops) to frequent, and I can go beyond the SLU bubble (although I rarely make it beyond the South City bubble these days, let’s be honest). I’m relearning this love, and I think St. Louis and I are better together now because of the distance than we would have been otherwise.
Maybe this love can grow and develop into something completely different; I think it’s already on it’s way to doing so. While leaving St. Louis is never easy, I keep coming back again and again because somehow it finds ways to grow with me. That ability to keep growing with me? That might make it my forever.
Or maybe someday again, the timing will be right for Boston, and I’ll get to relearn Boston as an FJV. Or maybe another city will sneak it’s way onto this list; jump right in and surprise me.
I’m just learning to live in love, no matter where I am.