The dinner party was a delight of figs wrapped in bacon, dripping with grease and honey; of mushroom soup thick with herbs; of friends with good news and girlfriends in from out of town. There were wine and jokes, and the night ended with an exhausted round of, inexplicably, singing Cher's "If I Could Turn Back Time."
But the next morning, I found myself in the quiet and empty house, feeling painfully disappointed to not be doing more than sitting at my computer writing. I never know what to do when I feel this restlessness, this lack of satisfaction. No matter how happy I may be, no matter how well work is going or how delightful a party may have been, at some point, the restlessness returns.
This restlessness that drives people to literally or metaphorically wander used to stand out more in an era when people didn't move across the country for new jobs or significant others met on OkCupid. Back when driving from New York to California for the heck of it was enough of a novelty to write "On the Road" about, whatever rootlessness and dissatisfaction and yearning made those characters get out of town couldn't be disguised as a career move or a personal decision. It was a deviant or heroic act, depending on who you asked. It was "being a ramblin' man." It was "runnin' down the road tryin' to loosen my load" with "a world of trouble on my mind." It was "riding out the night to case the promised land." It was an idea that predates America as we know it, and even immigration, in all those old Irish ballads about country rovers. It was bards and traveling soldiers and the romanticism of anyone else who got to leave the farm or factory.
This is a symptom of youth. It must be if I felt this way more as a teenager than I do now, and as hard as I may look for signs of it in my parents or their colleagues or others their age, I can't pick up on it hardly at all. I wonder if it is this restlessness that drives us to find the places where we can let it go and set it down and settle into comfortable places to grow older in. It's this restlessness that has, before, driven me to make new friends, to change myself, to find more satisfying work, to break off love affairs, to end friendships. Sometimes I regret the decisions made in haste or their effects. There have been times I was so desperate to grow, turned over so many new leaves, that everyone in my life was thrown over with them, leaving me without the rooted feeling that old friends alone can provide.
It's strange, sometimes, having never really left home. I've lived in Chattanooga all of my life. This place draws people back. Even the kids who left town right after high school to chase the dream in New York have drifted back here to settle down, starting dance troupes and theaters and buying houses. It's good for Chattanooga, this reverse brain drain. We aren't the "death trap and suicide rap" where there isn't any dream for a young person to chase. This city gets better and better every year. So why, sometimes, do I find myself wishing I could leave?
That restlessness would find me anywhere I wentâif I had left for a bigger city or anywhere I might find "my people," there's a good chance I'd still be lonely. A friend of mine moved to Asheville in part to be with her husband, partly because some of her childhood was spent there. She perpetually feels torn between Asheville and Chattanooga because both places are home, and both are where very important friends and loved ones are. When you leave, it doesn't necessarily solve anything. You are still you, just in a different place. Some places make it easier to be happy than others; some places do have the restaurants and bars and jobs and people that push all your good buttons and fewer of the bad. I know this logically, but sometimes logic just isn't the order of the day.
Living in my old neighborhood, I met a couple of aging gay guys who move from southern city to southern city every few years. Atlanta, Chattanooga, now Nashvilleâwhen their jobs get too dead end to handle or the drama in their lives too stale, or the friends they've made pack up for their own career moves or to decrease the distance with faraway lovers, these two guys pack up, too. I'm glad they have one another because it must be lonely wandering from place to place, thinking a change of scenery is a magic wand. When I think about them, I'm suddenly glad that I've stayed put. It's not resplendent with romanticism, the brooding in your hometown and navel-gazing until you eek out a path to happiness. It doesn't make a very good pop song to leave the car keys on the dining room table and sit on the back porch without the wind in your hair, smoking cigarettes and drinking whiskey until those dark, wild, youthful feelings pass. Instead, that makes a great Leonard Cohen song. But I digress.
My friend from Asheville offered up the mature solution to her own restlessness on Twitter this morning. She wrote, "Woke up this morning wanting to run away. Every day is a good day to start over, so I will do that instead." I wish I'd thought of that. At some point, we all want to drive off into the sunset and become someone with a new name and a new look and a completely different future. That's not always practical, and it's rarely what will make us happy. Even Bruce Springsteen, the king of selling the myth of the rambling man driving off into the night toward redemption, saw his own '80s road trip fail to solve his problems. With a friend, he drove from Jersey to California, only to find he was still older, in a troubled relationship and musically stuck after a string of 1970s successes.Â
When things don't go right where you are, it can seem like you have to leave and start over. A clean slate is a powerful metaphor. A tabula rasa is tempting. It's hard sometimes, walking around a city full of ghosts and memories. I never know where, say, I'll run into that girl my second boyfriend was in love with the whole time he was dating me. Or cross paths with a college classmate who had some ancient beef with me. I saw my old high school principal at traffic court last week. But running away isn't any kind of real solution to those encounters.
Sure, tough things have happened here, but if I walked away from, say, my boyfriend every time we had a tough day, I'd have missed out on so many more days where really great things happen between us. If every mediocre night out with friends were an excuse to dump them, I'd miss out on amazing dinner parties with figs and chocolate ganache and stories that will last for years. A place can be your friend. A city can be something to commit to. It can be a part of you, and sometimes instead of running away, the better thing to do is commit to yourself in that place and start over where you are. Embrace the now, embrace the exact place you are standing, and make where you are what you want it to be. If you make a place your own, you'll also be making yourself who you want to be. Perhaps that's the lesson all those older folks I'm watching have learned. You can't settle down if you never stand your ground.
Meghan O'Dea is a 20-something writer, pop culture critic and social media fanatic. She can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter if you have questions, comments or stories on being a young adult in the workforce. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.