Leaving the Gate Open

Greensboro has been my longest holdover as an adult. I arrived in June of 2016 to take a job with UNCG. Since I finished my bachelor’s degree in May of 2000, I’ve never lived anywhere longer than three consecutive years, and North Carolina is the seventh state I’ve lived in since 2000. I lived in Boulder, Colorado, for nine years overall, but that was over four separate periods of time between August of 2001 and October of 2015. I did three years in East Texas for my PhD, but spent those summers in Portland, Oregon, and then returned to Oregon for seven months before moving to Carolina. In between all that, I moved back to Illinois for a master’s degree, and I did short stints in rural Mississippi and Southern California as well. I say “did” for Texas, Mississippi, and California because they seemed like open air prisons to me at the time; to an outsider it would’ve appeared I had freedom, but I could never really leave, and I didn’t really “enjoy” my time there. The day I moved away from each of those states are counted as some of my happiest …

I’ve never called anywhere home, aside from my birthplace of Urbana, Illinois, a place I have zero desire to return to. I imagine after my parents die, I won’t return often, if ever, so that will sever all ties to what used to be known as home. I don’t consider Greensboro home either, but it will do for now. It’s more than adequate in a number of ways, less so in others. But this essay isn’t about pointing out the shortcomings of any city or my aspirations for another, it’s simply about leaving, and understanding the complexity of trying to make somewhere a “home” while you’re there, even when it never really feels like it.

As a kid, I always had wanderlust. If you could say I had any goals, it was to leave Illinois far behind. And I’ve done that, seemingly, so maybe that can be charted as a success. It came relatively early in life so maybe the rest of what I’ve done since can be chalked up as a series of anticlimactic events; maybe I need to set new goals.

Now, far more adventurous souls than I have made an enviable and mystifying life out of nomadism, including doing so across numerous continents, but I view my wanderings as more of trial-and-error, heavy on the latter and an exercise in the discovery of the self. Life is about cultivation and overcoming obstacles and setbacks, so I’d like to think I’ve become wiser, or at the very least, accepting of my lack of wisdom – sometimes that’s more important anyways. I’ve certainly learned that the older I get the less interaction I need with people, and the more I appreciate my time spent in the company of trees – with my dog, of course.

One thing I learned, essentially out of necessity, is that when you move around often, and never really settle down anywhere along the way, it’s hard to become part of something outside of yourself, and it’s hard to make lasting friendships, especially if you’re just biding your time. Until I moved to Carolina, I towed along stacks upon stacks of boxes, rarely opening most of them, and certainly never unpacking any of them, because I knew, eventually, I would be moving on. I was short on commitment, certainly to anywhere and anyone, and maybe also to myself.

It has been a restless life, which is ironic for someone who seeks nothing more than to fade into the background and be left alone; you’d think if that’s all I wanted, rest would come easy. But, like the dog who can’t get settled, I turn around in my “bed” time and time again, scratching, pawing, trying to build something that resembles a comforting nest – a home – only to not be able to get it just right, ever. And why is that?

Another thing that makes it harder for me to even want to settle down is not feeling a sense of fulfillment. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’ve made some very good friends along the way who are scattered across the country and whom I do very well at keeping in touch with, and I’ve certainly had more than my share of good times as well, but good times and good friends don’t always equal fulfillment, not when you’re restless and looking ahead to the next stop.

It seems I’m always on that proverbial crossroads, but I don’t feel I’ve been given the opportunity to sell my soul. I would, but no one’s buying… I am, finally, in a career that I love, one that seems to capture as many of the attributes as one could realistically want: freedom, creativity, a sense of control, intellectual rigor, and the ability to help sculpt young minds, so there is nothing to complain about there. I realize how lucky I am to have this job – they don’t come easy in this field – but I also know how hard I worked to get it. But I’m left to wonder how my expectations have changed since I first moved here in June of 2016; as I enter the second half of my life (if I’m lucky to live that long), have new goals emerged? Should they?

One of the few things I’ve ever said to anyone that I thought had any resemblance to a statement of profundity was right before I moved from Boulder, Colorado (my third stop there) to College Station, Texas, to start my doctorate. I was sitting at my local watering hole a few days before I departed and a long-haul trucker and I started to chat. He was telling me about all the places he’d been, where he liked and where he didn’t, then asked me about where I was headed to. When I told him he said, “Good luck; that’s hard-living in that part of the country.” I chuckled because I’d visited and knew it couldn’t hold a candle to the natural beauty of Colorado and its rich social and recreational opportunities, and I said to him in reply, off-the-cuff, “Place is a subjective reality, largely dependent on your expectations. If you expect a bad time, you’ll have one.” He smiled and nodded, returning to his beer and me to mine.

I was going to Texas for one thing and one thing only: to earn a PhD. I certainly wasn’t going there to become part of the fabric, and I wasn’t looking to make long-lasting friendships. This was business, and I accepted my fate of doing hard time in one of the hottest, most humid, flattest, most conservative, and ugliest cities this country has in its stock. There wouldn’t be much time for restlessness there; the ends would justify the means. And now, here I am, in Greensboro, North Carolina, what I guess would have been the “ends” to the “means” I set out to find back in 2011 when I started my PhD program.

Looking back over a history of sometimes aimless wandering, sometimes intentional, I have to wonder: should I leave the Gate City open, or should I swing the Gate closed and stay a while? After all, you can’t make a home without offering a commitment, and all this moving around makes me restless.

Justin Harmon, PhD, is an assistant professor in the Department of Community and Therapeutic Recreation at UNCG. He studies the role of music in life course development as well as the importance of time spent in nature to recovering from cancer. He prefers to spend his time in the forest with his dog (ideally out West), reading, and when there isn’t a pandemic, you can find him at a concert between 50-100 times a year.

Posted in The Week in Black and White.