I am 30,000 feet above the Earth, somewhere over the American mid-west, hurtling toward my hometown of Washington DC. The premise for my trip is my 25th high school class reunion, but for me, it is much more than that.
I was born in DC, at Georgetown University Hospital, and raised just outside the city in a leafy Maryland suburb that was staunchly upper middle-class at the time. After my father died, my mom did everything she could to keep us in that neighborhood on her meager salary and a government check, because the schools were some of the best in the country and the neighbors were warm and supportive. I grew up in and out of the kitchens of various neighbors. The older kids were my babysitters, and the younger ones my surrogate siblings. I felt safe, and loved, and fully unaware that I was lacking anything.
For many of my friends, DC was a city they rarely ventured into, but not so for me. Despite our financial struggles (or maybe because of them), my mom and I spent quite a bit of time downtown. DC is a town that can be enjoyed on a shoe-string, if you know how to do it. Certainly you miss out on the fabeled eateries and extraordinary theater offerings, but I grew up knowing my way around the Smithsonian museums by the time I was in middle school. The National Zoo fed my love of animals, and every Fourth of July, we spread a blanket near the Washington monument and oohed and aahed as fireworks exploded over the Lincoln Memorial. I grew up biking and roller skating through Rock Creek Park, and every year my mom would squirrel away enough pennies to dress me up and take me to the Kennedy Center, usually around Christmas time. My friends and I used the Metro to venture into all parts of the city, even those that would have sent our parents reeling, had they known. We hiked into Georgetown (not served by the Metro because, at the time of its design, the snobby muckety-mucks thought the subway would bring in “the wrong element”), and we cried over the Vietnam War Memorial, returning to school and demanding of our teachers why we were not taught about that part of history (it wasn’t yet part of the standard curriculum in the mid-1980’s, beyond a short mention).
After living in several other places, I returned to life in the city when I attended law school in DC, and got to know my hometown in entirely new ways. I lived in a historical but tired part of town that was gradually gentrifying. During my last visit, I was astonished to see how upscale it had become, but relieved that its gentrification had saved the glorious old movie theater with the balcony where I’d gone on countless dates.
It was while I was in law school that I finally followed in my dad’s footsteps and headed to Capitol Hill. I stumbled into an amazing job as a lobbyist (ahem, “advocate,” since non-profits are not allowed to lobby) for a national child welfare non-profit. It was a heady time in DC, and for me personally, although my stint in the music business had fortunately insulated me from being star-struck by mere senators or chiefs of staff. I mean, what was a White House invitation when you’d been on tour with a major rock band? I loved my work and worked harder than I ever had before or since. Fourteen-hour workdays were frequent, and my friendships revolved around my work, as is common in our nation’s capital.
Leaving DC was not difficult for me. I was ready. I was tired of the hours, tired of the stress, tired of the status-seeking behavior of those around me. I longed for a better work-life balance and for people who didn’t ask me what I did for a living within the first 30 seconds of conversation. And I wanted to have and raise a family without having to move out to the cow pastures to find an affordable home. So, when I visited Colorado and fell in love with it, I didn’t look back. And 15 years later, I rarely have.
The last time I came to DC was almost exactly 4 years ago, over Thanksgiving. Under the partially-true pretense that my dearest friend from college, Caitlyn, needed my help with her infant daughter while her husband Caleb was out of the country, I escaped to her house for nearly a week, lost in my thoughts and confusion. We ran errands, drank wine, ate brownies for dinner, and delicately unraveled the giant ball of twine that my emotions around my marriage had become. It was to Caitlyn that I first uttered the word “divorce” in reference to my own life, and it was lying awake in her guest bedroom where I finally realized that I truly didn’t love my husband anymore. I returned home more sad than when I’d left, but also more clear about the gravity of the situation in front of me. This time I will be staying at Caitlyn’s house again — my life so changed and our friendship so the same.
Some people say that you can’t go home again, and I suppose in many ways that’s true. But I would argue that it depends on what you’re seeking there. My friends in the DC area know me in ways my friends out West simply can’t, because they know where I came from, and what made me who I am. They saw me grow fundamentally into the person I became and always will be. There is something intimate in having known each other before puberty, during braces and pimples, through countless fashion disasters and relationship crises. Many of my kindergarten class will be at my high school reunion this weekend, as will the boy I lost my virginity to, and my first “frenemy.” And wedged alongside the high school reunion festivities, I will be meeting up with two more college friends whose friendships have left indelible marks on my life. These people are my life’s context, the fabric that creates the texture of my history. Somewhere along the way, life mostly evens out, and the friends we make at that point, while no less important or valuable, know only the mostly-finished product; they never glimpse the raw materials.
When I was going through my divorce, I faced all sorts of judgment and criticism from supposed friends in my community. Their reactions left me feeling betrayed and deflated. One night, while chatting with a friend I grew up with but haven’t seen in 20 years, I asked her why none of my hometown friends had asked me why I was getting divorced. “I think it’s probably because we all know you,” she said simply. “And we know that you’re smart and a good person. And we figure if you chose to do this, then it was the right thing for you to do.” Her words sustained me for weeks afterward, as I muddled through the self-doubts and fears of those early month of separation.
Washington, DC will always be my hometown, even if it’s no longer my home. When I come back to DC now, it’s not to reclaim some distant past or slip into the persona of a former me. I love the life I have made in Colorado, and I feel secure in the decisions that carried me from hometown. But sometimes… just sometimes… it’s nice to go home again and sink into the familiar, the known, and the understood. Just for a little while.