In the last few years, I’ve been thinking about the possibility of moving back to my home (or close to it) in southeast Kansas/southwest Missouri. Every time I go home, there’s this strange siren song that calls to me: “Come back! You can make a difference here! You can share your vision to help rebuild and people will follow you! Come back, Eric! Come back!”
The thing is, we live far away from most of our family. Sometimes I think I’m doing my children a disservice by being so far away from our relatives. The kids are always talking about going for a visit, but it’s such a huge undertaking to get a family of five out the front door — let alone packed for an extended visit — that it doesn’t happen nearly as much as I’d like. When I was growing up, I was no more than 60 minutes (give or take) away from my furthest grandparents. I got to know my maternal and paternal grandparents very well. As an adult, our family is spread all over the state of Kansas. Currently, it is impossible to think my children will have the same type of relationship with their grandparents (and other family members) as I did with mine, and I find that unsettling.
My 20-year high school class reunion was last year. I took my family and we had a good time. At some point, the conversation turned to how the area really wasn’t like it was when we were growing up. It’s not just the fog of nostalgia; long-term data shows the area I grew up in is one of the poorest in the state. The county I grew up in often lands on the top five of least healthy counties in Kansas. Jobs are scare, cities are dying, and to really put the icing on the cake: the Walmart in my hometown closed this year. When even Walmart can’t do business there anymore, then you know things are bad.
Or as one of my former classmates who lives in nearby Kansas City said, “I’d love to move back here, but I like making money, too.”
To put things in context, outside the True Value hardware store in the city of my birth (the hospital there closed decades ago), hangs a trampoline. Rather, it’s half of a trampoline weathered from years of exposure to the elements.
There was a time when it had a sign on it with a price. I presumed they didn’t want to take the whole thing down because it was at least showing they had the item in stock if someone wanted one in a box (you definitely didn’t want the “floor model”). During one visit, my wife and I were discussing the trampoline, and she said it had been in that condition for at least the entirety of our marriage — to date, 12 years. She even believes it looked like this when we were dating.
That stupid trampoline reminds me every time I come home of the siren’s call. I could show these people how to regain a sense of pride in their hometown. “I could bring my plan (yes, I have a detailed plan in my head) about how to fix a broken small town and restore it to some sort of greatness. I could people find the dignity they lost in a world that has forgotten them.”
I can hear my speech in my head: “True Value, tear down this trampoline!”
For years, I’ve had job search websites looking for openings around the Joplin, Mo., area with the thought that I would pack up the family and move back home. Those searches have mostly come back empty, a testament to how few jobs in the tech industry there are down there (at least any that I would be competent at). For a time, I thought that I would try another approach: I would get a job somewhere that would allow me to work remotely, and then make the move. But I found problems with that plan. “If that job didn’t work out, could I find another remote job? What if I couldn’t find another remote job in a reasonable timeframe? With not many tech jobs in that area, what would I have to do in order to make a living?”
And yet, it was a recent conversation that made me realize a hard truth: perhaps I had been lying to myself. I was talking about most of everything said in this post to a friend. The reply? “If you really wanted to move back home you would have found a way to do it by now.”
Wow. Smack me upside the head with a shovel.
I have been thinking about this a lot, and I still haven’t came to any conclusions. But the question is starting to eat at me: Have I been lying to myself?
I’m reaching a point in my life where I want to make some long-term plans for my future. I have dreams and ambitions and goals, or so I think I do. Maybe my ideas aren’t really legitimate. Maybe what I think are dreams, are instead me pining for a past that is long gone causing delusional visions of what could be.
Maybe it’s time to really re-examine a few things. This would be the week to do it. Soon we’ll pack up the kids and a minivan full of clothes for a visit to home once again during the holiday break. We’ll eat too much food. We’ll spend time with some of our extended family. I’ll even go to yet another funeral for the dad of a friend from the area (this will be the second “funeral for the dad of a friend from back home” this year). After it’s all over, I’ll think about all these things yet again during the three hour drive to where I live now.
And I would bet a crisp Benjamin that stupid trampoline will be waiting for me when I get there.