Driving around in Erie, Pennsylvania it is impossible not to see the lake.
It is everywhere, big and blue and stretching out further that you ever thought a lake could, lapping up against the beaches and bayfronts and smoothing out little flat, rounded stones perfect for slipping into your pocket or skipping across the water. Presque Isle is the best place to watch it, for a watercolor-perfect sunset or midsummer beach days, but you can catch glimpses of it everywhere. Sometimes you’ll see it as you’re driving in the golden hour of the just-before-dusk afternoon, or coming up over a hill in the mid-morning, and it is bright and so impossibly blue that you almost forget where you are, and where you are is Erie, Pennsylvania–Erie, Pennsylvania where even though it is impossible not to see the lake it is so, so easy to forget to notice it, and to see it only as one of the everyday facts of life in this city.
There are, I think, three kinds of people who really notice the lake:
- People who are capital-R Romantic and always notice the lake just as they always notice the sky, and the moon, and the way the sunlight falls through a particular tree, and the city haze in a humid Pittsburgh morning and the mountain mist in England’s Lake District, all of the small natural delights that people like the Wordsworth siblings fixated on
- People who come to Erie, new, transplanted GE families and visiting cousins and out-of-town boyfriends
- People who are saying goodbye to Erie, lifelong Millcreek kids heading out of state for college and parents preparing to resettle families, recent grads leaving to seek new opportunities in another corner of the world
I am all three of these, all three combined in one heart-in-her-eyes writer whose high school years found her a hesitant New Yorker in Erie, Pennsylvania, whose college aspirations found her a curious Pennsylvanian in the Chicago suburbs. Lake Erie is where I celebrated my fourteenth birthday just a few days after moving there. It’s where I took my best friend Nicole each time she visited, to jump the waves and watch the sunset. It’s where my best high school gal pals and I let go of balloons on the night before graduation and watched them float away, oh-so-symbolically. It’s where I insist my family go each time I am about to leave again for college, and it’s where I stood, alone, watching God paint the sky blue and orange that last night of excited-and-scared anticipation before I left for freshman orientation at Wheaton. I map my memories geographically, and Lake Erie is for me the spot of so many on-the-verge moments, the terrain of coming-and-going. A landmark that always seems to be murmuring hello and whispering goodbye. And so the times that I notice missing Erie are the times I notice the absence of the lake, the times when the Chicago sunsets over Lake Michigan just aren’t the same, the times when I drive over one of Pittsburgh’s (many, many, many) hills and realize that the big stretch of blue is a hazy, humid sky and not the lake at all. It is in these moments when I feel far away, when I feel the loss of childhood, and when I feel homesick for not a place but an idea–an idea of what it means to be from somewhere.
A week ago, my family moved two hours south from Erie to the hills just north of Pittsburgh, a little corner of the world where I have already been living (in a temporary, rental-apartment, easily-packed-suitcase sort of way) since May in order to intern with an arts nonprofit downtown. A week ago, I “made the juicier choice” and went to Erie for one last weekend, to say goodbye to the house on Inverness Terrace, the friends, the favorite coffee shop, and the lake that colored my life for four years of high school and for these past two years of college were where I went when I said I was “going home.”
As much as a person can be, I am used to moving. Taped-up cardboard boxes and moving trucks, waits in the DMV for new license plates and adjustments to different grocery store chains are as much a part of my childhood memories as Disney movies (and a much bigger part of my childhood memories than Pokémon, which I have recently discovered is Weird.) It is hard to imagine having a life that was not lived in a lot of different places. The feeling of sitting in a car as it rolls away from a place you’ve called home is as familiar to me as my favorite copy of Little Women. But the last time I did these sorts of things and said these sorts of goodbyes I was almost-fourteen. Which is a very different age and set of circumstances than now, at almost-twenty.
Moving away from a place that you have already said goodbye to is a strange thing to do– not really any easier or harder than the moving away that I’ve grown up on, but very, very different. You feel placeless and disoriented and lost and like there is nothing solid to stand on. You can’t remember which roots you transplanted to the college quad and which you left in your hometown backyard, which pieces of you made it into your suitcase and which ones are still hanging in your bedroom closet. You’re not sure what will make you cry and what you have already cried over and so you’re not sure how to go about the messy process of preparing your heart for a new goodbye. Because I already did all this, when I left for college. And it still hurts now. It still hurts, and it is not fair to me or to Erie to pretend that it does not. So that was why I went back to Erie for one very intentional last weekend, and I cried on the way to one last coffee date with my friend Christina and I cried as I made one last late-night drive away from my friend Colin’s house. I invited myself to notice all the landmarks of the four years that I lived, really lived in Erie, all the specificities of a teenage hometown–the Indian restaurant where I had my first date, the neighbor’s house where I worked my first babysitting job, the stoplight I almost ran during my driver’s test (oops). I dragged my mom and sister to my favorite brunch place, my favorite dinner place, my favorite ice cream place. I stood in Lake Erie, my place of hello-and-goodbye and mourned the closing of a chapter as I watched one last sunset. But it was hard to get a sense of finality about a goodbye that I have never associated with permanence. The place you leave to go to college is the place you go back to, the place where goodbyes are only for a time being. Erie is my place to go back to. Even now it is only two hours away from the Pittsburgh-suburb Starbucks where I’m writing this essay, and I’ve already gone back once for a very, very poorly planned dentist appointment. And so closure seems like an impossible goal, and also a little bit of unnecessary one. How do you teach your heart to leave a place when it doesn’t really feel like a place that can be left?
But I think the second strangeness of this almost-twenty moving away is the more distressing. Because I can’t decide how much to settle, how much to unpack, because at almost-twenty it is hard to know to what extent your family’s home should also be your home. I’m not sure if I should continue thinking of Pittsburgh as a pleasant-but-temporary place to live for the summer, or start thinking of it as New Home. Do I move all the letters and pictures from the rental apartment walls to “my bedroom” in the new house? Or do I put them in a box to take straight to Wheaton? How much time, how much of my heart do I dedicate to making this new space a home when I don’t know when or if I will actually live here for longer than a few weeks at a time? When I drove away from Erie last weekend listening to the songs that made up the soundtrack of my four years in high school, I cried and cried and cried. When I called Aaron that night trying to process the feeling of leaving and the strangeness of an apartment that didn’t feel familiar anymore even though I had slept there almost every night of the summer, I cried and cried and cried. And I think what I was crying for was the last place where I lived at home as a matter of course, the last place where I had memories of being younger-than-now. Erie is the last place where I could pretend that I am not growing up. This new place of Pittsburgh makes it impossible for me to ignore the reality of right now, the reality of almost-twenty.
I don’t know the answers to any of these questions, the meaning or the connections between any of these thoughts. That is why I am writing about them, because sometimes writing means clarity and sometimes it means more questions but either way these words, and sharing them, let me invite you into this space of uncertainty with me. They let me unzip my heart enough to be something other than alone as I try to follow Rainer Maria Rilke’s advice and “love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and books that are now written in a very foreign tongue…perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
The six years I called Erie home are a question I still don’t know the answer to, a chapter I don’t know how to connect with the larger story arc. I spent so much time this summer, and particularly last weekend, trying to figure out what Erie meant, why God put me there and why leaving it was hard, and concluded nothing more that it was okay to still have part of my heart there even if I didn’t know why. I think a lot of leaving might be not knowing why, at least not here in the now-and-not-yet. But please, come with me anyways. I am going to break new ground with hometown soil still in my pockets, and I am going to find a new lake to notice, and I am going to try very hard to love the questions themselves, and I would love to have you along for the ride.