Wanderlust: Why We Leave

I’m a little embarrassed by the fact that I check my mailbox daily. But I do love getting mail, especially mail from home. For me reading a letter is like a short trip away from Cambridge, a reminder of the scope of the world outside--outside of Harvard and outside of me. Yet that feeling, though itself sweet, has a certain bitter aftertaste. Letters from home leave me with an unsettling question: if I loved the place so much, why’d I leave?

It’s a question that stings. And maybe it’s an unfair question; many leave home for college or work, whether half a state or half a world away. My own parents moved away for school, leaving the small Appalachian coal town in eastern Kentucky (Inez, two creeks past Tomahawk—blink as you pass the stoplight and you’ll miss it) where generations of their families had lived. But, unlike their somewhat-economically motivated decision, my choice seems to me terribly free, a decision motivated more by some yearning opposite to my affection for home than by any necessity.

I could cite academic and career motivations, but there’s some less-easily explained impulse at the root of that decision, some kind of wanderlust. It’s an impulse that I feel poems and songs have come much closer to explaining than I have.

When I do find something that expresses an unresolved feeling like that, I get attached to it immediately. I listened to Led Zeppelin’s “Going to California” an embarrassing number of times this summer. To illustrate: it takes one hour and 45 minutes to mow my lawn—or just one Led Zeppelin song on repeat. The song, said to be inspired by Robert Plant and Jimmy Page’s mutual affection for Joni Mitchell, is a gentle mix of acoustic guitar, mandolin, and Plant’s voice at his most achingly restrained.

For me it’s become a song that not only describes but manifests my impulse to leave home. When I hear Plant sing “Someone told me there’s a girl out there / With love in her eyes and flowers in her hair,” I feel that longing for something other, something new, and I can understand—if not exactly why I left, at least what feeling made it possible for me to leave.

Only recently have I come any closer to understanding. I’m a sucker for seasonal art. Sufjan Stevens’s Christmas album will become my homework soundtrack as soon as Thanksgiving’s out. So it’s no surprise that I looked up Mary Oliver’s poem “October” midway through this month; however, Oliver’s insight into that very feeling I’ve been struggling to understand entirely surprised me.

It is, on the surface, a poem about a bear waking up in the cold weather to stalk its prey; but the last few lines, from the perspective of the hunted, felt to me like the roots of that longing to wander: “Look, I want to love this world / as though it’s the last chance I’m ever going to get / to be alive / and know it [...] and I thought / so this is the world. / I’m not in it. / It is beautiful.”

I couldn’t at first understand why that poem reminded me of leaving home, but I think now I’ve begun to figure it out: is it possible that part of my leaving home was not so much wanting to leave behind the familiar as wanting to leave behind myself. That is, to escape the feeling that I understood my surroundings, the feeling—no matter how illusory—that I somehow controlled my surroundings? Isn’t there something beautiful about coming somewhere both new to us and somehow free from us, some beauty we can see only when forcefully freed from the inescapable but illusive conviction that we already understand our surroundings?

It’s a sentiment I find echoed by one of my favorite poets, Gerard Manley Hopkins, who coupled the self-denial befitting his priesthood with an enthusiastic, inexorable affirmation of the goodness of all that is wild and challenging, new to us and outside our control: “O let them be left, wildness and wet; / Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.”

I wrote a story a couple weeks ago for a fiction workshop. It’s about a character living in Kentucky around the turn of the twentieth century, a character who leaves home around the age of 20 and returns only 20 years later when his father is deathly ill. The biggest problem my classmates had with the plot was a simple matter of motivation, something I’d glossed over in telling the story of a character whose identity was otherwise bound up with his Kentucky heritage: why did he leave in the first place? I thought about it much since class, but I’m still not sure how to answer that question. Why does anybody leave?

—Columnist Adam T. Horn can be reached at adamhorn@college.harvard.edu.

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