As I walk past the Undergraduate Science Building, the early September sunset paints a gradient from blue to orange on the reflective windows. I should be wowed by this: the brilliant sky, the comfortably warm weather, my first week back on campus. Instead, my mind wanders back to the streets of my youth. The suburban ones with single-family ranches dotting the sides of the road, the quiet ones that couldn’t quite keep high-school me satisfied, the long ones that had iterations of car dealerships and fast-food restaurants for miles. The streets that resemble a midwest automobile wasteland. Yet here I was, eight days after moving in, yearning to touch the ground that I had so happily left.
How did I get here?
I have lived in Grand Rapids, Mich., for the vast majority of my life, only moving once before that from Brooklyn, N.Y. This first move happened just after kindergarten, and by the time first grade was over, I had thoroughly exhausted my teachers and peers with my fun fact about being from the Big Apple. How many five-year-olds can say they just came from the cultural center of the Western world? At North Park Elementary, I was the only one, and took a unique pride in where I was born, despite only having lived there for five years — eighteen months of which I actually remember.
This affection for New York stood in stark contrast to my feelings towards Grand Rapids. Our modest yard, which enthralled my urbanite parents, did not live up to the hype (in my five-year-old opinion). The grass was brown and dry from midsummer’s heat and prickled the soles of my feet with disdain. In Michigan, there was no subway system to whisk our family around, only minivans and five-lane roads. The crickets and cicadas nonstop symphonies scared my brother and me to tears while trying to sleep on our first night. The city — or should I call it a town — was too small and too far away from the childhood I knew and loved.
This negative first impression of Grand Rapids created a pessimistic lens through which I viewed the city for the remainder of my time there. It was much too hot and humid in the summers, with 90º becoming less foreign and more annoying. The limited activities within walking distance weren’t as much as a problem while my younger brother and I required parental supervision, but as we grew independent, the entertainment desert that existed within our lush, tree-lined streets became painfully obvious. By high school, my friends and I would simply drive from strip malls to chain restaurants and back again, the asphalt roads a conduit to a cure for boredom. Exciting events on the weekend included hunting the aisles of big box stores for Squishmallows or discount holiday candy, a place to exist away from our families and school.
I had always hoped that my parents would move somewhere else, swooped to the West coast by the winds of a new job, or a lack of inspiration from this silly midwest river town. They consistently lamented the conservative politics, the name of rich corporate executives plastered on every vertical surface and the culture scene that was small enough to make their art school sensibilities feel claustrophobic. Somehow, my father’s sisters and mother were enough of a glue for us to stay put, and my parents have now lived there longer than they did in the Big City. I graduated high school with the determination to not do the same.
And so I ended up in Ann Arbor, barely saying goodbye to my dad when he dropped me off at East Quad Residence Hall on that late August afternoon. There were things I missed about home of course: my cats, my family, my own space. Nevertheless, I relished my freedom in a new city. Stringing together extended itineraries of campus events, bike rides to new parts of the surrounding city, trying new dining halls and eateries under the changing leaves and crisp skies of fall. I avoided home over Fall Break, instead opting for a backpacking trip in the Upper Peninsula. By the time Thanksgiving recess appeared on my calendar, my parent’s house was foreign. Even though it felt good to be home for the holidays, my Grand Rapids cabin fever caught up to me by Christmas, and Ann Arbor was the place I would have rather been.
Similarly, winter semester went by without visiting home once, until University Housing’s infamous pandemic email kicked me and my hallmates out of the dorms. In an instant, living with my parents in Grand Rapids went from a rarity to reality. There was a sense of premature conclusion when my mom and I pulled into the driveway of my childhood home, under the drab gray sky of mid-March. Though I felt a new sense of ease, this breath of release from uptempo university life soon became a sleepy trudge through online school. My decorated desk at school was now a laptop on top of a clothing storage bin. My limbs hurt in this crouched position, their only movement being between computer tabs. My need for variety hurt as well. I did homework, interspersed class with three half-prepared meals, watched TV and went to sleep, all within 20 paces of each other. As final exams faded into early summer, I woke up in the same bed, ate the same food and lived with the same people. The only ounce of change I experienced was the season I saw outside my window.
I sought to make some change for myself, and rode my bike extensively around the city on my days off from my return at my high school job. I rode along rivers, traced trails and biked through the sloping subdivisions and tired traffic lights of my hometown. Without the typical hum of midwesterners driving the streets, the city spoke for itself in a way. I went through neighborhoods I knew existed but never got to know, digging into the landscape that shaped my youth, stripped back from the rhythms of daily life.
By the end of that monotonous stay-at-home summer, I was ready to move back to Ann Arbor, even if it only was for a new laptop background. I felt like I knew Grand Rapids, or at least a version of it, inside and out, and a change of scenery was necessary. I vowed to never spend that much time at my parent’s house again. I quickly accustomed myself to a new routine, immersing myself in the new hybrid world of school and work for the semester.
Once in a while, I would see classmates from high school walking through the nearly empty landscape of a university online. We would talk, trade surface-level feelings and anecdotes, before eventually turning to Grand Rapids as something we had in common. Through these conversations, we shared snapshots of our favorite views coming into the city: the skyline rising in the distance driving north on US-131, the lookout from the west side bluffs looking over the river. These were visual cues of knowing that we were home, we were safe and we would soon be in the calm of our childhood bedrooms. This came as a surprise for me: actively wanting to return to my roots. This initial feeling of familiar comfort is what I realized I miss most about being home, and the thought of upcoming semester breaks tempted me to relive that experience.
Distance makes the heart grow fonder, and the same proved true about Grand Rapids. Though there was less to do than ever during my extended pandemic stint at my parent’s house, something about the homogenous nature of my time at home made that okay, and made me appreciate the calmness of society’s relative standstill. I became more comfortable with boredom, and more mundane activities like going on walks and waving to neighbors became highlights of my existence. I once despised the place I came from because it was so familiar, so last year, so boring. To be separated from my former self by geography was something I was grateful for. However, being away from home has illuminated facets of a more reliable daily routine that I now miss, and places that I once dismissed as too suburban, too normal, glimmer positively in my memory.
This past summer, in an effort to differentiate from that of 2020, I took jobs that pulled me away from Grand Rapids, and I was gone from my parent’s home save a couple of weeks in May and some days in August. I relished my independence and freedom that came with the distance, but perhaps I did not give myself enough breathing room, forgetting about the valuable oxygen that comes with leisure time at home — the sense of refreshment it gives before moving on to a new academic year. I underestimated my hometown, and upon my eventual return, I hope that I will savor the sunsets that reflect off my living room window; coloring my childhood street with a rose-colored tint, and my memories of it the same.
Statement Correspondent Oscar Nollete-Patulski can be reached at email@example.com.