Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are—
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
—Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Ulysses
Last night my roommate came back from an improptu weekend of surfing, camping, and beachcombing in Montauk, New York. He stumbled into the room under the weight of his bags and board, bleary-eyed. He hadn’t brushed his teeth in four days and his last shower had come only hours before he returned to Philadelphia. His hair was oily and stiff against his bristly, wind-brushed cheeks. He kicked off his shoes and went right for the Crest. While leaning out of the bathroom, recounting his adventures with a toothbrush adding an uncommon lisp to his words, he pulled off his flannel jacket and tossed it onto the bed. In the whoosh of jacket-hitting-bed, the slight breeze that spread and just as quickly disappated, I caught a whiff of something familiar: smoke.
No, not that kind of smoke: the smoke of a campfire, heavy, wooden, pungent. The kind of scent one catches floating through the air in the fall, when the temperature assumes a sort of crispness and leaves begin to crackle under your feet. It’s the odor that lingers from my roommate’s nights spent building campfires on the beach, but it’s also the smell of my grandfather’s wood stove, thick black smoke billowing from the rattling tin chimney, that heady perfume rising up from furnace in the basement, clinging to every inch of fabric, to your clothes, your hair.
It made me think about everything that’s different now that I’m living in Philadelphia and not able to go home at my convenience, to revisit the spots of my childhood and adolescence with a quick car ride from main campus. Coming to Messiah College wasn’t much of a leap for me: my mother worked there, many of my friends from church already attended, and even more members of my congregation had jobs as faculty or staff members. What’s more, the drive from my house to campus only takes about thirty mintues, which made returning home for family functions and the rare emergency simple and uncomplicated. If I wanted a home-cooked meal, I called my mom and invited friends. If I wanted a few hours at my high school job, I called my boss and put a hold on my weekend plans. And the sensations of my adolescence—the sights, the smells, the sounds—remained commonplace, typical, unsurprising. I went home, and they were there, just as always. I hadn’t even missed them.
Now I’m in Philadelphia. If I want to go home, I pay for a train ticket or make a call to my parents, establish an appropriate time, map out the most convenient interstate route, skip classes or rearrange my R.A. responsibilities. And I’ve given up my old jobs in favor of a life experience I can’t get shelving books at my local library or sitting behind a desk at the College’s Office of Marketing and Public Relations.
And what’s more, the sensations are noticeably different. If I smell smoke in the city, it means there’s a building on fire. If I hear leaves crackle under my feet, I’m probably standing in the tiny backyard plot behind my row house or on the path of a cleverly planned city park.
My roommate’s smoke-drenched jacket reminded me of something I had lost in coming to this city: the sensations of home. I can recall them so clearly now: the smell of smoke churning from the chimey. The whisper of wind through a grove of pine trees. The glint of a descending sun behind a ridge of oak trees on a distant hill. The infrequent whoosh of a tractor-trailer coming away from the factory. The chirping of crickets on a quiet evening.
I think every writer should experience a dramatic change in scenery at least once in their lives. It sharpens the mind a recalibrates the senses. I’ve become accustomed to the steady flow of traffic down Broad Street, the honking of horns, the angry shouting, the metallic echo and lumbering shudder of the subway running beneath me. I’m used to stepping on trash rather than leaves. And I’m used to the sun setting against a backdrop of jagged man-made towers. And I can write about these with very little force of imagination.
Before my roommate came back smelling like an nineteenth-century chimney sweep, I had forgotten about the smell of the furnace. Removing myself from the familiar caused me to forget—and, now, to yearn. Now I want to recreate it more than anything; I want to relive it with my words. Moving to the city made me realize what I was missing at home, what I had taken for granted. It’s a humbling feeling.