My experiences growing up on Long Island and the resulting outcome are not unique to me or the southeastern appendage of New York State; from major cities to small rural towns there will always be people who want to stay in their hometown and people who run like hell. Falling into the latter category, I could not get out Carle Place or off of Long Island fast enough. Unlike many people with long lists of reasons to count down the days until their High School graduation, I actually had trouble articulating the motivation behind the desire to flee. Life was pretty good; tight group of friends, close relationship with family, good grades, skip to the beach, short train ride to Manhattan, and somewhat decent levels of popularity. Leaving everyone to go away to college was hard; deciding never to move back was even harder. After nearly 15 years since my departure from the Empire State I still miss my friends and family yet never regret leaving Long Island.
Being the big fish in a little pond does have some advantages; comfort, security, and admiration to name just a few. The thing with fish is they only grow as big as the tank they are in; humans are no different. For some people High School is the best it will get, the glory days, and it is all down hill from there. We all know people whose best moments in life involved scoring the winning points in the closing seconds of a game, receiving a standing ovation in the high school musical or being published in the school newspaper. Twenty years after the fact they still relive those glory days, unable to let go of the past and make something bigger out of their future. While this fate does not happen to everyone, I feared that if I didn’t get away it would happen to me; my personal growth dependent on getting out of my small, comfortable pond. No matter where I grew up I would have wanted to leave, explore new environments and discover things beyond the familiar. Familiarity breeds contempt.
My fear of life peaking in High School was so intense that it was a focus of many conversations with my guidance counselor whose honestly was something I still appreciate. His words of wisdom, that life does go downhill for many people after high school and it was my choice whether it would happen to me or not, still resonate in my head in times of uncertainty and doubt. Progressing through more school, through my career, and through life I am often reminded of this lesson and remember it is my choice whether my best days are behind me or still yet to come.
I am envious of those who thrive in the comfort of a stable, familiar environment. Some people need roots, some need wings. I needed to get out of the pond, try a different pond, jump into a lake, swim upstream, deep dive in an ocean, or stomp in a puddle to experience the world, otherwise I would drown. Even moving to a smaller pond forces adaptation to new surroundings, evolution of new personality traits and defense mechanisms to survive and thrive a new situation. Changing and growing, pushing myself beyond my comfort zone, brings challenges to my career and relationships. Just when I get comfortable I start asking “what’s next;” struggling to strike a balance between stability and freedom, wanderlust always pushing me to look beyond the horizon, to avoid the suffocation of growing into my surroundings.
Ironically when I return to my hometown today I am no longer the big fish who everyone knows, but more like a fish out of water, unable to fit into my surroundings. Carle Place, Long Island and New York have all changed some in 15 years. Oscar Wilde’s famous quote, “Life imitates art far more than art imitates Life,” is all too apparent; people look and act more like the women of Real Housewives of New York City, the boys from Growing Up Gotti, or the Dina Lohan than the Seavers in Growing Pains. What really makes me a stranger in a strange land in has little to do with the place I called home for over 13 years and everything to do with changes in me, the changes from seeing new places, meeting people from all over the world, and discovering new facets to my own personality. The old saying “you can’t go home again” used to confuse me but with each visit to place of my childhood memories the meaning became all too clear; home has nothing to do with physical location but everything to do with state of mind.