THE title of Thomas Wolfe's last work of fiction, ``You Can't Go Home Again,'' has been taken too literally. It is his phrasing we recall, but he was a writer, not a prophet. Yes, you can go home again, so long as you don't expect the place to be where you were when you were young. The longing to go back is ever present, no matter how far you've wandered. And for some of us, it's not just going back; it's going back and starting over, a daunting prospect at best. Any journey begins with a single step, and that first step occurs in the mind and in the heart. Whether you're going home where you were raised or to a place where you feel at home, it is still the first step on your way to becoming.
In my old house, in a small Georgia town, my studio looked out into a garden. A cherry laurel tree stood near the deck and was filled each day with the flutter of bright wings. I knew when I left that I'd miss the birds terribly. They had become dear to me on those long days of isolation when I worked at the typewriter.
The day I moved into the row house in the historic district of Savannah, I put up the bird feeder in the courtyard. It took about a week for the birds to discover it. A pair of cardinals arrived first, followed by the ubiquitous Savannah sparrows, then other birds came. The day after I put up the feeder, I went down the street to a small restaurant for a late lunch. The cobbled street was quiet and as I walked, I caught a glimpse of wings as overhead a huge bird moved soundlessly and disappeared into the canopy of live oak trees. Startled, I tried to find him again but he was gone. I looked around to see if anyone else had seen the bird, but the street was largely deserted except for a kid with a boom box and he couldn't have heard me if I'd asked him.
Later that day, I was out in the courtyard trying to decide where I could hang my dolphin wind chime. I looked up and saw the huge bird I'd glimpsed earlier. It was a hawk, his wingspread easily three feet as he soared on invisible currents high above the rooftops. Seeing him was an unexpected pleasure. Just as Angus, the rooster who lives across the back lane, was an unexpected pleasure. Here, in the old section of this most feminine city, churches lift slender spires above the trees. My days have become defined by church bells. Each morning, the angelus is rung from the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, a few blocks away. And as if on cue, Angus begins to crow. It is a surprising sound, and a good one.
NEW places offer more than geographical change. They also offer a mental distance from the recent past that allows you to get your life in perspective. My geographical change involved moving from a small town to a city. Remember when your grandmother used to tell you to ``be careful what you wish for, you might get it''? Well, I had what I'd wished for and now I had to deal with it. I had my change of vision but it's the change of heart, the inner vision that comes hard, that wakes you in the night.
At some point, in a new move, you find yourself alone with the sounds of the house and sounds of your heart. That second night, there were alien sounds in the night; unexpected creaks and thumps that cause the heart to pound as you listen. But there was something else to keep me awake. There were the voices in my head. I sat up in bed, watchful and alert. What have I done? I listened. Are these thoughts that challenge and second-guess? I had done what I wanted. Why do I have to be afraid now? ``Rejoice!'' echoed through the silent rooms. Or was it, ``Recant''?
These were not the still, small voices I'd learned to heed. These were more demanding, more frightening and strident. But what were these thoughts that hovered like wings in the darkness? Perhaps they're angels. The kind of angels that Anne Morrow Lindbergh wrote about in her book, ``Gift From the Sea.'' She spoke of them as ``angels of annunciation,'' angels to be reckoned with.
BECOMING anything is a journey, and along the way we have to watch for signs that presage growth. Discontent, restlessness, doubt, despair, and longing are accepted in youth as growing pains, but at mid-life are looked upon as typical crises. But signs of growth are good at any age and should be used. It's good to have a struggle. It's painful, but it's good. It's the act of becoming.
Simone de Beauvoir wrote that, ``One is not born a woman, one becomes one.'' I can write only from the female point of view. My move to Savannah had to do with becoming. A need to discover who I am and who I was after being wife and mother and general camp follower for 25 years.
New beginnings aren't always mid-life beginnings, of course. But for the first two decades of adult life, most of us, male and female, are busy raising families, trying to make it in the marketplace and establishing priorities. We don't have time for introspection. And then one day we're faced with - is this all there is? For some, the question will be tamped down, shoved to the back of the mind like last year's clothes in a mental closet. The questions are too painful and require too much thought and the possibility of change. But for some of us, not dealing with it is more painful than dealing with it. Yet you know that you're only biding time. Sooner or later, the acknowledgment that something has to be done has to be faced. ``Every angel is terrible,'' wrote Ranier Maria Rilke, 50 years ago. Our angels of annunciation must be faced, frightening though they be.
After 40, those new beginnings seem even more threatening in the face of America's emphasis on youth, action, and success. But we cannot compete with our sons and daughters - ours is a different growth. ``Who is not afraid of pure space - that breathtaking empty space of an open door? But despite fear, one goes through to the room beyond,'' writes Lindbergh. New beginnings mean that we must walk through that door, enter that space and find meaning in the act. The writer and actress, Liv Ullman, wrote: ``In search of my lost innocence, I walked out a door. At the time I believed I was looking for a purpose, but I found instead the meaning of choice.''
ON the third day in the new house, when the boxes were still to be unpacked and the house looked like a bomb had exploded, I drove to the beach, about a 20-minute ride from the house. The weather had changed from balmy to brisk. I drove to the south end of Tybee Island where a jetty extends out into the water. There used to be a real jetty there, but over the years the sands have eroded and now there are huge boulders placed there to prevent further erosion. At that time of the morning, the strand was deserted except for a young man in a wet suit, paddling a surf board in a green sea that didn't have much surf. I suppose that at that time of day most people are working and only writers and other misfits are wandering around loose.
As I stood there looking out to see, a curved fin appeared, then another, smaller one. Two dolphins, a mother and her calf, were feeding at the end of the jetty. The mother was swimming in her elegant dolphin ``roll'' while the baby popped up like a cork, still uncertain in his guise. They were dark gray, almost black, and they swam not more than 10 feet away from where I watched. I walked, or slipped my way, farther out and stopped a few feet away from them. A few minutes later, the young man in the wet suit paddled out to where they were, using his surf board as a raft as he watched them.
Do you remember how you used to hug yourself when you were a child - with anticipation or joy? Watching those two dolphins gave me such a feeling of joy that I hugged myself as I stood on the rocks watching them move so elegantly. They were so beautiful they took my breath away. And as I watched, it all came together for me. The move, the planning, the fear, the feeling of ``what have I done?'' coalesced into knowledge that whatever happened I had made the right move. My angels spoke and I listened.
Now, a month later, I look out the kitchen window to see sparrows and chickadees fighting for space on the feeder. At 10 in the morning, the air is still so moist that the hairy leaves of the scented geraniums are silvered and shining. A wren perches on the courtyard wall and looks as sturdy and serious as a Breton housewife at market.
On my daily walk, I stop to admire a pot of pansies on a neighbor's stoop. The petals, like the velvety wings of moths, are so deep a purple as to seem black. Something stirs in memory and a sense of d'ej`a vu envelopes me. I am enrobed in memory as the petals are enrobed in velvet. I am drawn to the center, to that place that Gerald Manley Hopkins wrote about where ``there is the dearest freshness deep down things.'' And even though I suffer occasional ``birthing pains,'' as you do with any creative act, I am aware of that ``dearest freshness'' that is a part of my journey, too. And on a day in winter, when the weather is so warm that camellias bloom in the courtyards along Jones Street, I rejoice that I've come home again.