I came home to be with my dying father and now I feel stuck

I'm in a serious relationship in my old hometown -- am I destined to stay here?

Published October 31, 2006 11:05AM (EST)

Der Cary,

I'm a 23-year-old woman struggling with what's next. I'm from a small town and came home to help care for my father last year -- interrupting my travel plans to be with him. I don't regret it, since he passed away last summer. I'm now in a serious relationship with a local doctor I met during my dad's treatment.

My problem is that I'm not doing anything -- and it's not as though the life insurance was enough to allow me to continue this. I have some money, enough for a while at least, but I have to start thinking about work. I have a B.A. from Yale, but I don't know what's next. I have a love for travel -- in fact, I always thought I would live and work abroad. My dad's death brought me home, and my new relationship seems strong enough to keep me in the area. But to give up travel?

We grew up without a lot of money, and I'm practical. I know that I have to support myself. I also know that I need to challenge myself, which means I may have to go back to school or leave this community. It's hard. On good days, I feel free and liberated; on bad days, I feel more like a high school dropout than a college grad. How can I start to move forward again?

Exhausted -- for no reason

Dear Exhausted,

There is a reason you are exhausted. Your dad died and you're back in your hometown. Hometowns are exhausting. Death is exhausting. It's physically tiring. It weighs you down. It makes you feel heavy. I know. That's how it is.

You will pick up with your life eventually. But it won't happen right away.

I suggest meanwhile you take some deep breaths. Take stock while the train moves slowly around this bend. Take a real good look at your town. Take some photographs.

Your thirst for travel is admirable and healthy, but it is just the sunny side, the Apollonian thing, if you will, the rising above, the always new, the thrilling and interesting and always in motion thing; it's the Yale thing, the achieving thing, the getting out of this dusty old place thing. What brought you here, however, is the other dark, weighty thing of which you also are made, the sad, slow, grieving thing, the ashes to ashes and dust to dust thing: This is the thing that you're in now.

And you're asking how much longer. Well, I don't know, honey, just how long. But it's here right now that you are in it, in the small town where you're from, the slow, impossible summer and fall and the slow, impossible small-town ways, that's where you are now.

You got out of it once, didn't you? You got out of it and went to Yale and now the doctor is your boyfriend and that's all fine and good. I'm just saying right now quiet down, sit on the porch, look around you, take it in. Take some photographs of this old town when the light is good, in the early mornings and near dusk. Use a good camera and capture something of it. When you travel you take photos of the new and sparkling things you see. You photograph also the atmospheric things, and the interesting and sad things. It is a way of studying a place; it is a way of taking a place with you after you leave. So get out your camera and take pictures of your town, the people you love there, the buildings where you live and shop. Embrace the place. Enter it fully. Get it down before you're gone.

You'll be gone soon enough. Being who you are, you will be moving on, regardless, soon enough. I feel sure of that. Maybe the doctor will go with you. But more likely the doctor is something that happened in this town, a part of your father's dying and your briefly returning. Maybe you can take the doctor with you, but I'm guessing maybe not. But of course what do I know? I just put you in my fiction, as it were; it is as though I glimpsed you in a cafe and started making up a story. I do not know. But I would like to know. I would like to know what happens in the end. And I will say a prayer for your dad, wherever he is.

I am of the opinion that what one most profitably does in such conditions is one waits, alertly, at the train station. One waits to see what to do. Always if we wait, some necessity rescues us from invention; necessity scoops us up as we are wondering what to do. Necessity may not look like a big white horse. It may come in the form of an idea you have. But you have no ideas yet -- you are in the early restless and impatient phase. You have no firm, clear idea. Wait until you have a firm, clear idea. You know what that feels like. It feels like travel. It feels like a train coming.

And remember that this thing, your father's death, is a big thing. It is one of the turning points.

So go up in high places and take photos of your town. Sit in lonely abandoned lots and take pictures. Go to the old train station and take pictures.

Send me some.

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