From the Notebook of R.B. Ripley: Severing the Umbilical Cord or: How I Learned to Love Pittsburgh Without The Guilt of Having Left
I know writing about dreams is hackneyed. But most of my life, I’ve had an odd relationship with dreams, which have served one of two functions for me. The first function being that dreams help me understand that a situation or decision over which I am stressed is going to be just fine. I won’t go into details because it involves déjà vu and I know lots of people think that’s hocus pocus.
The second function my dreams serve is problem solving. Not mundane questions, like what should I serve at my next dinner party, but the really big ones I face – should I quit my job and move sight unseen to a city I’ve never even visited? You get the idea.
Last night I had a dream that finally revealed the answer to my oldest and most complex problem, one which has haunted me for 27 years: Can I say goodbye to my hometown of Pittsburgh once and for all?
So, here’s what went down…
I’m in a room with about thirty people. We’re sitting in a circle. The leader stands.
“Welcome to this week’s meeting of the Pittsburgh Diaspora support group,” says a sixty-ish woman who reveals herself as a Pittsburgher herself when the tone of her voice statement rises at the end of the statement like a question.
“Today, we’re welcoming a new member, Rob Ripley who’s currently living in Los Angeles and has been recovering from Pittsburgh since a 1983 departure. She gestures to me and I wave a little uncertainly.
“Um. Hi, my name is Rob… and I’m from Pittsburgh.”
“Hi Rob!” says the roomful of folks all wearing the familiar look of embarrassment mixed with hope.
“Tell us a little about your journey from Pittsburgh to today,” says the instructor.
“Well, um, I was born in Mt. Washington, moved to Dormont and then Bethel Park before my dad’s job transferred us to Texas,” There’s a collective gasp from the crowd sitting in the circle. Texas?! I hear them murmuring, trying to make sense of this.
I clear my throat, “Sometime last year, I finally admitted that I’ve never gotten over leaving Pittsburgh. Did anyone else go through this?” Every single person sitting in the circle raises a hand. I am overwhelmed. All these years, I thought I was alone.
“Go on,” the leader gently encourages. So I do:
“Denial (1983 – 1986). Our family flew back to Pittsburgh from Houston for every major holiday. Didn’t change a single thing in how we celebrated, despite living 1,200 miles from Pittsburgh. Even in the days before the TSA, this was not easy nor did it bring much joy to the holiday. It also kept us from “investing” in our new city.
Anger (1987 – 1997). In order to achieve happiness, I decided that I had to forget about Pittsburgh, abolish it from my memory. Nevertheless, in college and joining the ranks of the working class in Texas, I felt very alone, as though I were the sole person sticking up for Pittsburgh in very hostile territory. I decided that excising Pittsburgh was the only solution. So when asked, my reply would be “I’m from Houston.”
Depression (1998 – 2000). As a gay man, I was expunged from Texas. Overwhelmed and hopeless, frustrated, bitter, and without a sense of self, I moved around from Boston to New York to Los Angeles. But nothing seemed to work. I was still in Pittsburgh’s gravitation pull.
Bargaining (2001 – 2010). I decided to get my master’s degree from Carnegie Mellon. Rationale: If I went back to Pittsburgh as an adult, then surely I would come away with clarity and an easy separation from the mother ship. An MFA and $75,000 in student loans did not achieve this. I was out of ideas.
Acceptance (2011 – Death). Watching the Steelers play yesterday and win a trip to the Super Bowl, I finally allowed myself to finish grieving for my loss of Pittsburgh. Sitting in a bar with other displaced Yinzers and watching a Heinz stadium filled with locals rallying around a common goal, something just clicked. I was free from Pittsburgh and free to be from Pittsburgh without any extra baggage. Pittsburgh, like the idea of God, is everywhere.”
I finish telling all this to the group and there is silence. Some people smile and nod knowingly. One woman brushes a tear from her cheek. A small man in the back wearing a puffy, black winter Steelers jacket starts to applaud. I am surprised that my own tears of happiness begin to fall.
Yes, I’ve been gone from Pittsburgh almost twice as long as I lived there. But never have I felt the same sense of home, of community as I did in Pittsburgh – not Houston, not Casper, Wyoming, not Boston, New York, or Los Angeles. And I know that there are folks out there who’ve gone through this with their own hometown, whether that’s Cincinnati or Seattle, Denver or Charlotte, St. Louis or Minneapolis.
No, I’m not saying any of those places aren’t great communities and yes, I acknowledge that impressions made on us when we’re young seem stronger, or bigger, or more complete than those made as adults. But there’s something about Pittsburgh that’s just, well, different. And different, as we all know is a double-edged sword.”
“Is there something else you’d like to say to the group.” says the leader,
‘I think… well, um you see…,” I look at my hands which are clenched together. “I really miss Pittsburgh.”
“We love you, Rob!” the group exclaims and descends on me for the best group hug. Ever
I woke up this morning and my first thought was, “I’m from Pittsburgh.” And it didn’t cause my heart to race or feelings of abandonment or guilt to overwhelm me. My relationship to ‘da Burgh has changed. For the better. Sure it’s still there, but now I know it’s something that completes me rather than diminish.
Today, when so many of us move around, far from families and hometowns, it is good to be grounded in where we came from. But for us to really flourish as individuals and communities, we need to actively create those experiences that make life meaningful and shared wherever we are today. The kind I had… in Pittsburgh.
But the best part of my new relationship with my hometown is knowing that I can always go back if I need to. Pittsburgh always leaves a light on.
featured image credit: ecstaticist