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Back in the 'Burgh: Catching up with home, and myself

| Sunday, Sept. 17, 2006

Home is where the heart is.

As a Boston-area resident who has been living away from Pittsburgh, where I grew up, for almost seven years, I still can't bring myself to disagree with this old cliche -- however tired and saccharine it may be.

My parents, my sister, my grandparents, the beige, colonial-style house where I rode out the swells of my childhood and adolescence, my room with its various collections of plastic trophies, skateboarding T-shirts and amateur artwork, the lush green yard I traced with the lawnmower a thousand times -- all of this is back in Pittsburgh. And although I enjoy life in New England and have grown accustomed to the pulse of a new city, I have to admit Pittsburgh is where my heart is, too.

I'm willing to vouch for this most hackneyed of sayings because, after years of holiday homecomings and too-soon farewells, I've realized something about my home and about my relation to it. It's something I discover anew each time I pass through the airport's sliding doors and take a breath of that crisp, strangely metallic Pittsburgh air, or when I crawl under my weighty old comforter for the first time in months and suddenly feel larger, more complete. While I don't think we necessarily lose a part of ourselves when we leave a place we love (though sometimes it feels that way), I do think there's something to be said for the way a place we truly know can make it that much easier to know ourselves.

When I come home to Pittsburgh, more often than not, something happens. Sometimes it happens right away, sometimes gradually, but almost always something inside me clicks. A kind of fog is lifted. The world looks simpler. I ease into myself. I'm sure this sensation has a lot to do with familiarity and memory, the comfort that comes with revisiting the places and people that shaped and sustained us. But I think there's more to it than that, because these moments of hometown self-awareness aren't just about looking back at my personal history in the Steel City, they're also about looking forward.

The heart serves us in various ways. In one sense, it's a reservoir of our past, a record of what we've done and what we've felt. But the heart also works like a compass, drawing us on according to its own uniquely calibrated needle. And often, when I'm back home in Pittsburgh, I find my compass is easiest to read.

My moments of greatest clarity have occurred there. Personal struggles, matters of love, livelihood and vocation -- all those big, scary life decisions that seem like they'll never be resolved as I grapple with them in Boston, can take on a new simplicity if I pose the same questions while sitting on my parents' kitchen counter in Pittsburgh.

I'm not saying I always (or ever) come away with definite answers, but usually just being home is enough to point me toward the things I care about most. The things that, for me, are the most decent, enticing and fulfilling. The things most worth going after. I'm reminded not only of the person I was and am, but also of the person I want to be.

So maybe home isn't exactly where the heart is. Maybe it's where the heart is best able to hear itself beat, to make sense of its own peculiar music. Where the glass on our compass is the least cloudy.

So, my advice to anyone who's stuck on one of life's innumerable questions: Take that trip home. With any luck, you'll find yourself that much closer to the heart of the matter.

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