When I was 25 I decided to quit my job and move back in with my parents. Before I moved, I was living on the coast of San Diego County, working for a newspaper in Del Mar, where I was the only reporter and photographer. I worked less than 35 hours a week and could surf before and after work—sometimes surfing during work hours if the waves were good enough and I had my three stories for the week in.
It was a good gig, but I was writing a novel and California was too distracting and too expensive to live there unemployed. So I left my shortboard with a friend in Encinitas and packed my car for my parents’ farm in western Nebraska. I gave it three months before I would finish the last quarter of the book, revise it, send out queries, get published, and either move back to the beach or anywhere else I wanted to live. I had no idea a year and a half later I would still be living at home.
There wasn’t much else to do but finish the novel, and as I waited months for editors and agents to respond, I realized I had terribly misjudged the speed of the publishing industry. I had misjudged a lot of things.
As it turned out, the newspaper in my hometown was hiring. The paper was larger than the one I had just left, and an editor in California had once advised me that if I “could handle a Midwestern winter or two—most people can’t—I could turn the experience into something useful for my resume.”
Looking back on it today, working for the newspaper in my hometown was one of the best journalism experiences I’ve had in my career. But still, living in the house I had left at 18, been trying to leave since I was 16, when I was supposed to be free, independent, and living out in the world? It was a tough reality to accept.
There is an implied cowardice in moving back in with your parents that is hard to shake. Going back home is an anti-Old World America move. It’s anti-self reliance. Anti-Emerson. Everything we’re taught growing up is that to be a good, strong American it must involve a lack of dependency on others. To ask for help is to be weak. Crawling back to the nest is mocked.
Some days when I was supposed be out covering the new tractors at the Farm and Ranch Museum I would instead sneak in a poker game with my Dad and his friends. They liked to tease me about finally being able to pay rent each time I won a hand. If you asked my parents they would say they loved having me home. If you asked me at the time I would have said something different.
My cousin got married that spring and at the wedding I met a girl that was also home for a number of complicated reasons. We had gone to the same school out in the country, two in a class of seven, but weren’t really that close after we went into town for high school. While I was in college and later in California she was in Oregon and Montana and Hawaii. Neither of us knew that much about the world. Both of us knew we would rather have been out it in than back in Nebraska.
Before we started dating, in the early part of the summer, one night we drove up to my father’s farm by the same school we had attended as kids. She was driving and we when we got to the alfalfa field I asked her to stop. It was around midnight, the moon just imperfect enough to not be full—its light giving the sky a dim glow and making the stars less detailed, less clear than they normally would have been. We got out of the car and walked into the field, the alfalfa fragrant, about to bloom.
In those first few weeks we often talked about the places we would rather be. That night she was talking about Tonga. I was talking about Brooklyn. Now that I write this, knowing it took me six years from that day to finally get there, to even see it, I wonder why I didn’t go then. Right then. That next morning. Back then I had a car I could sell. I had friends there. I could have left, but I didn’t. Maybe I wanted to wait until I knew a little more about the world. Maybe I already had hope for us. Anyway, I stayed through that summer. The job got better. I was saving money and helping my career. We fell in love enough to give the Plains a real shot and found ways to make our lives seem beautiful and unique.
We did a lot of things we imagined not many people our age were doing. We herded bulls on horseback. We watched dozens of blue herons soar, with their slow, prehistoric-seeming grace, over a mostly frozen North Platte River. We stood in a pasture on a mustang ranch and were surrounded by wild, roaming horses. We grew an enormous garden—when you’re living on a farm you have all the land you need. Two kids who had badly wanted to leave Nebraska figured out a way to find the good in it. Now I’m excited when I go back and visit. I see it differently.
Out of everything, though, the most valuable part of moving back home was how I got to rebuild my relationship with my parents. When you’re a bad teenager, either you do something major to restore your parents’ trust in you, or you live as strangers and live with the guilt.
Moving in with them at a time when I mostly had my life together changed everything between us. They were around me as I went to work and lived as an adult. My mom and I usually left the house for town at about the same time. I talked to them about the stories I was working on—a strike at the sugar factory, a protest at the Native American reservation across the Nebraska-South Dakota border, a change in state legislation banning hog farms from dumping in trout streams.
We drank wine together at dinner and I would get them to talk to me about their childhood. We’re friends now. Equals. It never would have happened if I had been too proud to move back home.