Friday, December 30, 2016

Chasing Shadows

I've been back in Omaha, Nebraska for nearly three weeks now, and it's been terrific and strange at the same time.

Omaha is an unsuspecting Great Plains city. It's unpretentious and pleasant. To East and West Coasters, it's in the heart of flyover territory and perhaps difficult to locate on a map. Omaha's not pretending to be anything it's not, and that's why I like it so much. Omaha is the girl next door. The city is a what-you-see-is-what-you-get type of place. It's Nebraska nice.
The last time I lived in Omaha, I had just graduated high school, still wide-eyed and optimistic about this crazy planet, and anxious to experience life outside of the Cornhusker state. But Omaha has changed so much in the decade since I graduated from Duchesne, I hardly recognize parts of it. Waves of gentrification have lapped and crashed against neighborhoods I used to know, changing them for better or worse.

Some things remain the same, and I'm hit with a nostalgia so strong it's almost as though I can see the shadows of my memories: the coffeeshop where I crammed for exams and outside of which I had my first kiss, the hospital where I was treated when I broke my arm when I was seven, the old concert hall where I used to see angsty bands perform shows, the long-unused tree house in my parents' backyard, the park where I'd go for a run and see the annual 4th of July show each year, the church my family dubbed "the basilica of South Omaha" that I grew up in and where my parents were married, the worn brick roads of the Old Market, the concrete steps to my junior high where I waited for classes to start as an awkward preteen, and the beautiful old buildings of my high school that I walked through in my red Fairmont plaid uniform for four years.

One of the strangest things besides the changing architecture is the feeling that the city has moved on without me. Most of my friends no longer live in Omaha, and as I sit in the cafes and drive the streets I once called home, I realize that I hardly know anyone. It's said that we're six degrees of separation away from anyone on the planet, but in Nebraska (population 1.8 million), it's usually one or two degrees and it's almost surprising not to run into a familiar face at your local haunts. I've realized how much it's not just the buildings that make a place, but the people as well. The tide came in and washed away my footprints in the sand. It's not necessarily a sad feeling, but it's strange and nostalgic and at times overpowering.

I keep recalling a passage from one of my favorite books, Catcher in the Rye. The protagonist, Holden Caulfield, visits the Museum of Natural History and is hit with a wave of nostalgia upon finding the dioramas in the museum are as unchanged as when he went to the museum as a child. Faced with the dioramas as a constant in his life, he's forced to realize that it's he who has changed.

Like Holden in the museum, I too have been forced to admit how much I've changed in the past ten years, punched with a dose of nostalgia at the city I once knew but will always love, confined by buildings that are familiar but surrounded by faces I no longer recognize.

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