I am in my hometown this week while my house in Illinois is being newly painted and carpeted. This is probably the longest stretch of time I’ve spent here for years. I loved growing up here, in a college town where everything is less than 15 minutes away by car and the monumental buildings of the university dominate part of the landscape. Some days I wish I could still live here. Maybe it’s just a “grass is always greener” kind of mindset–living in a small town full of character, where there’s diversity of thought (and race) and intellectual stimulation, seems more interesting than living in soulless suburbs with lots of strip malls and chain restaurants. That’s not to say there aren’t lots of strip malls and chain restaurants here, but most of them seem relegated to the outside edges.

Of course this place has changed a lot since I lived here. My mom still has a home in the southern part of town, where the trees have finally matured and the soybean fields have been turned into new home developments. There’s a Planned Parenthood right near my house and the natural history museum on campus now devotes its second floor to evolution (a reaction, as you might guess, to those idiotic board of ed decisions here). Instead of being closest to the car dealerships, my childhood home is now closest to the Target, Wal-Mart and other big discount stores that have set up shop in this area. Some of the little boutique-style stores I shopped at downtown are gone and replaced with others. Some of the other stores I never figured would survive the modern age actually still exist.

I didn’t realize how solidly suburban middle-class I’ve become until I came back here. Despite my natural inclinations my regular life is neat and ordered and financially sound. I have a house and a cleaning lady, a manicured yard, memberships to cultural and family-friendly institutions. Here people have less money, but they show their creativity more. At least, that’s what it looks like. And every house I’ve visited here, even the ones with small children (or maybe this is just my friends)–is unapologetically cluttered. Life seems more casual, somehow. The pace is certainly slower, and people are actively nice.

The drawback is, of course, that there’s less to do here. In Chicago I can pack up my kid and go to museums, malls and all sorts of places right nearby. Here there is no mall (normally, that would be a good thing as far as I’m concerned) and I have to drive 45 minutes to Kansas City for that. We have a few small museums, but I am missing the children’s museum and the botanic garden near my suburban home.

And every place I go here is saturated with memories–some of which are good, but as with any place where you spent those wacky developmental years, some of them are just embarrassing. I was remembering the other day when driving down a certain street how once when I was a teen driver I was rushing to some sort of choir rehearsal and following the slowest driver ever. So I passed her on a residential street, and it was not the smartest thing I ever did. That driver actually followed me to the high school parking lot, proceeded to berate me and get my phone number so she could call my parents and tell them how dangerously I had acted. To this day I can’t believe I gave her my real phone number. Anyway, as I continued to drive I passed my junior high school, the all-night grocery store where once my friends and I danced up and down the aisles for no reason, and the apartment complex where I worked for a summer or two. All within about 5 minutes.

So the gist of it all, I suppose, is that I love being here and I am glad to have grown up in such a place, but I will be glad to return to the comforts of my own home tomorrow, where not every single street has a memory attached.