Ever heard of the Stephen Stills band “Manassas?” Me neither, until this week. Apparently, this is the fiftieth anniversary of the release of the first (of two) albums by the band named “Manassas.” Stephen Stills (of the Crosby, Stills, Nash, and—sometimes—Young fame) formed this band in the wake of a chance encounter with Chris Hillman in Cleveland where both musicians were fumbling their way through sloppy tours, searching for a way out of the artistic 1960s.
So why did they name this new band Manassas? Apparently, Stills is a Civil-war buff and had romanticized Manassas as the site of not one but two Confederate victories at Bull Run. Given that Still’s go-to music style is Southern Rock, I suppose the place meant something to him. But I can’t find any other association Stills had with my town. The band produced one more album and, after a disastrous tour, dissolved into rock history oblivion.
The photo of the double-album cover was taken at the Manassas train station – home of my daily commute. It is arguably the most iconic building in this dot of a town. Still, I don’t associate this station with rock history or hip coolness. When I stand on this platform at six in the morning, I’m thinking about all of the deadlines ahead of me, whether or not I packed enough snacks for the day, and whether the train will be on time. And I’m definitely lacking their unruffled, rock band aura standing on that platform.
Learning this bit of rock history and its association with my town, got me considering what it means to be from a place. Having grown up in the Tidewater area (yes, I still call it Tidewater and I still call it home), I’ve had trouble calling Manassas home—even after twenty years of living here. Whenever I tell people where I live, I wait for their reaction, wondering if they’ll mention the Lorena Bobbitt affair. (Yes, I know the location of the field where she tossed the “appendage!”) I almost always have to explain the town’s orientation to Washington, D.C. (technically a forty-five-minute drive, at three in the morning with no traffic.) Lately, I’ve explained my appreciation for living in a small town while having access to a big town like D.C. I love the duality of that existence.
While I still have some time before facing down retirement, there will come a time when I don’t live here. But this town will have achieved a milestone—the place I have lived the longest. So, shouldn’t that achievement entitle it to the moniker of “home?”
I have many emotional and historical ties to other places—the Outer Banks, Charlottesville, Syracuse, the Blue Ridge Mountains. I have dreams of living other places one day and am attracted to a variety of places I visit. (I have a very long, travel bucket list.) My favorite question, to my husband’s annoyance, whenever we visit someplace new—”You think you could ever live here?” He’s learned to respond to the predictable question with a placid smile and a certain “maybe” response.
What I might really be asking him is “what’s his definition of home?” There is an aspect of nostalgia and memory at work in this question. To call a place home seems to require a certain number of happy memories and a yearning to repeat those memories. To call a place home implies a certain amount of identification with a place. To call a place home means it inspires something inside us—a home base for our future selves even as we reflect on our past selves.
In writing workshops, they teach of the importance of place as an invisible character, a force shaping and reflecting the characters. The history, the landscape, the politics, the socio-economic dynamics, the weather. All of these factors impact characters and their decisions, their relationships, their view of the world.
One of my favorite movies is “Midnight in Paris” because it addresses all of the complexities of place and nostalgia. When the main character has an epiphany about the meaning of nostalgia and its relation to our dissatisfaction with the present, the love interest character has the best line of all: “That’s the trouble with writers, you’re so full of words!” Truth.
Once, my husband had the best response to my question of whether or not he could live in a place we were visiting. With few words, he said: “Will you be here? Then yes, I could live here.” Home.