It’s time to think about packing my suitcase once more

It’s time to think about packing my suitcase once more

In a small town, when you slam a door in anger, windows rattle around the block.

If you forget to walk the dog, tongues wag.

When a check bounces, everybody hears the boing.

And thus it has ever been.

In some circles it’s known as being neighborly.

In others it’s just plain nosy.

There’s a delicate balance that’s played out daily, a wobbly symmetry between the caring and the cruel, and sometimes it takes a little time and distance to distill the difference.

In a little over a month, my wife and I will begin our 20th year living away from the place we’ve always considered home, but that, too, raises a question.

When, precisely, does your new location cease to be, well, new?

The obvious answer is — as is so often the case in existential debates — it depends.

Each of us carries a metaphoric suitcase packed with what we believe to be the essential stuff of our lives.

And no two are alike.

If you look in mine — and that’s what I’ve tried to share in this space week after week for nearly 30 years — you’ll see everything from concert-ticket stubs to Little League trophies, a Super Ball to a framed diploma from Notre Dame, an unsent letter to a seashell.

I freely admit my suitcase sometimes feels as heavy and as ponderous as the chains Jacob Marley drags in the first act of “A Christmas Carol.” It, too, has been packed piece by piece and pound by pound to the point that from someone else’s perspective the supreme effort is hardly worth the meager reward of memory.

But what would I leave behind?

What have you discarded, only to wish you’d been smarter?

As I say, we’re all toting different bags, and that’s just life.

In two weeks’ time, my wife and I will return to the Outer Banks, that slender, vulnerable comma of barrier islands that float out there in the Atlantic, a place which has come to mean so much to us since our first visit in 1996.

Faithful readers may recall it was on a sunny stretch of Kitty Hawk shoreline that we were married in October 2007 and that it also was there our lives were changed when I was offered a job in New Bern in autumn 2000.

When we get back this time, memories will be as thick as sea oats that anchor the dunes and as brilliant as the full moon that shines its carpet of diamonds on the ocean surface well after midnight.

But that’s the thing about the Outer Banks.

You either fall in love right away or, well, you don’t get it.

I’ve witnessed both extremes, and even though I’ll always feel connected to that place in a way that’s personal and permanent, I fully understand how others can find its isolation, lack of overwhelming commercialism and silence an iffy combination.

And then you have the threat of hurricanes.

That, in and of itself, adds a dimension of uncertainty that can erode the thrill of anticipation as the day of your arrival draws nearer and scare-mongers on TV and the radio, in newspapers and online, peddle unfounded — but irresistible — forecasts of doom.

“They’re only guessing,” I always tell my wife, who oftentimes finds herself perched nervously on that figurative ledge of fear. “No one knows anything yet, so try to relax.”

Consider Dorian, which the prognosticators uniformly believed would decimate coastal Carolina, only to be proven wrong when the storm trickled out and died a slow death as a Category One dud.

The big problem with that devilish storm was that it moved so darn slowly that trepidation built inexorably as the hours turned into days and still nothing much happened.

Give me a good old-fashioned hit-and-run hurricane any day of the week, the kind of wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am blow that leaves town like Nixon being chased by a grand jury waving subpoenas.

Could it have been much worse?

Well, duh. Of course it could.

Folks around these parts still shudder when the words “Hurricane Floyd” come up in casual conversation. For those who may not remember, or didn’t live through it, Floyd was one of those boomerang storms, the kind that hit and spin back into the sea, only to gather strength and come back for a second helping of hurt.

And still people move here, knowing it could be a mistake.

When we made the decision to leave our little town, a place we’d called home since grade school, we did it out of a cosmic combination of desperation and independence. We were in our mid-40s back then, a time when most of our friends and family were dug in and settled, happy and content.

What we did shocked those who knew — and loved — us best.

“No, you’re not,” said a guy on my bowling team, someone I’d called a close friend since high school. “No way you’re leaving.”

I just smiled, tipped my bottle his way and said, “Yes, we are.”

And now it’s nearly 20 years since that fateful autumn when everything changed. If you want to hear our theme song, the one that served as our anthem as we left all we knew behind, check out “The Way” by a band called Fastball.

“Anyone could see that the road that they walk on is paved in gold.

It’s always summer. They’ll never get cold. They’ll never get hungry. They’ll never get old and gray.”

With our wedding anniversary drawing near and our reservation for the oceanfront cottage all set, it’s time to think about packing my suitcase once more.

Not the metaphoric one I spoke of earlier. A real one.

It’ll come as no surprise to you that I tend to jam a lot of stuff into mine, figuring it’s better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it.

I mean who knows when bouncing my Super Ball, which I’ve had since the eighth grade, might be just the thing to make my days better?

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