16,422 people per square mile

cardboard box

Nostalgia is not something I avoid easily. It usually lies dormant until woken by some change, distinct or subdued. And when it does, it takes charge. Small details and insignificant landmarks shout out, begging me to remember everything about this place and this time, from the noteworthy to the not-so-historic. And something as momentous as a cross-country move hurtles me back even further as I sift through the scraps of paper that invariably define my life. A ticket stub from a tram in Germany. A Polaroid with an Elvis impersonator from college. A note my wife scribbled, explaining how to write her name in Chinese, and how its homonym is “Little Zero”.

And so every time I—now we—move, I am reminded of how this last place and the one before it and so on were good to me. Each time, I found friends, opportunities, and new perspectives. And each time, I am sad to leave.

The first time in my life I moved I was 16, and we were only moving three miles away on the same side of town. My school didn’t change and neither did my friends. But I was moving away from the only home I knew, and I was desperate to feel some attachment to our new house. I remember closing the linen closet door one night and noting how it made a whooshing sound. I thought, this is something I will remember. I belong here, because I will always remember how the linen closet makes a whooshing sound when you close it. It’s a silly detail, but I still notice it fourteen years later.

And so every time I move to a new place, I start cataloging those silly details. The first year is always the most difficult. With a sense of place like mine that is anchored in hundreds, even thousands of details on small, subtle scales, it can take a while. Necessities dominate at first—the path to the grocery store, a running route, a good place to get pizza—but the later details are what tell me I’m at home—the sound of the train, the smell after a rainstorm, the putterings of the neighbors.

And so here I sit, waxing nostalgic about my time in Chicago, and by extension the Midwest. The scraps of paper from Chicago and places previous are all safely tucked away in boxes, waiting to be shipped, again, across the country. 16,422 people per square mile. The population density of Cambridge, Massachusetts, our soon-to-be new home. It’s a statistic that’s very similar to our current Chicago neighborhood. But it’s only a number, and much as I’d like to think that I’ll quickly find my groove because the numbers align, deep down I know better. I know that it won’t feel like home until I know that number and the people and the trees and the streets and the sounds and the smells and more.

Photo by Justin Shearer.

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