Coming home to a city that has never left me

An aerial view of Dunedin.  PHOTO: ODT FILES
Thomas Wolfe is responsible for the saying, "You can’t go home again" (his book of the same title was released posthumously, so he really didn’t).

Lisa Scott
Lisa Scott
This doesn’t mean, "Because your parents have constructed a moat to prevent it" ... it means things are always changing and "home" won’t be the same as when you left it. On the flip side, Maja Angelou said that while you can’t go home again, you can never leave home either, so I guess it all evens out.


Every seven years we become new people. In a hippy-dippy way, but also for "realz actuals", as they say in Oamaru. New cells replace old. And yes, our bones kind of regenerate too. Not a completely new person or tattoos would be brief flings with ink, but seven years is enough time to reskin you, for you to be remade.

Brand new and shiny, I’m moving back to Dunedin after five years away, a more self-realised, more crinkled version of the me who left post-break-up an almost-lifetime ago. I remember she: sad and angry, flushed with indignation, swollen of eyelids, thin of thigh. Time passes, the things that hurt fade and eventually you shrug instead of wincing.

What’s interesting is, remove the parameters of your identity, the cookie that your hometown cut out - and you can create yourself anew. It takes a bit of demolition. Evolution sparked by self-reliance makes a rock climber out of you, in my case literally.

I’m coming back to take up a new job in the old town I know like the back of my hand, the town I walked end to end in my 20s wearing territorial army surplus boots and pink negligees, the town where the outline of young punk me is superimposed like stencil graffiti, my dandelion halo of kitchen-scissor cropped hair ... those flounced dresses and heels I stabbed into the cobbles, a red-on-red aesthetic, Macbeth’s witch, arms akimbo outside bluestone buildings in the chill smoking someone else’s cigarettes.

Some things remain: the church-turned-nightclub where I once sang death metal with a band called Defecating Corpse is now swanky apartments. I’m not sure which would displease the Lord more, but he’s got a lot going on these days, tolerance-wise, and if anyone needs to be turned into a pillar of salt it’s Putin.

Time has passed, and no-one cares that you were once sluttier, drunker, and stupider. The past is not to be ignored, like a hedgehog flattened in the road, but included in the layers that make up your life. It makes you smile. You’re still here and so are the people you adore: older, greyer, calmer. Gone is the hectic energy. Life beats us all up a little.

Coming back to the city you left a walking tear grenade as a grown up with her sheet together is like re-reading a favourite book only to find it’s not a Gothic horror anymore, but a Choose Your Own Adventure.

Dunedin has changed too - nothing is where I left it (especially on Cumberland St), and the traffic is big city to this country mouse.

Love is still here: my family, those friends who have hung in there, hung on the end of a phone line. Their children have grown unrecognisable, they have forgotten me utterly. Cancer, divorce, death, change of fortune, change of hairstyle, career, change of heart - the ones who love you still do, and you them.

The boat shed on the estuary is still there, even if it’s a different boat shed, and I own it now. Our feet over the edge of the deck, the sun on her face, the wind ruffling her grey hair, my mother is so happy that I have moved back home. She has been driving up to Oamaru to do my garden for me for years - it’s my turn to look after her.

"You can be the good sister now," said my younger sibling Japonica, "and I will be the black sheep for a change." I’m quite sure that she will not have as much fun, there being so little left undone by me, and her a bank manager.

I don’t expect a parade, with the renovations to George St soon to begin that doesn’t seem realistic, and confetti is so bad for the environment.


Add a Comment

Our journalists are your neighbours

We are the South's eyes and ears in crucial council meetings, at court hearings, on the sidelines of sporting events and on the frontline of breaking news.

As our region faces uncharted waters in the wake of a global pandemic, Otago Daily Times continues to bring you local stories that matter.

We employ local journalists and photographers to tell your stories, as other outlets cut local coverage in favour of stories told out of Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch.

You can help us continue to bring you local news you can trust by becoming a supporter.

Become a Supporter