Back in the States after Being Gone for a Long Time (poem)

Back in the States after being gone for a long time,
I’m standing
in the cereal aisle at Wal-Mart.
My list says “bran cereal” with no instructions
on how to pick out the right kind.
I tell the kids to quiet down
and remind them
that “everybody here knows English
so they can understand everything you say

A friend turns the corner and sees us: “Hey!
Long time no see.
Didn’t know you were back.
Look at you.
A little grey around the edges,
but not too bad.
Bet you’re glad to be

He’s describing me like you’d describe a used book:
Slight shelf wear.
Dust jacket missing.
Discoloration on edge of spine.
A few underlined passages and extensive notes in margins.
Some dogeared

We chat about
how big the kids look and about
the new high school being built,
and then he says again,
“Bet you’re glad to be home.”
This time I respond with “Well,
both places have their advantages.”
My daughter shows me a box of
off-brand Fruit Loops,
raising her eyebrows like two question marks.
I shrug my shoulders and she puts it in the

That is the way I feel,
like a used

But deep inside, I’d rather
be a manuscript.
Like one of those manuscripts
that’s been sent to
44 publishers and rejected
44 times.
Then the author’s wife sees it
in the trash folder
on the computer and sends it
in for one last try.
It’s picked up
and becomes a bestseller,
and it’s made into a movie
that wins two or
three Academy Awards.
That’s what I’d like to be, now
that I’m starting over
with this new life
in a new place that everybody says is


15 thoughts on “Back in the States after Being Gone for a Long Time (poem)

  1. Craig,
    Your post really resonated with me. We have been in China for 5 years and are getting ready to return to the States on Monday. We’re excited to see family but other than that we’re a little ambivalent. We are definitely grey around the edges and the kids are now in high school and one is heading off to college. It seems like people are more interested in seeing how you look rather than what you’ve been doing, how you’ve changed and how hard it is to return to the States. Thanks for your post, soooo good.


  2. When I came back to Ireland from the States, I’d put on a huge amount of weight. I laughed inside as people struggled to find the words … Mary, you’re looking…um…eh… rested… :-) Lovely words Craig.


  3. Craig, well put. Loved the analogy of a “used book” and wishing you were a “manuscript”. Slightly jealous that I didn’t come up with that!
    Are you telling me that the cereal isle doesn’t get any easier? I’m so afraid of that isle – and I’m not joking!


      1. LOL! THAT is so funny…and great advise. I’ll put that in my back pocket for the next trip. The kids will LOVE that!


  4. I love your thoughts on repatriation. For me, it was the shampoo aisle. I’d never seen so many choices. I started breathing fast. How do you even know which one is the right one? It’s so much easier when you are thankful there is shampoo on the shelf, even one kind, LOL.

    I hope you will deal with the fact that this book/manuscript contains so much, and all your old friends and neighbors want is the comic book version.

    Also, that most of what they think they know about your experience is wrong. That as you learn a new culture, new ways of doing things, it changes you, and you begin to see things differently. Sorry, I didn’t mean to babble on, it’s one of my favorite topics, too.


  5. Nice poem, Dad. I guess I don’t worry about the cereal aisle because I don’t eat cereal, but unfortunately the granola bar aisle is not much better.


  6. Years ago, my first “breakdown” was in the toilet paper aisle–a whole aisle of multiple shelves of softer, stronger, thicker, rippled, safe-for-septic, etc. After coming from a country where finding Any toilet paper was a bonus, I couldn’t buy anything and left the store empty-handed and in a daze. Salad dressing was another aisle that caused me distress. Now I just make sure there is vinegar and oil and avoid that aisle.


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