One of my first thoughts when I found out I’d have to stay home for an indeterminate amount of time was Thank goodness this didn’t happen two years ago.
Two years ago, I’d quit my job and my marriage was unraveling. My mind was churning about whether to leave D.C., where I’d lived for nearly a decade. I didn’t know where I might go or how, exactly, I’d get there. Actually, I did know, but hadn’t yet fully come to terms with the facts, so I devised a project that would get me out of my house: I’d spend a year visiting writer’s homes across the country as a way of trying to understand my own.
One of my first visits was to Thomas Wolfe’s in Asheville, North Carolina. Calling it his house is a bit misleading: the big reveal on the tour is that he never had a room in the house that now sits as a memorial to him. It was his mother’s boarding house, and Thomas, the youngest of eight, had to live with her while she ran the business. The tour guide was quick to paint a picture of Wolfe’s mother as a money-hungry businesswoman with no motherly instincts. She asked us if we knew which room was his, and a smile came over her face as she took in the long pause: “You don’t know because he didn’t have one.”
That was my introduction to Thomas Wolfe. On the drive down, I called my father to ask what he knew, and he was eager to fill me in on the cult following Wolfe had had in his lifetime. Everyone he knew read Look Homeward, Angel and the follow-up You Can_’_t Go Home Again. Wolfe was known, he said, for his height and his drinking—he was both large and larger than life. Before he got off the phone, he urged me to “try the grits” in Asheville, saying, “You only go this way but once.”
My father didn’t know anything about what I was contemplating, or perhaps he did know, in the way that parents know when their kids are suffering, but I hadn’t yet told him the details: I’d fallen in love with someone else, and could not, as hard as I tried, go home.
Yet I tried. After each trip, I’d return home to my husband and try to adjust, to see our house anew. But I could no longer read without moving every few minutes to get comfortable. I could not write. Forcing myself to try, I went to the coffee shop, where I frequented a table at the far back, next to the storage closets. I could no longer sleep. My head understood the dissonance—where there had once been comfort, there was none—but my heart was confounded: how could it be so?
Some authors’ houses are places where the writer spent real time. The homes of Faulkner, Emerson, and Dickinson are thick with a sense of permanence; they feel different from homes an author occupied only for a short time or in bursts—Hemingway’s house in Key West, Zora Neale Hurston’s in Fort Pierce, or Margaret Mitchell’s in Atlanta, for example, all of which feel as if their famous inhabitant came and went in a flash, abandoning it.
I felt most jarred in houses where the authors had actually stayed, jealous they’d been able to find comfort in that one place, though I knew they all battled their own demons.
There is, of course, no one way to be in agony; there is also no one way to seek joy. Thomas Wolfe experienced some of his happiest moments on his trip through the West. His journals are full of exclamation points, the word “terrific” repeats frequently, and each day’s logged miles are pridefully recounted. He took joy in the moment, delighting in every sunrise and every lodging he found for the night. When I was visiting houses, I didn’t write much down. I took photographs, but could not bring myself to chart anything, and even when I tried—to count miles, say, or hotel rooms—I felt defeated.
Each of those trips—to Missouri, Florida, Georgia, Massachusetts, North Carolina—was a reminder of the question Should I leave my own home? Every floorboard, every room, every painting on the walls somehow led me back to myself.
I no longer live in D.C. I am no longer married. I am living with the man I fell in love with. I am in Miami, staring at window ledges that he crafted and painted, where our books now sit together. The other day, sitting in bed, my head on those books, I was talking to a friend about whether I’d be able to leave Florida this summer. I described how sad I was at the thought of not being able to see my family. I said I was willing, though, to do whatever was needed to keep people safe. “If that means staying home,” I said, “I’ll stay home.” My friend laughed. “It’s funny to hear you say you’d be happy to stay put. I haven’t heard that from you in a very, very long time.”
One of the books on the windowsills is Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel. My father bought it for me the year I could not, would not, look homeward. I opened it up the other day—I have yet to read it—and a Mark Strand poem I’ve been carrying from house to house, city to city, fell out. I think all the time of the closing lines of “Keeping Things Whole,” a poem I’ve kept close to me ever since graduating from high school: “we all have reasons / for moving / I move / to keep things whole.”
For weeks, I have taken my walks on the lawn in front of the house. At a certain point, it became easier to walk around in a circle than to imagine places I might be able to go. The grass is dead, and when I walk, dirt gathers between my toes. My goal is a mile a day, but sometimes I make it three, talking to a friend or listening to a podcast or looping back around to capture the orange butterfly I saw one evening, my mouth agape at its monochromatic wings. Every day, I take photographs of something new, and each day I worry I won’t see the next new thing.
On the lawn, a fern died and another grew up out of its center. I saw the bark of the palm tree as both a geometrical marvel and a mess of burlap. The fence’s shadows grow and wither, birds flying through the purple bougainvillea, and even the house seems to take on new forms: a detail here or there calling me to come, to look.
My feet are carving a path in the ground—if you look, you can see the compressions made daily: my footfalls, my turns, my weight. When the lockdown ends, these tracks will be evidence that I stayed, these grooves in the Earth, that I was here, and only here, for quite a long time.
Laura Childs Gill is a writer, photographer, and editor living in Miami, Florida. Her work has appeared in AGNI, Electric Literature, Barrelhouse, The Carolina Quarterly, and elsewhere. (updated 8/2020)