At the age of thirty-two, I have done the impossible and returned home—not for a holiday or a funeral, but to set up residency in a region of the Florida Panhandle so remote that even Comcast Cable has declined the opportunity to overcharge us for Internet service. I say “impossible” because that’s how the saying goes, doesn’t it, that a person “can’t go home again”—or at least Thomas Wolfe and Joan Didion made compelling cases.
Staring into the swampy woods surrounding the mobile home in which I currently reside, I would argue that a person most certainly can go home, it just happens to be easier when one has no success whatsoever to set them apart from the individuals who never left. Here in this small, enchanted corner of the Old South, in a paper mill town sometimes described as having a smell not unlike hot compost, I am learning what it means to be a southerner again. Gone are the vegan restaurants and literary circles of Ann Arbor and Chicago, where I spent the last ten years using words like “pathos,” “quinoa,” and “hyperrealism”—I’m in easy winter country now, a place where recaps of tent revivals are printed in the local newspaper, and if you don’t believe in God, well, have you seen a sunset lately? Have you considered the lilies or even once contemplated the ability of females to do birth from their miracle holes?
Coming home means readjusting my ideas about what’s normal. A few Sundays ago, for instance, I had to ask myself: Is it normal for a shoeless child to barge into my dwelling without knocking, demanding to know the whereabouts of a person called Hunter? Maybe it is and maybe it isn’t, but before I could wrap my mind around the question the boy shouted again, this time more urgently: “Where’s Hunter? Where is he?”
His head whipped to and fro, taking in the unfamiliar configuration of furniture, the unfamiliar lady stirring greens at the kitchen stove. He’d been here before, but this was not what he remembered. His eyes fixed on me as if I’d done something terrible and wouldn’t confess.
“Your friend’s right here in this soup,” I wanted to say, but instead I told him in a loud, clear voice that Hunter was gone and this was my house now.
Truthfully, this trailer is a rental, and more specifically, a rental owned by my mother and stepfather, but stray children of the forest don’t need that information. The boy turned and left, disappointed, pine needles and dirt clinging to his socks.
Later I got to thinking: what if in one of those amazing switcheroos the universe arranges from time to time, Hunter actually left the state to attend the MFA program at the University of Michigan? What if we neatly traded lives like the cool moms on Celebrity Wife Swap? Just as I was leaving the state, a snowstorm swirling in my wake, Hunter could’ve been hopping the first bus out of the Suwannee River Valley. Now he spends Monday nights not throwing rocks at dogs or watching Brock Lesnar pound the Boogeyman with a folding chair, but standing around wine bars saying things like, “Friedrich Schiller’s writings on sublime pathos present such an interesting aesthetic concept. I mean I could explain it but you should probably just Google it.” As for me, I now spend Friday nights peering out of the window to get a look at whatever animal is trifling with my garbage shed.
Unlike in Didion’s essay “On Going Home,” the piece in which she uneasily visits family in the Central Valley of California, being back in Florida does not fill me with the dread or anxiety of reconciling myself to a place that no longer defines me. Instead, it arouses in me the private, hysterical suspicion that the decade I spent away was a mere figment of my imagination, my entire Midwest tour a fanciful dream à la St. Elsewhere, existing only in the snow globe of an autistic boy. One day I’ll reach for my copy of The Rhetoric of Fiction and find it’s actually a third edition Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader, my critical notes in the margins mere scribbles of ding-dongs and whiskered kitties. “Look,” I’ll say to my sister, “my novel’s out in paperback,” and she’ll speak to me in calming tones, taking the unopened block of Velveeta from my hands.
Didion no doubt felt her success as a writer depended on living in Los Angeles, a city replete with culture and connections. Going home meant feeling overwhelmed, perhaps, by the identities she’d left behind, identities that overpowered and subdued the part of her she called an artist. It’s hard, going home. Even the best families have difficulty taking one of their own very seriously, at least when it comes to making art. They may wish you the best and cheer you on when you do well, but deep down, confusion lingers. Who can blame them? After all, wouldn’t it be easier to simply read other people’s books instead of creating your own? Aren’t there thousands, perhaps millions, of titles already in the world? Tell us again, little lady, why a million books isn’t enough?
Lately I’ve been reading on the front stoop, enjoying the sunshine and watching my fourteen-month-old toddle after the cat when that old thought experiment on reality and the observable world comes to mind: If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? This is not entirely because of the tree branches arching over our roof at the moment, but because of the other, equally valid question it raises: If a person rewrites a novel in the forest and no one is around to read it, was that rewrite a good use of her time or should she have studied for her real estate license or maybe taken up woodworking or one of those jewelry pyramid schemes where everyone gets drunk on chardonnay and buys necklaces for their moms?
My old Michigan classmates are scattering now, figuring out what to do with their lives, how to go on being writers along with everything else on their plates. For those of us that have returned home, it’s easy to wonder if we made enough of the time spent away. All of us are conducting experiments of our own, tests to see whether we’ll go on making art when no one is looking.