The disposable gloves, the hand sanitizer and disinfectant, the blue surgical face masks (eventually replaced by colorful, but less effective, cloth-covered ones), the fear of touching and the worry of not touching, the isolation and six feet of space and a good attitude were all you needed. For the attitude you avoided the news, or if you did read the news, it was only a scroll through the headlines—why bother with more, the science was still catching up—followed by something lighter, something distracting. The kind of story that could carry you to another time, help you escape this life for some place foreign and unfamiliar, because your own world was filled with a growing sense of doom.
Then, on those days when your attitude was strong and your worry at a minimum, you could imagine some future date, circle it in red on the calendar, make plans and draw dotted lines to it in your mind: First this, then that. You would fly through time and immerse yourself in the anticipation of being elsewhere, delightfully knitted into the wide-ranging bliss of being a stranger in a strange land. Close contact with another might bring moments, or more likely days, of worry and isolation, where you’d pay more attention to the immediate past than you would to the distant future and sink deeper than ever before into your present self, and only after the worry had passed would you squeeze a dollop of hand sanitizer into your open palm and strapping a fresh face mask around your ears take a deep breath and step out once more into the day awaiting.
Out there, of course, in the real world, eventually you would encounter someone not adhering to practical safety protocols, disregarding all manner of evidence and science, often in the name of some absurd perversion of personal rights, and your worry would return and you’d think of that date on the calendar and not believe it would ever be possible.
Your patience had worn out. So, too, had your good attitude and you would begin to feel like a stranger even at home, without ever having gone anywhere.
“We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip, a trip takes us.” ― John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley: In Search of America
Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley (1962) was one of my escapes in the early days of the pandemic. A place I could go with my reading that would make travel feel possible again—make feeling alive feel possible again—if only in the part of the brain where fantasy and invention reside. Which is, apparently, where the novelist’s popular travelogue originated. I didn’t know this the first time I’d read the book and knowing now, decades later, that it was more fiction than fact, in no way diminishes the spirit of the story, which is to ask ourselves the question: Who are we?
For certain, who we are is tied very closely to where we live and to the reasons which brought us there. But also, as Steinbeck discovered, it is tightly interwoven into how we feel at any given moment. “External reality,” he writes, “has a way of being not so external after all.” Such is the influence of longing and purpose to place.
When we booked our travel to Sicily, ten months ahead of leaving, at the (then) height of the pandemic when we were all discovering that history is not a thing that only happens to other people, we were already shedding one sense of our selves for another. Such shifts in identity are not uncommon—leaving home, taking a new job, getting married and having children—all make for a mostly (sorry kids) pleasant transition. But when the situation is threatening and we suffer a sudden and very distinct loss of comfort, we’re challenged to redefine the ways we know ourselves in the world. We’re made to confront not just who we are but who is everyone else and where does it all fit into the idea we’ve shaped of what it means to be fully engaged in living and being alive.
In Steinbeck’s return to his childhood home in the Salinas Valley this challenge was met with confusion and uneasiness. He writes: “My town had grown and changed and my friend along with it. Now returning, as changed to my friend as my town was to me, I distorted his picture, muddied his memory. When I went away I had died, and so became fixed and unchangeable… Tom Wolfe was right. You can’t go home again because home has ceased to exist except in the mothballs of memory.”
Who is Writing Your Story?
But for us, Tarboro is not home, with its distorted pictures and ghosts of a time locked by youthful memory, no more than traveling to Sicily was just a vacation from gloom and doom. Neither fit squarely into the definitions we’ve been taught and which have been shared by others, along with their expectations, because Home and Away are human constructs, shaped perhaps over thousands of eons by evolution, experience and necessity, or perhaps they exist because in this era of humankind many of us are living with a growing sense that our lives are not entirely our own, to shape and write and fulfill however we chose; that at any moment someone might, intentionally or unintentionally, draft the next chapter on our behalf.
If nothing, the pandemic has made us aware of our fallibilities and given rise in work and living spaces all over the globe to a feeling of aimlessness, of being stuck. Maybe adrift is a better descriptive, as the problem is not with our sails, but the goddamn wind. It keeps shifting, blowing first this way, then that. Spinning us around and around until we’re not just not pointed in one direction, we’re pointed in so many directions we’re not sure which even was our intended heading. Out of fear, or grief, or languishing, as some call it, we keep our hands off the rudder and surrender to the powerlessness of just going where life takes us.
It feels, with the last two years, we are all staring at a blank page—or worse a page filled with senseless, random words that have no clear purpose for being together—re-read the first sentence to give you some idea—and we’re all wondering what comes next. In this regard Steinbeck got it wrong. Who are we is not the right question to ask. The question to pursue is Who’s telling the story?
So if they weren’t a homecoming and not a vacation, what were they?
I asked Franca this again—you might recall our taped conversation on the subject—and these many months later, she feels the same way about it, that you want places and the things you do to make you feel more alive, which can only be accomplished when you see things with your heart and not your eyes.
If I had fifty-three extra minutes in a week,
I would want to walk very slowly toward a water fountain.
—Franca, quoting from The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Expuréy
Going to Sicily was our version of taking the rudder. Of re-claiming the wind to meet our needs, not someone or something else’s. It was staring down that blank page and putting down one word, then another, until there’s a sentence and then you edit and revise that sentence until it captures the truest version of yourself and you start writing another and another, and so on.
It’s how life is meant to be lived, with the capacity to change, to become the most authentic, best version of your self. Sometimes pivoting, sometimes staying the course a little longer, but always moving as best you can with as much intention as you can muster toward whatever in life calls you, no matter the scale of it.
Returning home was not the same as what Steinbeck experienced. There were no ghosts of ourselves or long-lasting memories to muddle. What it was and is to us is not just the place where we live and work and enjoy many close friendships, but a place that has provided us the means to reclaim our own rudder, make our own wind, and direct life toward whatever we choose comes next.
And that is so much more than a homecoming.