My computer desktop image is of an old stone foundation overtaken by greenery, a former homestead of Washington Irving, which I hiked to a number of summers ago during a residency in the Catskills. The spot wasn’t terribly well marked, and I had to dig for it a bit, so I spent most of the morning seeking out what would have been a former house, next to a stream, before chancing upon the rock Rip Van Winkle was said to have napped on. (Superstitiously, I did not indulge the urge to test it.) The discovery of the homestead felt somehow pivotal, and I knew when I snapped the image on my cameraphone that I would want to look at it every day: flat stone foundations are so sensical, aren’t they? Find yourself some level ground and nestle the rocks in a bit, build up a wall that way, then create a whole room, carefully manipulating the earth against your construction materials in anticipation of your future needs. I don’t know what it’s like for a doctor or an accountant or an urban planner, but for a writer those needs are ultimately quite simple: a space in which one can hear one’s own thoughts, not too distant from “the action,” but not central to it, either. The meaning of home solidified for me then, implying a state of activity as opposed to a static condition. Like being awake. Like love.
I’d never considered the concept of home so deeply before. At the time, I was traveling 200 days out of the year, and when I did my taxes, I occasionally discovered that I had conducted business in languages I could not later identify. I was working in Germany, Cambodia, the Republic of Georgia, and Finland, with only days between trips to rest in Chicago before a lecture in New York City or a conference in Vienna or a book event in Los Angeles or a “vacation” in some place I had selected because I had never been anywhere like it before and didn’t know what life there might be like. Washington Irving’s stone foundation became a talisman for me—a guidepost at first some great distance off, later more clearly outlined through the haze—a beacon to a single place I might wish to return to, some flat ground soft enough to nestle stones into. I loved my exciting life, do not get me wrong, and was having far too much fun to change it in anyway, but I did look around at least once during every one of those 200 days and wonder if the place I was in might eventually become my home. It never did, and after several years my computer desktop image was still the only thing I saw, consistently, every single day: the purely ephemeral digital nature of the pic belying a steadfastness I was coming to crave.
Being awarded a house, of course, is different than finding a home. Being awarded a house is both validating and terrifying, as well as several other emotions I have yet to affix. The plumbing inspector asked me about them today, these feelings, and I swear to god I told him the exact same thing I’m telling you: being awarded a house brings on many diverse feelings. Not the least of them is surprise at the emotional complexity I am willing to display to the plumbing inspector.
The closest I came to feeling at home in recent years was when I first arrived in Cambodia, where I had been dispatched to teach the first large group of young women to go to college together in the history of the country the art of self-publishing. The young women there—now married with babies of their own, or fancy jobs, or happy partners, but still all brilliant and beautiful—could not stop giggling when I told them my name.
“An?” they kept repeating, laughing behind their fingers.
“Anne,” I would say, emphasis on the second n and the silent e.
“And … you are a writer?” one would hazard, although I’d been asked it moments before.
“Yes, I am a writer.”
“And your name is An.” More giggles. To them, my name was hilarious.
“Well, that’s … you know, I’m not really getting the joke, here. What is it that is so funny to you?”
“An.” One smart young woman said to me, brown eyes big and serious. “It means, to read.”
I laughed then like it was the funniest joke I’d ever heard—because, you see? It was—and I felt at home. I returned, again and again, for seven years.
And then. And then. Cities changed. Time passed. Nearly a decade. I was awarded a house in Detroit and agreed to move into it sight unseen and neighbors unmet and what was I doing. I didn’t know but somehow all my stuff got inside the house and the friends that had helped me move drove away and there was a small party and the city councilman handed me an award and then I was alone with the cats and had to unpack.
My new next-door neighbor girl likes cats. She came over to meet them. Secretly she also wanted to ask me a question. “Are you a famous writer?” she asked.
My own markers of professional achievement are a bit obtuse. My picture has appeared on the cover of magazines printed in languages I can’t read. Total strangers have proposed marriage, and submitted credible death threats. I’ve spent time in the company of people who inspired me to get into this business in the first place. People I’ve never met write me letters. A lot of letters. Once, a song. And I have managed to maintain any semblance of a career in a notoriously difficult-to-navigate field from which many of my contemporaries have justifiably fled. That’s the one I feel most dubious about. Survivor’s guilt.
But fame in the sense that most people mean it—a person is recognized outside of their chosen field, widely celebrated even beyond the group of people most likely to understand what they do—that sounds like … a hassle.
“It depends on what you mean by ‘famous,’ ” I responded. It’s how I always respond.
My neighbor has a thoughtful inquisitive tone, although she is only in her early teens. “Like, you write books,”—she gazed at me, carefully considering her explanation—“and people read them?”
“Oh,” I said. I flashed on Washington Irving. I wondered if she would recognize the name, or if “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” was even assigned in school at Halloween anymore. I had read it again myself that day in the Catskills, perhaps for my hundredth time, and was struck anew by it. I hoped she knew it already, and if she didn’t I made plans to find it for her. People still reading your work 200 years later! It was why I had fallen in love with writing: because readers could find joy in your work well after you were gone. To write books, and have people read them. What else could I possibly want?
“Yes,” I said. “Then I am a famous writer.”
Her eyes got big and excited. I was astounded. It is one thing for a writer to be excited about readers, but another for a teen girl to be impressed by them. Reading! A quiet act with such profound implications, like the nestling of stones against earth to build walls, buildings, homes. If it also astounds you that a teen girl would be impressed that someone of her acquaintance could write books that people would read, you will be as awash in amazement as I was at her follow-up question.
“Can I read them?” she asked. And I thought I might change my desktop image.