140. Song No. 2,030: “Coming Home,” Mt. Desolation
Mt. Desolation, 2010
…Make your move, make your peace, make amends
We’re all coming home in the end…
After the first week of writing about COVID-19 from a hastily thrown-together home office, rudely wrenched from the newsroom I was just getting settled into, I’d already reached my emotional capacity for dropping the word “unprecedented” at least once into every article I dashed off, to say nothing of beginning every interview with 10 minutes of obligatory shell-shocked chatter about the new normal.
But amidst the chaos of rapidly adapting a tight-knit bullpen fortuitously accustomed to the course corrections of a job characterized by inherently high turnover to a network of domiciles flung across a two-hour radius, there was no time for feelings. There were still deadlines to meet and new coverage gaps to fill as vaporized advertising dollars meant two reporters were let go when we went remote—and the adage of “last one in, first one out” somehow miraculously careening right by me but leaving thunderous, haunting echoes of how easily that could have been me in its wake (though having two of the most marketable beats we covered probably played a significant role in that dodged bullet). It both dulled and underscored the ache of feeling absolutely, personally cheated, denied as I was the newsroom experience that is one of the most irresistible allures of journalism for me.
By January 2020, I’d had enough of a professionally unfulfilling decade and ran headlong back to the world of hyper-local weekly newspapers from which I came, and for which I was now grossly overqualified and also taking an even grosser pay cut for the privilege of unpredictable hours, angry residents, volatile public comment sessions, and breakneck deadlines. I, a grown woman desperately trying to seem professional without backsliding into an over-eagerness that occasionally works for me but not often enough to be a surefire ace up the sleeve of the blazer I’d hurriedly changed into after some food-related tragedy befell the one I had been wearing just moments before my departure alarm was due to dispatch me, cried like a homesick child while interviewing with a very sympathetic HR woman. I blubbered uncontrollably about how badly I missed journalism after 10 years of chasing a paycheck in what I thought were adjacent-enough industries that had made me absolutely miserable.
I cried a week later when that same HR woman offered me the job, and then again when it seemed like maybe it was too much of a pay cut to be tenable after all. In the middle of all this, the last surviving grandparent between my husband and me passed away at 92, an expected goodbye that still had a Proustian effect of reminding the now-oldest generation that Death was coming for them next and that the rest of us are always inching closer to nothing left between us and the gaping, insatiable maw of time. Fueled by a renewed sense of the mortality I’m usually more or less indifferent to, I giddily gave my notice to a job I should have left two years earlier, and dove right into the glamorous life of an editor who’s also their own municipal reporter, features writer, photographer, transcriptionist, copy editor and fact checker.
One of my beats was my hometown, where I’d also just worked for five years. I did not hold any particular warmth for the suburban sensory deprivation tank my childhood played out against, and I still resented not being able to escape a place I’d been trying to put behind me since I was 15. But, as a working adult, I had begrudgingly begun to appreciate the locational benefits of upper-middle-class convenience both it and its neighbors offered; being able to traverse the area freely did, equally as begrudgingly, come with a particular sense of freedom and discovery I’ve never once associated with my youth. Getting to first relearn it from the perspective of a working-hours local getting the most from her lunch-hour peregrinations or quick after-work bouts of retail therapy was a bit of permissive reclamation; covering it as a former resident with access most people aren’t privy to and the occupational bonus of asking all the questions polite company can’t edge up to, admittedly, felt like getting away with something deliciously illicit.
So suddenly covering my towns digitally and at arm’s-length while losing that peeking-behind-the-curtain access was one of those “Of course, it figures” mistimed ironies that life is full of, though it did make those weekly excursions for the photos I still needed to secure become something not entirely unlike a treat. Getting out and going for a drive—especially since I am helpless to becoming an outdoor cat as soon as flip-flop weather settles in—once a week was just enough to keep the walls from closing in and feeling like I wasn’t squandering my favorite seasons. My childhood home become a familiar, comfortable excursion, giving it back some of the appeal that circumstance had maybe a little unfairly robbed from it decades ago.
But I did get to a point where low-key agoraphobia started to lick at the shores of my sanity, and it got harder and harder to drag myself out for what I could distill into a two-hour round trip. As the world got weirder and being home all the time became exponentially more encouraged and normalized, I was starting to get some kind of separation anxiety every time I left my house. And as all the normal people started going stir-crazy and regarding their homes as prisons, I was increasingly certain the pandemic was the Introvert Olympics I’d spent my entire life training for.
Starting a new job that was supposed to be my newspaper homecoming six weeks before my entire state started working remotely was a strange place to be, especially since I couldn’t help but feel like this was a personal attack orchestrated with the sole purpose of denying me the newsroom camaraderie I had desperately missed after nearly a decade of toxic work environments. I bitterly mourned that celebratory return deferred, especially on an absolutely chaotic, screaming-at-technology first deadline day navigated from a remote home office of an island. But as working from home felt more and more familiar and I started figuring out how to make it work—thank Cthulhu I at least had a month and a half of unlearning to feel guilty about remotely working, albeit after 10 years of the contrary—I actually started enjoying it. (Working in hoodies and repurposed rink attire and Daytime PJs helped, too.)
A lot of that was because as the world got stranger, it highlighted how home is the only place that always feels right.
As tough as it was to carve out a work station from my personal space, things like weekday breakfast with my husband suddenly became routines I didn’t know I could have. We got to spend lunch together, too, and sit on the back porch with each other and whatever cup of coffee we were on as our dog enjoyed an uptick in daily sunpatch-basking time. We yelled “Hon, what’s another word for…?” and “Hey, how do you spell….?” and “Can you edit this for me, pleeeeease?” from one story of the house to the other when we didn’t just straight-up come to spend a little bit of still-novel mid-day time with the other.
Soon the day had come when my urge to roam relented, and I realized home was the only place I wanted to be. Everything I need is here: my husband, our dog, the equal parts peacefulness and belly laughs that punctuate the life we’ve made here. I was never ambitious or money-motivated to begin with: I picked a profession with my heart, knowing full well it’d never pay off in monetary riches even before I got here, just like I always knew I didn’t have it in me to sacrifice time with someone who feels like home for time spent hoarding resources to spend on fast cars, fancy clothes, ticking boxes and acquiring things. My driving need is to feel something simple and pure and make it the cornerstone of the life I choose. And it was that same drive that led me to change jobs again, reclaiming the evening hours that dragged me away from my husband and our magical Ausshole dog and straight into the bowels of hell via township council and board of education meetings that were getting downright hostile toward the end, but also will eventually necessitate saying goodbye to my initially reluctant home office (to head back to another workplace in my childhood hometown, of course) sooner than I want to be ripped from never being more than a few rooms away from my two favorite dudes.
Having my world reduced to my home, my little family, and the life we’ve made for ourselves took away the option of straining my neck to see what’s around the next bend because who the hell knew what tomorrow would look like when there’s nothing to compare this to now, and how far can you see when you’re all but planted in place, anyway? But it was a beautiful (albeit abrupt) reminder that nothing spoils happiness like not being fully present in it. And if I’ve learned anything from 14 months that took away every safety net most people have, it’s that the only thing better than coming home is realizing that you not only found the only person you can spend more than a year in near isolation with and still feel like you could do another year of this if you had to but also that you both have made the happy home you’ve always dreamed of calling your own.