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Reflecting on the meaning of home in the age of coronavirus

Reflecting on the meaning of home in the age of coronavirus
May 2020

A writer reconsiders the meaning of “home” during the COVID-19 crisis

My husband and I moved to Charleston as freshman parents with a four-month-old. We owned little more than a Pier 1 breakfast table, two foldable captains chairs, a hand-me-down love seat from my mother, a Pack-n-Play, and a wardrobe of useless wool sweaters and slacks from our previous stint in Boston. It was July 1993—the hottest on Charleston’s record—and thankfully our carriage house rental right on the Battery had arctic-worthy AC.

My clearest memory from those first weeks as a “come-ya” was the fogging of my sunglasses the second I stepped outside. I knew no one here, so spent my days cocooned inside, watching Phil Donahue and a young Bill Sharpe on Live 5 News while nursing my baby girl. My days were a numbing blur of diaper changes, feedings, laundry, and oohing and aahing as my infant learned to hold her head up, drool, and coo—all the things that endlessly captivate humans after we spawn. If she got cranky, all I had to do was walk outside and she’d immediately go limp and silent, wilted by the heat.

The blissful boringness of those first weeks tucked inside in this new town remains a tender memory—one that feels familiar as I write this under “stay-at-home” recommendations, thanks to COVID-19. Though our time living the high life on the High Battery was brief, our time in greater Charleston—and Mount Pleasant to be specific—has now spanned almost 27 years, most of which I’ve spent as a stay-at-home mom and work-from-home freelancer. Huddling at home has become one of my chief professional skills, right up there with office clutter rearranging and dishwasher unloading as my deadline procrastination techniques. As one who’s been honing my homing instincts long before #WFH was a thing, this COVID crisis feels a bit like business-as-usual. And yet nothing like it at all.

Working from home has expanded how I think about “home.” It’s not so much the place I come back to, as it might be for one who spends the day away at the office or school, but the place I launch from. It is less my safe retreat from the “real world” as it is my observation deck from which I, a writer whose job is to observe, take in what is going on around me. And so my surroundings begin to feel like my home too: the park just steps from my house, where wedding parties gather almost every weekend and the bass drum beat of the deejay thrums late into the night; the quaint Village Library with its shin-high kids’ table and chairs feels like an extension of my own den, albeit with better organized shelves; the Pitt Street Bridge, a bridge to my own backyard.

This is why the current coronavirus closedown feels so scary and so, well, sad—not because I mind staying home, but because I’m homesick for the places and people that make me feel at home.

Even across the Ravenel Bridge, Colonial Lake and Hampton Park feel like tucked-away garden rooms within our broader rambling estate called Charleston, the deck at Baker and Brewer just another part of our porch. We have made our home here in the Holy City, adding our footprints to its many paths and our delight to its pocket parks. So what does it mean, then, to “stay at home,” when the directive to isolate oneself and one’s family is antithetical to my experience of finding ourselves at home here—a process that has been expansive, not confining?

The disconnect is as jarring and incongruous as the fact that the world is infectious and shutting down just as the tulip poplars are bursting open and the days turning glorious. I’ll happily “stay home” for the good of public health, but the Pitt Street Bridge and Waterfront Park are also my home, as are the dining room of Park Cafe and the piazzas of Zero George (well, maybe my dream home). This, I believe, is why the current coronavirus closedown feels so scary and so, well, sad—not because I mind staying home, but because I’m homesick for the places and people that make me feel at home.

The first lesson I learned as a new mom in a new town was that I was not really in control, and my job then, and two kids later, was to not let my girls realize that. The pandemic is a frightening global reminder of this folly and fact. It’s ironic, then, to also remember that my go-to parental control tactic—the ultimate punishment when my girls were teens—was to ground them. I was a softie, and grounding them was rarely effective (and rarely needed, thank goodness), but regardless of behavioral manipulation success, it is also what I wish for my girls, and for myself, today: to be grounded. Not as punishment, but as invitation.

To be grounded and rooted to home in its broadest sense—as a launching point, an extension of who we are in the world—so that when we are “home” we are also in community. To feel “at home” in the sense of belonging to a place bigger than ourselves and broader than our personal needs, desires, fears. To be grounded in a love of place so deep that home is not just where the heart is, but where the heart grows big and strong and best able to love and care for one another—our neighbors and neighborhoods, our parks and beaches and forests, our environment.

Virus or not, it remains my privilege to stay home, to work from home and work for home, because Charleston is home.