In her collection I Feel Bad About My Neck, Nora Ephron includes the essay “Moving On,” about falling in love with her apartment and reaffirming her love for New York City. Ephron writes that after ten years in her apartment, she began to have recurring dreams about accidentally moving out and being unable to regain her lease. Ephron’s relationship with her home is written as a long, complicated marriage, full of lows and highs. Eventually, Ephron describes the feeling of moving to another apartment. She finishes the essay with tepid acceptance of this new home, but admits that “it’s not love. It’s just where I live.”
I love to read writers speaking about their homes, past or present. Thinking about one’s home triggers the kinds of emotions that make for beautiful and effective essays: love, sadness, nostalgia, passion or frustration. As I am about to move cities and embark on the next phase of my life, I’ve been turning to books about home more and more – partially because of the homes I miss, but also because I’m excited about the prospect of finding a new one.
Like Ephron, the contributors to Sari Botton’s excellently edited collections of essays consider New York to be their home. Goodbye to All That, which takes its title from Joan Didion’s iconic essay, is about leaving New York for other places. In it, writers like Emma Straub and Cheryl Strayed describe mourning both the vibrancy of the city itself as well as their identities as New Yorkers, and why they eventually chose to leave. Never Can Say Goodbye is its partner: a collection of works about the way the city stays with New Yorkers, either after decades of living there or even after one leaves. The writing in these collections is diverse in style and emotion, and becomes a microcosm of the rich mosaic of New York itself.
Jenny and Ron Slate’s strange and wonderful book About the House gave me a similar feeling to those New York essay collections: the sense that people can share a place for a lifetime and come away with alternate memories and different understandings of what makes it home. In this case, a father and a daughter write essays and poetry about their old house in Massachusetts. Ron Slate’s pieces describe the history of the house itself, working in it, gardening in it, and battling the groundhog that burrowed in the lawn. Jenny’s writings talk of smoking pot out of her bedroom window and seeing ghosts on the stairs. Occasionally, these stories intersect and overlap, but it’s clear that a shared home is not always the same home.
It seems to me that writing about home is, in its own way, a kind of travel writing. To see your home clearly, it becomes necessary to approach it as an outsider, and to appreciate that your perception is informed by intimacy and memory. Writing about home requires that the writer be both the host and the guest, and explores the conflict between wanting to invite readers into one’s home and the desire to keep it close and personal. I can only hope that soon I’ll feel differently about my new home than Ephron did about hers: that it won’t just be where I live. It’ll be love.