You Can’t Go Home Again
By L.S. McKee
On many levels, Kingsport, Tennessee is home. I grew up here, my parents were born down the road in Bristol, and generations before lived in the hills of Southwest Virginia. On other levels—the willful, self-inscribed ones—it isn’t. I’ve always bragged on its beauty, its music, its people, and in the same breath swore it was a place where I would never live again. What it could give, I assumed, had already been given.
During trips here in the past—Christmases, sweaty Junes and parched, exhausted Augusts, when I lived elsewhere and admittedly enjoyed the sense of limbo, of displacement—I could lean on the sound of the crickets, look at the mountains and sigh nostalgically: I’m from this place. Good for me! But that nostalgia depends on living elsewhere: the inevitable eros of place. Once you have it, you no longer want it.
This summer, I moved from San Francisco to Albuquerque, took a leap of faith and lost. A long-term relationship collapsed under the pressure of a new life, and I found myself suddenly starting from scratch: leaving a job, a town, an apartment, and a life-in-progress. There was nowhere to go but home. I’ll never forget driving in, how the mountains, the lush greenery, the trees swollen with the end of summer—usually comforting sights—had assumed an edge of terror.
Wallace Stevens once wrote that all geography is poetry. I don’t presume to understand everything he meant by that, but I do know he meant, in part, what we see is always defined by our perception, that we cannot describe a hill, a lake, a rock without it being shaped by the tumult of our interior lives. That day, the gently rolling hills, the waves of the Blue Ridge mountains in the distance, the flashing smokestacks of Eastman Chemical Company, and the churches flashing by every hundred yards—familiar anchors in my idea of home—were suddenly ominous.
For the last ten years, I’ve been writing obliquely and directly about Kingsport in my work from the various cities I’ve called home in my adult life: Washington D.C., Chateauroux, Maastricht, San Francisco. Though I spent my childhood dreaming of elsewhere and resenting the conservatism of the region as an angst-ridden teenager, I found myself, as an adult, starkly defending it in my absence. I bristled when people asked, “But how did you turn out so (fill in intended complimentary adjective), when you grew up there?” I gritted my teeth when privileged coastal urbanites railed against every conservative Christian, declaring them inimical to all things enlightened, worldly, generous, or real with an invective on par with the kind they claimed to denounce.
Once in New York, after a grueling workweek, I sat in a diner with a colleague from San Francisco. Basking in our morning off, we shoved our faces with bacon and home fries and shared for the first time anything vaguely personal about ourselves. She asked where I was from, and I gave the usual guided directions: Tennessee. No, east. In the mountains. Her cheeks full of toast, she nearly choked, her nostrils flared in amusement: Appalachia? She asked for clarification, and I saw in her eyes she thought she’d figured me out—my inability to trace precedents in Excel (though I had no schooling in business, a writer treading water in sales): Appalachia.
Now, staying in the bedroom I grew up in—drawers filled with surly journal entries, ballet costumes, carpet that bears shadows of stains I made at five, ten, fifteen— is bizarre. There’s no holiday to frame my return, no elsewhere I can return. Suddenly, home is the only thing I have. Returning this way, unexpectedly, humbled as many of my generation have been in the last few years, I realize how I’ve underestimated how much the idea of Kingsport is a stabilizing force, how much it serves as psychological terrain I expect will never budge: that home is fixed, permanent, infinite.
I’ve crossed the mountains to the south nearly every weekend since September, and with each crossing, my resistance to the area fades. Much has remained the same, the long fields and dilapidated barns still managing to stay erect along the highway, the turns to Jonesborough, to Gray—a town where I now teach and at whose Post Office, when I forgot my wallet, a man tried to pay for my mail. I’ve been startled by many kindnesses, forgetting how easily such gestures happen here. But much has changed too. Some for better, some for worse.
Kingsport: I define myself with it and against it simultaneously. I’ve taken that for granted: how it has, in no small part, contributed to and supported my wanderlust. One of my grad school professors, speaking to a room of baby-faced poets who believed they could write about anything, shook his head and tried to rein us in: You can’t escape your landscape.
Right now, my landscape is two-fold: house and horizon. Inside, I’m surrounded by the strange history of daily objects. The bed I’m typing on now was the bed I slept in growing up: a Victorian that belonged to my great-grandmother, Miss Lu. Apparently, she’d bought it in god-knows-what decade from an antique dealer. It was painted green at the time. To my knowledge, she slept in it most of her adult life, the crowning piece of an all-pink bedroom: a room where I spent hours playing alone, smelling powder puffs, looking at framed photos of the unfamiliar and long dead, imagining some extravagant adult life in which I was good at everything. Where I learned to daydream, where wanderlust took its grip.
I’m sleeping in this bed now. Ostensibly, my grandfather could have been conceived in it. Which is mind-blowing. A man I never knew, a man my mother barely knew. When she was five, he came home from work early and died while my grandmother telephoned for help. He was thirty. Younger than I am now. Every time I read Lowell’s Life Studies and the last line of “Terminal Days of Beverly Farms”: “I feel awful,” I think of him. He must be buried nearby, in a hillside I have never visited. And I think of the curiosity I’ve applied my whole life to elsewhere, and how the place I need to explore now is home.
L.S. McKee is a writer and teacher who grew up in Kingsport, Tennessee. She received a Wallace Stegner Fellowship in Poetry from Stanford University, and her work has recently appeared in Gulf Coast, Ninth Letter, Indiana Review and New South. She is currently at work on a novel set in East Tennessee.