After living in Portland, Oregon for six non-consecutive years, on April 10, two weeks after nearly the entire country went on lockdown, I drove cross country and moved back in with my family. I hadn’t lived on the east coast in some time. I’d gone back for one Christmas, one emergency, one wedding, and one funeral. Since living in Connecticut, I’d lived in Ohio, Massachusetts, California, Colorado, and, predominantly, Oregon. I’d gone overseas, visited countless other states, driven around the country numerous times with numerous people. I liked how I was living, how unbelonging felt, how I could barely remember where I was from. How I’d stopped identifying with any one home or place, and perhaps with any one version of self.
About two months prior to moving I told a friend I was thinking about relocating to New York City after finishing my M.F.A., but that I was afraid of failing and getting stuck in Connecticut. Yeah, don’t go back to Connecticut, he said, that sounds like an awful idea.
This was pre pandemic. This was pre cultural undoing. This was before true planning felt necessary.
When family felt comfortably distant. When distance did not mean despair.
A few weeks prior to talking with my friend, I’d told my youngest sister I had no interest in ever going back east. I had no interest in attaching myself to the place of our growing up. For no reason I can remember, the whole eastern seaboard had recently been disgusting me. Perhaps I’d start telling people I was from Pennsylvania. It’s where all four of my siblings and I were born, where I spent half my growing up. It wouldn’t be a lie.
Besides, what does it mean to be from a place, anyway? What does it mean to have an origin? I suppose when we ask these questions we’re thinking of home. What is the place of your origination? Where did you originate? Where did you come into the world? What is the place that defines you?
What is the place that made you think the way you think, talk the way you talk, eat the food you eat, navigate dark roads or bright boulevards the way you do? Who are the people who have made you you, allowed you to be who you’ve become?
We assume family is inextricable from beginnings.
When we first moved to Connecticut, I actively rejected all things New England, and attached myself to the memories of my first childhood realm. When I went to undergrad in Ohio, I hated the midwest, and identified with all things New England. When I moved to California, then to Oregon, I was from the east, not the west coast. I’m driven, not chill. When I moved to Colorado, I was from Oregon. I’m from the west coast, I don’t care about boat shoes, canned versions of success. But when things dismantled in Colorado in 2016, I became groundless. And not in the way of liberation, or of freeing unattachment. I wanted to go home.
I didn’t know where home was.
Perhaps I could make a new one with the person I’d fallen in love with. But that would require moving to his home—attaching my version of home to his. I could move back east. But this felt like regression. What if the people I’d once known found out I’d failed? What if my family had grown beyond me? I could go overseas. I could resurrect my French, stop talking to anyone from my past. I could pick a place on the map, try there—maybe that was where home was—a place I’d never been.
There was a lot of unrest in my family at the time. My parents had divorced several years prior, my siblings and I were strangely distant. My brother and I had had a falling out. My other brother and I hadn’t had a friendship in some time. My one sister had gone quiet. My other sister and I were trying to fix what had grown unsustainable between us. I was in a period of unsettledness with my mother. I was not speaking to my father. A new family was living in our old home. Our family was like scattered seeds—what soil were we on? There wasn’t a scaffolding, neither human nor otherwise, to return to. Home was unattached to origin. Home, I thought, maybe still could be Oregon.
Though I’d left, I could still return. I’d made some friends, learned the city. The thought of going back felt like a homecoming, a resurrection. And driving back over the border—all those pines, all that flat iridescent lake, that mountain, that wet air—it felt like that again.
We talked about current events, the spread, the charts we’d seen. Some made predictions. Some scoffed. Some rolled their eyes. It’s not going to affect us, they said. Besides, it’s an old people virus.
I assigned Carmen Maria Machado’s “Inventory” that week. They thought this was funny too, but not ironically, not aproposly, not in the way of a clever warning. Still no one was worried. It’s respiratory, they said, you can’t tell if someone has it based on the color of their eyes. In the world of Machado’s pandemic, the whites of the eyes turn yellow, then perhaps green—this is how you know someone has it. This is how you know to stay away. Yet no one can. Sex spreads disease, touch spreads disease, nearness causes death. One of the narrator’s lovers laments: “If people would just stay apart—”
In the world of our pandemic, we too crave nearness. We too cannot stay apart.
When classes went online just weeks later, when the city shut down, I couldn’t watch TV. I could barely read. Stop touching each other, don’t you know, stop eating with your hands, god, she just keeps touching her face. Yet what I wanted was to be held.
I know, New York has gotten weird too, said my siblings in the city. Two days later—or two minutes, it was hard to tell the rate of things—my sister called me on the train back to Connecticut. I’m confused, she said, I don’t have work anymore, but I don’t know if I should be leaving. A week later nearly everyone was jobless, or their jobs were now enclosed inside their homes. My brother fled the city too, joining my sisters in Connecticut. My other sister and her baby, both of whom had been living in Oregon with me, had returned east before the shutdown. My other brother lives in high desert Colorado. There aren’t people for six miles, let alone six feet. I was the only one in danger.
I would never find them again. I would never make it back east. I would get sick, I might die alone. Worse, they’d get sick, I wouldn’t be able to make it back in time. It was about to be Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven and I had no Shakespearean acting company with whom to traverse the country. I didn’t even have my family.
Some days were like this—defined by horror. Other days were wonderfully still. I was writing my master’s thesis, and the days were transcendently endless. I had no place to be. I could write and read and write and write. I had no one who could see me, no one who could accidentally brush up against me. Time began its deformation. Water and blankets, soap and towels, pages and computer keys, these were the things I touched.
When I wasn’t writing, I was on the phone with my siblings. When we talked all together, the conversations lasted entire work days—more. Otherwise, it was two hours with one sister, three with another, four with this brother, two with the other. All on a loop. We’d gotten back here, to this form of incessant communication. Now we had more reason than ever. Not because we had nothing else to do. Because we’d recently discovered ourselves mortal.
Or was that it? Hadn’t we done this before? Wasn’t this how it’d always been between us?
This is who we are, we kept saying. The five of us, we— Other siblings don’t— No one understands what it’s like with us—
Was it true though? Them so far. The map widening, especially at night. We were all there, transcontinentally, nothing had changed. Everything was silent. Everything was now impossible, dangerous.
But weren’t my students right? Hadn’t I just read too much fiction? This wasn’t how the world really ended? This wasn’t how I learned to love my family. Was it? This wasn’t how we’d lose each other.
What is it about terror that makes us cling to what we once believed we must tear ourselves from?
And when we’re called back, do we resist? And if we do, why do we?
Despite my own alarmist spirit, I dismissed my siblings’ constant urges to return east. I wasn’t worried about leaving Oregon, I was terrified. On the phone for three hours with my brother, he said, It’s best to do what’s horrifying in the most horrifying of circumstances. Sure, yes, I knew he was right. But I was sober and he wasn’t. Besides, I was done with impulse. I was done disassembling my only semblance of home.
Yet as Elisa Gabbert says in her essay “The Self-Destruct Button,” “We do seem to prefer, ruin, don’t we? But maybe the ideas of preference and volition are imputed by the gods to us humans, mere slaves to our programming.”
Looking around my room that night—three a.m.—I took an inventory of my own. I didn’t have a choice did I? I was powerless not to return. But who or what was doing it to me? Was I doing it to myself, that yanking back?
And all of us who have made similar returns in the past months, has it been voluntary or programmed, preferential or inevitable? When certainty and predictability dismantle, do we have agency when it comes to those we love, when it comes to our returns to what is true, to what has lasted?
As Jenny Offill’s character Sylvia says in Weather as she waters her garden: “Of course, the world continues to end.” But it also continues to begin. And perhaps it is with our siblings, our partners, our babies, our mothers, our grandfathers, that we return to our watering together. What will we allow to come up from the taking down? A return is not a reversion. It is not synonymous with regression. To return to the land inside us, is to till what remains, to disrupt the old soil to make room for new growth. To return to the land that connects us, is to rediscover those who have shaped us, is to allow the possibility for reenvisioning our beginnings. For translating our origins into better, kinder, truer selves.
Kathleen Levitt is a freelance writer and online writing instructor living in Brooklyn, New York. She received her M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Portland State University. This is her first nonfiction publication.