A recent blog post by children’s author and friend Claudia Mills titled “Can the Joy of Time Away from Home Inspire Joy upon Returning?” made me want to write about the same topic. Claudia and I both taught at Hollins University. Mornings, we walked the “campus loop.” Even talking ninety to the minute, we always admired the beauty around us.
This summer I was eager to leave home for six weeks. I was tired of cats, laundry, cooking, dishes, errands, cleaning, and yard work, while working a full day. The week that I packed, cleaned the house extra-good (an exercise in futility), and stocked supplies, still putting in eight hours, I was so irritable (okay, there’s another word for what I was) that everyone, even the cats, was glad to see the back of me.
My apartment at Barbee House waited for me on campus. I decorated with my favorite things, set up my office, and settled in. Each morning I got up, made my single bed, put on exercise clothes, and walked out into birdsong. Deer, rabbits, squirrels, groundhogs, muskrats, and terrapins shared their space with me. I loved Claudia’s company when she was on campus, and my friends’, but I loved solitude the most. My mind quieted. I felt centered. I didn’t have to answer to anyone or take care of anyone but myself.
Claudia wrote how happy she was at Hollins because she was around people who do what we do—write and discuss children’s books. We both experienced increased productivity. Is this what it takes to be a writer? To hang around like-minded people? To walk in nature? To have someone else cook for us? Somehow a home office doesn’t measure up to a Hollins summer, away from responsibilities.
As the weeks went on, I worried about re-entry back home. Yet I wasn’t completely satisfied at Hollins, either. Institutionalization set in. Meals at 8:00, 12:00, and 5:00 seemed a luxury, though I wearied of broccoli and cabbage and quinoa (the dining hall was determined to keep us bloated). Too much talking and too much drama was distracting.
Like Claudia, I also wanted to find Hollins at home. When I came back last summer, I decided to spend one day a week at the University of Mary Washington, a tree-shaded campus only a few miles away. I bought a new backpack, lunch bag, and a light-weight laptop. The library at UMW isn’t pretty. Windows look out on parking lots. Carrels were packed with undergrads who snuffled and coughed until I wanted to yell, “Doesn’t anybody have a Kleenex?” The day I chose often coincided with fall break or library inventory. UMW did not become my joyful writing place away from home.
Coffee shops are annoying, or else I find myself eavesdropping instead of writing. Public libraries are no longer quiet. What I want is Thoreau’s cabin. Walden opens, “When I wrote the following pages, or rather the bulk of them, I lived alone, in the woods . . . ”
For ten years I had a Walden-like haven, a bed-and-breakfast on the Potomac River, forty minutes from my house, close enough so I could run home in an emergency, far enough it seemed another world. At Bell House, once owned by Alexander Graham Bell, I had the top floor: a bedroom, a library, and two widow’s walks. Anne Bolin, the smart, funny innkeeper, fed me decadent breakfasts. I stayed there seven days and seven nights, with a goal of ten pages before supper. Long walks on the deserted beach, evenings rocking on the porch with Anne, nights listening to the lappeting of the river outside my open windows . . . I thought I’d have that place forever.
But last year Anne died suddenly. You could have heard my heart break on five continents. Anne had become a dear friend, a wise confidante, a trusted reader of my work. The yellow house filled with antiques was sold. My joyful place vanished.
Writing is a selfish profession. It makes demands on the writer and on everyone around the writer. I’m always conscious of my working time, always protective of it. Yet I know how extraordinarily lucky I’ve been, doing what I love for nearly forty years. When I went to Hollins thirteen straight summers, my husband took up the slack. He managed the house, did laundry, cooked, watched for Japanese beetles in my roses, gave the cats umpteen meals, changed litter boxes, all while working at his job.
When Thoreau moved to his cabin in the woods, he had no one to answer to and no one to take care of but himself. As much as I prize my solitude, I wouldn’t trade my family or my house for a cabin on Walden Pond.
When Thoreau left Walden, I’m pretty sure he didn’t have a “Welcome Home” balloon, flowers, and a sweet card waiting for him at home.