Writing Home

by Caroline Ketcham

I used to write letters to my friends when I was away during the summer. We loved the small gift of a postcard or a letter within an envelope and the way they allowed us to connect materially, even though I was two days’ travel from my hometown: tucked into packages and letters, we sent each other yarn bracelets, scraps of fabric, tiny watercolor paintings, and magazines full of flirting tips and perfume samples. In my letters I tried to make them understand something about where I was. No one ever did: they forgot the name of the island where my family spent two months every summer, or thought I was in South Carolina instead of North Carolina. The island was such a vital part of my life, and I couldn’t bear the thought that my friends would never know my family’s tiny but brightly decorated cottage, the kindness of our neighbors, the salt marshes with their soft charcoal rushes, or the water green enough to break your heart. I wanted them to understand that the island was not just a place where I went for vacation, but my other home.

I felt such a sense of ownership about the place that I adopted its history as my own. In one very long letter to my captive audience, I wrote about Shell Point, named for the piles of shells supposedly left by the Coree Indians; the two general stores that used to serve as social hubs for the island before it was connected to the mainland by bridge; and the old houses on the nearby barrier islands, remnants of thriving towns that were gradually eaten away by storms and salt water.

I so badly wanted this island to be mine. I wanted to be able to recount this history with some sense of belonging. Didn’t I have that right? After all, I cared enough about the island to learn about its past, paint countless watercolors of the nearby lighthouse, and identify in my bird book the native birds that flew out to the marshes at night. I even learned old island slang and was delighted when our neighbor referred to the water in the sound as “daid slick ca’m.” I reserved the tongue-in-cheek terms “dingbat” and “dit-dot” for other, less knowledgeable visitors to the island. These terms meant “tourist,” and a tourist I certainly was not. Tourists were the people who crowded the beaches on the Fourth of July, tossed beer cans overboard their sport-fishing boats, and shopped at the new, tacky beach stores that popped up every summer. They were the ones who didn’t notice when someone’s son or daughter had to move far away because there were no jobs anywhere around, or when another one of our elderly neighbors, all lifelong residents of the island, died, to be replaced by some newcomer who didn’t know anything.

But at the same time, I was ashamed of the New Hampshire license plate on our family car. On drives to the small island grocery store, I was terrified that somebody would notice it and realize we were from somewhere else. As much as I tried to let the salt of island speech work its way into my words, my flat Northern accent remained. And as close as I got to convincing myself I was a local, not a tourist, it was, of course, never true.

My letters were an attempt not only to connect myself with my friends, but to connect myself with the island. In my letters, I could pretend the history was practically my own, and nobody would be the wiser. In a sense, I was writing myself into the history of the island; I was writing it to make it mine.

Maybe James Franco was doing the same thing when he wrote his poem “Obama in Asheville.” The poem, written for Obama’s second inauguration and widely panned afterwards, lists Franco’s impressions of Asheville and the famous writers and artists who have moved in and out of its sphere before it dreamily segues into musings on Obama. I read the poem, watched the video of Franco reciting it from his bed in a listless monotone, and thought “Huh.” I thought there might be something beautiful in its rambling stanzas, but I couldn’t find it.

A few days later, I read the poem that Caroline Mann, a lecturer in psychology at UNC Asheville and an Asheville native, wrote to the Mountain Xpress in response to Franco’s. Where his was languid and lazy, Mann’s hummed with indignant rage at the ignorance with which he claimed Asheville as his own. As I read Mann’s poem, I was caught up in the current of her anger, and like her, I wondered: how dare an outsider like Franco lay claim to this place, when he thinks its history was made by the New York artists who dipped their toes in its healing waters and left? How can he be so ignorant of the real people whose real lives and real pain take place here? What can someone who the president knows “from Spider-Man” have to say?

But then I put my finger to the pulse of my anger and suddenly recognized in its rhythms the little girl secretly ashamed of her Northern accent. Despite his shortcomings as a poet, Franco clearly loves Asheville, or his idea of it. So do I, as much as the island and as much as the town where I was born. But though I love it here, I am not from here, any more than I was from the island. This is not my place, though I wish it was, and its history is not my history. This time, Franco was “the tourist,” and I knew that, despite trying to deny it, so was I.

Every summer, when we returned to the island, I would find a letter in a small wooden treasure chest where I kept interesting shells, marbles, and keepsakes from my friends. I wrote these letters at the end of each summer and tucked them in the chest for a future self to read.

More often than not, these letters would end with a kind of wistful jealousy. “You are so lucky,” I would say to next summer’s Caroline. “You have all this time in this place, but I have to leave it.” Being on the island meant summer, freedom, Popsicles, happiness, all those things; leaving meant the terror of a new school year as well as the intrinsic melancholy that comes with any ending. I left the letters as an anchor, a gesture of trust in a future that would bring me back.

But I didn’t truly have to worry, because I always knew I would be back the next summer. Now, I’m not even sure when I’ll go back to my original home, much less my part-time one. This state of uncertainty is how I live now, because where I live is no longer where I am from.

If Asheville, where I now spend three-quarters of my year, is not my home, then I don’t know what is. But how can I claim this place as my home? I’m not sure I deserve to. I rarely pay a donation to the free yoga place after class, and I spurn farmers’ markets for Ingles and Walmart. I don’t know who settled these hills before the wealthy tuberculosis patients and Fitzgeralds found them. I have no Cherokee or Scotch-Irish or African-American blood. I’ve never finished a Thomas Wolfe novel.

But these mountains are the southern cousins of the New Hampshire hills where I was born. The Appalachian Trail runs along the road in front of my old high school. The sugar maples that line the cool northern slopes of Southern mountains and the silver maples that drink from the floodplains of creeks and rivers look like the ones I climbed as a child. And though I have yet to learn the history of this place in as much detail as the history of my island, when I do, I will write it into a hundred letters.

I like to think that the places I have loved most deeply are part of me in some indelible way, and that in return, I have given these places parts of myself. I have given Asheville my tears and laughter, hours of labor for rent money and the occasional Sunny Point breakfast, and the dust of my footprints on cracked old sidewalks and hiking trails. In exchange for these small gifts, Asheville has filled the empty spaces inside me. When I write, it comes from these spaces: consequently, every word I put down on the page takes the elegiac shape of these mountains’ bones. The longer I live and write here, the deeper I’ll dig my hands into the red earth, the more I’ll breathe the dust of history, the more I’ll reach into myself for words and find Asheville. One day, maybe, this will be enough for me to claim Asheville as my home.

Caroline Ketcham is originally from Hanover, New Hampshire, but now spends most of her time in Asheville. She is a junior at UNC Asheville, where she is pursuing a major in Environmental Studies and minors in Economics and Creative Writing. She has been published in Sanctuary, a regional honors journal, and is working as an intern with The Great Smokies Review. Writing has always been her home.