We’ve Always Craved Being Home. Then We Were Told to Stay There
A look at what happens when a city shelters in place.
America has always had a home fixation: Home of the brave. Home on the range. Home plate. Home isn’t just a place for us; it’s a state of being.
We marched across this great nation of ours homesteading all the way: staking claim, planting our roots deep. We celebrate home in movies (Homecoming, Coming Home, Fly Away Home), in songs (“Show Me the Way to Go Home,” “You’re My Home,” “I’ll Be Home for Christmas”), in literature (Steal Away Home, Little House on the Prairie, You Can’t Go Home Again).
Even when we’re not explicitly talking about home, we’re thinking of it, circling around it, reveling in it. It’s an entire category of commerce: Home Depot, At Home, HomeGoods (a telling elision). It’s where we head for our holidays, our holy days, the most important times of our lives. We gather together in the mystical glow of candlelight and apple pie, voices raised in song around the sacred hearth.
And it will never be the same.
The place that was our solace, our refuge, is now our great national rut, the place we’re stuck, the spot where we’re slowly going crazy. Where our kid/spouse/loneliness is driving us to distraction. We’re either on our own or mired with our kinfolk, each apartment and rowhouse and split-level a fortified outpost, vigilant Nest sentries guarding against marauders, keeping constant watch.
Be careful what you wish for, old Aesop said.
The frantic pace of modern life made us long for time, made us crave more leisure, and now the Fates have unspooled great vast skeins of it, enough for us to watch entire seasons of The Office in one fell swoop. We can read the classics! We can learn another language! We can build ships in bottles! Instead, we huddle over our screens, refreshing Twitter again and again. Or else we’re scrambling to fill a dozen different roles — day-care worker, schoolteacher, line cook, housemaid, spouse, tax preparer, laundress, recreation director, nurse, oh, and competent, professional at-home worker — and there’s no time whatsoever, scarcely time to breathe.
No man is an island, John Donne warned us: Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. … Yet we primed ourselves for this splendid solitude, imagining a day when we wouldn’t have to leave our homes to work or shop or play or share. And then it came.
Those earliest creators rightfully called their masterwork a “web.” Ensnared by its allure, we made friends we never saw in person, substituted Zoom meetups for real-life visits, segregated in our red or blue bunkers, and swore this was what we wanted right up until it was all we had, when our treasured, Instagram-perfect homes turned into prison cells. Alexa, play Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi”:
Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you got ’til it’s gone?
Sure, there are moments of grace in this enforced isolation; you can see them in these photos. There are instances of intense connection and compassion, the comfort of touching those we still can touch, of reveling in a slant of sunshine or the silliness of an impromptu game.
But the truth is, home never was all we imagined it to be. The great American myth of every king to his castle doesn’t mean much when your fiefdom ends at the front door. Waving to the Peapod guy isn’t the same as hugging your mom — or even waving to your neighbor. Not even close.
Anyway, the heroes of the Great Pandemic aren’t those who hunkered down at home — though the everyday quarantined among us have a part to play in this tale that will be told to our children’s children and onward into the ages. (They really do serve who only stand and wait.) Our Achilles, our Sundiata, our Gilgamesh, will be those who venture beyond their thresholds — the nurses and doctors and truck drivers and janitors and cooks who brave this horror protected by as little as plastic bags and makeshift masks. Let them be the titans of whatever epics we pen.
If there’s any lesson to be gleaned from all this sorrow and woe, it’s that the world’s biggest cache of toilet paper can’t compare to the joint jubilation of the crowd at a high-school football game, the hush of the audience as the maestro raises his baton, the collective gasp of moviegoers when the Mummy staggers forth from his grave. We’ll have to fight our way free of this web, considering how adeptly the moguls exploit our longing for connection. (I trust they’re enjoying squatting on their riches, like Smaug.) There’s home, yes. Then there’s homeland, with all its nationalist seduction. And then, moving the lens further back, there’s Earth, this gorgeous blue-green orb on which we’re stuck together, lodgers all.
About These Photos
All the images in this story were taken by Bella Vista-based photographer Andrea Cipriani Mecchi, who began shooting Philadelphians in mid-March, not long after businesses started closing and people were urged to stay home. “I thought that it would get redundant, the idea of shooting people in rowhomes, in their doors, in the city,” she says of the project, which she’s titled “Family At a Distance.” “But everybody’s an individual. And we get to talking. We talk about the struggles. It’s really interesting for me to see how people are living their lives in a 12-foot-wide house.” See more images on Instagram at @Family_At_a_Distance.
Published as “We Stayed Home” in the May 2020 issue of Philadelphia magazine.