This is a photo I took of a farm that was once a thriving dairy farm just down the road from our farm in Northwestern Wisconsin. I worked in that barn helping milk a herd of 80 cows and putting up hay in the loft. Some 30 years later I revisited and this was all that was left, side boards flapping in the wind. Bankers closed on the farm for debt, and the family who’d owned it for generations moved to town and did what they could to get by.
Remembering Thomas Wolfe: You Can’t Go Home Again
By S.W. Cosgrove
Can you can go home again?
You can go to the place you once knew,
and it will be there
Just not as you remembered, not really
Prepare yourself with vague, misty memories of farms,
green hills, deep woods, and shimmering ponds, eagles soaring above
A big river pulsing over the rocks, under bridges, wandering through riverine sloughs
Catfish lying still on the bottom, unblinking, wary of the hook
The old river still runs deep, still carrying its waters to the sea far away
But the hills have been leveled and covered with subdivisions,
the woods cut and thinned with no eagle nests towering above
The ponds filled and blacktopped
Yes, you can go home again, but
it’s not your home, anymore
It’s home to others who may one day return there
looking for their old home
And it will be there, but not really
A Moveable Feast is Hemingway’s memoir of his years as a struggling expat journalist and writer in Paris in the 1920s.
“All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know.”
Ernest Hemingway and first wife Hadley Richardson in Switzerland, 1922
The fireplace drew well in the room and it was warm and pleasant to work. I brought mandarines and roasted chestnuts to the room in paper packets and peeled and ate the small tangerine-like oranges and threw their skins and spat their seeds in the fire when I ate them and roasted chestnuts when I was hungry. I was always hungry with the walking and the cold and the working. Up in the room I had a bottle of kirsch that we had brought back from the mountains and I took a drink of kirsch when I would get toward the end of a story or toward the end of the day’s work. When I was through working for the day I put away the notebook, or the paper, in the drawer of the table and put any mandarines that were left in my pocket. They would freeze if they were left in the room at night.
It was wonderful to walk down the long flights of stairs knowing that I’d had good luck working. I always worked until I had something done and I always stopped when I knew what was going to happen next. That way I could be sure of going on the next day. But sometimes when I was starting a new story and I could not get it going, I would sit in front of the fire and squeeze the peel of the little oranges into the edge of the flame and watch the sputter of blue that they made. I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, “Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know.” So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that I knew or had seen or had heard someone say. If I started to write elaborately, or like someone introducing or presenting something, I found that I could cut that scrollwork or ornament out and throw it away and start with the first true simple declarative sentence. Up in that room I decided that I would write one story about each thing that I knew about. I was trying to do this all the time I was writing, and it was good and severe discipline.
It was in that room too that I learned not to think about anything that I was writing from the time I stopped writing until I started again the next day. That way my subconscious would be working on it and at the same time I would be listening to other people and noticing everything, I hoped; learning, I hoped; and I would read so that I would not think about my work and make myself impotent to do it. Going down the stairs when I had worked well, and that needed luck as well as discipline, was a wonderful feeling and I was free then to walk anywhere in Paris.
Ernest Hemingway holding forth at a café in Paris
While I was reading an essay on essays, sipping and inhaling the fragrance of a smoky Lapsang Souchong tea, the charry liquid washing down the last of my cherry crumb cake, a fly landed on the cake dish.
There were just a few scraps left, some crumbs and a drop or two of sugary cherry paste.
My first impulse was to flick the bothersome insect away, intruder, pestiferous fly.
But as I watched the little creature wax his translucent wings hopping over the plate, tasting here and there, I thought – lucky fly! What a find on this quiet evening: cherry crumb cake.
I watched the fly’s pleasure and greed at his unexpected, most wonderful treat. Possibly the best meal ever in his short life.
And I thought – that damned fly has as much integrity as any creature on this earth. Certainly in this room. Just earning an honest living and enjoying a nice supper, including desert. Cherry cake crumbs. Pursuing a life of integrity.
He finished his cherry crumb cake while I finished my tea, then off he flew. Fortunately, he didn’t send any of his comrades to finish the job.
I poured a whisky and returned to my essay on essays.