In a collection of essays titled “Sunshine State,” Sarah Gerard weaves a provocative narrative, relating a connected series of events from her past with the drive and inquisitive nature of an investigative journalist, but with the subtle nostalgia that is so often evoked when retelling tales of home and childhood. At the root of each essay in “Sunshine State” is Gerard’s home state of Florida, or the Sunshine State, which shaped her formative years and memories in an idiosyncratic assortment of experiences that Gerard recounts so candidly.
“Sunshine State” has sat on my metaphorical bookshelf for a little over a year now. It takes up space on my Goodreads want-to-read list alongside other works that I had cataloged in the hope that reading them would make me a more interesting and profound individual. I finally plucked “Sunshine State” from its virtual home in between “Trick Mirror” and “Girl, Woman, Other” one fateful morning before my commute to my summer job — sitting at the take-out counter of a Midtown restaurant that’s slow on a good day, affording me plenty of hours to fill at my leisure, especially during the morning shift. I had put the book on hold at my local library what felt like hundreds of times, allowing the designated number of days to tick by before the irritated staff plucked the book from the “reserved” shelf and placed it back with the general populous; back onto the “for later” shelf in my imagination. But, I decided today was the day — the day I would reach enlightenment through reading non-fiction.
While I perused the essays of “Sunshine State,” pausing periodically to begrudgingly address customers and actually do my job, I let myself be captivated by the atmospheric and psychogeographical analysis of Gerard’s home, an unpredictable state that birthed so many defining moments in the story of the author’s existence — her parents meeting, the spiritual and religious movement that drew them both onto a more purposeful and enlightened path, the art schools of her childhood that were the catalyst for the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll rebellion of her youth. The tales aren’t confined only to Gerard’s home state, occasionally venturing outside of the borders of the nicknamed Sunshine State. But, for Gerard, all roads lead to Florida. For all intents and purposes, literal and metaphorical, it is her home.
Is there one place that could define me so perfectly? I’m not sure. As I sat at the counter with “Sunshine State” in hand, dazed and heavy from the thick fog of euphoria I always find myself in while immersed in a book, I tried to picture what physical place could best symbolize home for me. It could be my childhood home — the house my parents brought me to from the hospital after I was born, the house with the rooms that can be glimpsed in the background of so many family photos and the place I still call home today. It could be the house my dad moved to, a tiny place in Hamtramck where we played Mario Kart together on the living room rug, down the street from the Polish bakeries that my brother and I would bike to after school. It could be the house he lives in now. It could be his parents’ house on the canal, where my great-grandmother once lived — his mother’s childhood home. It could be his childhood home, with the pool in the backyard where I spent summers bleaching my hair with chlorine. Maybe it could be my mother’s parents’ house, nestled on a historic Dayton street with the wood floors and the garden I loved to explore, or the blue wooden cabin off M-72 that my father’s parents own, with an endless expanse of nature to explore, and where I held imaginary tea parties as a child, in true cottagecore fashion. Which of those physical spaces encapsulates my life’s experiences, as Florida did for Gerard? Maybe the state of Michigan itself, where I’ve lived my whole life, or Ohio, where my mother, and my mother’s mother, were born? Just contemplating the complex problem of “home” gave me a headache.
Or does “home” stretch beyond a mere physical building, and into the realm of memory and emotion? Could “home” be a state of mind? As I write the beginnings of this piece, I listen to Harry Styles’ new album, “Harry’s House,” an album dedicated to his friends and his journey in finding his version of home. Maybe home is actually where the heart is, no matter how corny that may sound — on a road trip with your family, singing along to the radio together, or in the backseat of your friend’s car, embarking on a vibrant teenage adventure fit for a coming-of-age film. Home can be transformative, capable of evolution.
When I first picked up “Sunshine State” after a year of tug-of-war with my local library and with myself, my mind jumped right away to Florida, walking the intended road of clear connection that Sarah Gerard paved for me when she penned her perfect title. The book’s cover is eye-catching, decorated with colorful sketches of the wildlife one might find in the Sunshine State, from alligators to herons to insects — you can practically feel the crushing humidity of the Florida coast from just a cursory glance. But, after finishing the collection of essays in a single work shift and liberating the book from its previously-permanent place on my Goodreads shelf, the title has stuck with me. Intentional or not, “Sunshine State” is a nod not only to the eternally sunny state that Gerard called home but to a theoretical state: a sunshine state of mind. To me, your sunshine state is synonymous with that perfect feeling of home, of security and comfort, of the warm glow you bask in when you’re in the presence of your very favorite people.
As a not-quite-child but not-quite-adult, I will probably be on the quest for my perfect home, both the physical and the metaphorical, for some time. Speaking physically, I can’t afford a house, and my college dorms or apartments aren’t really “forever home” material. Speaking metaphorically, my life at present could best be defined not by a “sunshine state,” but rather by the phases of the moon — everything temporary and ever-changing, pulled by a constant allegorical tide. Nothing is constant enough to earn the title of “home.” But, just as Gerard embraces her mosaic of memories with harsh honesty in “Sunshine State,” I try to embrace the instability and lack of permanence that’s a trademark of adolescence until I can find my true home: my own sunshine state.
Daily Arts Writer Annabel Curran can be reached at email@example.com.