After devastating loss, writer Emily Nunn retreated into isolation—and learned more than she'd imagined about life and how to live it.
About two years ago, I came to Todd, North Carolina, like a character from a Gothic novel, with the intention of getting lost in a dark wood. After decades of living in the hubbub of New York and Chicago, where I wrote about restaurants and food, I arrived in the Blue Ridge Mountains with two suitcases and a box of cookbooks, haunted by a series of devastating losses that I should have made peace with years earlier but had not: the death of a sibling by suicide, followed by the disappearance of practically every aspect of my previous life—my home, my proud career, my last shreds of self-respect.
My life was broken, but I was afraid to put it back together, worried it would turn out the same as before. I was no longer the person I had been. It felt like I wasn’t anyone at all. I was convinced it was best for everyone that I be very far from other people. My ridiculous idea: I’d ghost my own life!
I ended up in a converted barn on rustic rural farmland, pretty close to the small town in Virginia where I’d grown up but too far away from a grocery store to call it civilization. In the beginning, I took endless lonesome walks, during which I met herds of donkeys and cows but rarely any humans. And that was fine by me. My old friends, like all my belongings in storage, just reminded me of my former life.
I soon discovered that the barn’s roof leaked when it rained. It was so bitterly cold in winter that I had to wear a wool cap to bed. And I was often afraid—of the snakes that left their empty skins around the barn and the occasional bear, possum, or raccoon (the last of which would show up on my porch when I baked).
I was also quite afraid of my own isolation. I was very lonely for a long time. It felt like a necessary and painful cure, the only way I could undergo the kind of ruthless self-examination, unclouded by other voices, that I required. But once spring came again (because it always does), I became aware that the meadow I lived on had exploded with gorgeous purple and yellow flowers and polychromatic birds I didn’t recognize. Oh, this is what it means to be alive on the earth. This is nature.
In the summer, I slowly began to meet my far-off neighbors, some as they rode their horses past the barn at dusk, one who sold me his perfect blackberries (which I turned into cobbler for another neighbor), and one who gave me soft baby lettuce from her garden because I stopped my car to say hello. Everyone had a vegetable garden and fruit trees.
So I planted a garden of my own. As I spent my mornings pulling weeds around delicate tomatoes and squash, I began to mentally separate the good from the bad in my life, promising myself I’d truly value and nurture what was good and make it grow stronger.
It requires a certain amount of foolish stubbornness to take the unmarked, unfamiliar road, but rather than getting lost out here, I found myself again. I’m still afraid of snakes and spiders. But I’m not sure I’ve ever been happier. And I’m ready to rejoin the living.
Emily Nunn's memoir, The Comfort Food Diaries, was published in September.