The Sense of Home

My family recently moved out of the house I grew up in. When I first heard my mother was selling the house I was mortified. I couldn’t understand how she could she just pack up and move so easily away from a place with such history for our small family. But I quickly found myself more shocked by how sad it had made me than by the decision itself. I’d felt that natural pang of sorrow we often get when we lose something beyond our control. Her mind was made up. After 18 years, she wanted something new. To convince her otherwise would be selfish given I live halfway across the world.

It was the attachment to a place I had done so much to flee as a child that caught me by surprise. I couldn’t help but lament the fact I wouldn’t be able to experience the stillness of those rooms; to sit and allow the memories in those spaces inhabit my senses. This was a place that had both witnessed and guided my own becoming; and I couldn’t do anything to avoid letting it go.

We spend so much of our lives scurrying between impersonal spaces – the workplace, restaurant, hotel, airport – that we often forget the value of what it means to be home. Both as children and as adults, home is where we spend the most time growing, learning, and feeling. It is a space for the soul to find its natural rhythm, one that should, at its peak, convey a strong sense of familiarity. Home, then, is so much a part of what makes us human.

In an effort to atone for my silly self-pity over mother’s decision to move, I recently read Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space, alongside W.H. Auden’s Thanksgiving for a Habitat. If my goal was to find solace in change, I was handed a feast by these writers. Bachelard’s philosophy of the home gifted me with a profound sense of gratitude for the memories of the space that made me who I am today.

When we think of home, we might recall the kitchen counter, the ornaments on the mantlepiece, the echoes in the hallway. We might think of that universal warmth of the fireplace at Christmas heating the walls of the living room, book between our fingers as we read to the sound of the purring cat perched gracefully on the edge of the sofa. These are places of meaning in-built, of comfort incarnate. Places, Bachelard writes, ‘of helpless waiting, re-fashioned…places of contemplation and a gathering-in of memory and self-discovery’.

I cannot help but feel a poignancy to these ideas as I recall my own memories of our now-past family space. Like the potter setting grooves into the clay, we are shaped by the conversations with ourselves and others in those warm communal spaces: from the times we shared laughter with friends in the kitchen to the notes we played on the piano on that rainy afternoon. In retrospect, we find our personality ingrained into the walls of these most personal of spaces that time and again bear witness to moments of vulnerability.

Tethered to these ideas is Auden’s notion of the home as a set of memories we drift in and out of as we go about our daily lives. The sense of the home as a conduit to the personality, as conducive to the creation of our identity, in part explains the ease with which we often settle into a new family space. Both Bachelard and Auden, then, articulate in their own ways a deeply poetic nature to the living space that we let pass us by today. In our pursuit of betterness, of productivity and popularity, we have sacrificed the sense of presence so innate in the home – a space, in its essence, tailored for contemplation and the slower moments in life.  

While the mind has a tendency to distort our memories both good and bad, I nonetheless find myself comforted by memories in which the home played the role of a temple, a place in which I sought out slices of my own selfhood to better understand the world around me. The kitchen at the bottom of our house provided some of my happiest memories: illuminating conversations with friends (those from which you emerge someone new), hours of playtime with the kittens, cooking with my mother – or keeping her company when my own cooking failed. Above the kitchen was the White Room, a space filled with entirely natural light skewed white from the angles of the large windows, and, most importantly, home to the piano. This room, and that piano in particular, was my second sanctuary; my refuge away from the essays and teachers and girlfriends and family spats. Composers become brothers. In Chopin I found a way (or so I thought) to express a unique love for my first girlfriend. In Bach I found hours of frustration over a dozen notes. In Einaudi I saw a beauty in minimalism and the power of simple melody to produce overwhelming emotion. In all of the music I found a part of myself that could better articulate through playing than by writing. Memories of the Red Room, nextdoor, conjures nights watching Ugly Betty with my sister, falling asleep with a book by the fire, Christmases with grandma before she passed, champagne with Jools Holland and a host of old friends at New Year. Each of these spaces, like those of any home, played a profound part in the construction of my being.

But it was that room at the top of the house, couched between my sister’s abode and the cobwebbed attic, in which I the brunt of my growing. The bedroom, that most intimate of spaces, for me calls to mind Bachelard’s notion of ‘helpless waiting,’ forged, ultimately, into ‘self-discovery.’ I think of the hours in bed spent reading books only tangentially related to what I was supposed to be reading for class, or the au pair telling me off for teasing my sister, or playing the drums extra loud after being dumped by a girlfriend. I remember crying to Leonard Cohen, crying to Fitzgerald, crying at how terribly a first date went. I remember my mother walking into my room at 6am one morning to find me dressed for school, aged 12, trying to read Plato’s Republic only to then watch her break down for reasons I still don’t understand today.

We move away from these places of refuge, as we must. But we cannot move away from the memories, however hard we try. We stigmatise those who cling to home – those who, we say, don’t have the nerve to step out of their comfort zone and forge a new life. Yet often in these moments we also fail to recognise the great power in the feeling of being home. In our lives, as in great works of literature, it is the moment we step foot outside of the home as adults that we become most human. And at some point, whether it is today or tomorrow, our debt to that space will make itself known. While I may have, in one sense, lost that humble space, it is not lost in time. The poetry of the home that shapes us will endure, even as we make room in our hearts to build something new.

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