by Fanny Howe
Up the hill is a hut made of sound
where two windows rhyme
and the tiles stay on
because they are nailed to a dream.
The dreamer wonders: Can this be mine?
The floor is solid and straight
and is amber from sap.
The walls don't leak or let out heat
from gray embers in the grate.
This is the original home
at the heart of brutalist design.
No storm can slam its shape apart.
No thief can carry it off.
It dwells in ashen buildings where the present sleeps.
* * *
This blog has been dormant for a while. I'm going to try to bring some life back to it. In my last post here, more than six months ago, I talked about having gone on a self-driven path of deconstructing my life and embarking out into the unknown for a while. For seven months I lived a nomadic existence, traveling around many countries and cities, staying as a guest in various friends' houses, hotels, Airbnbs, and an extended stay with family in Staten Island and Brooklyn. The trip sprung from, among other things, a yearning to plunge into the unfamiliar, test my luck, and experience the world after so many months in lockdown during the pandemic. In the aftermath of that extended nomadic period, I tallied up these numbers: in the lockdown year 2020 I slept in three different beds all year (the bed at my house and a couple places I stayed at during a roadtrip to Colorado) whereas in the last calendar year now I slept in more than 40 different beds in at least fifteen different cities in six countries.
While bouncing across so many places and living out of a suitcase for so long, I got into thinking about the feeling of and the meaning of home. Found myself thinking often about Gaston Bachelard's book, The Poetics of Space. Bachelard wrote, "A house constitutes a body of images that give mankind proofs or illusions of stability." (p. 38) Some houses grant illusions or proofs of stability better than others. I stayed in a few dumps and at least one badly insulated space during a couple weeks of frigid temps. I stayed in a sprawling mansion in Ireland where I didn't feel comfortable because of an unwelcoming host, I also stayed in a repurposed 19th-century military barracks in Ireland, a Martello Tower made of stone that felt extremely comfortable because of the generosity of the hosts. I stayed in a garage attic apartment in Texas where time stood still and I stayed in a barn in Texas where the metal-roof resonated from a heavy hail storm. The constant moving from one place to the next felt like a recapitulation of earlier departures from shells in my life---leaving my parents' house at age 21 to move to the other side of the country, years later leaving southern California to come to Austin where I'd never been before but have now resided for 11 years. Each time felt like a crab leaving its shell to seek out a better one (my sun sign is Cancer the crab).
"The atmosphere is nailed together.
Limb marking threshold.
Each element struggles to
make threat subservient
- from "Doorway" by Elizabeth Robinson
"I dreamed of a nest in which the trees repulsed death"
- from Bachelard, Poetics of Space (p. 123)
During the height of winter I was living back at my parents' house in Staten Island by myself (they'd gone to Florida to escape the cold). With the recent memories of so many different homes and rooms in various places, I was centered back there at the home where I grew up and had first conceived of the concept of home. Bachelard in The Poetics of Space says, "In short, the house we were born in has engraved within us the hierarchy of the various functions of inhabiting." (p. 36) As much as I despise being in Staten Island, my old house still feels like home. The city is so crowded, the people are so angry, it seemed every time I went out someplace I had a hostile altercation with somebody, but the old house still feels like home and it feeds some inner craving for peace of mind when I'm there.
Here's Bachelard again:
"The house we were born in is more than an embodiment of home, it is also an embodiment of dreams. Each one of its nooks and corners was a resting-place for daydreaming. And often the resting-place particularized the daydream. Our habits of a particular daydream were acquired there." (p. 37)
I've always been a homebody and my personal growth has involved breaking out of those habits to go far out into the unknown and find my way, find how I can build a new center of peace in the unfamiliar. As a kid I must have spent lots of time in the nooks and corners of my house daydreaming, but I could never have imagined the adventures that would ensue. Roadtrips spanning the width of the North American continent, piloting boats along the waters of the Mediterranean in the South of France, expeditions along the rocky coastline of Ireland, bike rides speeding through the alleyways of Barcelona, panoramic views from the hills of Lisbon, late nights partying in the village squares of Antwerp, connecting with the sky gods while perched atop the Pyramid of the Sun looking down the Avenue of the Dead in Teotihuacán far out in the desert outside Mexico City.
When I was a kid I loathed having to go on family trips out to New Jersey to visit my grandma because the open spaces and relatively rural vibes of Jersey made me uneasy. I needed NYC's clusterfuck of intersections and delis and pizzerias on every block. That's what made me comfortable. Now I once again live in the middle of Texas where the city center is equidistant to me as farmlands with cows, my neighbor's yard has a friendly goat, and too much time spent in the crowded and cranky NYC boroughs drives me nuts.
Rebecca Solnit in her book A Field Guide to Getting Lost writes: "Some people inherit values and practices as a house they inhabit; some of us have to burn down that house, find our own ground, build from scratch, even as a psychological metamorphosis." (p. 80) This was the process I went through as a young adult. And again years later, after I'd established a home over several years living in Austin which no longer felt satisfying, I underwent the same process again. Burned it all down to start over from scratch. Ashes make great fertilizer. The past year has been full of big changes and very little stability, it has not been easy but it has definitely been enriching. Again quoting Solnit, "he ceased to be lost not by returning but by turning into something else." (p. 71)
Spending such extended time staying within the hospitality industry (hotels and Airbnbs etc) you start to gain a deeper appreciation for little things that make a place feel like home and how a place becomes a home over time. Living transiently also affords one a chance to cut things down to basics, carrying around only what you need. Most of my belongings including my entire library, all my art, and most of my clothes were locked up in storage the whole time. I had a consolidated wardrobe, compact but versatile enough for different climates. I mainly carried around only the books with the highest ratio of insight and lexical originality-per-page, which I had decided are these two: Finnegans Wake by James Joyce and the epic poem ARK by Ronald Johnson. Those came with me everywhere.
During my time in Europe I also read two nonfiction books by Nicholson Baker, Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, The End of Civilization on the immediate developments that led to WW2 and also his most recent book Baseless: My Search for Secrets in the Ruins of the Freedom of Information Act, about the secret history of US military involvement with biological and chemical warfare. Both were timely and highly informative reads, and Baker's prose style is so easily digestible. The newer book Baseless felt like a sequel to Human Smoke, though at least with Baseless Baker regularly breaks up the revelations of dark and deeply upsetting information with simple and grounding stories about his dogs and domestic life. On the other hand, the cold facts and details of mass killings of Jews by the Nazis in Human Smoke seared my brain to a degree that I am forever horrified by it. I had to hide Human Smoke when I wasn't reading it because just looking at that book put a bad feeling in my gut.
This material was fresh in my mind as I rode around on trains and planes across Europe, looking at the scenery and thinking about the purpose of life, how flimsy and fragile it seems, how long the land outlasts us, how we should soak it all in and enjoy life while we can. Ultimately I thought of how sick and fucked up so much of mankind has always been with twisted ideology and racist hate. The same struggles for power, wars against tyrants, recur in cycles over centuries. How the endurance of hope persists despite it all. How we are all just looking for a place to call home, a shell within which we can grow and feel at peace.