Conjuring Home

How to turn “anywhere” into “somewhere.”

When a friend gave me a book on The Hidden Art of Homemaking at my wedding, I stuffed it away, irritated at a gender stereotype that clearly didn’t fit. I realize now that I should have passed it on to my husband. In spite of my hints that I would be content to live in a box, he has always been enthusiastic about creating his vision of home. He cooks and even gardens. Now, as I survey the pleasant things that surround our living-space — art on the walls, flower pots on the tables, and a stocked wine cabinet — I would revise my opinion of that irritating term. Instead of tossing it, we might broaden the definition for the twenty-first century.

Charles Dickens wrote, “[T]hough home is a name, a word, it is a strong one; stronger than magician ever spoke, or spirit ever answered to, in the strongest conjuration.”

But it’s a bit odd, the fascination human creatures feel with the idea of home. Other animals don’t need homes; they just need suitable environments. As Walker Percy writes in Lost in the Cosmos,

An organism exists in its environment in only one mode, that of an open system responding to those segments of its environment to which it is genetically programmed to respond or to which it has learned to respond. But a self must be placed in a world. It cannot not be placed. If it chooses by default not to be placed, then its placement is that of not choosing to be placed.

Humans are unusual. We are more than organisms in an environment, says Percy, and the proof is that we can have our biological needs satisfied and still be miserable. Unlike other organisms, we can name everything in our environment, and we can also identify things beyond it that have no relation to our biological needs–like birds, amoebas, and planets. But to have your physical needs met, and yet have no identity and no place for yourself — this is despair.

“Home-making” is more than a task for the old-fashioned housewife. It’s a human survival skill. Home-making is the art of placing yourself, of settling into your corner of the world.

Percy understood that it is possible to be at home and still feel like an alien. Maybe you know it — this feeling that you don’t know how to inhabit the space of your home. You’re disappointed by your suburban neighborhood, with neighbors who drive to other places for their community. Or you feel cramped in your apartment with the strip mall across the street. Maybe you’ve read too much Wendell Berry, and your boat-sized refrigerator just reminds you of the agrarian dream in your unreachable future.

Maybe you have difficulty transitioning away from work. Like many of the characters in Percy’s novels, you come home from the office and find yourself unable to respond to the color and warmth in your house. The summer breezes or the cozy winter fireplace can’t touch your spirits. All you want is to fall into the sofa and lose yourself in Netflix.

Whatever the cause, your alienated self is seeking a way to belong in a certain place and feel different there. If we modern folk sometimes feel like “a ghost at a feast,” we want home to be the place where, together, our ghost-selves can materialize. Wendell Berry is probably on to something, with his vision of the wholesome agrarian life — where people and land draw closer together, and the noise of industrial life fades. But is there any hope for the rest of us who can’t just abandon our jobs and buy a farm?

If Percy’s vision of the world is true, it is still possible to construct the space of home in the cities and suburbs where we live. Our alienation seems to come from a disconnect between body and mind, a numbing of the senses that prevents us from feeling at home in a place and connecting with others in it. If so, there ought to be a way to reconnect our bodies and senses with our places and fellows.

Recently, I unearthed that offending wedding gift and read it. It was written by Edith Schaeffer about L’Abri, the Swiss haven that still attracts young folk, who flock there to recover their sense of home. In its pages, I found one idea that Schaeffer, Percy, and my husband all hold in common. You create home through shared physical rituals.

Home-making rituals involve the following characteristics:

They engage the senses — as many as possible.

Cooking, baking, decorating, cleaning, eating, drinking, burning candles. . . there are a thousand creative ways you can be more physically present in your house. But the best home rituals associate multiple senses together. Maybe you read a certain book every spring with the windows open. Or you prepare seasonal meals, or repeat pairings of drink and dishes, food and music, scents and decor. A potter friend of mine says it’s not just the look of your dishes that matters; ambience is created by the feel of them in your hand, the sound they make touching your table.

They are repeated and habitual.

Children find security in repeatable rituals and comfort objects, and we might learn from them. We all know the pleasure of morning coffee, afternoon tea, a beer after work. Create other such habits in your house. Bake muffins on Tuesday mornings. Head out for a run every Saturday. Pick a comfy chair where you habitually read or watch TV.

They are seasonal.

As embodied creatures, we mark time and place by seasons. Though we may find it hard to explain, the changing of the seasons brings to our lives relief, and also meaning — morning to evening, weekday to weekend, winter to spring, autumn to Christmas. Associate objects and actions with each season in your home. Find interesting seasonal ways to cook, decorate, drink, dress, read, and listen to music.

They are communal.

Find the activities that interest your family and draw you together, and do them regularly. Do Friday movie night, family dinner, read-aloud time. Share an evening bottle of wine or weekend take-out.

This is an argument for enjoying small comforts, as well as gourmet and artsy pursuits. But these little remedies also come with a warning. Feeling comfortable is not the same as feeling at home. Like all substances and pleasures, rituals can be used in two ways. They can easily become an anesthetic to drown sorrow or distract you from boredom — a desperate way to inject meaning into an insufficient, exhausted world. Think of a drunk returning to look for meaning in yet another glass.

But one can drink for another reason — to celebrate. In this case, the activity or object becomes a way of affirming existing beauty, where the ritual does not create the meaning, but is secondary to the beauty being celebrated. The first is a behavior of slavery, in which one cannot live without the meaning the drug gives; the second is a behavior of freedom. One is an act of desperation, the other of joy.

There will be days when you feel this joy of home, maybe on an afternoon in spring when sunshine and birdsong filter in the windows like a gift. You move about your house with the feeling that your life is rich, unfolding into a many-dimensioned ocean of objects, colors, and textures. Existence is a thing to immerse yourself in.

On other days, when you’re feeling alienated from all your surroundings, celebration requires a good bit of faith. But the repeating and sharing of rituals at home enables communion, and it even enables faith — faith that our living places, however shabby or lonely, are redeemable.

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