Home as a Haven in Uncertain Times

By Valerie Andrews

The Storm by Edvard Munch, courtesy of WikiMedia Commons

“A home is a kingdom of its own in the midst of the world, a stronghold amid life’s storms and stresses, a refuge, even a sanctuary. “—Dietrich Bonhoeffer, social activist and theologian

As the pandemic shifts gears, we’re bombarded by bad news — mass shootings and domestic terrorism, inflation and food shortages, rising energy prices and an escalating war in the Ukraine. Home, we have discovered, can be a refuge or a battleground — its status changing in an instant.   This issue of Reinventing Home  draws upon our archive to consider our search for a safe haven in uncertain times. 

Throughout history, humans have been cave-dwellers and nomads, tentmakers and hut-builders, pioneers and panhandlers, farmers and freeholders, migrants and Main Streeters, city slickers and suburbanites.   We’ve lived in barracks and bungalows, castles and convents, shanties and skyscrapers, cottages, hotels, and dormitories. Yet home is about so much more than basic shelter—it is about the sense of sanctuary we find within its walls.  Without a safe place, life seems too provisional; we grow agitated and uncertain because we don’t know where to turn or whom to trust.   

In The Architecture of Happiness, philosopher Alain de Botton describes home as a protective carapace or outer shell.  “We need a home in the psychological sense, as much as we need one in the physical,” he writes. “We need a refuge to shore up our state of mind, because so much of the world is opposed to our allegiances. We need our rooms to align us to desirable versions of ourselves and to keep alive the important, evanescent sides of us.”  I hope this issue of Reinventing Home will inspire you to view your home in this broad, supportive context.   

One of the first themes we explored in these pages was home as a source of strength and inspiration.   For the Irish priest and poet John O’Donohue it is a place for soulful conversation and spiritual reflection.   For our culture critic,  Sara Evans,  home is a sanctuary after the loss of her husband;  in her essay,  she  describes the transition from from loneliness to solitude, noting how she found solace in reading and in her own company.    

For novelist Toni Morrison, home is where the heart is.  As a young girl,  she cleaned houses for pocket money. After one employer tried to pay her with cast-offs,  Morrison had a good talk with her father one night at their kitchen table,  about home as place we learn our basic values. “I have worked for all sorts of people since then, geniuses and morons, quick-witted and dull, bighearted and narrow,” she writes, “and I have never considered the level of labor to be the measure of myself, and I have never placed the security of a job above the value of home.” 

In A Room of One’s OwnVirginia Woolf asks why writers neglect to mention what was served at the dinner table, where momentous decisions are made and lives forever altered.  Home, for her, was a neglected character in the course of history. 

 

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Photo by Rita Chou on Unsplash

Yes, home is our Book of Life, the repository of all our lived experience — and this topic had great meaning for the founders of psychoanalysis. When Sigmund Freud fled Vienna after the Nazi take-over in 1938, he packed his most precious possessions—a collection of animal totems, and statues of ancient gods and goddesses.  These transitional objects helped him stave off homesickness and adjust to a new country.  

The Swiss psychiatrist C.G. Jung believed every house had a guiding spirit; he carved a plaque above the entrance to his lakeside retreat that said, “Called or not, the god is present.”  At Bollingen Jung lived simply, chopping wood and cooking over an open fire. He felt that we all needed a place to escape the pressure to succeed and the brutal pace of modern life.  (Home was critical, he knew, not just for introverts.  Even the most outgoing and socially connected among us must have a place of refuge.)   

To understand the true significance of home, we must consider how we bear the loss of it. Homesickness, once considered a wasting disease, affected everyone who came to America in search of a better life.   It affected pioneers who crossed into the wilderness and left their friends and family behind, and often had little to remind them of their former lives. A plate.  A quilt. A treasured recipe.   

But how long does home last in a nation built on change and intoxicated with the myth of progress?  In the 19th century, as railroads were constructed, new towns rose up overnight.  Yet these communities were “shallow rooted” and often disappeared in the space of two or three generations, following the paths of commerce.   In her novel Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson portrays yet another exodus, as people left hardscrabble towns and headed for the cities in the 1950s.  Here is her description of America’s long history of displacement:  “Imagine that Noah knocked his house apart and used the planks to build an ark,  while his neighbors looked on, full of doubt. A house, he must have told them, should be daubed with pitch and built to float cloud high, if need be…A house should have a compass and a keel.”

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Noah's Ark by Edward Hicks, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

In A Moveable Feast,  sociologist Arlie Hochschild asks what makes some people hit the road and others stand their ground. (The answer has to do with character, as well as  politics.)  And in Countryside architect Rem Koolhaas catalogues some unusual  communities that are rising up on fringes — everything from makeshift dwellings in the Moab desert to underground bunkers (a literal sanctuary) in the Kansas Plains. Proof that we can make a sanctuary out of any material.

We live in an era when we feel increasingly unsafe, in our homes and in our communities—-and in the natural world.  In the pages of Reinventing Home, Pulitzer prize-winning historian Joseph Ellis considers the promise of equality in America, and Jungian analyst Thomas Singer asks if we are ready to abandon the quest for dominion and live in harmony with our surroundings. Two kinds of sanctuary — racial and environmental — are under threat, and these two essays shed some light on how we might begin to heal these rifts in the years ahead.

Now we move from the universal to the particular, from the broad sense of home to the character of our living rooms.  Since its founding nearly three years ago, Reinventing Home has addressed our fondness for creature comforts— a stuffed chair, a beautifully laid table, a porcelain vase—what historians have come to call “the society of things.” Our love affair with home décor was at its height in the 19th century.  Back then sociologist Max Weber predicted, “Culture will come when every man will know how to address himself to the inanimate, simple things in life,” when people are able to “touch things with love and see them with a penetrating eye.”   

 Today the home is highly commercialized, and it’s time to cast a critical eye on our recent frenzy for renovating and redecorating.  British author Rachel Cusk describes an austere make-over of her London flat that drove her to the point of collapse, while her daughter fled the house, curling up on the neighbors’ couch.  The moral of this story: When we embark upon a major household project, it’s best to ask what we are hoping to change within.  And above all, to be sure that whatever change we make,  it affirms our need for sanctuary.  

A major theme in modern literature is home as an icon of stability.  In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet thinks favorably of Mr. Darcy once she sees how well he cares for his family estate.  Jane Austen’s message to readers:  Ladies, if you’re looking for a mate by all means attend to his character—but also mark how well he keeps his home.  For as he cares for it, so will he care for you.  

But there’s more to Austen than mere romance.  Remember, she was writing when Britain was at war with France, a conflict that lasted 29 years.  Darcy represents a fading ideal — the quiet landowner, self-sufficient, noble — in contrast to the libertines like Wickham, a militiaman who is always on the make and on the move.   

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Moscow Apartments. Photo by Michael Parulava for Unsplash

Since War and Peace, Russian novels have been filled with unhappy families and miserable homes. Ludmilla Petrushevskaya follows in Tolstoy’s footsteps, with her short story about an artist who loses his apartment to squatters.  In her novella, a  poet and her adult children who endure a long, hard Moscow winter in close quarters. Her title is one we all can relate to in the wake of the pandemic: There Once Lived a Mother Who Loved Her Children Until They Moved Back In.  

Since its founding, this magazine has explored how we reinvent home in times of conflict. In our podcast series, novelist Carol Edgarian talks about the process of rebuilding in the wake of war, economic crisis, and natural disasters; writer Isabel Allende describes “foreigner trauma,”  the plight of refugees, and the challenges of adapting to a new culture.  Jungian analyst James Hollis considers the Art of Living in Uncertain Times and attorney Pauline Tesler describes a better way to divorce, while considering  every family member’s need for a sense of home and stability. 

In this issue, historians also remind us of Forgotten New Deal that addresses one of our greatest practical needs at the moment: high quality public housing for all.  FDR’s housing czar Catherine Bauer had plans for  accessible communities, with gardens, art and public meeting rooms.  Can we revive her vision to solve the housing crisis nation wide?  

In times of war and domestic upheaval, people often turn for solace to the paranormal.  And so we end this issue with UFOs: The Ultimate Escape, exploring our fascination with a world beyond this one, and our hope that if we blow this home, there might be a “next one” on another planet. 

 In each of these articles, it is clear that the quest for sanctuary is at the heart of the human experiment. 

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Sanctuary: Our common ground

For the past two years, I’ve been hosting an online seminar with participants from all over the globe.  Our theme — home as a haven in uncertain times.  Some participants find refuge in a quiet space for reading or meditation, others at a writer’s desk or a workshop bench, in a painter’s studio, or music room, or the comforts of the kitchen.  But all agree that home is the fixed foot of the compass when our jobs, relationships, finances— and the fate of the world —are in a state of flux.

Consider the 7 year-old Ukrainian girl who sang “Let it Go” from the Disney movie, Frozen, in a Kyiv bomb shelter, giving everyone the message that home is both the sanctuary we carry in our hearts and a place worth dying for.   

If there’s one thing I’ve learned as a journalist, and workshop leader, it’s this:  If you want to get to know someone, listen to their story of home.  Ask about the place where they grew up, about the houses they’ve built or tended,  the rooms they’ve fashioned for themselves, the people they invite into their inner sanctum.  In the process, you will find out who they are and what they value most.   And no matter how different your politics, religious beliefs, or income, you will find some common ground.

In a time of growing discord, when our country is so deeply polarized and it’s hard for Americans to talk to one another,  this is a good place to begin: Sharing what home means for us.  Perhaps our common need for sanctuary can be the thing that binds us all together.  As Rebecca Solnit writes in Storming the Gates of Paradise, “The desire to go home, that is a desire to be whole, to know where you are, to be the point of intersection of all the lines drawn through all the stars, to be the constellation-maker and the center of the world, that center called love.”

Valerie Andrews is the founding editor of Reinventing Home and the author of A Passion for This Earth:  Toward a New Partnersjip of Man, Woman, and Nature.

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