Paying Attention to Insects

“It never occurred to me to be anything other than fascinated when watching what was going on in the natural world.”
David Attenborough

Behold the insect!

Its beauty and horribleness. Its mullioned thorax and prehensile leg joints. Its rapacious strength and six-dimensional speed. Its ocular multiplex and hive mentality.

Ladybug, by Ellen Vrana for "Paying Attention Insects" on The Examined Life.
Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Japanese scholar Okakura Kakuzo begged that we pay attention to the small lest we ignore the large in ourselves. Insects are small beings. Sentient beings.

Not too sentient (although are we smart enough to know how smart they are?) but some creation that formed to have eyes, legs, arms, scant nervous systems and an enviable talent for species survival.

A cluster of ladybugs is called a loveliness.

Insects are demonstrably other, not human in any way.

And yet, we can have empathy for them, even kinship.

Common Red Damselfly by Joshua Burch for "Close Observation of Insects" on The Examined Life.
A common red damselfly by nature photographer and conservationist Joshua Burch.

“When I was 11 years old,” David Attenborough reminisced in his enchanting memoirs, “It wasn’t unusual for a boy of my age to get on a bicycle, ride off into the countryside and spend a day away from home. … Just turning over a stone and looking at the animals beneath is exploring. It never occurred to me to be anything other than fascinated.”

You are never more than five feet from a spider.

I’m not advocating we all notice insects all the time.

But rather that we awaken and nurture the part of us that wants to pay attention to insects. Our child self, our sense of wonder.

Scientifically, naturalistically, creatively, compassionately, we should reach across that which divides us and pay attention to insects.

Their variation, their volume, their sheer utility. The collective mind, the non-language language. The knowledge acquired in lifespans measured in eaten leaves and summited grass blades.

I’ve gathered a few glorious examples. Enjoy!

Henry David Thoreau and the Ants

“We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake,” wrote one of the world’s greatest nature writers, “Not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn.”

Thoreau continues:

One day when I went out to my wood-pile, or rather my pile of stumps, I observed two large ants, the one red, the other much larger, nearly half an inch long, and black, fiercely contending with one another. Having once got hold they never let go, but struggled and wrestled and rolled on the chips incessantly. Looking farther, I was surprised to find that the chips were covered with such combatants, that it was not a duellum, but a bellum, a war between two races of ants, the red always pitted against the black, and frequently two red ones to one black.

The legions of these Myrmidons covered all the hills and vales in my wood-yard, and the ground was already strewn with the dead and dying, both red and black. It was the only battle which I have ever witnessed, the only battle-field I ever trod while the battle was raging; internecine war; the red republicans on the one hand, and the black imperialists on the other. On every side they were engaged in deadly combat, yet without any noise that I could hear, and human soldiers never fought so resolutely. I watched a couple that were fast locked in each other’s embraces, in a little sunny valley amid the chips, now at noon-day prepared to fight till the sun went down, or life went out.

From Henry David Thoreau’s Walden

Gerald Durrell and the Lacewing Flies

Has anyone noticed insects more delightfully than Durrell? As a child growing up (gloriously under-parented) on the island of Corfu, Durrell nurtured a mind that devoted a lifetime of noticing nature and saying Pay attention!

I found a lacewing-fly on the roses and watched her as she climbed about the leaves, admiring her beautiful, fragile wings like green glass, and her enormous liquid golden eyes. Presently she stopped on the surface of a rose-leaf and lowered the tip of her abdomen. She remained like that for a moment and then raised her tail, and from it, to my astonishment, rose a slender thread, like a pale hair. Then, on the very tip of this stalk, appeared egg. The female had a rest, and then repeated the performance until the surface of the rose-leaf looked as though it was covered with a forest of tiny club moss. The laying over, the female rippled her antennae briefly and flew off in a mist of green gauze wings.

From Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals

Emma Mitchell and the Ladybug

Like others who have traipsed about to find stillness within, British writer and nature collector Emma Mitchell believes in movement there is blessing. But not just movement – abandonment of the dark, thudding muck that has been her emotional headspace.

The sun has opened their petal-like scales, forming shapes like miniature dried sunflowers. As I examine them there’s small glimmer of red in my vision and at first I mistake it for a retinal flash caused by bending down too quickly, but it persists and looking more closely I realize that there are ladybirds in the centre of many of the rosettes. In one of them five are nestled, motionless and in the torpor of hibernation. The centres of the seed heads are hairy, trapping air and forming a layer of insulation, preventing frost from penetrating and providing protection for the ladybirds when the temperature drops on clear nights. There is a reason that ladybirds gather together in groups to overwinter. If a ladybird is attacked by a bird or other predator on a day when it is active it will produce a yellowish fluid from its leg joints called, rather gothically, ‘reflex blood’. It is rich in alkaloids and is bitter and foul tasting to birds. Along with its bright coloration, this response is an effective deterrent, and after attempting to eat their first ladybird and receiving a beak full of acrid toxins most birds will avoid them.

During winter when their usual aphid or scale-insect food is not available and temperatures drop too low to permit activity, ladybirds must hibernate in order to survive. The production of reflex blood costs energy that the ladybirds do not have to spare and so they no longer produce it in response to an attack between November and March. Instead, the ladybirds huddle together in a place where frost cannot reach them: between the needles of yew, in the curled-up desiccated leaves of beech or in the crook of a branch of wild rose. Should a robin or dunnock decide to chance a wintry ladybird snack, one of the group may be lost but the rest will remain, huddled together and looking at first glance like a rather large insect sporting the warning colours of red and black.

From Emma Mitchell’s The Wild Remedy: How Nature Mends Us

Wolf spider by Joshua Burch for "Close Observation of Insects" on The Examined Life.
Wolf spider by nature photographer and conservationist Joshua Burch.

Charles Darwin and the Beetle

In 1831 Charles Darwin was an amateur naturalist and an aspiring preacher when he was invited to accompany the HMS Beagle as the onboard naturalist. The trip lasted five years and his notes were later published as The Voyage of the Beagle.

Darwin’s extremely detailed observations set the basis for his theory of evolution by natural selection published much later in The Origin of Species in 1859. I love how he retains a perfect scientist vibe even though he is clearly excited by what’s unravelling before him.

When we were at Bahia, an elater or beetle (Pyrophorus luminosus) seemed the most common luminous insect. The light in this case was also rendered more brilliant by irritation. I amused myself one by observing the springing powers of this insect, which have not, as it appears to me, been properly described. The elater, when placed on its back and preparing to spring, moved its head and thorax backwards so that the pectoral spine was drawn out, and rested on the edge of its sheath. The same backward movement being continued, the spine, by the full action of the muscles, was bent like a spring; and the insect at this moment rested on the extremity of its head and wing-cases. The effort being suddenly relaxed, the head and thorax flew up, and in consequence, the base of the wing-cases struck the supporting surface with such force, that the insect by the reaction was jerked upwards to the height of one or two inches. The projecting points of the thorax, and the sheath of the spine, served to steady the whole body during the spring. In the descriptions which I have read, sufficient stress does not appear to have been laid on the elasticity of the spine: so sudden a spring could not be the result of simple muscular contraction, without the aid of some mechanical contrivance.

From Charles Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle

Annie Dillard and the Praying Mantis

Annie Dillard’s unparalleled “noticing of nature” is worthy of so much time, but for now we’ll settle for this slice of her Pulitzer Prize-winning writing, a spell-binding observation of nature and self at the most immediate, conscious level.

I have just learned to see praying mantis egg cases. Suddenly I see them everywhere; a tan oval of light catches my eye, or I notice a blob of thickness in a patch of slender weeds. As I write I can see the one I tied to the mock orange hedge outside my study window. It is over an inch long and shaped like a bell, or like the northern hemisphere of an egg cut through its equator. The full length of one of its long sides is affixed to a twig; the side that catches the light is perfectly flat. It has a dead straw, dead weed color, and a curious brittle texture, hard as varnish, but pitted minutely, like frozen foam. I carried it home this afternoon, holding it carefully by the twig, along with several others—they were light as air. I dropped one without missing it until I got home and made a count.

Within the week I’ve seen thirty or so of these egg cases in a rose-grown field on Tinker Mountain, and another thirty in weeds along Carvin’s Creek. One was on a twig of tiny dog-wood on the mud lawn of a newly built house. I think the mail-order houses sell them to gardeners at a dollar apiece. It beats praying, because each case contains between one hundred twenty-five to three hundred fifty eggs. If the eggs survive ants, woodpeckers, and mice—and most do—then you get the fun of seeing the new mantises hatch, and the smug feeling of knowing, all summer long, that they’re out there in your garden devouring gruesome numbers of fellow insects all nice and organically. When a mantis has crunched up the last shred of its victim, it cleans its smooth green face like a cat.

From Annie Dillard’s The Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Grace Paley and the Bee

Poet Grace Paley said a beautiful thing once; she avoided nature because it reminded her of mortality. Except she didn’t avoid nature entirely because she noticed the bee. May we all have such courage.

A bee!
drowning in
a wild rose
flat on its
round back
kicking
too young to
use love for
health and
entertainment

From Grace Paley Begin Again, Collected Poems

When we observe insects – or rather when we nurture the part of us that longs to observe insects – one must understand they are not happening to us.

They simply are and we are, coincidentally.

Ant species have more 16% more biomass than human species.

I think they reflect something hidden in us.

Buff tip of a camouflaged moth by Joshua Burch for "Close Observation of Insects" on The Examined Life.
Buff tip of a camouflaged moth. Photograph by Joshua Burch.

Imagine an insect. Now imagine that insect on its back in water struggling to right itself.

Did your feelings shift? Even a bit?

A group of cockroaches is called an intrusion.

What if I told you it was a bee? A spider? A ladybug?

If your emotions shift, bad or good, you are tapping into your umwelten, an ability to think what the animal is thinking. That suspension of self is the height of empathy even if we cannot know what the insect is thinking, we try to understand.

Insects are something else. This utterly different creature. Get lost in the insect and his doings.

He is an insect. Pay attention!

An Increased Atomization of Things

“It was the first time I had dealt directly and flatly with the evidence of atomization, the proof that things fall apart.”
Joan Didion

What happens when we fall apart? Physically and otherwise? What if everything falls apart?

In her essays about 1960s America and the failure of the American Dream, Joan Didion writes about the ‘atomization’ of things. The things America promised but did not deliver, the resultant scramble to fit oneself into the mold, the overwhelming failure of all things at all levels.

Antony Gormley sculpture. Photograph by Ellen Vrana. Featured in "An Increasing Atomization of Things" on The Examined Life.
One of Antony Gormley’s fourteen Slabworks series sculptures in which industrially-cut steel formed pieces of a human figure. The series was on display in London, 2019 as part of an exhibition designed to “encourage present, first-hand experience” by making visitors recognize their own forms. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Slouching Towards Bethlehem was rooted in Didion’s own wordlessness and details this falling apart from the front line.

It was the first time I had dealt directly and flatly with the evidence of atomization, the proof that things fall apart: I went to San Francisco because I had not been able to work in months, had been paralyzed by the conviction that writing was an irrelevant act, that the world as I had understood it no longer existed.

From Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem

“The center falls apart….” she wrote, borrowing from the Irish poet W. B. Yeats who shouted the same anthem during World War I.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;

Surely the Second Coming is at hand.

From William Butler Yeat’s “The Second Coming”

When society falls apart it settles at the level of the individual.

Does that mean all individuals for themselves? The raging of one need against another? The diminishing of cries into corners and corners into hollows where there used to be fullness?

"Slabworks" 2019, Anthony Gormley. Featured in "The Unlikely Strength of Corners" on the Examined Life.
“CORNER V”, 2019, one of Gormley’s Slabwork series at The Royal Academy in London, “I see this show as a really important test ground for what can sculpture do,” expressed Gormley. Learn more. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Fundamentally, argued French philosopher and brilliantly wide-hearted human Simone Weil, the country that connects us must be a country that includes us.

Thus, although one’s country is a fact, and, as such, subject to external conditions, to hazards of every kind, in times of mortal danger there is none the less an unconditional obligation to go to its assistance. But it is obvious that, in fact, the people will show all the greater ardour in its defence the more they will have been made to feel its reality.

From Simone Weil’s The Need for Roots

There is a nurturing relationship between the parts and the whole or neither exists. Didion would agree.

Things fall apart. Atomization is on the rise, at many socio-political levels. What happens when this atomization is mirrored in the human being? What happens when a person falls apart? Physically and mentally?

Physically and biologically speaking to break apart and still retain life is to exist as a cell. Nobel Prize-winning geneticist Paul Nurse outlines our living self.

A critically important part of a cell… is its outer membrane. Although just two molecules thick, this outer membrane forms a flexible ‘wall’ or barrier that separates each cell from its environment, defining what is ‘in’ and what is ‘out’.

Both philosophically and practically, this barrier is crucial. Ultimately, it explains why life forms can successfully resist the overall drive of the universe towards disorder and chaos. Within their insulating membranes, cells can establish and cultivate the order they need to operate, whilst at the same time creating disorder in their local surroundings outside the cell.

From Paul Nurse’s What is Life?

Fortunately for us, this rarely happens without a commensurate loss in cognition so if our bodies break apart significantly, we usually don’t experience it. But there are days I feel a conglomeration of cells and that certain cells (those of my eyeballs, and the part of my brain that falls asleep easily, my liver) are leaning a bit too heavily on the others.

Antony Gormley sculpture. Photograph by Ellen Vrana. Featured in "An Increasing Atomization of Things" on The Examined Life.
“FOLD” 2019. For this show Gormley created work around the notion of “the body in space: firstly, the viewer’s body, through a series of proprioceptive environments that enhance awareness, alertness and sensorial space, and secondly in the presentation of discrete objects that evoke what it feels like to inhabit a human body.” Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Of course, the cell is not where we stop, were we to atomize our bodies entirely. The atom is where we stop. The key is in the name. “The smallest part of us is stardust” ruminates physicist Alan Lightman. Atomic stardust.

Around the 5th century BCE, a Greek philosopher named Democritus proposed that all matter was made of tiny and indivisible atoms, which came in various sizes and textures.

Democritus’ writing has not survived – the paper it was written on has returned to its atomic state – but it exists in Aristotle’s keen observations.

Democritus thinks that the nature of eternal things consists in small substances, limitless in quantity, and for them he posits a place, distinct from them and limitless in extent. He calls place by the names ’empty’, ‘nothing’ and ‘limitless’; and each of the substances he calls ‘thing’, ‘solid’ and ‘existent’. He thinks that the substances are so small that they escape our senses, and that they possess all sorts of forms and all sorts of shapes and differences in size. From them, as from elements, he produces and compounds the visible and perceptible masses. The atoms struggle and are carried about in the empty because of their dissimilarities and the other differences mentioned, and as they are carried about they collide and intertwine in a way which makes them touch and be near one another but which does not produce any truly single nature whatever from them; for it is utterly foolish to think that two or more things might ever become one.

From Aristotle’s On Democritus

If things are atomized there is no center. There is no hold. No tenuous, marginal relationships. There are cracks into which settle corrosive things like water, oxygen and doubt.

Two or more things can never become one.

There is something to be said about the value of component parts. Maybe we shouldn’t fret about things falling apart per se, maybe we fret when things fall apart that shouldn’t, and no one cares.

When Slouching Towards Bethlehem was published, Didion bemoaned the complete lack of understanding upon its reception “I have never gotten a feedback so universally beside the point.”

The center was not holding. It was a country of bankruptcy notices and public-auction announcements and commonplace reports of casual killings and misplaced children and abandoned homes and vandals who misspelled even the four-letter words they scrawled. It was a country in which families routinely disappeared, trailing bad checks and repossession papers.

It was not a country in open revolution. It was not a country under enemy siege. It was the United States of America in the cold late spring of 1967, and the market was steady and the G.N.P. high and a great many articulate people seemed to have a sense of high social purpose and it might have been a spring of brave hopes and national promise, but it was not, and more and more people hid the uneasy apprehension that it was not.

From Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem

If we care, it shouldn’t matter what kind of congregation we assume. I am all atoms. I am all cells. I am all muscles and nerves and bones and wonky eyesight. I am all Ellen. I can and will break apart.

Farmer and environmentalist Wendell Berry suggests things must be valued individually and independently before they are valued as a whole, otherwise there is no whole. “There has always been a higher seeing that informs us that parts, in themselves, are of no worth.”

Antony Gormley slab work sculpture. Photograph by Ellen Vrana. Featured in "An Increasing Atomization of Things" on The Examined Life.
“BRACE” 2019. One of Antony Gormley’s fourteen Slabworks series as part of the exhibition at the Royal Academy, London in 2019. “I want this exhibition to encourage present, first-hand experience.” Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

And yet, there is Whitman.

Was there ever such a celebrant of atomic individuality and simultaneous oneness as Walt Whitman? “What I assume you shall assume” Whitman questioned as early as 1842, “…every atom of me also belongs to you.”

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.

My tongue, every atom of my blood, form’d from this soil, this air,
Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents the same,
I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin,
Hoping to cease not till death.

From Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself

In her soul-soothing When Things Fall Apart Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön defined peace as the coexistence, not the smoothing over of contradictions.

We cannot attend to all of our atoms, or cells, or organs, or friends but there is some unity here and now, between me, you and the medium that is these words. Here.1

Antony Gormley sculpture. Photograph by Ellen Vrana. Featured in "An Increasing Atomization of Things" on The Examined Life.
“What is the point of an exhibition?” asks Gormley “To ask that question: what can art do?” Read more from Gormley here. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

The parts and the whole in one wild, colliding, intertwining, radiant gyre.

I will make space for your associated atoms. My atoms look a lot like yours. They might not be one, but they are same. That is the force that holds us tight.

What is the Feeling of Home?

“All really inhabited space bears the essence of the notion of home.”
Gaston Bachelard

Rainer Maria Rilke once excused himself for not writing to a friend by saying “I haven’t had that feeling of home in which to write.”

I have not written here in a while. I was lacking a feeling of home.

Except… what is a feeling of home? How does it affect my writing?

Do Rilke and I mean the same thing?

Engraving of Castle Howard published in "Vitruvius Britannicus" 1715, featured in "What is That Feeling of Home?" on the Examined Life.
Colen Campbell’s engraving of Castle Howard, published in “Vitruvius Britannicus” a publication that idealized Palladian-revival architecture of the early 18th century. This was, during this time, an “ideal house.” The Howard family still own and live on the grounds. Print from Isaac & Ede Collection.

There is a deep human need to “feel at home” that appears across languages and epochs.1

“To be rooted,” French philosopher Simone Weil wrote in 1942, “is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul.” Weil avoided the word “home” (she was never so pedantic) but advocated for a sort of metaphysical shelter for our soul.

A human being has roots by virtue of his real, active and natural participation in the life of a community which preserves in living shape certain particular treasures of the past and certain particular expectations for the future. This participation is a natural one, in the sense that it is automatically brought about by place, conditions of birth, profession and social surroundings. Every human being needs to have multiple roots. It is necessary for him to draw wellnigh the whole of his moral, intellectual and spiritual life by way of the environment of which he forms a natural part.

From Simone Weil’s The Need for Roots

Three decades later, fellow French philosopher Gaston Bachelard added that our need for “home” is a need for inhabited space including space we realize through imagination.

[A]ll really inhabited space bears the essence of the notion of home. […] the imagination functions in this direction whenever the human being has found the slightest shelter: we shall see the imagination build ‘walls’ of impalpable shadows, comfort itself with the illusion of protection — or, just the contrary, tremble behind thick walls, mistrust the staunchest ramparts. In short, in the most interminable of dialectics, the sheltered being gives perceptible limits to his shelter. He experiences the house in its reality and in its virtuality, by means of thought and dreams.

From Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space

In 1845, American transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau walked out of urban society to a distant wood where he constructed a four-walled building with a bed, chair, and fireplace. Thoreau’s physical and imaginative attachment to the space turned it from shelter to home.

I lingered most about the fireplace, as the most vital part of the house. Indeed, I worked so deliberately that though I commenced at the ground in the morning, a course of bricks […] served as my pillow at night; […] When I began to have a fire at evening, before I plastered my house, the chimney carried smoke particularly well, because of the numerous chinks between the boards. Yet I passed some cheerful evenings in that cool and airy apartment, surrounded by rough brown boards full of knots, and rafters with the bark on high overhead.

My house never pleased my eye so much after it was plastered, though I was obligated to confess that it was more comfortable. […] I now first began to inhabit my house, I may say, when I began to use it for warmth as well as shelter.


From Henry David Thoreau’s Walden

Engraving of Cliveden published in "Vitruvius Britannicus" 1715, featured in "What is That Feeling of Home?" on the Examined Life.
Colen Campbell’s engraving of Cliveden House in Buckinghamshire. Campbell’s book set a standard of design based on principles of balance, symmetry and Classical forms. Cliveden House is now a luxury hotel. Print from Isaac & Ede Collection.

It is indicative that Thoreau focused on the fireplace not simply for heat but for hearth.

The hearth is a symbol of calm, consistency, a knowable order, and a nurturing warmth. “My preferred working state is thermal,” notices legendary dance choreographer Twyla Tharp, “I need heat… it calls up the warmth of the hearth and home… which is all about feeling safe and secure.”2

“In our less communal age of central heating and separate rooms for each family member,” muses Stephen Fry in his witty and rascally retelling of Greek myths, “we did not lend the hearth quite the importance that our ancestors did.”

Of all the gods, Hestia […] is probably the least well known to us, perhaps because the realm that Zeus in his wisdom appropriated to her was the hearth. In our less communal age of central heating and separate rooms for each family member, we did not lend the hearth quite the importance that our ancestors did […]. Yet, even for us, the word stands for something more than just a fireplace.

We speak of ‘hearth and home’. The word ‘hearth’ shares its ancestry with ‘heart’, just as the modern Greek for ‘hearth’ is kardia, which also means ‘heart’. In ancient Greece the wider concept of hearth and home was expressed by oikos, which lives on for us today in words like ‘economics’ and ‘ecology’. The Latin for hearth is focus — which speaks for itself. It is a strange and wonderful thing that out of the words for fireplace we have spun ‘cardiologist’, ‘deep focus’ and ‘eco-warrior’. The essential meaning of centrality that connects them also reveals the significance of the hearth to the Greeks and the Romans, and consequently the important of Hestia, its presiding deity.

From Stephen Fry’s Mythos

The necessity of hearth as an aspect of the “feeling of home” becomes clear when we ask: What happens to a home without a hearth?

There is a clear case of unease and unrest in Robert Lowell’s mid-century writing.3

During the weekends I was at home much of the time. All day I used to look forward to the nights when my bedroom walls would once again vibrate, when I would awake with rapture to the rhythm of my parents arguing, arguing one another to exhaustion. Sometimes, without bathrobe or slippers, I would wriggle out into the cold hall on my belly and ambuscade myself behind the banister. I could often hear actual words. ‘Yes, yes, yes,’ Father would mumble. He was ‘back-sliding’ and ‘living in a fool’s paradise of habitual retarding and retarded do-nothing inertia.’ […] She was hysterical even in her calm […]. One night she said with murderous coolness, ‘Bobby and I are leaving for Papa’s.’ This was an ultimatum to force Father to sign a deed placing the Revere Street house in Mother’s name.

From Robert Lowell’s Life Studies

Lowell suffered complete alienation from the hearth of his childhood home; he is cold, dark, and surrounded by violence and chaos. That watchful child was toppled by depression even psychosis as an adult — both acute mental and emotional rootlessness.

Or consider the rootlessness of jazz singer Billie Holiday. Born when her mom was thirteen, Holiday lived with her mother at her mother’s job, then in a strict Catholic girls’ school, then a brothel, then in hotels while touring with the band (hotels that barred her entering through the front although she was the star singer), and, repeatedly, she “lived” in jail.

In each of these “homes,” Holiday is slapped with prejudice, trauma, and a complete lack of love and security. She also feels a constant reminder of her undesirable, unwanted, and misunderstood status as a poor, Black female.

You’re always under pressure. You can fight it but you can’t kick it. The only time I was free from this kind of pressure was when I was a call girl as a kid and I had white men as my customers. Nobody gave us any trouble. People can forgive people any damn thing if they did it for money.

From Billie Holiday’s Lady Sings the Blues

Comedian John Cleese called home “the place you do not have to strive.” Holiday, and the many millions who are rootless, disenfranchised, and alienated never had a place to stop striving.

“You can be up to your boobies in white satin, with gardenias in your hair and no sugar cane for miles,” warned Holiday, “but you can still be working on a plantation.”

Engraving of Blenheim Palace published in "Vitruvius Britannicus" 1715, featured in "What is That Feeling of Home?" on the Examined Life.
Colen Campbell’s engraving of Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire. Blenheim is the seat of the Duke of Marlborough and birth and burial place of Winston Churchill. The Palace and its gardens, designed by Capability Jones, are still lived inhabited by the Spencer-Churchills and are a World Heritage Site. Print from Isaac & Ede Collection.

Holiday’s writings remind us that for many people, home is not and cannot be a physical space.

We see this with singers Patti Smith and artist Robert Mapplethorpe. When they were both young, poor, and mercurial, they created a home in the company of each other. In a nurturing embrace, their loneliness met. Smith writes: “In this space between us, home.”

Is there anyone in whose company you feel a feeling of home?

During war and throughout life, Roald Dahl put himself in a “feeling of home” by writing to his mother. His light lines (“There is nothing very wrong with me. I’ve merely had an extremely serious concussion”) and dancing prose (“All these things and many more I shall derive the greatest pleasure from doing”) seemed to say “The war might be raging out there, and there is a woefully inadequate plane waiting to take me skyward, but for this moment I’m with my mother. I’m next to the hearth.”

Dahl wrote to his mother each day he was in active duty.

Engraving of Longleate published in "Vitruvius Britannicus" 1715, featured in "What is That Feeling of Home?" on the Examined Life.
Engraving of Longleat House, Wiltshire, seat of the Marquesses of Bath. Today it offers a safari park. Print from Isaac & Ede Collection.

Lockdown has expanded what “home” means.

When I rethink “I wasn’t in the feeling of home,” what I meant — and likely Rilke as well — was “I haven’t been myself.” I haven’t been home within myself.

I think of “home” as less of a space and more of a feeling. In that way I inhabit myself.

That is a lovely thought. Let’s sit next to it.

Soothe yourself, hug yourself. You are, quite literally, home.