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 on the designs of Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio. 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.”

“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.2

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.

Traipsing Along Like a Child

“The mind of a child is like a kiss on the forehead—open and disinterested. It turns as the ballerina turns, atop a party cake with frosted tiers, poisonous and sweet.”
Patti Smith

“Think…as a child might…,” the poet Rainer Maria Rilke bade us when dispensing advice on how to improve creativity. There is no shortage of applying wonder, curiosity, ease—traits we associate with childhood and a childlike mind.

But what is the mind of a child as it registers the world? Can we access it as adults?

Maggie at play featured in "Traipsing Along as a Child" on the Examined Life.
Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

I watch my daughter register her senses. What makes her run, what stops her, what draws out her hand from the safety of a pocket and back in again with chosen treasures? Trust? Newness? Innate coolness of things?

Biologist Rachel Carson delighted in showing nature to her young nephew, and as she watched him traipse about on Maine’s shores, she noted:

A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement. […] There is the world of little things, seen all too seldom. Many children, perhaps because they themselves are small and closer to the ground than we, notice and delight in the small and inconspicuous.

I think of a young David Attenborough traipsing along in the fields “just turning over a stone and looking at the animals beneath.” Stones that Mary Oliver lamented sat deep beneath the surface, waiting to be touched.

When naturalist Gerald Durrell was nine, he moved with his family from Britain to the Mediterranean island of Corfu. Unburdened by school or supervision, he began his great love affair with the out of doors. Durrell became a professional writer and naturist, and even as an adult his books are flooded with childlike wonder and delight.

At first I was so bewildered by this profusion of life on our very doorstep that I could only move about the garden in a daze, watching now this creature, now that, constantly, having my attention distracted by the flights of brilliant butterflies that drifted over the hedge. Gradually, as I became more used to the bustle of insect life among the flowers, I found I could concentrate more. I would spend hours squatting on my heels or lying on my stomach watching the private lives of creatures.

A child-like mind registers the world with interest, energy, and an overall lightness of being.

Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

What allows that? Free time, unstructured play, unburdened by feelings of consciousness?

Physicist Richard P. Feynman makes the case that it is the desire to know that can drive children about (and that this “pleasure of finding things out” lingers, if nurtured, in adults too).

It is a great adventure to contemplate the universe beyond man, to think of what it means to be without man – as it was for the great part of its long history, and as it is in the great majority of places. When this objective view is finally attained, and the mystery and majesty of matter are appreciated, to then turn the objective eye back on man viewed as matter, to see life as part of the universal mystery of greatest depth, is to sense an experience which is rarely described.

But knowing as a child is not nearly the same thing as knowing as an adult.

Rachel Carson saw first-hand that childlike knowledge centers on how things relate to what the child already knows. My daughter reminds me of this as she tells us a van, tree, telephone pole, and even cloud is either a “Mommy” or a “Daddy” specimen, occasionally “baby.”

Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Children seem to possess highly curious minds coupled with tunnel vision as they grasp knowledge and enter it into a puzzle that adults have formed: a sense of self, a sense of the world, a sense of the people they know.

“For children, it’s the distance that holds little interest,” observed Rebecca Solnit.

There is no distance in childhood: for a baby, a mother in the other room is gone forever; for a child, the time until a birthday is endless. Whatever is absent is impossible, irretrievable, unreachable. Their mental landscape is like that of a medieval paintings: a foreground full of vivid things and then a wall.

When British writer Laurie Lee mentions tracing the knots on his bedroom ceiling and how that space was his entire universe, it was the entire universe, it shows not only Lee’s absorption in the immediate but also his disinterest in everything else.

These knots on the bedroom ceiling were the whole range of a world, and over them my eyes went endlessly voyaging in that long primeval light of waking to which a child is condemned. They were archipelagos in a sea of blood-coloured varnish, they were armies grouped and united against me, they were the alphabet of a macabre tongue, the first book I ever learned to read.

To me that narrow scope is the essence of Patti Smith’s few lines: “The mind of a child is like a kiss on the forehead—open and disinterested. It turns as the ballerina turns, atop a party cake with frosted tiers, poisonous and sweet.”

The connections we might make as an adult—we see a flower, which tells us it is spring, which tells us the days will be longer, which tells us we might be happier… etc. etc.—for a child becomes I see a flower, I will grab it! (And invariably I will bring it home with me!)

So, can we adults ever narrow our universe and traipse along like a child?

“My child self is unreachable,” Penelope Lively wrote in her generous study of memory, a sentiment echoed by Wislawa Szymborska in her beautiful poem about reaching out to her younger self, a self that will neither listen nor understand.

Of course, these writers are writing as mature adults about childhood, not within a state of childhood. Excellent memories and reality notwithstanding, it is imagination that fuels their narrative. Imagination and memory.

Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

A childlike mind is a bitterly beautiful thing that is unreachable, but that does not mean it is unavailable.

Rather than look at it as “I was a child, now I am an adult,” like it’s a past we have to claw forward, what if we look at our current selves as children to the future?

More specifically: What if we imagined ourselves ignorant?

What if we acknowledge our limits of consciousness and embrace them? What if we traipsed into the complex field of the unknown slowly, eagerly, with narrowed focus? It is exceedingly difficult as an adult to accept not knowing something. But might it happen if we did?

I don’t know. Do you?

The Unlikely Strength of Corners

“Build a corner.”
Dani Shapiro

Imagine the sturdy security of a wall doubled and joined to form a corner. Every human knows a corner, is near a corner.

But what do we know of them? What do we think of them?

When Henry David Thoreau hand-built his shack on Walden Pond, it was not much more than four corners and a roof. “With this more substantial shelter about me, I had made some progress toward settling in the world. This frame, so slightly clad, was a sort of crystallization around me.”

Thoreau’s four corners is the introduction of shelter. His spirit, feeling safe and secure, lurched into life.

Similarly, in her book on her writing life and creative fragility, memoirist Dani Shapiro advises it is from a corner that we approach massive, daunting tasks.

Build a corner, that is what people who are good at puzzles do, They ignore the heap of colors and shapes and simply look for straight edges. They focus on piecing together one tiny corner. Every book, story, and essay begins with a single word. Then a sentence. Then a paragraph.

I have never begun a puzzle at a corner, but I do position my writing desk in a corner, sometimes facing in, sometimes out, depending on my mood. I know what Shapiro means: A corner brings requisite security for that first step.

And what about the beautifully, rich depiction from essayist Durga Chew-Bose:

I don’t require much to feel far-removed; to impose my wanderings on what’s close. Because of this, my friend and I have started calling ourselves nook people. Those of us who seek corners and bays in order to redeploy our hearts and not break the mood. Those of who retreat in order to cubicle our flame. Who collect sea glass. Who value a deep pants pocket. Who are our own understudies and may as well have shadowboxes for brains.

What these remarkable individuals have in common is a view of a corner as a space for protection, repose—a cuddling and warming of the spirit, one might say.

“The corner is a haven that ensures us one of the things we prize most highly—immobility,” argues Gaston Bachelard, guardian of our psycho-physical spaces and guide to what these spaces mean to our psyches and our lives.

Every corner in a house, every angle in a room, every inch of secluded space in which we like to hide, or withdraw into ourselves, is a symbol of solitude for the imagination; that is to say, it is the germ of a room or of a house.

[…]

Consciousness of being at peace in one’s corner produces a sense of immobility, and this, in turn, radiates immobility. An imaginary room rises up around our bodies, and we think we are well hidden when we take refuge in a corner.

Praesidium (Walls that Protect) ceramic sculpture by Isobel Egan. Featured in "The Unlikely Strength of Corners" on the Examined Life.
“Praesidium” Walls that Protect, 2016 by Isobel Egan. Egan’s work consistently studies the space divided and contained by strong yet translucent porcelain. Here the porcelain forms protective walls and corners. Photograph by Philip Lauterbach.

Bachelard reiterates the “safety” of a corner and even goes so far as to call it a “chamber of being.” But by admitting it “negates the universe,” he also alludes to a darker, even sinister aspect of corners.

To be in a corner, we must withdraw from externalities like other people, humanity, and the “doing/having” parts of life.

From this originates the concept of shrinking into the corners. I imagine naughty school children on stools or those round houses of early Puritan settlers: no place for the Devil.

“Death reigned in every corner,” observed Daniel Defoe, an English journalist and novelist who wrote the finest journalistic account of the plague of Europe in 1665.

"Ennui" 1914, by Walter Richard Sickert featured in "The Unlikely Strength of Corners" on The Examined Life.
“Ennui” 1917-18, by Walter Richard Sickert, the last of five paintings, each the same vignette, different colors and tone but always of a couple in a corner. Learn more. Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.

Physically and even intellectually, corners hide and obscure. More than 2,000 years ago, Roman senator and philosopher Seneca noted, “Some men have shrunk so far into dark corners that objects in bright daylight seem quite blurred to them.”

Corners are ends. Bachelard touches on this when he writes, “from the depths of his corner, the dreamer remembers all the objects identified with solitude, objects that are memories of solitude and which are betrayed by the mere fact of having been forgotten.”

Have you ever been forgotten in a corner?

"Slabworks" 2019, Anthony Gormley. Featured in "The Unlikely Strength of Corners" on the Examined Life.
“Slabworks” 2019 by Anthony Gormley. One of fourteen figures all positioned in somewhat collapsed “whole-body” poses, this figure was crouched and cornered. It immediately drew my empathy. Learn more. Photograph by Ellen Vrana at the Royal Academy of Arts.

I recall the most tender and sympathetic thing my mother has ever said. My husband and I had just moved to London, the tea and crumpet fancy had faded, and I felt quite alone. A chronic depression stirred, well, in the corners of my spirit. “Oh Ellen,” she said during a particularly weepy phone call, “promise me you’ll stay out of dark corners. Stay in the center of the room where you are loved. Can you do that?”

Her embrace, that utterly meaningful metaphor spoken by one not prone to metaphor. A corner’s embrace can firm up against your shoulders and back, but it is no substitute for human arms.

Illustration by Rupi Kaur. Featured in Kaur's "Milk and Honey" in the Examined Life Library.
“The idea of shrinking is hereditary.” writes Rupi Kaur in Milk and Honey, poetry on pain and love. Illustration by Rupi Kaur, courtesy of the book.

As in most of my writing, my point of departure on corners is from the self. A tendency of introverts, I believe. I am in a corner or out of one, I am the agent. I think, what do corners mean to me and, thus, you?

Imagine my surprise, then, when I mentioned this post to my aunt, who is one of the most extroverted individuals I know, and her response was: “Well, it’s the intersection of two things, isn’t it? Things coming together, intersecting at that point.” She interlaced her fingers to form little corners.

This remarkable woman, a professor and leader of cultural diplomacy at Georgetown University, who taps into the fluid currents of humanity—and the culture that arises from that humanity—to form passage through the waters that divide us: this woman doesn’t go into corners, she is the corner.

She brings things together. What a generous expansion of self.

A corner is where things come together in all their complexity. A shelter, a gathering place, an embrace, a hide. If you go into one, don’t forget to set the alarm, to tie a tether around your waist.

Don’t forget to return to the center of the room, where you are loved.