East, west, home is best
I had just finished polishing my nails. They were dark blue, and the nail polish-smell was slowly spreading in the room. Outside I could see the snow falling down, all the trees outside were white of snow, but the wind was about to tear it away. I opened the window a little just so that the smell wouldn’t stay in the room. I picked up the remote control and pushed "play". I was waiting to hear the beginning of my newest CD, but I was wrong. My brother had obviously borrowed my CD-player while I was at school, as usual. I never could quite understand why he couldn’t just use his own. But for once he had left a nice CD in my player. It was some nice guitar playing in the beginning. I laid down on my bed and just stared at the ceiling. I was kind of bored. I had nothing to do, I had done all my homework for the next day- actually I had done all the homework for the next week or so, I wasn’t supposed to be at any meetings or anything. Of course my room was a mess but I wasn’t feeling like cleaning it. The lyrics of the song were depressing and the room was slowly getting colder since I had opened the window. I took a wool blanket and pulled it up over my head. After a few minutes I fell asleep.
I was brutally torn out of my dream by my mother. She was standing over me. She had turned on the light and was screaming at me. "I thought you were dead or something. I can’t believe that you are able to sleep in " My sleepy brain wasn’t ready for that kind of noise so soon after waking up, so it lost the rest of the yelling. I was blinking against the bright light, and the sound when she took some plates from the floor and a couple of glasses from my desk, made my ears tremble. She slammed the door behind her and I could hear her tramping down the stairs. Quietly I sneaked out of my room and into the bathroom. I brushed my teeth and put on a pyjamas. I sat down on my chair took up the remote control and turned on the television. There wasn’t anything interesting on since it was two o’clock in the night. I watched a little MTV, and then I fell asleep.
I woke up when the phone rang. Since I had fallen asleep on my desk, I just had to turn my head a little and push the " speaker" button. "Hello" I said with my best "I just woke up" voice.
"Hey! Why aren’t you at school ? " It was my best friend Gina.
" What?" I looked around. Kind of disoriented since I had been sleeping on a hard desk all night and not in my soft bed. I rubbed my neck and answered. " Huh ? What’s the time ? Am I late ?" She laughed,
"Late? No not really just like 3 hours late !" I gasped.
" What ? NO! "
" I guarantee it! " I could hear her laughing in the other end.
" But how am I going to get to school now ? I can’t walk!"
" I guess you just got really sick this morning - yeah ? "
" huh ? Yeah really bad headache."
" Ok! Well I got to get to class! Get well soon! " She hang up. I sighed. Well - at least I didn’t have to take that biology test we had. I got up and walked down to the kitchen.
"What are you doing here ? Aren’t you supposed to be at school?" My brother was standing in the kitchen, making himself some breakfast
"That was funny, coming from you!" My brother was 17, he was supposed to go to some kind of school, but he never did. "I’ve got a headache" I explained
" Does mum know? " He was talking with food in his mouth.
" You’re disgusting!" I knew he just did that to irritate me. I went into the bathroom. Took a shower. When I came out of the shower I noticed that my brother
had left the house.
"Maybe he went to school " I laughed just by thinking of it.
When mum came home, she yelled at me. Said that I had shirked school, and that she wouldn’t write a "sick - note ". I didn’t care. It wouldn’t be the first time anyway. I would just ask my dad to write one. Since my parents had joint custody, he could write one just as easily as mum. I think he just does it to make mum mad. Kind of childish but I don’t care, as long as I don’t get yelled at at school too.
I was about to take my jacket and go out the door when my mum screamed. "Where are you going ?" she sounded almost hysterical. " Out!" I knew that she would freak but she had done it before. I slammed the door behind me. She opened the kitchen window and shouted " If you’re going to your dad now, you can just stay there!" " Maybe I will. " I ran down the hill, and down to the bus-stop. I knew that the bus to town would come by any minute now, so I sat down at the moist and cold bench. I wiped away the snow from the lower part of my legs. It was cold. I was hoping the bus would come soon. The bag fell down from my shoulder. I had almost forgot that I had taken it with me. I always carried it around. It was a shoulder bag, which I had got from my grandmother when my parents split up.
I guess it was about four years ago then. They took out separation when I was 11, the divorce was final a year later. They got joint custody, and I lived three weeks with each of them. They always bought me gifts and took me to movies in the first two years, then they kind of gave up when they understood that I wouldn’t take sides in their stupid fight. Mum’s still angry with dad. I don’t know why, no one ever told me anything.
An old man was on his way over to the shed, so I stood so that he could sit. I jumped from one foot to the other to stay warm. Finally the bus came. It was an old bus, it looked like it was going to fall apart very soon. I sat down in the back of the bus. When I sat down, I saw clouds of dust jumping into the sky. Everything in the bus was dusty, even the driver looked dusty. I looked out of the window, the sky was grey, and the snow was falling so tight that everything outside looked white. When the bus came into the city I jumped off almost at once. My dad lived in the house where I spent the first 12 years of my life and half of the rest. It was a nice white house, a symbol of my dad’s good economy and wealthy parents.
The garage was closed so I wasn’t sure if he was home. I went up the driveway, and pushed the door handle down. It was locked. I rang the doorbell. I waited for a couple of minutes and realised that he wasn’t at home. I went around to the back of the house. The big veranda was covered with snow. I could see bumps in the snow where I knew that there were standing chairs, tables and a barbecue.
Bustling about in the snow to get over to the living-room window, I could hear a voice asking: "What are you doing?"
" Trying to get to the window!" I turned around, waiting to see one of the usual old rich men who used to live next door. But the voice belonged to a boy in a blue and black jacket. He was obviously shovelling snow.
" Why ? The guy’s not home." He leaned to the shovel.
" How do you know ? "
" We’re watching his cat. He’s not supposed to be home until next weekend. His kid was supposed to visit him or something. "
" Oh yeah He was going to that meeting " I sighed. I struggled my way back over the veranda. "Thanks anyway."
" No problem" he started to work again while I stood on our porch, trying to wipe away the snow before it melted and made me soaking wet. It didn’t work.
I walked into town and found a burger restaurant and ordered a menu. I sat down and ate a big burger, and some French fries and a soda, watching the people outside. After half an hour, I had decided what to do. I went to the bus-station. . After a couple of wrong numbers I finally called the "information" to get my grandmothers phone-number. The people behind me were getting kind of irritated so I decided to make it a quick conversation.
"Hello ? " My grandmother wasn’t as old as most of the other grandparents I knew. She had just turned 60.
"Hey grandma! It’s me!" My grandmother and I had always been good friends and I called her all the time.
" Hello Denise!" We talked about nothing for a couple of minutes, then I asked.
" umm would you mind If I came and stayed with you for a while ?"
" No of course not! Does your mother know ?"
" umm no she thinks I’m at dad’s "
"Well I’m sure she won’t mind."
"Oh- well I’m not" She laughed. Someone touched my shoulder. The line was getting kind of long. " I got to go now. I’ll take the first bus from here."
" OK sweetie" I hang up.
When I came to my grandmother’s house, we talked. She knew about the situation with me and my folks. She and I had always been able to talk about anything. She tried to make me understand that I should try to reason with my mother, but I had tried that before she would never listen to me. I went to bed, but I couldn’t sleep. I just kept thinking of my parents and why they had split. Finally I got some sleep. But when I woke up It felt like as I had slept for just a few minutes. I didn’t understand what had woke me up, it wasn’t dark outside, but the sun wasn’t up yet. I could hear cars passing outside the window.
Suddenly the ceiling was light up. The trees outside made funny shadows on the ceiling. Almost before they were there, they disappeared again, when the lights of the car outside was turned of. I jumped out of bed and over to the window. The car outside was dark. I couldn’t see so much of it, because my grandmothers garden was full of big trees. I jumped into some slippers and ran down the stairs. I could hear someone at the door. Someone was trying to open the door, but it was locked of course. I sneaked overt to the door and removed a little of the curtain. Then the person rang the door bell. I jumped, the noise sounded like thunder in the silent room. I carefully unlocked the door and opened it. My mother was standing outside. She had snow all over her blond hair and her mascara was all over her cheeks, she had obviously been crying. She looked at me with red eyes. Our eyes met, and we hugged.
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The tiny home is one of the many oxymorons of our strange times. Thousands of people, mainly on the west coast of North America, have built small homes, little bigger than a garden shed, that they tow around on trailers. Since they first started appearing a few years ago, tiny homes have become an open-source ‘maker movement’ of thousands who share their designs for very small and often elaborate mini-mobile homes that cost as little as $5,000. It is one of the mutant social phenomena that spread in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, and it’s uplifting, amazing and slightly shocking all at the same time.
Tiny homes evoke a frontier spirit of people trying to remake their lives after a catastrophe. The fact that these homes are on a trailer and don’t touch the ground can exempt their owners from property tax in states where they count not as homes but as a vehicle. That is part of what makes them affordable to run. Tiny-home owners often gather in impromptu sharing communities. Yet as proprietors of vehicles, they have to keep moving. It’s difficult to feel you have roots if your home is on wheels.
The tiny house is just one example of the lengths to which people will go to create a sense of home even when they lack the means for it. It’s just one symptom of a much wider and intensifying search for belonging, which makes home as important to politics as the idea of class or rights – especially now, when so many people feel displaced, both literally and figuratively, by life in innovation-driven, high-tech, networked capitalism. On top of that, the contest over where home is and who is entitled to live there, is – in the form of the current apparent crisis over migration – driving global political debate.
Home is where the heart is, and there is no place like home, yet a sense of being at home can come from many sources. Home can be a place of residence, where you go back to after work. It can mean the place you come from: where you grew up, and to which you return in your memories and for important family rituals. Feeling at home can come from an activity in which you feel at ease, in flow, in a landscape that’s familiar and uplifting. Doing satisfying work can evoke a sense of home, as can being with friends or walking along a beach with someone you love.
The common thread to all these meanings of home is that they provide us with a tethered sense of identity. Home matters so much just now because so many people feel the tether coming loose.
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The philosopher who understood this search best is controversial: Martin Heidegger. A member of the Nazi Party, Heidegger never expressed remorse for the Holocaust and was often an arrogant, duplicitous bully. Some critics argue that his philosophy is too contaminated by racism to admit rescue. His ideas are often dismissed as parochial, nostalgic and regressive. Even his advocates acknowledge that his prose is deliberately dense.
Yet, as the Australian scholar Jeff Malpas has shown in several thoughtful books and essays, studying Heidegger helps to explain why we are now so preoccupied by feelings of displacement that are triggering a search for home. Given Heidegger’s Nazi leanings and the rise of the populist Right in many parts of the developed world, his work could repay study.
Heidegger detested René Descartes’s dictum ‘I think, therefore I am’ which located the search for identity in our brains. There, it was secured by a rational process of thought, detached from a physical world that presented itself to the knowing subject as a puzzle to be solved. Descartes’s ideas launched a great inward turn in philosophy with the subject at the centre of the drama confronting the objective world about which he tries to gain knowledge.
Had Heidegger ever come up with a saying to sum up his philosophy it would have been: ‘I dwell, therefore I am.’ For him, identity is bound up with being in the world, which in turn means having a place in it. We don’t live in the abstract space favoured by philosophers, but in a particular place, with specific features and history. We arrive already entangled with the world, not detached from it. Our identity is not secured just in our heads but through our bodies too, how we feel and how we are moved, literally and emotionally.
Instead of presenting it as a puzzle to be solved, Heidegger’s world is one we should immerse ourselves in and care for: it is part of the larger ‘being’ where we all belong. As Malpas puts it, Heidegger argues that we should release ourselves to the world, to find our part in its larger ebb and flow, rather than seek to detach ourselves from it in order to dominate it.
Heidegger has his own account of what dwelling meant: he spent much of his time writing in an austere mountain hut in the depths of the Black Forest. He felt at home in a clearing in the forest, sprung from the soil of the homeland and redolent with a nostalgic feel of German peasant life. He’s not arguing that we should all go to a forest clearing, but that we need our own equivalent: a place that makes us feel at ease with the world. One can find it lying under a tree in a city park, looking at the clouds above, or sitting in a café watching people all around.
Heidegger’s pessimistic diagnosis of the ills of a restless and rootless modern society, driven by science and technology, is that it systematically robs people of this feeling of being at home in the world. It is set up to deny the very thing we most need for a sense of identity and purpose. For Heidegger, nostalgia – the unrequited longing to return home – is a necessary condition of being modern. Technology is a big factor in this.
A bedroom can become an income-earning asset when its role in our lives is reassigned by the click of a mouse on a digital platform
When the technology of the home was more like a tool to augment human muscle power – a place for the washing machine, the fridge, the boiler – the home was as a private, bounded space. Now technology is breaking down those boundaries. When parents worry about where their children are going (metaphorically) and to whom they’re talking on social media, they’re acknowledging that people can be at home, in their bedrooms, and yet somewhere else simultaneously. Young people seem to be most at home when they are on – or perhaps ‘in’ – their phones, flicking between apps, surfing their social networks.
Meanwhile, home, always a workplace for women, has become a place of work for many more people, at least those whose first action on waking is to check emails. The small kitchen table in my parents’ house was used only for breakfast. A table in the dining room was laid out for tea. Neither were used for work. In contrast, the table in our family house has to be cleared of an Apple store’s worth of equipment before we can eat.
Airbnb is one expression of this technological transformation of the home. I wrote the first draft of this article in a Japanese tea house in someone’s garden in Berkeley, near San Francisco, rented through a website that allows us to share our homes with strangers as a commercial activity. A bedroom can become an income-earning asset when its role in our lives is reassigned by the click of a mouse on a digital platform.
As homes become more like flexible assets and workplaces, where we bank and shop, so contemporary workplaces are styling themselves as homes. Many people in cities seem to work in cafés. The most achingly trendy shared workspace in London is called Second Home. WeWork, the fast-growing US co-working provider, has now launched the sister company WeLive, through which young people can rent rooms barely large enough for a bed so they can be closer to their very small desks.
Yet this ambiguous domestication of work and commodification of home is overshadowed by a more malevolent sense of displacement generated by technology. Much of the populist anger sweeping through advanced economies comes from men who feel displaced because there is a dwindling supply of work that gives them meaning or status. Judging by the outpouring of books about our bleak near future without work, this fear of losing our place in the world to the technologies we’ve created will overshadow the next few decades.
Modernity, as Heidegger contended, condemns us to a painful, usually thwarted and often nostalgic search for a sense of home in a world set up to make it difficult to achieve. Of course, implicit in Heidegger’s account is a tension and a risk. It is easy for us to imagine that our particular version of home, at a certain time, should be fixed as a universal ideal – as if home has an unchangeable essence that needs protecting at all costs.
This is how the largely university-educated generation who entered the UK’s labour market after the 2008 financial crisis feels. As wages flatline and inner-city property prices rise, young millennials struggle to afford a home. ‘Generation Rent’, who grew up in London and the south-east in particular, feels betrayed because their childhood homes are now well beyond them. They complain of being infantilised by having to stay at home with their parents for longer than they’d like, or ending up with shared kitchens and bathrooms in soulless short-term lets, like students. Generation Rent’s righteous anger stems in part from a thwarted search for something deeply conventional: a place to call home, recognisable from their own childhoods.
From Australia to Austria, politicians are running scared of the populist Right whipping up a fear that your home is about to be lost
Yet the lengths to which Millennials have to go in search of home pale in comparison with the struggles faced by most economic migrants, asylum seekers and refugees. Their search for home has become the stuff of a much angrier politics.
We are in the midst of a refugee crisis with 65 million people on the move around the world. In Europe, they have been met by many ordinary citizens willing to offer them their homes: in Germany, thousands have taken in refugees as an act of hospitality. But that has been matched by a rising populist backlash against unwanted outsiders who are cast as infiltrators intent on messing up and taking advantage of ‘our’ home, siphoning off state benefits, and abusing public services.
The Brexit vote in the UK, the rise of the Danish People’s Party, the Alternative for Germany party and the National Front in France are all symptomatic of this easily provoked fear of an imaginary pristine national home being ruined by outsiders. In Canada, a society with a deliberate approach to encourage immigration, the prime minister Justin Trudeau is one of the few politicians to make a popular pitch based on welcoming diverse strangers. Virtually everywhere else, from Australia to Austria, politicians are running scared of the populist Right whipping up a fear that your home is about to be lost, or transfigured beyond recognition.
It’s not just a question of populism, though. The rootless fluidity of globalisation so recently celebrated by many young, educated urbanites feeds a new division between those who want the cosmopolitan city and those who prefer the settled provincial life; between those who think airports are part of daily life and those who go there only for their holidays; those that like the provisional, digital, networked economy and those who want the certainty of living in the same place, with the same people and following the same routines.
Heidegger maintained that modernity makes us feel homeless much of the time. Indeed, one reason large companies are so distrusted is that they seem to relish exactly what we recoil from: being homeless, a ‘citizen of nowhere’, as Theresa May, the new British Prime Minister, recently put it in a speech to the Conservative Party. Corporations manage to get away with paying minimal tax because they can threaten to relocate at the drop of a hat. The jobs on which our homes depend appear to be hostage to people who regard rootlessness as an optimal state. Heidegger’s point is that such tensions can only intensify as modernity accelerates.
An even larger movement than refugees are the almost 740 million people a year who migrate within their own country to a city. These people and the cities they move to, especially in China, is where the real struggle for home will be played out over the next 40 years. The recipes that the urbanist Jane Jacobs developed while creating a sense of home in downtown Manhattan – low-rise mixed neighbourhoods with an active and convivial street life – will have little place in the extreme urban conditions of the many cities that China is planning to build under the One Belt, One Road plan for a new Silk road into Asia and Europe. These cities will never figure on Monocle magazine’s list of the world’s most liveable places. Marvels of rapid development, they threaten to become social nightmares unless their citizens’ appetites for consumer goods for their homes are satiated.
Overlaying all of that is the shared existential threat of climate change and rising sea levels that could displace many millions of mainly poor people from their homes. More than 100 major cities worldwide are on coastlines that will be affected by rising sea levels: Miami is the canary in the mine, a city that’s booming as fast as it’s sinking. Largely unchecked carbon emissions mean we risk making our shared planetary home inhospitable. We are just coming to terms with our own creation, the Anthropocene, when everywhere on the planet is touched by human action and truly wild nature exists only in pockets. The world is ours – the question is, will we treat it like a resource to be exploited or like a shared home? To achieve that will require not only better science and clean technologies but also more frugal lifestyles and perhaps a return to ideas cherished in indigenous cultures that revolve around a deep interdependence with nature.
Across these issues – from technology to immigration, urbanisation and climate change – the idea of home is central. Fears that we are losing our place are rife. We live in a restless, rootless world that prompts nostalgia, a yearning for an impossible return to an imagined home. Perhaps that’s why there are so many books in English about the Danish idea of hygge, how to make everything cosy and warm. (It involves blankets, fires, sitting in circles, chatting and not breaking out on your own.)
The clues to what people yearn for are hiding in plain sight in popular culture: television series such as Downton Abbey about a British aristocratic family trying to hang on to a home that supports an entire social order; or The Great British Bake Off, now franchised across the globe: what more homely activity is there than baking? Even I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! is about whether a group of fairly annoying people can create a home together in the Australian jungle: the winners are invariably those who make sacrifices to get food, tend fires, put up hammocks and provide a shoulder to cry on.
Many support measures to exert greater control over their homes, to build walls, erect gates and keep at bay unruly forces
True, not all our dilemmas about home are due to technology-charged mobile capitalism. Our sense of home is also being profoundly unsettled, for example by ageing. All over the world, adult children are struggling with the painful dilemma of whether their elderly, infirm parents should go ‘into a home’. To most, that’s a death knell because it means the very opposite of what it says.
The spread of dementia – soon to become a global epidemic – will sharpen this unease. Old people are most vulnerable when displaced from their homes: they lose the props they need to keep everything in order. As people with dementia lose their short-term memory, so longer-term memories of where they grew up and their lives in childhood become more important. One woman I know with dementia now anchors her identity in repeated wartime stories of sleeping in an Anderson shelter with her mother. Those are among the few memories she can still conjure up. Home is a place long ago, as much as it is the flat she now lives in, which holds almost no meaning for her.
Tensions over the meaning of home will only intensify; if people feel thwarted in finding their place in the world, they can become angry, depressed, defeated and sad. Many of them will support measures to exert greater control over their homes, to build walls, erect gates and keep at bay unruly forces that threaten to take their homes from them. They will want to restore an orderly home, however imaginary. At the moment, politically, only the populist Right seems to fully understand the power of this idea, when what we need is a creative, shared response to remake our sense of home.
It could be too much to hope that we might have a homely capitalism, with homely capitalists but, in a sense, that is what people are asking for: an economic system that helps them build a shared sense of home. After all, that’s exactly what far-sighted 19th-century capitalists did in the days of Robert Owen’s New Lanark Mills and the Cadbury factory at Bournville. In the wake of the Second World War, modern capitalism was at its most successful and productive when it built not just factories but millions of homes, from Dagenham to Detroit; homes that were filled in an orderly fashion with consumer durables brought by a capitalism organised around national democracies. Capitalism needs once again to give people an orderly sense of home, rather than pitching them into insecurity, as if anything they have might be taken from them in a moment.
Equally, the progressive Left will renew itself only if it comes up with a more optimistic, pluralistic and democratic account of how people can create a shared sense of home together. Perhaps the lead will come from places such as Canada and Denmark; or from cities that grow and yet remain liveable; even from new approaches to caring for the elderly, from shared housing and from new technologies for building homes cheaply using 3D printing.
We need a new kind of shared home economics, of home-making and building. The route to power to change society starts at home.
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advises organisations, cities and governments on innovation and creativity. He is chairman of Apps for Good and an associate at the Centre for London. His latest book is The Frugal Innovator (2014). He lives in Highbury, North London.