A Place Like Home

Editor Nick Slater on the comforts and fuzzy corporeality of home.

It’s midnight on the 27th Tuesday of the pandemic, and outside the small Portuguese bar beneath my apartment, men are arguing about football again. Their laughter echoes against the dark mountains that hug the valley. I watch them from my balcony, flicking a joint into a pickle jar so the ash won’t fall on their heads. A joyous drunkard with a red cap and long black ponytail is flitting from patron to patron. He slaps their backs and hands out cigarettes. Even from a lofty distance you can sense the man has an earnest, almost pathetic need to be there. The past months have been hard on him. He is so happy to be home.

Home has been on my mind a lot this year. Before the springtime lockdowns started, friends asked if I planned on leaving Andorra (the landlocked microstate between France and Spain where I’ve spent the past four years), and “going home” to Minnesota, the place where my family has lived since I was a small child. The answer was an unequivocal “no” for many reasons. There were the untenable financial costs, the challenges of international travel with two cats, and the fact that returning to the United States in the midst of an uncontrolled pandemic felt like running back into a house with flames bursting out the windows. But most of all, I just didn’t consider Minnesota to be “home” anymore. 

Then, in May, protests hit the streets of Minneapolis over the police murder of George Floyd. At that point, the burning building analogy took on a rather more literal sense. Like many leftists, I cheered when protestors torched the Third Precinct, which has long been a stronghold for some of Minneapolis’ worst cops—in just a decade, it has paid out over $2 million in settlements for abusing local residents. But as the fires grew, so did my sense of guilt. The Cup Foods where the cops choked the life out of Floyd was just a few blocks from my old house, where my sister now lives. Helicopter surveillance and gunshots were a nightly occurrence for weeks. When we spoke on the phone, I heard the fear and exhaustion in my sister’s voice—and understood deep in my gut that, even if I no longer felt at home in Minnesota, it will be “home” as long as my people live there. 

This got me thinking: what is home, anyway? Well, it’s where the heart is. Or where the cat is, or the coffee, or the wine. Home: there’s no place like it. Home is not just a house, but a house can be a home (though not when she goes away). Home is where we’re headed. Home is going back, sometimes, and other times home is built anew. Home is sweet Chicago, home is on the range. Home is whenever I’m with you. Home is a whole bunch of other things too, depending on who’s talking about it, but the general consensus seems to be that home is good and desirable in any case. 

We need a more tangible definition of home if this story is going to make any sense, though. There must be some binding agent that can congeal all these amorphous concepts together into a digestible mindcookie. To that end, let me suggest that “home” is in essence just a nice warm feeling of being at peace. It’s a mental state we all crave, even if we’ve never known it before. A desire for home seems (gulp) hardwired into our very nature as humans.

I am sure that someone has said this before in much more elegant and eloquent language. There is, probably, a long illustrious lineage of home-centric literature, and I would like to acknowledge both its existence and the fact that I haven’t read any of it. My only excuse is pandemic-induced lethargy, though if you said I needed to mount a better defense or risk cancellation I would cite Barbara Ehrenreich’s observation that our thoughts are “thoroughly colonized by the thoughts of others through language, culture, and mutual expectations.” If you want to say something new and interesting about home, shouldn’t you avoid importing more colonists?

But I’m getting off track. We’re supposed to be talking about home here. Home, that ephemeral sensation of safety and everything-being-all-right-ness. Home, the thing that feels further away than ever right now. The year 2020 can kiss a goat’s asshole for a great number of reasons, but the most unsettling thing about recent events is how they’ve threatened every conception of home we have in one fell, endlessly stupid swoop. Whatever we take refuge in—people, buildings, places, ideas, identities—it all feels like it could be lost in an instant. 

Homes are disappearing in such astonishing numbers, and in such grievously multitudinous ways, that horror seems the only sane response. In the United States alone, cruel men with guns and documents stand ready to remove 40 million human beings from the places where they eat, shit, cry, dream, and wash themselves. Millions of pictures will be taken off walls as millions of garbage bags are stuffed with whatever will fit. The bags will be carried or dragged—who knows where—by people who leave behind stains, dried tears, small objects that slip out from the holes torn by hastily stowed books or forks. The rows of empty homes will loom like tombstones until the market dictates otherwise. 

“Empty houses,” you might say, since it’s the people within those walls and windows that give a given structure its homelike qualities. But those people are being lost as well. As I write this in early October, over 215,000 mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, grandmas, grandpas, cousins, mentors, lovers, and friends have perished from the pandemic in the United States alone (and of course the United States is not alone, much as some might wish otherwise). 

Where do we find refuge to process all this grief and loss? Not in the once-peaceful forests, where millions of acres are ablaze from demonic wildfires that blot out the sun. Not by the seaside, where wave after wave of fierce storms batter the land until it is unrecognizable. Certainly not in the streets of our cities, where the police execute people without warning in a hail of bullets. The museums, theaters, bars, parks, and restaurants where we felt like we fit—our second homes—are either gone, or ghostly. Nowhere feels safe. Media outlets like the National Interest that pride themselves on their “realism” are running ominous screeds on the possibility of a Second Civil War

Maybe this all sounds a bit melodramatic. Things are bad, to be sure. But life is going on, at least for most of us, to some extent. Unless you live on the West Coast, the sky is not on fire and the air is likely quite breathable. If you’re not near the Gulf of Mexico, you’re in little danger of being drowned by a tidal wave or hit by a flying street sign. There’s a good chance that you don’t even have a personal connection to anyone with COVID—according to an August poll from Axios-Ipsos, only 50 percent of Americans know someone who’s contracted the virus. That same month, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 91.6 percent of the country’s “labor force” was still employed. Around 280 million Americans aren’t at immediate risk of being evicted. Sports are back (kind of), school is in session (to some extent), and it turns out the asteroid that might hit Earth on Election Day is only six and a half feet wide (it’s almost certain to miss, anyway).

So why does it still feel like we’re fucked? Why do we sense—even if we, personally, are “oh fine, considering the circumstances”—that home is about to slip beyond our reach forever? Why is the nice warm feeling so elusive right now? 

The men outside the Portuguese bar are stomping on their cigarette butts. Some head back inside, others to their cars—it’s getting late, and presumably they have work in the morning. I watch the man in the red cap give one of his departing friends a hug. I can’t hear what he says (even if I could, I wouldn’t understand much), but it’s clear that he is expressing some form of love. I’m a little surprised to notice how much sadness, jealousy, and rage this gesture arouses in me.

My reaction is both irrational and mean. I don’t immediately recognize it as such, of course. Instead, my brain starts whirring with excuses. The man is wearing a red cap—the unofficial headwear of monsters and fascists. Never mind that MAGA isn’t a thing in the mountains of Andorra, or that I know for a fact those letters aren’t emblazoned on his cap because on multiple occasions I’ve bummed a light from him and his friends, the friends he’s hugging (no masks, bad social distancing!) and chatting with right now. The friends whose physical presence he’s enjoying while I have only my cats for company. The man in the red cap waves and shouts tchau as his buddy drives off in a small white work truck. Fuck ‘em.

Without anyone to look at or listen to, I’m alone with my thoughts. For me, this has been the worst part of the pandemic. It seems to be a common problem, as a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that 41 percent of American adults are now anxious, depressed, or some foul brew of both. What is there to think about that isn’t bad? Trying to picture any kind of future seems absurd right now—the daydreams that used to provide an escape from the present moment have lost most of their appeal. I’m sure this isn’t the case for everyone: some people can still get excited about the prospect of landing their dream job, buying a new house, having a kid, whatever. I am happy for them, I think.

But my mind is on the past, and the paths that we take without realizing what we’ve done. How we make hundreds and thousands of seemingly insignificant choices that close the doors to different homes. I remember a conversation with a Korean ESL academy recruiter at a job fair many years ago. The feeling of breathing underwater for the first time. Waking up one morning to discover I’d been robbed. Watching my parents get older on a screen from thousands of miles away. Packing the things on my desk into a little cardboard box, just like in the movies, and tearing up the letter from my boss. Drinking a little glass of champagne before getting on an airplane. Reading an email that promised to change everything, forever. Ignoring a phone call from a friend. Getting the “one big break” I’d been waiting for, leaping at the opportunity, failing in quiet and unspectacular fashion.

The more I think about the decisions that have led me further and further away from home, the more disgusted I become. Because no matter how scared or alone I might be, there are many millions of others who have it much, much worse. It’s unsettling to feel, at once, so sad and yet so lucky. 

Worried about making rent in the coming months? At least you’re tossing and turning all night in a real bed, under a real roof. Your level of precarity would be a hard-to-fathom luxury for many. “I’m sick of that rock-bottom feeling, where you don’t know where your next move is going to be,” a homeless man named Dennis Barrow told the Minneapolis Star Tribune upon being driven from the park where he’d pitched his tent, after getting kicked out of the hotel that had been his temporary refuge during the pandemic. “We have nowhere left to go.” Cutting back on “non-essential” groceries to stretch your savings? A bag of beans and pasta would be a godsend for people like Sheila Ritter and her family. As she said to CNBC, “Most of our conversations are, ‘When are we getting something else to eat?’ and ‘Mom, I’m hungry.’” So lonesome for a kind human touch you cry unprovoked at odd times of day? Some types of longing are more bittersweet than others. When the Washington Post asked nursing home resident Cary Johnston how it felt to be locked in the same facility with her husband while being unable to see him because he required special care, this is how she answered: 

“He is in a golden prison, and so am I. I know he is not going to live forever. Neither am I. But I don’t want to lose him this way.”

I mention these examples not as some tedious exercise in “counting your blessings,” but as an illustration of the sheer scope of suffering that we as a people are experiencing. Our rational brains can’t begin to comprehend it. The numbers, even the pictures, have lost what little impact they once had. But we can sense that happiness and comfort are being drained from our world. We are realizing, maybe for the first time in our lives, that we could be next. Against our will, we are being forced to acknowledge the pain of others. As we watch them lose their homes it starts to become clear that we are losing something as well.

Home, in whatever form it takes, is usually understood to be an intensely personal thing. Maybe the most personal thing, in fact—a home has to belong to someone in order for it to be a home. An apartment isn’t a home unless there are people who live in it. A father’s hug doesn’t feel like home unless there’s a son to feel comforted by it. The scents of lilacs and pine trees aren’t a reminder of home unless there’s a person to smell them and remember.

All these things conjure the nice warm feeling of home. But they don’t exist in a vacuum. Like human beings ourselves, they draw their meaning from a web of marvelously intricate connections. Our sense of home depends on others being secure in their sense of home—if you feel at home when sitting in a coffee shop with a friend, that good feeling depends (to varying degrees) on your friend’s ability to make rent, the barista’s relationship with their parents, and all the people at all the tables around you being relaxed enough with the circumstances of their lives to generate the background chatter without which the place would feel empty and lifeless. Home, then, is a collective thing as well; our homes depend on the homes of others. And as those homes vanish, we experience a curious sort of homesickness. The feeling is flavored with empathy and dread, resentment and hope. We want—no, we need—things to be OK for others. We know that the people around us must have homes. But what about us?  What about the things we ourselves have lost?

This is the dark side of our collective homesickness. On an intellectual level, maybe we know that another person’s gain is not necessarily our loss. If the Portuguese man in the red cap gets to be with his friends again, it doesn’t follow that this somehow prevents me from being with my friends. I know I should be happy for his happiness. In some sense I am. Still, I can’t stop worrying that the world’s supply of miracles has run so low that there are none left for me. 

The Portuguese bar is closed the next morning when I go out to buy bread. I peek through the window as I walk past, taking stock of the knickknacks on the walls. There are brightly colored football scarves, trophies from a long-forgotten darts tournament, a notice for this year’s Christmas lottery, some advertisements for an amateur singer’s CD that look like they were made with Publisher 97. A cozy, homey vibe.

The bar is a stark contrast with my own apartment, where the bare walls are marked by solitary nails and scars of ripped plaster. All my knickknacks—wooden figurines of cats that remind me of my own, Greek Orthodox icons I don’t really believe in anymore but are so pretty I keep them around anyway, jars of seashells from a trip to a long ago beach—are stuffed into plastic bags piled in the corner of a cramped room. How things came to be this way is a tedious and embarrassing story. I only mention it because it’s a neat (if a bit on-the-nose) illustration of how jealousy now colors the way we think about home. 

Here, I’m not talking about being envious of Nancy Pelosi and her $24,000 refrigerators stuffed with ice cream that costs $13 a pint, or Chris Cuomo’s cavernous living room into which he tearfully emerged after a period of self-imposed isolation in his equally cavernous basement. Jealousy of the ultra-rich has always had a kind of “no shit” quality that makes it uninteresting to talk about (which might explain why millionaire comedian Ricky Gervais attempted to corner that particular market by ranting about celebrities who live “in a mansion with a swimming pool”). Yes, their opulence is grotesque; yes, their hoardings should be seized and redistributed; yes, they are the monstrous product of a racist imperial cisheteronormative patriarchal capitalist regime in its death spiral etcetera, etcetera. It’s true, all true. But it also kind of feels beside the point. If you’re an adult, you don’t even bother dreaming about that idea of home anymore. Not seriously, anyway.

Illustration by Ellen Burch

The kind of home-jealousy I’m talking about is much smaller and more mundane. It hits when you’re on a video call with a friend and you notice they have a nice bookshelf with some lovely plants on it. Or maybe even before that, when they suggest doing the call and you have to remind them you don’t have internet at home, and data is expensive. The jealousy can hit when you see a picture of your sibling with their partner and kids—how nice would it be to have hugs whenever you need them? You can feel this kind of jealousy from the mere knowledge that someone, somewhere is picking apples or going swimming or petting a dog. This isn’t the just jealousy of the poor toward the wealthy, or the precarious toward the stable. It’s the jealousy of you toward anyone and everyone who has some form of comfort that you yourself do not. 

It’s odd to think that the people you’re jealous of are, in all likelihood, jealous of you too. Your sibling would probably love a moment of solitude at this point. Your friend with the nice bookshelf might be longing for a day that goes by without violence in the streets outside their window. For literally anything you can imagine doing, having, or experiencing, there is an enormous number of people for whom your little nothing would be an extravagant treat. 

This jealousy is silly, or at least misplaced. It’s the expression not of a real grievance against a particular person, but of a general sense of loss at the hands of monstrous unseen powers. Our ideas of home are being taken from us. As they slip away, we lash out with impotent sadness at anything that reminds us of the happiness that was once ours. Such a reaction might not be logical. But it is understandable.

Being alive in this version of the world feels so unstable. Does home even exist anymore? Is there anywhere we can run (our parents’ house, an idyllic rural town, maybe New Zealand) where we can feel safe? Can we press our faces to the necks of our loved ones and be calm, knowing what lurks out there in the world? Are we ever going to feel the nice warm feeling the way we did before?

If there’s a bright side to all our newfound insecurity about home—dear god, there must be—it’s the tenderness that always accompanies pain. Maybe if we aren’t driven mad by our own longing we can finally understand, in a visceral way, the longing in the hearts of everyone who goes without peace or comfort or acceptance. We might come to see them as ourselves (they are us, we cannot be separated from each other). All homes rely on the survival of other homes. I hope yours will endure; I hope you wish the same for me.  

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