Life in the Body

On Houses and Homes

Is there a difference between the two?

My impression in reading on the subject and talking to people over the years is that most of us sense intuitively, if only at a superficial level, that the two are not entirely interchangeable. We speak, for example, of things that ‘make a house a home.’

I don’t think I’m overstating the case when I say that we have culturally shifted almost entirely toward placing our living spaces on the ‘house’ side of the spectrum. This shift has not been entirely the fault of us house-dwellers, but has been encouraged by our economic system (and the many abuses perpetrated through it).

What do I mean? I mean, at least, that as the value of our money has been manipulated gradually toward zero, and as we traded a traditional family- and neighbor-based culture for a two-working-parents and state-raised-children society, we worked ourselves right out of the ability to reasonably afford housing.

Regardless of the degree to which we have virtualized ourselves, we remain embodied creatures and we must have a place to live. So the unaffordable house problem quickly became a nasty catch-22 enigma. Can’t afford to live in it, can’t live without it.

The financial industry has been there all along to help solve that dilemma through the magic of credit (merely a flattering synonym for slavery). We found we could still live in our houses – with increasingly invasive building regulation in the US requiring more and more expensive and increasingly identical structures – as long as we were willing to meet a lifelong payment of a substantial portion of our (two-income) wages.

Of course, credit from financiers (read: thin air) would not only finance homes and land, but many businesses and public works, along with the bulk of the trading on the stock market. And this became the basis for incredible wealth transfer over the course of the twentieth century in the West. The guys at the helm had (and still have) the power to make money cheap or expensive, and by alternating the two, expanding and contracting the available supply, and calling in massive amounts of loans at opportune times, they have been able to simultaneously inflate away the paper wealth most of us rely upon while appropriating our hard assets for themselves, often re-selling them at a fraction of the purchase price.

Those at the helm get away with this nonsense again and again because each new generation has been growing up unwise to their game, and all sorts of economic theory has been developed to shroud in mystery what the man behind the curtain is really up to.

What does this have to do with houses and homes?

The connection is this. Because of the slave-relationship we have with our houses, and because of the arbitrary way in which we may lose (and many have lost) all we’ve ‘put into them’, so to speak, we cannot hold as tightly to houses as permanent homes any longer, and that loss of confidence is a significant part of our general reluctance to invest in a single geographic place any longer. Just as our communities seem to be less and less embodied (and more virtual), our houses seem to become less and less our homes.

This change is most visible, I think, for those of us who have lost a home or who have known someone who lost a home in the recent (and ongoing) ‘crisis’.

We are all aware that many thousands of people who never ought to have qualified were given credit to purchase homes beyond their means, and of course they couldn’t help but lose those homes under any circumstances. But a by-product of the dangerous game being played by mortgage lenders and other financiers was the more general ‘bubble’ phenomenon, which, having ‘burst’ years ago, is still causing people to lose homes which were over-valued at the time of purchase, though, under the circumstances, nevertheless quite affordable (you know, back when those people still had jobs).

Having known someone who recently lost their house, I’ve been around to see the place become an empty shell in their absence. The garden stops being tended and returns to a more (less?) ‘natural’ state; many things, even relatively valuable items, are sold for pennies on the dollar; nearby neighbors and their relations, thought to be close friends (or at least distant friends), who would never have considered buying the place from the previous owner at a reasonable price in order to help and serve them, descend as vultures, finally unmasked, asking friends and relatives to try to find out ‘who it’s going back to’, hoping to take advantage of local connections and circumvent the putative public unveiling of the foreclosure sale.

The house couldn’t have been considered a home; if not by those living in it, certainly not by those living all around it. It’s a commodity; another item on the block; a victim of circumstance; ‘sad, but there’s nothing to be done for it’, nor for them – that is, the former inhabitants. Who has asked what happened to them? Who cared? Will they be missed? Or is their departure just an inevitable fact of life – and a golden business opportunity for those left behind to squabble over?

Are we more interested in taking advantage of our own neighbors’ misfortune than in helping them to remain our neighbors? To the degree that this attitude describes us, we have lost a sense of what it means to have a home, and especially what it means for others to have a home. We have almost no sense of place anymore, imagining ourselves and our acquaintances as cogs in the machine, able to be plugged in, shifted around, and retro-fitted by the Great Maintainers at a moment’s notice. Cogs are not made for homes; but people are.

Is There a Place For Us?

Any recovery of community, of embodied life, is going to necessarily involve a recovery of the sense of place, and this means a return to the deep-rooted, long-steeped, loved-in-spite-of-its-warts notion of home. If our slave-masters in finance aren’t going to assist us, we’re going to have to develop some unconventional methods for recovering a sense of home in these houses, where we and our neighbors live.

Community doesn’t happen by itself. Atmospheres like Tolkein’s idyllic Shire do not coalesce in a vacuum, opening welcoming arms to us in a sort of waking daydream as we turn an unexpected corner in the world. Places are made, and we make them. And place-making turns out to be, like marriage, a lot of work.

But it’s nice work, if you can get it.

Is it possible for us to re-think our own place and the people in it? Communities are built by servants, not by vultures or victims. What is worth more to us – our neighbor’s living presence, his warmth, his company, his peculiar mode of decorating and landscaping, or his odds and ends? Do we want to live as interchangeable machine parts, or will we recognize that relationships are all one-of-a-kind, an irreducible and irreplaceable element of what it means to be human? Have we become so isolated and virtualized that physical place no longer matters to us as long as we’re connected to the uplink lifeline?

Let’s start trying answers to these questions in the form of real involvement with our places and the people in them. To be human is to be emplaced, and to be displaced, as so many of us are no matter where we go, is to lose a vital part of ourselves in a poor exchange for less responsibility. Look for a way to enhance your place – and I mean your in the plural – this week. Invest. Become a part. Commit to it with those around you, and help each other through compassion, service, and responsible living to stay, to stay (really) connected, and to make it a place – a home – worth living in.

You will be more human, and you will be more happy.