Friday, 8 January 2010

House on the hill ~ an early education in what makes a place 'home'

I've been interested in housing from an early age.  I used to watch Dad as he worked on rebuilding our family home bit by bit.  He had already built one home and the renovation of our place was to continue over many years.

I became accustomed to thinking about room size, proportions, orientation to the sun, and spatial arrangement generally.  I was fascinated by how building plans could show the basis of what was to come later.  I also became interested in what materials were used and how, their durability.  I loved to watch Dad as he exerted his strength and skill to build the structures which had first taken shape in his mind.  He was not easily satisfied with his own efforts or those of others.  Sometimes I was permitted to help but mostly I just watched, taking in the way his body moved as he swung the hammer, or the rhythmic smoothness with which he planed a length of timber, the sensitivity with which his big strong beautifully shaped hands caressed surfaces, searching out alignment or imperfections.  I became accustomed to considering how things worked and whether maintenance would be straightforward or awkward.  I learnt the need for regular and timely maintenance as well as cleaning which keeps things in good working order.

Dad had a keen sense of aesthetics which made him careful with design, proportions and finishes.  He liked large windows to maximise the view and interesting ceiling lines for a sense of space and airiness; he favoured the light uncluttered lines and tones characteristic of Swedish design and as a result that house was certainly gracious if rather chilly. Dad wasn't susceptible to cold whereas I am.  In hindsight the addition of some Swedish thinking about insulation could have made a difference, but for what it was it was unarguably an attractive and unusual house!  I learnt from my father's mistakes as well as his successes.  It was a great education. 

When looking at homes now I notice all these things. I am also rapidly aware of whether a place functions in a healthy way or not as I've always been sensitive to settings and affected by noise and atmosphere, so for me to feel comfortable in a place it has to be harmonious and satisfying in a wide variety of ways.  

Our home was set on a large tree-clad hillside property, and as the years passed the gentle wilderness of the garden which I had always loved became even more of an influence than the house; it became a retreat from a household of teenage tensions as well as a creative outlet.  Contact with nature provided nurture.  Both were vital, however, and my interest in the twin subjects of house and garden is firmly intertwined in my sense of what constitutes home.  

The Maori people have a special word for the place where we belong: it is turangawaiwai (pronounced 'too-rung-ah-wye-wye), which means place of standing.  It is the place not only where we feel that sense of belonging, but also where others know we belong.  It may include the surrounding land and landmarks as well as the nearest body of water such as a river, beach or bay.

My sense of belonging certainly included both the hill on which our home stood and the vast bay of the Pacific which it overlooked. In a way that might seem odd it also included the sky, which from that place seemed more vast than anywhere else I know, touching the edge of outer space as well as the distant horizons.  The prospect of the nearby hills, the village below, and nearer still the leafy groves of our own garden anchored me in the landscape and provided the balance of human scale.  That was the place in the world where I knew I belonged, how I oriented myself, where I felt safe.  If everyone had such a sense of place how very different the world would be.

My life changed dramatically when I left home as a young adult and some years later that property was sold. I lost this anchor and have yet to find another such place, or indeed any sense of having my own place of standing.  I feel dislocated, not in an everyday sense, but at a deeper level.

I have often dreamt of being back there, but in these dreams I am usually an interloper.  In other dreams I do belong there but other people are there who shouldn't be. In others I decide to buy it back, and when I've woken up I've seriously considered it, but even if I could it would be fruitless - that property and the surrounding landscape is different now and would not suit me at all.  The resulting undercurrent in me is one of unease and reflects the deeply troubling concern of where I belong, a vexed questions which remains unanswered.  My only solace lies in recognising that for the time my family owned that place it does still belong to me; for that portion of history it is my home and that remains unchanged.  All the same, I'd like have another such place to call my own to live in - now!  The search continues, but it would seem that like True Love it is not there simply for the plucking, but must come in its own time...


Simon said...

I have had similar experiences. There is a tremendous longing in us as people to belong, to go home, to take root in one place. And yet one place after another is moved out of, is sold, is re-developed, is taken over by others. Nothing is permanent! The only conclusion I can draw is that we do indeed have a home, but it is not of this world. C S Lewis was really on to something in "The Last Battle": Jewel the Unicorn (I think) said "the reason I loved the old Narnia so much was because it sometimes looked something like this!".

Leigh said...

Simon, that is very nearly an exact quote - not that this surprises me coming from you! It was indeed Jewel. The quote is nearly at the end of chapter 15. Fiction often gives us the opportunity to explore some very unlikely ideas, and CS Lewis certainly presented a wonderful array of them. Without having any practical basis for it I feel reasonably sure there are other worlds which are echoes of this one. Perhaps in this one we have the opportunity to work out some less pleasant things which wouldn't be possible in the others. Be that as it may, I do try to honour each place I live in as if it is the ideal, which is why I put so much into the gardens I've had charge of. It makes them beautiful for a time, and I do love the land. Hopefully something of this registers in the ground for the long term.