Constructions of identity in home constructions
Just North of Cornwall, in the middle of a farmer’s field, there lays a 1965 Bluebird Yellow School bus. The bus isn’t abandoned. In fact, it has one occupant: the affectionately dubbed “Crazy Dave.”
While writing his major research essay to complete his MA at the University of Ottawa, Dave suffered one of his many bipolar-related nervous breakdowns. Although going through a serious stage of crisis is not necessarily a unique experience, his solution was: to take refuge in an isolated and rural location, year-round. Dave has inhabited the bus for nearly 10 years and seems happy as a clam about it. He expresses nothing but contentment for his decision to get back to nature—to get away from the anxieties of downtown Ottawa—and to live a minimalist, eco-friendly life (the details of how he managed such can be found here).
The “Crazy” in his name comes from a group of Ottawa chefs who use his veggies and greens in their restaurants, but is it earned? Is he crazy merely because he has found his perfect niche in a humble and meagre dwelling? Compared to us, with our compulsion to fill our homes with lavish and luxury-masked-as-necessity products, maybe he’s doing just fine.
In fact, maybe Dave has got it right. Okay, his extreme barebones lifestyle is a little wild, but perhaps far more understandable and justified an action than one may initially assume. After all, he didn’t go all Onassis and recreate “Grey Gardens” in his home (the family mansion was overrun with years’ worth of garbage, junk, and neighbourhood cats/raccoons). The Onassises—like most subjects on episodes of TLC’s “Hoarders”—defined themselves by their home and hid from the world within it.
Dave, however, doesn’t. His space (however particular and peculiar) does not contain him, nor do his possessions mask his sense of self. And even though it is difficult to relate directly to Dave’s experience, it doesn’t take much of a mental stretch to understand where he is coming from.
We all, sometimes, yearn to get back to the basics.
I recently shared in putting this notion into action (though on a much smaller scale) while on a trip through Vancouver Island. I spent the night in a Free Spirit Sphere: a nut-like room suspended in the trees. The sphere is minimally equipped, though impressively constructed and comfortably outfitted with the necessities. It’s amazing how you realize how little you actually need to survive (or even thrive) when you are in a confined space. And yet, it didn’t feel confined at all; pot windows allow you a birds’ eye view (literally), and you are granted the joys of swaying with the breeze, cradled by the branches. The creator (whose spheres have accrued much worldwide attention, having been featured in National Geographic, among other publications) was adamant that these basic, eco-friendly spheres could be the homes of the future, solving such problems as overpopulation and pollution.
So if all we need is a little nut in the sky—or a bus in a field—why do we feel the need to externalize our identities and immerse ourselves in material representations?
One might furnish their space in a modern minimalist theme with all the latest state-of-the-art appliances to project the identity of a savvy, sleek, and successful business person. Another might create a shabby/chic antique home complete with Moroccan throw-rugs and tribal-inspired wooden carvings—probably created in countries they’ve never been to—to exude cultural flair. Another might fill their home with ironic/iconic vintage pieces like 1950s Coca Cola novelty salt-and-pepper shakers and retro record players. Whatever the design, whatever collections we amass or identities we try to shape, we must ask ourselves why we nest this way.
Maybe it’s an expression of self—reflecting our personal tastes—or maybe it’s a reflection of how the images we consume tell us a proper home should appear. Are we satisfying our own interests or merely appealing to others’ perceptions of us?
But even more interesting than why we fill our homes with stuff is how we then build emotional attachments to our homes and its contents. Material attachments have nothing to do with objects at all, but indeed connect us to the memories and idealizations that one possesses in relation to the objects. Often we associate these things with moments in time, people, feelings, or even a lifestyle. Though inanimate, the objects start to take on a sort of personified role in our lives. We attach ourselves to them so completely that they begin to define us and we no longer contextually define them. Objects in our homes can and do serve a function, but excessive attachment to these objects can be unhealthy. Materials alone don’t make our houses homes: we do.
However, we are constantly bombarded with messages—either through pervasive marketing campaigns or subtle advertising plugs—and easily forget this. Often we fall victim to the perils of equating the purchasing of commercial goods, with owning an identity. We paint our homes and selves a slightly varied pigment of beige (“tusk-ivory,” “egg-shell white,”, sandy-path beige”) because we are told this is appealing. Aim, instead, to create a space that reflects your unique preferences as an individual, whether that means filling your home with personally-selected material goods or ridding it of them. However, recognize the setting for what it is: merely a morphing representation of identity, not a construction of it. Allow your space to evolve along with you, but never let it define the terms of your evolution.
The reason they say “you can never go home” is simple: we can’t. We are constantly changing and so are our perceptions of and relations to the conscious world around us. As such, home is an ever-adapting word: we change, and thus so too do our definitions. Allow yourself spontaneous home (and self) evolutions. Whether you take a page from Perfectly Sane and Reasonable Dave and his 1965 Bluebird School Bus, live in a tree-fort, or cherish Swedish-made bamboo products with names you cannot pronounce is up to you. Home can be as basic as where the people you love reside or where you have materialized your self-expression through possession. Home can be as simple as wherever you are in the world, or even just a feeling you get in the pit of your stomach. Home is a state of mind: acknowledging this is the first step to making any house a home.