I spent a lot of time explaining to my wonderful high school students how a word’s connotation differs from its literal meaning. The most ready example is “What do you think of when you hear the word home? How is a ‘home’ different from a ‘house’?”
Well, they said, home is where you feel comfortable. And safe. And loved.
Some people spend their whole lives looking for home.
Plenty of research is out there to tell you how your home or office space impacts your physical and mental health. Obviously, it should not have mold in the walls. Tripping over vagrants on your way up the stairs tends to be dirty and depressing, as is finding any human waste or remains on the threshhold. (According to a friend who rented a cheap apartment in New Jersey).
Plants green up a space and make it come alive. Blue light should be avoided to save your eyes and neural pathways. Feng shui is a whole pseudoscience explaining how things should be arranged in each quarter using the five elements of Chinese medicine — metal, earth, fire, water, and wood — to maximize the chi of your space.
Even government office workers who have nearly blended into the dreary walls after years of loyal service post pictures of their kids and lhasa apsos around their desks to make them feel more at home.
But what about the psychology of the built environment?
I first started thinking hard about this (as opposed to daydreaming casually) when I first saw the film Life As A House starring Kevin Kline and Hayden Christensen before he turned to the dark side and became Darth Vader. It became my favorite new movie almost no one has seen.
A couple of moments in this film let you know that the “house” is a metaphor for something bigger. Just consider the process of building a structure. First you have to tear down what’s already there. It’s hard work. It might even be sad, to take down something someone spent years investing their time and money in, especially if it was your time and your money. It is extremely difficult to reduce to ashes something that feels so familiar but isn’t doing its job anymore.
This condemned place is your soul. It’s a haunted house. It is filled with a lifetime of ideas and beliefs that may not suit the person you are today. It is a rigid structure. The walls are composed of past experiences, relationships, and all the things that make up your perception of life. It leaves a lot of floating dust and a pile of rubble when it comes crashing down. Then you realize, once the dust clears, that you can see the sky and feel the breeze in your hair.
Before you do anything else, you lay the new foundation. This step is very important. It must be a good, solid foundation on stable ground. You don’t want to build on an earthquake fault line, sinkhole, or wetland because the foundation will crack. It might not be today. It might not be tomorrow. But it will happen.
Once the foundation has been laid, the new framework can go up. The frame is composed of your main support beams, load bearing walls, and roof trusses. The job of these things is to make sure the building is sturdy so that it will not collapse or blow over in a strong wind. The frame is made up of your strengths, the valuable construction lessons you have learned, and your will to put the wisdom gained to practical use.
The outside of the house can be wood or concrete or shingles or brick. It can be big or small, linear or curvy, ornate or minimalist. It can even be pink. The outside is the face you show the world. It might be a reflection of you, or it might not. The facade of your building is there to insulate you from weather, noise, and whatever else lurks outside.
Now comes the fun part. You have a lot of clean, empty space to work with. It is up to you if the inside of your house is dressed to impress, or if it makes you feel like yourself. You can fill it with appliances and sculptures. Vintage furniture and photographs may grace your building. You can fill it with friends, with anger, with passion, or with solitude. You can begin to haunt your own building all over again.
The thing is, it can be the most stunning estate with a view of the sea and million-dollar paintings lining the walls, but it might never be home. I’m sure Mary Engelbreit meant the very best with her infamous “Bloom where you are planted” quote, what with her chair of bowlies and optimistic skipping flower children.
But sometimes people just tell you to “Bloom where you’re planted” like its one of the Ten Commandments. And then you feel guilty, like a sinner. Because you don’t know how. What they don’t tell you is you have to experience all the grief and loss and sweat and tears before you have room to bloom. Lightning strikes the tower; the house burns to the ground. Or you tear it down yourself, brick by brick. Only then can you build yourself a life.