On a nearby street, a sticker on a VW camper van announces that “home is where you park it”. I have always liked this minimalist slogan, even though it does seem impossibly idealistic for most of us: no need for grand mansions or loft apartments to feel at home, all you need is a little van and the few possessions it can accommodate.
Of course having a home to which we can retreat and be ourselves is important. But from another perspective, looking for a feeling of home in a VW van or a country cottage may suggest we’re looking in the wrong place. Perhaps even more important is creating a homely environment within ourselves. If our minds are ill at ease, no physical location can ever provide the peacefulness we desire.
Inevitably, life is turbulent and induces agitation – break-ups, heartbreaks, bad news. When the storms of negative emotion seem to take over, we often seek refuge in a place where we can escape from the problems and feel safe and comfortable. Often that is what home means to people. But that sense of security is more a state of mind than a place.
Choosing familiar and comforting surroundings can certainly help. But rather than relying entirely on our environment, we could learn to soothe ourselves. The more fortunate of us will have done this at an early age, while others will have to start from scratch. It’s about being able to stay with our emotions even when they’re not pleasant, giving ourselves support when things are hard, and above all developing kindness and compassion towards ourselves. That way we can provide our own comfort, finding some kind of home within.
Marcus Aurelius thought people mistaken in trying to get away from it all by going to the country, the beach or the mountains, and that the best way is to go within oneself. It would be good if we could all agree with him: “Nowhere you can go is more peaceful,” he wrote, “than your own soul.”
In my first few weeks at university I horrified a new-found friend by saying I was “going home”, referring to my halls of residence. Like many, she was at that stage a little homesick, and the sterile institutional halls were the very antithesis of the home she missed.
In some sense, home has always been somewhat portable for me. But at the same time it took about 20 years of adult life before I lived in a house and a city that felt like a home with anything like the warmth of where I had been raised.
So home has in one sense easily followed me around, but in others it has remained elusive. I don’t think there is a paradox here. In fact, the two feelings are closely related. The deepest sense of home is one of belonging, a sometimes hard-to-pin-down feeling that you are in exactly the right place for you, be it a building, town or even a work environment. Often that feeling is provided by the people you share this idea of home with, whether that comes from the intimacy of a close relationship or simply the sense that you are among people like yourself.
This can be especially hard to find for the peripatetic, the people who are most capable of calling wherever they lay their hats home. Because they can fit in anywhere, they don’t feel they deeply belong anywhere.
This is often the curse of the expat, who never becomes a full member of the society she moves to but who also feels uprooted from the culture she has come from. But it can also be felt by the small-town boy who embraces the big city, or the townie who moves to the country.
This may well represent a real loss, but it is one that need not be regretted. If the price of a certain liberty and spreading out in the world is less of a sense of belonging, for many that price is worth paying. There are those for whom it is better to be moving and rootless than static and routeless.
The Shrink & The Sage live together in southwest England