By Jim Miller
Where we live is who we are. Surely, the country, state, city, and neighborhoods we occupy profoundly shape us, but does not the house craft our being in the most intimate of ways?
Gaston Bachelard observes in The Poetics of Space, “For our house is our corner of the world. As has often been said, it is our first universe, a real cosmos in every sense of the word.”
Hence, the kind of space we choose to live in has a particularly profound impact on our identity. Bachelard again notes, “Thus the dream house must possess every virtue. However spacious, it must also be a cottage, a dove-cote, a nest, a chrysalis. Intimacy needs the heart of a nest.”
I grew up in bland, alienating suburban ranch houses in San Diego and Los Angeles, and when I left home, I vowed to never live in that kind of space again. Granted, by today’s exurban standards, the neighborhoods that I grew up in seem positively antique and as the relentless march of standardization continues, the houses of my childhood have perversely gained a kind of retroactive authenticity. But my futile quest for some kind of real, lived connection with history in ahistorical Southern California has persisted and led me to warrens of rooms festooned with picture molding, carved fireplace mantles, built-in bookcases, and creaky stairwells.
Thus I have kept my pledge and, for better or worse, chosen to live in old houses in urban neighborhoods with at least a century under their roofs, scarred by history, haunted by the ghosts of scores of previous occupants whose stories I can only imagine.
So in my rented 1906 flat of 13 years in Bankers Hill and my present lodging in a Golden Hill Craftsman, I have slept, paced, read, and eaten in spaces that were once a non-profit’s cubicles, Christian Science reading rooms, apartments, a doctor’s office, and maids’ quarters. My son has grown up playing on worn hardwood floors enjoyed by residents long dead. My wife has cooked in kitchens that have hosted meals for dozens of lost souls and others who are simply somewhere else. What happened to them, where are they now? It is a rich mystery of our daily lives.
And as a renter, I know that our stories, too, will someday in the near future be the anonymous traces in someone else’s life.
Something about the traces of lives past is both deeply comforting and an invitation to imagination. This is because, according to Bachelard:
[T]he house shelters daydreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace. Thought and experience are not the only things that sanction human values. The values that belong to daydreaming mark humanity in its depths. Daydreaming even has a privilege of auto valorization. It derives direct pleasure from its own being. Therefore, the places in which we have experienced daydreaming reconstitute themselves in a new daydream, and it is because our memories of former dwelling-places are relived as daydreams that these dwelling-places of the past remain in us for all time.
And, as I have lived in these old spaces long enough, I share them not just with the lost histories of unnamed others but also with my own past selves. The boy who now eats at the table in the kitchen is not the boy of five years ago, the couple making love on the chaise lounge in the study are not the same two lovers of a decade past.
We die and are reborn every day in this space and our memories of those past selves are deeply intertwined with the space we live in and have lived in before.
Even the generic spaces of the ranch houses of my youth are tied to the wonder of childhood—the room with the yellow carpet and popcorn ceiling transformed by the Christmas tree, the shelves in the hallway where I hid my precious things, the plate glass window that looked out at the yard that seemed an endless forest at night, the musty smell of the garage, and the secret place in the walk-in closet.
Despite my jaded aversion, these intimate memories are the home of my childhood. My first house that looked out into a canyon of infinite adventure.
As Bachelard notes:
the house is one of the greatest powers of integration for the thoughts, memories and dreams of mankind. The binding principle in this integration is the daydream. Past, present and future give the house different dynamisms, which often interfere, at times opposing, at others, stimulating one another. In the life of a man, the house thrusts aside contingencies, its councils of continuity are unceasing. Without it, man would be a dispersed being. It maintains him through the storms of the heavens and through those of life. It is body and soul. It is the human being’s first world. Before he is “cast into the world,” as claimed by certain hasty metaphysics, man is laid in the cradle of the house. And always, in our daydreams, the house is a large cradle. A concrete metaphysics cannot neglect this fact, this simple fact, all the more, since this fact is a value, an important value, to which we return in our daydreaming. Being is already a value. Life begins well, it begins enclosed, protected, all warm in the bosom of the house.
The house is where we live and daydream. We occupy the space of home and all of our various homes come to occupy us. We carry them with us as long as we are breathing, being, and dreaming.