There's no place like home if you're homeless


FOR THE past few days, for some reason, something has been forcing me to think about home. I don't just mean home in the everyday sense, but the idea of home, as the place in which, as a human, one does one's living and being.

It's strange the things that get you thinking like this. What started me off was coming back from the west after Christmas to a flooded house. A pipe had burst in the attic and the water had streamed down into the house for several hours before a passing neighbour heard the noise and raised the alarm.

I got a phone call in the west and arrived on Friday to find the house saturated. Walking in the door was like what I imagine it might be like to have to go and identify a body. The ceilings were ripped and sodden, the carpets saturated, many of my records and tapes damaged beyond repair and hundreds of books fast turning into organic matter.

It's funny how your mind works in situations like this. On the way I found myself focusing on two items, one a book about the artist Jimmie Durham, which I'd been given as a Christmas present, the other an antique melodeon which I'd bought as a present for myself, just three weeks before Christmas. If these two things were all right, I decided, it would be OK. The book was one of the first I spotted it was utterly destroyed. The melodeon looked all right but when I picked it up it began to disintegrate in my hands.

Now, for the first time in my life, I am homeless. I have friends who are good enough to put me up, but that is not the point. I am without a home.

Though we tend to make our homes in houses, a house is not a home. Nor is the home the sum of the things in the house where you live. Rather it is the sum of the meanings which the house, its contents, memories, colours, smells and sounds has created in the mind. Home is where you hang your hat i.e. your head. You cannot live in your head but you can recreate your head in the external reality where you live and if this is successful the place will "become you" more and more.

To have this taken away is quite devastating. Already I have detached myself from the objects which I've lost even the melodeon with which I was in love but the grief represented by the loss of their meaning is a pain I must live with.

I wave goodbye to them as things, just as I wave goodbye to my house for a time, but know I must learn to live without their meaning as best I can. And I must live in hope of being able to recreate the sacred space of home.

ALL true homes are in some sense a recreation of the first. As you go in and out of peoples' houses, it is impossible not to notice that the happiest people and families are those who have surrounded themselves, almost unconsciously, with an iconography of home. My own home in Dublin had many signs of such a recreation. The things which came to mean most in that new place had roots deep into my childhood and before.

Some time ago, I noticed that a road enveloped in trees, just a short distance from the house, was hugely reminiscent of a place I used to go to on holidays as a boy. My idea of home contains within it the precise shade of light under these trees at a special time in the evening, just after rain. Such things are not accidents, I believe, but the result of a constant searching for that original home.

In exile and I think of myself as an exile in Dublin this longing becomes accentuated and the successful evolution of a new identity depends greatly on the confidence with which it is recreated out of the old. This of course is the meaning of identity and the reason why a fully realised identity is so important at both the personal and societal levels. Only those who are unquestioningly secure in their identities by virtue of never having it challenged can afford the luxury of saying it that identity is unimportant.

Because we live in an economistic world, we don't think much about the meaning of home. We think of buildings, real estate, property, things, but we tend to assumes at a public affairs level at least that such things, by virtue of being things are tradable, negotiable, replaceable and, above all, buyable.

There is an assumption that one can make a home wherever market conditions demand where the work is, where the services are best or where lots of other people have chosen to live. Accompanying this is the assumption that one begins the process of reinvention with a blank sheet, having discarded all the iconography of the past.

These assumptions breed and conceal vast amounts of grief and anger in our modern world, most acutely in the vast conurbations of our large towns and cities, where human life in increasingly truncated and privatised. Displacement to one individual or family is traumatic enough displacement of entire societies at the mercy of ideologies of modernity and market is a recipe for collective disaster.

Such ideologies value most the idea of movement to new places, new things, new jobs, and have in built viruses which attack any notions of particularity as sentimental, insular or backward. No matter where you find yourself, the whispering ideology tells you that the crack is better someplace else. Without such thought viruses, the modern market could not function.

AND YET, if we look at the enormous and escalating social problems of what we describe as "modern" Ireland, and think seriously about any one of these problems, either in its public or personal manifestation, we have great difficulty in arguing with the proposition that it is the result of the loss of home.

The problem of homelessness in Ireland goes much deeper than the statistics of the obvious social problem bearing that name, extending to crime, poverty, unemployment, addiction, violence and abuse. Instead of looking below the surface, we seek to analyse such things in terms which will not require that we question the fundamentals of what we call modernity, because to do so might persuade us to turn back along that road.

This touches, too, on emigration. Those of us who have been lucky enough to be able to remain at home in Ireland have a tendency to talk airily and casually about those who have not, evaluating their lives and experiences purely in material and economic terms.

They have gone, we tell ourselves, to broaden their horizons, make their fortunes, sow their wild oats. We speak out of the assumption that all of these things will occur in addition to all existing benefits. We forget that in order to step out into the world they must forfeit their homes and identities and will have to fight long and hard to recreate themselves elsewhere.

There will, of course, be those voices to dismiss this thinking as sentimental, insular, anti market, anti modern. But I am not against modernity or the market any more than I am against water. Water is one of the essentials of life, but I prefer to have a minimum of it in my shoes.