Hold, if you will, one word in mind. Hearth.
Hearth is a nest-word. It holds within its nest many other words. Hearth, h-e-a-r-t-h, contains ‘heat’, h-e-a-t, and ‘earth’, ‘art’, ‘eat’, ‘hear’, as well as ‘he’, ‘her’, ‘are’ and ‘tea’ (thankfully.) And it holds too the word ‘heart’. The hearth is where the heart is earthed.
For me, in terms of language, the word hearth is a thesaurus of home. But the home, the actual home, is a thesaurus of itself. A thousand things in your home or mine each speak the word ‘home’. One of the few things I have from my grandparents is a sage green mug, Denby stoneware, which my grandmother used in her life-long addiction to tea and scrabble. If I hold that mug in my hand it spells ‘home’ to me and scores everything on the board. Two decades apart, two different people have carved wooden spoons for me: these, too, say ‘home’. So does my house-key, long, large and simple, it is truly a key: a code-breaking word for home.
My household holds many people; my ex-partner who made a clothes drying rack out of four brooms and hung it from the ceiling by the woodstove; several artist friends whose work speaks of them. Each book in my house is a nest sheltering its author and possibly also the person who gave it to me. My bed, which I handpainted with ivy up the bed legs and a magic tree whose branches hold glasses of wine, pineapples, chocolate and, yes, cups of tea, is home. Home is two cupped hands making a nest: a mug, a book, a bed, a shelter – a Llan in Welsh, now usually used to mean ‘church’ but originally a shelter, an enclosed and protective place.
Related to the word ‘home’ you find the Old Norse heimr; dwelling, village, both home and world. And in a sense one’s home is a world. It contains the world writ small: the elements are there, with fire in a hearth or a candle, air in the windows, water in the bathroom, earth in a garden or windowbox or indoor plants. The related terms, Old Frisian hem and Lithuanian kaims, both mean home and village.
A home is a small village. The bathroom cabinet, with first aid and pills, is a cottage hospital. A herb garden is a cottage apothecary shop. In hospitality, every home can be a cottage inn, a cottage pub; a bookshelf is a cottage library; with the mantelpiece a cottage shrine; a littling world, but a whole one.
A household is hand-made, which is why interior-designered homes, machine-made, never feel homely. The homescape is homeshaped, turned by hand like slow carpentry, joinery enjoining person to place. It is crafted, rubbed by hand, in cleaning and making; it has the tactile texture of wood, paper and earth. Hewn from the world, it is selved into uniqueness. Delving through my novels to lend the right ones to a friend in want of books; delving out dandelions in the garden to give the grass a chance, I am hewing my own being-at-home. Home language has this hand-made quality – family nicknames for people and pets, or for the wheelbarrow, the shed, a favourite jug. Snug language, made to the measure of this home. Singular.
Our homes are so singular and intimate they smell of us. The warm smell of sleep on the pillowcase; the orange-scented shampoo in the bathroom steam. When I was a child, I loved sniffing other people’s houses – puppy-like, I’d check out the one which smelt of pepper and so made me think of the Cook in Alice in Wonderland; the house which smelt of sandalwood and made me think of the Beatles. One of cat-pee. One of cakes. One of stale smoke and one of lavender.
I was curious about people’s houses, and did a paper round on Sunday mornings when I was about twelve; one day, I rolled up a thick copy of the News of the World, and shoved it like a lever in a letterbox and stared in until stentorian voice from the garden behind me said Can I Help You, Young Lady? It was an awkward moment.
Our homes are confidants of our rituals, wishes, secrets and hopes. They are as intimate, informal, and as singular as thou and thee; the intimate, informal and singular ‘you’.
Home expresses thee: it is thou, distilled.
Thy innerness is outered.
Thy interior self exteriorised.
Every home is, as it were, inside out, which is why it really is okay to talk to yourself at home, expressing in the outer air your inner mind.
It is familiar to you, where you know and are known. Home is an abode, where you bide (possibly with a ‘bidie-in’ as that lovely Scottish term has it; a cohabitant, a partner.) And to abide, to live with, connotes love, as language suggests more strongly in the converse: ‘I cannot abide so-and-so, or such-and-such.’ I loathe, and cannot live with or dwell by.
Something odd happens on the way in to someone’s home. Look from the outside, each home is ordinary-sized, but step through the door and enter within, and it grows into a heroic portrait of that person, the patron, the Master or Mistress of Ceremonies. Your home is your castle. You can be at odds with the world, here. Your voice is heard.
Your taste is the gold standard. One person’s taste is not another’s – the grotesque kitsch of one person’s knick-knacks another person cannot abide and yet and yet and yet… each home-tender, the person who tends their home, each home-tender is making their home a considered place, giving to it their attention, their thought.
For me, the language of home is Old English, its artist is Beuys, in wax and felt; its poet is Neruda and its philosopher Gaston Bachelard. In my kitchen there is a little bench by the window-sill where guests often sit, and I always hope they will look upwards because if they do (and only if they do) they will see my favourite quote from Bachelard. ‘The house shelters day-dreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace.’
Bachelard writes of an ideal of home, as I do here. It is ideal. It is also utterly ordinary; the precious ordinary.
Salt. Candle. Seed. Shelf. Loaf.
It is the place of your treasures, for those things which are favoured – chairs, rugs, coats. Our ‘stuff’ in that lovely, humble word. We feel we belong among our belongings. But with caution. For possessions can take possession, possessing us. ‘You can’t have everything,’ someone once said: ‘You can’t have everything. Where would you put it?’
The hoarding of unwantable stuff, the ceaseless buying of more, a house made suffocating; many of us know that condition to which William Morris spoke so precisely and wisely: ‘Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.’
Because hoarding makes you stumble as you walk through your home; it catches your ankles – this thing needs fixing, that needs washing, that needs to be hung up. Stuff, hoarded, stops you in your tracks, it is a stagnant sump where there should be flow.
Because part of what makes home comfortable is fluency – the flow of movement and the flow of fluent thought and speech where you don’t feel silenced and stopped.
If I ruled the world, by the way, I would ban coasters. They stop the flow. The real flow. All those years of requiring yourself, your family, your bidie-in, your guests, to make half a million awkward gestures, to interrupt half a million anecdotes, to fluff the punchline of half a million jokes, to foul up free easefulness – for that? For a tabletop? Let it go. Something beautiful will happen inside you – a generosity of hearth more lovely than the world’s most expensive table.
Because that is how a home is made – by usage – the rounded edges, the worn-down carpet, the kitchen table softened and moulded by years of elbows, plates, movements, the signature of use. This is what it means to be cosy, that lovely onomatopoeic word.
Home is a place of freedom, where you do not need permission, where you can feel unselfconscious. It is a place of freedom within the bounds set by the arithmetic of those who share it with you. Home is a place for one’s friends – one’s freely chosen companions – and ‘friend’, by the way, is related to Old English freo, free. Conversely, the word ‘family’ is related to the idea of slave, the unfree.
The home is a foundation, where your life is founded, and where you are to be found, unlost – seen, revealed and known. Here, one belongs. Home is where our tales are brought back to; what happened at school, at work, out in the world. Home is a core audience. Here is where we tell things first and where they may be most certainly heard. Here is certainty, assurance and reassurance. Home – Old English ham – is related to the Sanskrit word ksema, which has been translated as ‘the place your soul calls home.’ The meanings of ksema include: dwelling, habitable place, ease and safety. The refuge, in other words. The home is the unsunderable place, which is why, after a burglary, victims feel most keenly not the value of things lost, but the violation of their refuge.
And this is part of the reason why domestic abuse (and not just between couples) is so peculiarly vicious, because it breaks the spell of safety, splits apart the idea of refuge, poisons cosiness, jars all sense of ease and uses intimacy as a weapon. And when you dread going home – for the lightning striking gash of danger you fear there, then you are, in your soul, homeless.
So important is dwelling to the human being that, as Heidegger found, delving into language, the German verb ‘bauen’ meaning ‘to dwell’ is related to the word ‘to be’, so, as he wrote: ‘To be a human being… means to dwell.’ Housing, homing, is even more than a human right – a human having – it is part of what it means to be a human being. And this is why the cruelty of homelessness is so sharp, denying the human spirit part of what it needs to truly be, by truly dwelling.There is absolute homelessness, street sleepers, but there is also relative homelessness; someone sleeping on a friend’s sofa for months, or young people forced to live with their parents till they’re in their thirties, simply because they cannot afford a home. Short-term lets and insecure tenancies are also forms of relative homelessness.
Because permanence is one of the most important aspects of home. The home houses time. It shelters yesterday, today and tomorrow. It is where you have lived and will live. It retells your past; it treasures your present; it consoles your future. It holds time, precious and warm, close in its hands. It presses time and the juice of it – the wine of time – steeps each room. An intimate history, an enfolded present, an entrusted future.
Home is made in layers; a personal geology; strata laid by fifteen Christmasses, layers of summer afternoons gardening. Layers of stains – a wide-flung glass of wine dancing Lochaiyem (To Life!) stains my wall, happily. Home is witness.
Home is the site of time turning and returning, the eternal return of the turning year, a sweet, specific calendar of snowdrop to daffodil to rose, of birdnesting and fledgeling flights, of the sunslant in June and the hoarfrost in January.
You inhabit the home through habits, repeated actions, the heft of again and again, as time turns around the clock of you. Home is the place of returning, where you return and your friends return: where your road starts from and where it leads back to.
Jorge Luis Borges wrote of Ulysses’ homecoming:
‘They say Ulysses, wearied of wonders,
wept with love on seeing Ithaca,
humble and green.’
And where is Ithaca? Whose is it? There is truly not one Ithaca but rather a myriad of Ithacas, each one intimate, informal and singular: my Ithaca and thy Ithaca, and thine and thine and thine and thine and thine.