Breaking and Coming Together: a Personal Restructuring of the Spatiality of Homecoming

Johanna Philipson, 2021

I’m in India, on a journey that’s taken a sudden halt, when I first stumble upon the words of indian theorist and critic Kaiwan Mehta. On the wall of an art exhibition at Jawahar Kala Kendra, in Jaipur, a quote from his text The Sanity of Habitation reads: 

The home is often imagined as a space of familiarity, while the world outside is a collection of strangers. The home is not a unit in a planner’s logbook or a realtor’s dream book, but the niche of sanity you hope to carve out in a landscape of incomprehensibility and a crowd of strangers.[1]

Coming to India is a homecoming effort in itself. I’ve come for four months, with only one month, which is now behind me, planned. I’ve travelled for longer periods like this before, but always with a more coherent idea of what it is I want to find. Always with some vague hope that I might stumble upon something that resembles the feeling of home. This time, it’s like the effort is opposite. I’ve lived in Gothenburg for over a year, and feeling as though I’ve exhausted my options, as if no place in the city is alive anymore, I’ve reached a point where I feel as though I have to break my life open. I have to get away, if only in hopes of being able to come back to a living, breathing home again. 

I wonder if my want of a home of my own is juvenile, unattainable and illusory. What is this yearning for a home? Is there a place where we are finally “there” and what is this need for breaking free, when finally settling somewhere?

A friend of mine studying architecture tells me the earliest human dwellings are simple shelters made for temporary protection. Using walls and a roof, the shelter creates an inside space that is protected from the forces of the outside world: sun, rain and wind. The imagery of the shelter reflects the idea that the home is something separated from its surroundings, just as Mehta’s quote proposes. As we shelter ourselves, we portion off a space, making it an inside, contrasting an outer world. This boundary, temporary as it may be, differentiates between outer and inner, making the home its own space, not just part of a larger mass. It is because the home is demarcated and limited, that the space becomes overseeable and possible to know and map fully, in contrast to the outside world.

Eleni Ieremia, ”Vessels”, 2020

When the “home” is understood as something beyond the confines of a particular building, or dwelling place, the imagery of these very first shelters become an interesting symbol of boundedness (as well as separation of the inner and the outer) that seems to be at play in both Mehta’s description of home and in other popular conceptions of home. The image offered by these early dwellings of a sheltered, inner and bounded home seems to offer yet another function that becomes central to the purpose of Mehta’s “home”: a possibility to return to the same place. The consistency offered by the shelter, as well as Mehta’s imagined home, offers a continuity to the lives being played out in and around the home.

Despite the fact that changing cultural and socioeconomic conditions speak against it, the general idea that there are places for us to go for shelter and things for us to buy that we can build them with, seem to remain integral parts of our structuring and understanding of the world around us. The image of the home keeps offering us an idea of stability, endurance and safety that seems to become more and more unattainable materially. In Mehta’s full piece, he describes habitation as “a geography of ‘insides”. While very few of these insides are known to us, we believe we know them from the few of them we occasionally enter. The reality of the homes that make up civilization, then, is largely unchartered territory and just as incomprehensible as the “outside”, and yet, what Mehta calls the “imagined home” seems to be the very locus of our feeling of familiarity and safety. 

If the inner, sheltered and bounded home is unattainable physically, why does the imagery of this home prevail? In other words: insane. This space seems to have as much to do with survival as does the physical one. The question of home is not one of comfort but of something more acute: the emotional, psychological and existential yearning for a potential homecoming. At the centre of the quest for a home, Mehta seems to argue, is no more than a hope, to carve out a mere niche, not of comfort, belonging or even safety, but sanity

Whether we view Mehta’s imagined homes as relationships with others, places or even states of inner emotional stability, they all seem to give us the same sense of continuity as the physical shelter. In psychology’s attachment theory, the secure attachment is described as the possibility to trust that one’s attachment person will be there if needed, thus serving as a secure starting point, in order to explore and interact with one’s surroundings. In experiments, children with a secure attachment not only have a more stable relation to their attachment person, but show more interest toward the world around them. Thus, because one trusts this base is secure and enduring, one dares to venture out into the world and trust that whatever one finds, one can bring back, and that whenever one tires or encounters risk, one can return and find safety. In this way, the home offers a promise of return. This in turn, gives promise of something that is perhaps even more crucial to us: continuity and coherence.

If the home is a place of protection, I would argue that the function of Mehta’s imagined home is, unlike the shelter, no longer to protect us from the physical dangers of the outside world, but rather emotional and existential dangers. The innerness offered by the home – that is in fact as much outside and part of the unknown and uncontrollable world as any space – : the feeling of not belonging, of uncertainty and essentially, of not being able to comprehend it fully. The imagined, consistent home, saves us from losing continuity and stability: in one’s identity, one’s selfhood and the point of navigation one hopes to be able to come back to. In other words, losing one’s mind, or sanity. The home is, at the very least imagined as, a coherent place of unbrokenness, gathered and protected from chaos. The home is a place of rest, not only physical but mental. A place to put down the impressions one carries of the “outside”, consider them in peace, and structure them into a coherent mass.

In her mythical classic [2], Jungian psychoanalyst and ethnologist Clarissa Pinkola Estés seems to offer a contrasting imagery of coming to and maintaining a home. Throughout her work, Pinkola Estés uses ancient myth to come close to the workings of what she calls the “instinctual psyche”. In one of these myths, she tells us of La Loba, a woman deemed crazy by society for her habit of gathering bones. The bone, according to Pinkola Estés, is a symbol of the core of our soul life, what remains even after our bodies wilt, the indestructible essence of our being. To gather bones, then, is to search for our essence. From these bones, we flesh out our bodies.

Just as Mehta seems to mean that carving out a place for oneself is essential to remain sane, so does Pinkola Estés claim that finding our sanity, putting the pieces of ourselves back together, is a matter of spatiality. The goal of finding the remnants of our essence is to assemble a body. For Pinkola Estés, the body is a symbol for wholeness, of one’s psyche and true self coming together. But what is the body, if not the very inner, sheltered space that allows us to exist? Interestingly, then, this coming together not only completes a form, but opens up a space.

Both Pinkola Estés’ andMehta’s descriptions of home thus seem to be about sanity, a sense of mental, emotional and existential wholeness. The sanity maintained by Mehta’s home, as stated earlier, can be interpreted as being about maintaining coherence and resisting discontinuity and chaos; maintaining wholeness, within a controlled, inner space, and resisting the brokenness of being cast out in a chaotic world. According to Pinkola Estés, the breaking is not the end of us, but rather essential to our coming together and where most of us begin. The breaking has happened, however it happened, and we are only to go forward from here.

Our job, then, is not to search for whole places, nor to bound ourselves off in order to create a whole space within. Rather, we move toward chaos, toward the crowded, broken and incomprehensible. The places we are looking for in order to come home may not be the ones that make sense, or are coherent with an inner stream of identity, but the ones where shards of truth lie hidden. From these shards, and from this scattering, we are given the opportunity to flesh out a body. From our scatteredness, and incoherence, connections can be made. Bodies can take shape.

One interpretation of Pinkola Estés’ myth is that the body is created by putting these broken bones back together, as pieces of a puzzle. A more interesting and fitting interpretation, I find, is that the scattering of our bones offers a playing field, where we are not meant to put the pieces back as we found them. Rather, it is how we move between these pieces of ourselves – these scattered niches of sanity – that become our body; the thing that we can live inside, our home.

Eleni Ieremia, ”Vessels”, 2020

Perhaps then, the chaotic and incomprehensible world that threatens the wholeness and coherence of our homeness and selfhood is what makes possible the experience of our full selves. The search for our bones is experimental and accidental: we make a move because we have to and necessarily find that something breaks and scatters, and make our next move from there. The way we keep scattering across our lives is a space within itself, a field within which the fragments of sanity become nodes, between which there can be tensions, contradictory forces and a texture made of points of potential connection. In this way, our broken lives, the fragments of our lost and scattered points of navigation, become spaceholders for a larger movement that allows us to experience ourselves fully.

Carving out a space for oneself in the world might be a process made possible by the interplay between wholeness and brokenness. Whether we begin whole or not, the breaking is necessary for the coming together. This also entails an interplay between the dangers of the incomprehensible outside and the sheltered insides, spaces that – just as the earliest housing – can only be temporary. The finding of niches of wholeness and sanity, of bones, is part of this journey as much as the breaking anew. It guides us towards ever new slivers of recognition and hopes for a homecoming, and keeps expanding our body across the incomprehensible landscape we move through.

[1] Mehta, Kaiwan . The Sanity of Habitation. Pix. 2014-09-10. (Accessed 2021-08-10).

[2] Pinkola Estés, Clarissa. Women Who Run With the Wolves: Contacting the Power of the Wild Woman. London: Ebury Press, 2008.