A few years back when I worked in tech support, a coworker came to my desk to discuss a project. When she came over and looked at my desk, she paused. She really looked at it, and commented on how I had adorned it (plants, a jar of colored pencils, maps, an illustration of birds’ eggs, a mercury glass skull on a cake plate, etc.), remarked how nice it was. I was flattered, not least because of her sincerity: she meant it, nice. It evoked some pleasant feeling in her to sit at my desk and look at the environment I had created, and I realized in that moment what it means to create comfort. I realized that comfort is something we create for ourselves.
I moved a lot when I was a kid. I mean, a lot. When I was 29, I tallied all the places I’d lived up to that point, and, counting spots we crashed when we were homeless for a few months, it was 29. I’d lived in as many different places as I’d spent years on this earth. My rate has slowed as I’ve gotten older, so that now, at 49, I’ve only lived in 36 places. I think it’s probably a good thing that my rate of movement has decreased, overall, and it’s mainly been for the sake of my kids because I thought it might be better for them to experience more stability than I’d had. While my mom couldn’t teach me about stability, she did teach me that home, and therefore comfort, was a condition you create around yourself, independent of location. She had funny stories about moving to the commune on Orcas Island (where she would ultimately meet my father) and how people helped her carry her many, many boxes of things and pieces of furniture over uneven ground through the woods to the place where she would build a house. And though people complained mightily about carrying all that stuff (especially when they discovered one box was full of rocks), after all was said and done, her house was the place everyone gathered. She had created home, she brought it with her.
When I was a child, I knew we were home when the Napoleon Cigar tin sign and the wooden hanging monkey went up in the kitchen. They were the visual cues that told me I could find comfort in that place, because my mom was intentionally creating it. Those humble and peculiar objects hung in every kitchen of my childhood, and since my mom died, they’ve hung in every kitchen of mine, as well; I expect that they represent home in some way for my own children now. I do understand the human attachment to place; there are places I’m attached to despite being only tenuously connected, but I most often see how entrenched people become in one place, how stuck. Home becomes a default location, one created by inertia rather than intention, and comfort will never be found there because no one has put it there.
This urge I have to create intentional space carries over into my artwork by way of installations, into my home in the form of de facto altars and vignettes of objects arranged “just so,” and especially into my cubicle at work where it felt like a survival mechanism to manifest my little bubble of comfort. Since I spent most of my waking hours in that cubicle, it was arguably the most important place to create home, if at all possible. If I were truly skillful, I wouldn’t need any material cues to remind me that, like the turtle, I carry home with me. But I do enjoy my adornments, and when the world feels ugly I appreciate the respite I’ve made with my pretty little tableaux. I always know, however, that home and comfort can only really be generated from within, and any pretty bauble can easily turn into a stone around your neck if things get tricky (which they inevitably do). “Home is where the heart is” is certainly a cliche turn of phrase, but it doesn’t just mean that home is where the people and things you love are. Rather, it means that home lives within you, you are its source, and that place of comfort issues forth from you to wrap you in its/your own embrace.
“Voici mon secret. Il est très simple: on ne voit bien qu’avec le cœur.
L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.”
(Here is my secret. It is very simple: one cannot see clearly but with the heart.
What is essential is invisible to the eye.)
Antoine de Saint Exupery