The Lost Stitch, The Loosened Tile: Akiko Busch on the Ambiguities of Home
“I remember the feel of these rooms much more than I even remember the people in them.”
Some years ago, I wrote a collection of essays called Geography of Home. I was interested then in our public and private lives, our memories of and aspirations toward home, and how our ideas about domestic space reflect our thoughts about society, culture, the natural environment. And how we search out comfort, privacy, security.
The collection of short prose pieces here follows up on some of these ideas, though these look instead to the ambiguities that can be generated by ideas of home. They are more likely to read as leaflets on the uncertainties of domestic life; on ideas of placement and displacement; on the frailty and tenacity of human memory; on the beauty of use and uselessness alike; and how we do—and don’t—find our place in the world. Which is to say, if these short pieces are about being settled, they are also about being unsettled.
The distractions, missteps, miscalculations we experience at home can move us to identify discontents. And a sense of displacement can define something real. It seemed odd to me that while this realm of experience, sometimes even the abiding value of this realm of experience, may appear in fiction, memoirs, biographies, and poetry, it is addressed less often in the archives of design writing.
Still, it is common to human considerations of the material world—in the deliberate imperfection in Navajo weaving that serves as the spirit path for the weaver; in the cracked bowl of the Japanese potter reflecting the wabi-sabi belief that nothing lasts, everything changes, nothing is perfect; in the misplaced patch of color in an Islamic rug, a reminder that human beings always fall short; in the flaw of an Amish quilt that is intended to reflect humility.
But wait! That last one is a myth, I learned. Someone made it up! A lie!
Such errors, and errors about errors, are crucial to the way we live; they are all part of the way we find meaning in experience. Places come alive for us in myriad ways, as in the angle of sunlight falling through the window, say, or in the way a beat-up kitchen table conveys a sense of sufficiency. But rooms come to life in other ways as well: a desk next to a cold window in winter; an immovable piece of furniture; a decal on a child’s window; the danger inherent in an electric fan or in a pressure cooker; a fireplace that has been boarded up and appears to be useless.
How we remember places, rooms, and the things in them may be as flawed as the way we remember anything else, but such defective memories have meaning too. I am interested in such breaks in pattern, the missing thread, the lost stitch, the loosened tile, the splinter in the floorboard, the lie of the quilt, and the possible grace that might be offered by such small flaws and inadequacies.
Not long ago, my husband and I arrived home to find a message from our neighbor tacked on the door: “Hey—Half-grown black bear in our yard. Friday, about 6:00 pm. Headed in your direction —Tillman.” The bear never showed up, but I was so taken with this note that I framed it and hung it on the doorframe where it remains today. In part, it was the sense of anticipation it generated; just seeing it every time I came home had me imagining that a black bear might stroll into the yard at any moment. But as the months passed, I came to realize it was more than that. The place we live is at the edge of the woods at the bottom of a mountain, and in less than twenty words, the little memo reminds me several times a day of all the things headed in our direction that I will never see and never know.
It was a late summer afternoon and we were on a boat, this woman and I. She had just finished renovating her house and was telling me about the granite countertops, the beadboard cabinetry, the Italian tiles in the kitchen. It was clear she had a good eye for design and had made her decisions about furnishings and layout carefully. She told me decisively that she would never have a television in the bedroom, that this could destroy a marriage. At the time, I thought I understood what she meant and was surprised six months later to hear that she and her husband had filed for divorce. I think back to this conversation and wonder, did she honestly believe that a TV in the bedroom could kill a relationship? Or did she already anticipate the coming break and see it everywhere, imagining it even in the arrangement of an appliance, a piece of furniture. I realize now it was one of those brief exchanges in which you have no idea what was actually being said, the words and ideas as tenuous as the small boat bobbing along the afternoon whitecaps as it heads toward the dock.
The Winter Desk
In the way that some people have lawn furniture or a summer house, I have a winter desk. It is situated near the window in a small upstairs bedroom, and I use it in the cold months when I feel housebound. My son built the desk in days when things were up in the air with him, the circumstances of his life vague and undecided, and when building material objects offered a visceral satisfaction. He made it out of black walnut, but its honeyed grains seem warmer than that, and when the snow weighs down the branches of the white pine just outside the window, the liquid patterns of the wood surface speak to the certainty of an eventual thaw. Which means it is a good place to work. Especially when the thin January light filters through the ice crystals on the panes of glass and onto the fluid graphics of the wood grain, I think of what I would like to tell my son, which is that it is possible for things to be still and to move at the same time.
My friend and I are sitting across from each other in the museum café. We have just looked at an exhibition of paintings by the British artist John Constable, clouds and trees and rolling fields of the English countryside. “The sound of water escaping from mill-dams, willows, old rotten planks, slimy posts, and brickwork, I love such things,” he said once.
My friend and I have known each other for more than forty-five years, and we are telling each other stories. We are talking about the paintings, our lives, books, people we know. And she says to me that she awoke that morning thinking about three houses: a house where she was once a caretaker; a friend’s house in Massachusetts; and the house in which she lived in Vermont for three years with her husband to whom she is no longer married.
I don’t know why it is that I remember these rooms so well, she tells me. But I remember them viscerally, physically. I remember how it felt to stand at the sink running the water, or to pull open the drawer of a desk, or the angle of the sunlight as it fell across the kitchen floor in the house in Vermont. I remember the feel of these rooms much more than I even remember the people in them. I can just recall their faces, but it is the rooms that I remember with the most detail.
And I suggest to her that it is possibly because remembering the people associated with those rooms may be so difficult. A friend who is no longer a friend, a lover with whom intimacy has passed. And she says, Maybe that’s it. But I’m not sure it is. I think I remember those places, she says, because they are the rooms that are forbidden to me now. I know these rooms continue to exist, but I will never be in them again.
And this is something that perplexes me. We spend our time and money trying to make the places in which we live accommodating, open, and gracious. We desire the rooms we live in to be hospitable and human, and we do what we can to make them so. But in the end, it may be those that remain forbidden to us that we remember most clearly, the ones from which we are exiled that may fasten themselves most tenaciously to our memory and imagination.
What’s called the “home advantage” is a phenomenon well-known in sports: teams playing on the home field—or court or rink—come to the game with a built-in lead. Whether it has to do with sleeping in their own beds, eating their own food in their own kitchens, or having the support of their fans in the bleachers, athletes seem to benefit from the supposed comforts of home.
The thing about this, though, is that it is a myth. Sports statisticians have found that playing at home is not always the boost it is assumed to be. In fact, athletes in different sports respond to the home advantage differently. While scores suggest that basketball players have an innate appreciation for home-stadium games, football and baseball players are less receptive to this presumed benefit. Of even greater interest is the fact that in critical games—that is, those games that determine season championships—athletes often falter when playing at home.
I wonder about this. Maybe if I could figure out why basketball players value the home advantage more than baseball players, or why athletes so often fumble in decisive contests at home, I would understand something more about the fine points of home advantage. What I suspect, though, is that home advantage can turn to disadvantage in the blink of an eye, and that the doubts cast around the idea of home advantage simply reflect the wider ambivalence so many of us have about this idea of home. Because just as surely as home can be a place of comfort, familiarity, and refuge, a place where our deepest social bonds are forged, at other times it can just as certainly be a place of divisiveness, anxiety, and uncertainty, a place where those same bonds can be stretched, diluted, and frayed beyond recognition.
From Everything Else is Bric-a-Brac: Notes on Home by Akiko Busch, published by Princeton Architectural Press, reprinted with permission from the publisher.