When did “home” become embedded in human consciousness? Is our sense of home instinctive? Are we denning animals or nest builders, or are we, at root, nomadic? For much of the earliest history of our species, home may have been nothing more than a small fire and the light it cast on a few familiar faces, surrounded perhaps by the ancient city-mounds of termites. But whatever else home is—and however it entered our consciousness—it’s a way of organizing space in our minds. Home is home, and everything else is not-home. That’s the way the world is constructed.
Not that you can’t feel “at home” in other places. But there’s a big psychological difference between feeling at home and being home. Feeling at home on the Tiwi Islands or in Bangalore or Vancouver (if you are not native) is simply a way of saying that the not-home-ness of those places has diminished since you first arrived. Some people, as they move through their lives, rediscover home again and again. Some people never find another after once leaving home. And, of course, some people never leave the one home they’ve always known. In America, we don’t know quite what to say about those people.
Homesick children know how sharp the boundary between home and not-home can be because they suffer from the difference, as if it were a psychological thermocline. I know because I was one of them. I felt a deep kinship almost everywhere in the small Iowa town I grew up in. But spending the night away from home, at a sleepover with friends, made every street, every house seem alien. And yet there was no rejoicing when I got back home in the morning. Home was as usual. That was the point—home is a place so profoundly familiar you don’t even have to notice it. It’s everywhere else that takes noticing.
In humans, the idea of home almost completely displaces the idea of habitat. It’s easy to grasp the fact that a vireo’s nest is not the same as her habitat and that her habitat is her true home. The nest is a temporary annual site for breeding, useful only as long as there are young to raise. But we are such generalists—able to live in so many places—that “habitat,” when applied to humans, is nearly always a metaphor. To say, “My home is my habitat” is true and untrue at the same time.
Yet our psychological habitat is shaped by what you might call the magnetic property of home, the way it aligns everything around us. Perhaps you remember a moment, coming home from a trip, when the house you call home looked, for a moment, like just another house on a street full of houses. For a fraction of a second, you could see your home as a stranger might see it. But then the illusion faded and your house became home again. That, I think, is one of the most basic meanings of home—a place we can never see with a stranger’s eyes for more than a moment.
And there’s something more. When my father died, my brothers and sisters and I went back to his house, where he’d lived alone. It wasn’t only his absence we felt. It was as though something had vanished from every object in the house. They had, in fact, become merely objects. The person whose heart and mind could bind them into a single thing—a home—had gone.