Infinite Pursuit of Home
What is home? What makes a house, home?
At some point, you will have to look for a place to live. At some point, when you are going to college, when you are starting a new job, when you are moving away from your hometown, when you just need to get out of where you are to be somewhere you need to be, wherever it is, you will have to look for a place to live.
As you look for places to live, you will have to go through some objective factors: can I afford it (most of the time, the answer is no, and I say that from personal experience because it seems to be a universal rule that average people paychecks do not follow the real estate market rates)? If I can afford it, is it a good place (another sensitive balance to reach)? If I can afford it and it is a good place, is it practical to live here?
And it goes on and on and on.
Other questions will take place once you settle in: neighbors, stores close by, loud noises at night, etcetera, etcetera.
But there is one question that may or may not appears in your mind as a question, may or may not present to you in a definitive way, but it is a question that is always there because it is part of who we are as humans:
is this the space that I am going to make a home of?
Is this apartment, this countryside house, this ranch, whatever it is, the space that I am going to make myself fit as a whole?
This question is not only a question of space, as a physical reality, but it is a question of space as time — past, present, and future, altogether.
Past, because we have an idea of what home is from memory — my mom making coffee, my grandmother making toasted bread with butter, my father lying on the couch Sunday midafternoon. We have an idea of what a home is from memory — a bed with cartoon sheets, a small black and white tv, a garage that could be, if you were creative enough, a battlefield, an aircraft, a soccer field, a store, a house itself.
Home is a space, but space is not one thing only — for nothing is simply one thing¹.
Present, as who we are right now.
Future, as who we want to be.
What is makes a house, home?
What is home when your whole world, all of the sudden, sums up to the place that you live in — when there is no outside?
“For nothing was simply one thing”
At the age of 22, I went on a search for a place to live. It was not a step of success, nor it was a magical moment. I had just lost my mother, got a job in another city — São Paulo — , and needed to move away from where I was, living with friends from college, to be on my own, in my own place.
What it would be like?
What it would be like to have a place of my own, where I would spend most of my hours off work, where I would have my bed, my fridge, my couch, my tv, my sink (full of dirty dishes), my books, nothing but me and my stuff?
Is that what home is?
After my mother’s passing, I went back to my hometown for a couple of weeks. I slept in my old bedroom. I took a shower in the bathroom with little fishes painted on the wall. But it was not the same anymore, and it would never be the same again.
This small city that I was born in, called Boituva (from Tupi, many snakes), seemed pretty much like it always did. There were few new stores, but it was, essentially, the same place I knew since I was a kid. When I walked around, I recognized everything. I recognized the route I used to take every day to go to school. I recognized the church downtown. I recognized the fast-food trailer close to my mom’s house.
I knew that space like I know myself. That space, however, had more in it than its physical attributes. I didn’t belong there anymore.
I’ve outgrown it. Or it has outgrown me.
So every time I went back to my mom’s house, I was not coming back home. I was just getting inside this house where my mother lived until she passed away. I was just getting in this place with walls, a roof, furniture, beds, TVs, a bathroom, everything a house needs to have to be a house.
The absence of my mother took from that space its biggest quality.
When I visited some apartments in São Paulo, I didn’t know what I was looking for. I would go inside, look around, think how I could live there, what it would be like, think about the neighborhood, about transport, about safety, about a future I didn’t know anything about.
I would go through every objective item from my mental checklist to get to a conclusion. That’s how I decided to rent the apartment in the middle of São Paulo’s downtown, two minutes away from a subway station, located on the 11th floor, close to work, and, most important, that I could pay for.
It would cost, monthly, a third of my paycheck. Not ideal, but the real state market is not widely known for being ideal.
The apartment was 322 square feet.
My whole life, 22 years of it, would have to fit inside 322 square feet.
And then, the world as we know it ends. For a while.
The blank space, or Where everything and nothing happens
During the last week before Brazil’s restricting measures against COVID-19 began (against the president’s wishes, which is a topic to an essay itself), I played one final basketball game for my college team (that we lost), I watched Parasite with Marina, I worked with all my colleagues in person (with fear), I took the same walking route to work as I did every day (knowing that although it seemed the same, nothing was the same).
That last week had a magical atmosphere. Everybody, myself included, knew something was about to go down. We knew that COVID-19 was not some sort of swine flu. However, and here is the magical part, most of us had this deep belief that, no matter what, things couldn’t change that much. We couldn’t possibly stay for so long in quarantine.
It was unthinkable.
But here is the thing about the unthinkable: we don’t need to think about it to happen. And after it happens, it is not unthinkable anymore.
And it is not unthinkable right now.
When we were sent to work from home, I was living in São Paulo for four years already. My small apartment was packed with books everywhere (I was working on my graduation final project for the Law School from the University of São Paulo). It had only one window, and sunlight would not reach the kitchen and the main room, if you can call it that, because the apartment was cut into two parts by drywall, so this tiny studio — a fancy name to one-room small apartments — became, all of the sudden, a 1-bedroom apartment. With only one window.
The architecture of the apartment didn’t really bother me, because I would leave the place in the morning to work and would get back there only to sleep, after college. This tiny, messy space did its job: it was a place where I could live and where I could storage my books.
Is that home?
But when this apartment became also my workplace, my gym, my meditation spot, my writing office, well, my whole universe, things got a little out of control.
Every new function added, by force, to the space moved it further away from being home.
Some of the best days of my childhood were during summer when we would go to my auntie’s house almost every day to swim in the pool. I used to cross it underwater, and when my fingers got in touch with the wall on the other side, I felt like a swimmer.
That pool seemed so big.
On the day that I went back to my auntie’s house as an adult, I was impressed by how small the pool looked. I would need no more than four strokes to cross it. As impressed as I was, I felt confused.
I was sure that that pool was big. I was sure that crossing that pool underwater was a big deal. I was sure that it was the biggest pool of all pools.
And maybe I was right.
Memory works in funny ways. Memory can operate as a lens. Memory can make small things look bigger, and big things look smaller.
I was small back then; the pool was big. I am not small anymore.
Staying inside my apartment 24/7 made it clear that I am not small anymore. My main room became an office during the day and a gym during the night. Meals were egg, chicken, and whatever was the cheapest option on the delivery app. I am pretty sure that the walls shrank on me.
In order to keep my fitness on point, because I was hoping to play basketball again for my college team (I am now graduated for almost a year and no more games were played so far), I started working out with videos from YouTube.
Losing track of time is pretty easy when everything you see all day is the light from the lamp, especially inside an apartment with only one window. One day I was doing this particular training session, in which you are supposed to do a few sets of burpees.
And so I did. First set, second set, third set. I was sweating, my heart was beating fast and I was ready for more. Until the intercom buzzed. I immediately checked my phone to see what time was it: ten p.m.
Hello, good night, said the voice from the other side, we received a complaint that someone seems to be jumping in your apartment, and since it is kinda late, you know…
I apologized. Turned the video off from my tv and called my training session off.
If I was hating the new reality, I am sure that my neighbor from the apartment below mine was hating it twice as much — the COVID-19 and the burpees.
We were confined in closed spaces where we were supposed to feel like home, but it was nothing like home. We were confined in blank spaces.
One feeling is, to this day, shared by all of us: the feeling that life has been suspended. We are living in some sort of interstice between acts. This is not real life, we feel, but it is real life. We have to keep living — we have to work, we have to pay the bills, we have to eat, we have to do burpees, we have to write a thesis — , but life itself feels lifeless.
Carlo Ginzburg, an Italian historian, coined the term blank space when he discussed Flaubert’s novel, Sentimental Education. The blank space appears when Frédéric Moreau, the main character, watches Sénécal, an old revolutionary who is acting as a policeman, beat to death Dussardier, who shouts Long live the Republic! before falling dead.
This scene takes place at the end of chapter V, the third part of the novel. Here are the first paragraphs of the next chapter:
He realised the melancholy associated with packet-boats, the chill one feels on waking up under tents, the dizzy effect of landscapes and ruins, and the bitterness of ruptured sympathies.
He returned home.
He mingled in society, and he conceived attachments to other women. But the constant recollection of his first love made these appear insipid; and besides the vehemence of desire, the bloom of the sensation had vanished. In like manner, his intellectual ambitions had grown weaker. Years passed; and he was forced to support the burthen of a life in which his mind was unoccupied and his heart devoid of energy.
Traveled. Returned. Years passed. There’s a terrible acceleration in the story flow, four paragraphs condense years and years. Such acceleration is what Ginzburg called a blank space: time flies, life is nowhere to be seen, we survive.
Now, I feel that we are living inside a blank space. My small apartment is a blank space. The building is a blank space. The city of São Paulo is a blank space.
We are hustling to take our spaces back. We are hustling to slow down the acceleration — we don’t want to support the burthen of a life in which our minds are unoccupied and our hearts are devoid of energy.
I moved to a bigger apartment in the same building a few months ago. Nothing huge, but I have two windows now.
I am not sure if this is the place that I will be able to call home. I am not sure if I ever will be able to call a place home again.
But I am looking for it. And blank spaces have one upside: they can be filled with anything.
 For nothing was simply one thing is a quote from To the Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf.