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Home Comforts

Many years ago, when I was living in Atlanta, I met up with an old colleague from Toronto. We had both left the cities where we grew up, safe confines of the places that nurtured our burgeoning careers, to venture out into the world. She moved to Miami and New York and I was in the American south. I remember asking her where it was that she considered was her home. What she replied with, stuck with me to this day. She said, "home is where all my stuff is." Home is where all her furniture, clothes, books, paintings, photographs, kitchenware, knick-knacks...her stuff. It floored me. And then it made sense.


Ever since I was a kid, we moved around a lot. Growing up in Hong Kong, we would move into a different apartment every few years after landlords would raise their rent. Then we moved to Canada. The house my parents bought there is the house in which my parents still live. A very different existence from my formative years. A true sense of home knowing we weren't moving again. Except I did. I kept on living this transient existence, moving. From Toronto to Atlanta to London to Hong Kong, and back to the UK, my home has literally been where all my stuff is. At one point I had the same furniture travel with me from the US, to the UK, and to Hong Kong. Amidst all the disarray of changing spaces, the constant has literally been my "stuff".


When I moved in to my first place in Atlanta I only brought some books, clothes, photographs with me. I remember the movers, all four of them, arrived ready to carry out a house full of stuff. Yet, there in the corner of my parents' living room were a dozen boxes filled with all that I needed to feel less alone. Once I arrived in that new city, I bought furniture, cutlery, linens-, those home comforts needed to soften the sadness of leaving my old self and my parents behind--but also an excitement for building an identity that was purely mine, an identity reflected in the colours and furnishings I chose, an identity which I was only in the early stages of trying to find and define.


Those new things would soon became old things, things that would travel with me to every new home. When moving into and out of a place, there is something that bookends the experience: how we feel. When choosing a new space to call home, it often comes down to a feeling. We feel if its right. It may be empty when we first visit or it may have other people's stuff inhabiting it. We know when we can see and feel ourselves occupying that place. When I move out of a place, a space that has witnessed my joys, my tears, my moments of solitude and moments of friendships, I often wonder where all that energy goes--the energy expended from living a life that journeys the entire spectrum of human emotions. When the movers have taken all of my furniture, my belongings, all the things that made my apartment my home, it feels like I am in a vacuum--a place that is neither here nor there, suspended in not really knowing how to feel. Excited about what's to come yet sad to leave the place that provided me sanctuary and shelter from life's storms.


Sally Augustin, PhD, an environmental psychologist who specialises in the impact of design (both exterior and interior) says, "Humans have a fundamental, very basic need to have a space in their life, where they can decompress and refresh. Starting from the time we're little kids, we need this. We require a space where we can decompress, and refresh because that helps us make sense of all this going on in the world around us...We feel comfortable, relaxed today, and able to think most clearly, when we're in a place where we feel secure, but have a view out over the world around us...We call this having prospect and refuge. And you see it in how people set up the furniture in their homes....We're always reading the world around us to see what silent signals it's sending to us. We set up our homes, so that we get the signals from what's around us that make us feel good about ourselves and our contribution to our world."


We create a home with the things we bring with us throughout our lives--some that bring us joy as Marie Kondo would describe, some that remind us of where we have been. Our home is the physical representation--or perhaps more accurately--reflection of our emotional and mental health. My mother gets a lot of flak for holding on to things, even things that don't serve her anymore, not in the least bring her joy. But to her, they are a reminder of times when she felt like she had the world at her feet. They are also a representation of a need to own and protect belongings--a feeling stemming from having to leave China in a hurry in 1958 to escape its 'Great Leap Forward', a Communist campaign that saw 45 million people die of starvation. My mother, her siblings and parents packed up only that which they could carry and fled to Hong Kong.


After getting jobs that were hard to find, they rebuilt their lives, buying furniture with the money they earned, making their tiny living spaces home with the things they could afford and the things they managed to bring with them. Those "things" represented stability, security, and strength, resilience even. Those things were badges of honour. To this day my mother has a hard time redecorating and getting rid of old furniture, of her stuff. To her it means getting rid of memories. To her it means feeling vulnerable, in case life throws her another wrench. To her it means losing her home.


What I've learned is that we are actually and simply custodians of the space we occupy--be it a flat, a house, land, and planet. My old room in Toronto doesn't feel like my old room just as my parents' house is my parents' house. Every place I have moved out of doesn't feel like mine once all my stuff is out of it. All I am is a tenant of a space and a time, nurturing my soul and my self with my surroundings and my stuff. My home, our home, is our space for the time we are living in it. Not infinite. Temporary. Like life; not infinite. Temporary. This house will be there after we're gone, ready for the next occupants to fill it with their energies and memories, with their stuff. To call it their home. And to be the next custodians of this space and time.


Today, my home houses the stuff accumulated by me, my husband, and our son. In fact, my son has inherited my old bed that I had in my flat in London back in the early 2000s. Whenever we sit it in I am reminded of how this bed witnessed my 30s, a journey in getting to know myself, a journey where I started to really grow up. I do wonder at times, albeit unrealistically, if the wood frame has a memory of all that was, just like our muscles have a memory of what we put it through. Perhaps our stuff is paired with fragments of our heart. Each piece corresponding to a memory, a moment. So maybe home is truly where our heart is.