Strength in community

Strength in community
Photo by Joey Csunyo / Unsplash

There are smells to a house that we all get used to. The stuff from old carpet, old floors, mold on the walls that we don't call mold but call it 'musk' or 'mustiness' or venture into words that can make us cringe like 'mildew.'

Then there are those creaks, groans, and echoes that happen in a house, usually on the stairs where it bears our weight. Outside are the huffs of deer and the songbirds who sing the sounds of angry car alarms and – what I hope – are their natural calls.

We learn how far our rooms are from the bathroom, how to force one door closed and ignore another slightly ajar. Yet, when the house is new, each and every one of these things stick out as new amazing things to jot onto our to-do lists that, for a while, loom in our minds of importance at the same level as our jobs. But that fades, like the amazement of living in a house without the sounds of neighbors sloshing their toilet bowls.

At what point does a house become a home? Is it when you can look at a spot and say that something else used to be there, but it isn't anymore, where you can have a premonition of the beautiful thing – a minimalist bookcase, or a midcentury wooding chest or armoire or something else with an elegant name that for most of us have forgotten or never learned in our age of deliverable, Allen-wrench-able, furniture – living there in a perfect future and the bland likely one?

Is it even a physical structure or a place on a map? I imagine that many people answer the question, "Where are you from?" and answer a place, a city, a state, or a region, and have a comforting feeling wash over them. I spent most of my childhood in the Pacific Northwest. When I think about it, there isn't that warm, cozy feeling that I think, yes, that's home, even though I do have fond memories of childhood, the smell of cedar and pine, and the lovely weight of gnarly madronas. The idea of moving back is alien; I can't fathom it.

A writing mentor, also from the PNW, mentioned that we all learn to beware of full-sized vans, moving or still, in a parking lot. On hikes, we tend to think, at least once, of a blood-stained shirt or some other evidence of murder in those green greener woods that are damp. Musky. Mossy.

Of course, we two emigrated from those lands without a plan to return.

Then, there's the obvious, the likely, the answer that gets all the meaningful airtime when we talk about home: the people. In Forest City, Iowa, a lovely town I just left, the local radio station has been polling its audience, "What is the greatest strength of our communities?" for the last few years. As of today (July 2, 2024), 64% of people marked "the people." It's likely higher because I've been marking "other" whenever I remember to visit the site and writing in little easter eggs like "witches," "the communist party in hiding," or "obscurity." However, the strength of that community is its people, who, in turn, value other people in that community. (Yes, I know that's circular.)

I spent much of my adult years living abroad and pursuing writing dreams. Being on the move doesn't teach you to hold onto friendships well. It doesn't teach you how to keep in contact with family well.

So, can there be a home without the years of relationships built from a foundation of place? Is there even this sense that a place could be so in line with who you are that you can feel that home is more than a navigational pin?

I don't know. I'm pretty sure there's an excellent Joan Didion essay about it. ("Goodbye to all of that?" may be the one about returning to Sacramento with a child?).

Something I've been thinking about as I have traded the open heartland's slow rising and falling curves to the round, bulb-like mountains of Appalachia.