The dialogue between myself and a space I'm learning to inhabit. Inclinations & tendencies of different shelled creatures.
When I first arrive at a place where I'm going to be staying, it's only a space, a static arrangement of furniture and amenities. Objects not yet being used, but maybe hoping to be useful. What makes it home, for me, within the scope of my stay, is the flows, the ways through, that I establish in the space—through the process of adapting what I find there to what I need in order to live out my daily rhythms. A certain spot on a shelf near the front door becomes the place where I leave my watch, wallet, and keys when I come inside; a chair in the bedroom becomes a nightstand; any table where I write becomes a writing desk. And then habit makes habitat.
I love that process of negotiation, a dialogue between the space and me, in which we agree to the system that we will use during my stay. I never know exactly how it will go until I arrive. I like that first moment of seeing the initial state, how everything is set up according to another person's needs, or another person's conception of what a guest might need; seeing how it's similar to and different from my own ideas. That contrast can tell me something about myself, too, that I'm often not consciously aware of: it can tell me about what I expect every space to have or not have. It reveals to me some of my own assumptions.
Getting to know the space by heart makes this process go a lot more smoothly. And that means starting to learn all the details: not only the optimal paths through each room and from one room to another, but where the light switches are, how the appliances work, how the temperature and light change throughout the day and night, the best way to arrange the dishes in the dish rack. It's akin to the process of getting to know a new friend: once you've built a base of familiarity with the details and can recall them without effort, then you can start to understand (and to ask) how you can yield to each other, how you can each support the other in being what you are.
It's a very private, intimate form of dialogue. I have various friends for whom I sometimes housesit when they travel. It is always the case that once I've housesat for someone, I will have spent far more time in their house by myself than I have with them being there, and I will have developed my own relationship with the house. Whenever I'm actually there with the people whose house it is, I find myself almost embarrassed to be using their house so differently from the way they use it, to be revealing some of the habits I've developed there. As if I'm a little overly familiar with a house where I'm only a guest. As if the house and I have our own secrets now, and it seems slightly inappropriate—both to have them, and to be revealing them.
This arc of a stay, from not-knowing to familiarity to questioning/optimizing to a deeper relationship, can happen more than once during a single stay. And it happens all over again when I move to a new space. The process repeats, but something transfers over from one cycle to the next, a meta-familiarity that starts to accumulate over many different stays. This meta-familiarity is a combination of becoming familiar with the range of different spaces I might encounter—especially across different cultures—and becoming familiar with myself, and what I need from any space I'm living in. It's what makes me able to walk into a new space and immediately identify the spots where I will likely end up spending the majority of my time, or to identify which pieces of furniture I can move to feel at home with the least amount of effort. These are skills that get easier every time I practice them. This meta-familiarity could also be called something like, "the ability to adapt to a new space and feel at home," and it is, I think, learnable.
When I move from one stay to another, I move from knowing to not-knowing, from familiarity to bewilderment and back again, in a cyclical or back-and-forth trajectory. It keeps me from being locked into a single mode: that of the perpetual accumulation of familiarity. When I move from a familiar home base to a new space and back, the new space becomes another home, while my home base becomes re-newed, able to be re-examined as well as appreciated. This is why I like to change my living space when I have the opportunity, sometimes very briefly, sometimes permanently. Each offers a different form of bewilderment.
(There is one space where I both live and stay, and that is the space of my body. I say stay as if it's a temporary dwelling, because I didn't create my body, and I didn't decide what it would be equipped with. I feel I'm a guest in it as much as I'm a resident. One day I will return my body to the earth. In the meantime, I engage in that process of negotiation and dialogue, learning how to adapt the things it offers to what I need. But the body is so complex that it's not a process that can be resolved in a matter of days, like settling into an apartment. There is an arc to it as well. And, in the experience of queer time, it's yet another thing which one might show up to either early or late. In my case, I feel I've wasted a lot of time refusing to work with how my body actually is; and I feel the need to make up for that lost time by now coming to fully inhabit my body. I want to know my body by heart.)
I think that, given the choice, I actually prefer the mode of working with what I find in the world, as opposed to having the power (and the obligation) to create and decide on everything in my environment. I'm a hermit crab: I prefer to borrow my shelter, to salvage a shell that's already served someone else well, and that is currently not needed by anyone else. (And I'm borrowing this very idea from Bachelard.*) Mollusks, by contrast, produce their own shells and keep them all their lives. A mollusk's shell grows as it grows, molding precisely to the size and shape of its body. A mollusk's shell is always a perfect fit. But a hermit crab needs to find new shells as it grows, and at any given moment its shell is only ever going to be the best available, never truly a perfect fit, never a shape that was formed expressly to fit that crab's body.
Why would I prefer that way of being? Maybe it's that the constraint allows for moments of inspiration and surprise. The constraint narrows my work down to purely the task of adapting, no more than that, which is the kind of thinking I most enjoy. And using a borrowed, temporary space means I have to (and get to) do that task again and again.
hermit: early 12c., "religious recluse, one who dwells apart in a solitary place for religious meditation," from Old French hermit, ermit "hermit, recluse," from Late Latin eremita, from Greek eremites, literally "person of the desert," from eremia "a solitude, an uninhabited region, a waste," from erēmos "uninhabited, empty, desolate, bereft," from PIE *erem- "to rest, be quiet."*
Thus the name for a person who dwells in a vast, empty place, a person of the desert, becomes the name for a crab that dwells in a tiny, borrowed home. The solitude contains the constraint as well as the freedom.
Going through life in the hermit-crab mode entails, to me, a certain being-OK-with the idea of temporariness, of letting go; it says something about one's stance toward death, or maybe preparedness for death, as well as one's stance toward ownership. In the sense that a hermit crab understands that the moment it dies, its shell will be taken up by someone else who can get some use out of it, the same way that shell originally came to the hermit crab from another creature who died or otherwise abandoned it. In the world of shelled creatures, to produce your own shell is a way of leaving a piece of yourself in the world, which will last far longer than your life or the rest of your body. And to not produce your own shell is to say: I did not make a new thing, but I used the existing things well, and then I let them go to others. And to leave nothing of yourself behind, other than this fact.
The practice of accumulation (e.g. of possessions) indicates a sort of prediction about what the future will look like, because accumulation prepares you for a specific kind of future. To accumulate things is to believe (or at least to act as if you believe) that you will have time to use or to enjoy all of those things; in some cases it's to believe that there will come a time when you need each of those things.
The practice of non-accumulation indicates a prediction about a different kind of future. It says that you make no assumptions about what you will need, or about what you will have time to use, beyond today. It's the prediction that things will show up for you when you need them. And the hermit crab lives by a kind of faith-instinct—that there will be another shell that's suitable, at the time when it is needed. The hermit crab lives by the assumption that this is true, by which I mean its life is at risk if this is not true. It cannot "save" an additional bigger shell to use later, nor does it have the guarantee that the mollusk has, of always being able to expand its own shell to fit its body. And to unsentimentally stake one's life on some premise might be even more indicative of real faith than any sentimental feeling or conscious belief.
What would it look like, to live wholly and irrevocably under the assumption that that which is essential will be provided to you at the time that you most need it? What would it look like to work under that assumption, or to love under that assumption? To say: I don't know if it's true that I will find what I need, but I am not built to live any other way. I am not built for pure self-reliance; I am built for dependence. I am tempted to say that the hermit crab's existence is a (again, non-conscious, non-sentimental) declaration that: If I can't depend on dependence, then I might as well not exist.
When it comes to my work, I think I have tendencies of both hermit crab and mollusk. Like the hermit crab, I sometimes do better starting with what I find in the world, around which I can structure my dwelling-making. I like to borrow different genres or forms that I find, take shelter under them, see how they fit. But like the mollusk, I also release raw material from some mysterious source within me at a constant, slow rate; the structure it will take on is known more or less by instinct, and my dwelling builds itself into existence by a gradual, almost mindless accumulation.
In this mode I subscribe to Bachelard's mollusk motto: one must live to build one's house, and not build one's house to live in.* To me, this means that there is no end in mind, that I live to build my "house" (or body of work) continually as a way of being.
hermit Douglas Harper, Online Etymology Dictionary.
Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space.