Home is a peculiar construct. It’s where the heart is, but everyone’s idea of home is unique: the same prompt that provides a local with reassuring memories of home may remind a traveler how far away they are from theirs. Not to mention a home can vary from an entire house, to a small apartment, to nothing more than a place to lie down..
I will refer to ‘home’ here as the place you return to each day after work, play, or whatever it is that occupies your waking hours. It is the location you walk into with a comforting sigh, unshoulder your backpack along with the day’s worries, and set about making yourself dinner before figuring out what to do with your evening. It is the place you gratefully return to after a late night and collapse onto bed. It is your planning base for activities present and future.
I contend that the people who live with you are more important than the physical space itself. They’re the company you share when you aren’t putting effort into who you’re spending company with. They’re the personalities you learn about when they’re the most vulnerable; when they’re unable to put on airs or makeup in order to face the world. And they’re the people you share the mundane realities of life with as well – your cooking habits, your favorite downtime activities, and whether you sing in the shower.
It makes sense, then, that in order to shape yourself you should look at the social makeup of the people you share your home with. Yet I have seen as a young adult that this is the aspect of life that is perhaps least architected. We obsess over our friends, our computer background images, and who we sit next to at work, but when it comes to finding a place to live all too often we end up cohabitating with the least creepy group culled from frenzied days or weeks spent combing through dozens of complete strangers on Craigslist.
So far I’ve lived in 6 disparate living situations: some 20 years at home in a house with my nuclear family, a school year squeezed in a freshman hall triple, another in a 4 person flat with singles, a few months in a house with Craigslist randoms, and the two halves of my year in Barcelona flats, the first with tattooed ASU bros and the second with young professional Catalans. Each situation has brought its own unique stories of what happened in the downtime on lazy weekend mornings, tales of raucous parties hosted there, and varied facets of human condition illuminated through gossip or firsthand experience.
I’ve been lucky enough to live with people I enjoy in most cases – a situation which I strongly prefer to that of living solo. I have been exposed to that condition on the days when I come back before my housemates have returned from work, or after they have gone to bed. It is a lonely condition, where the majority of a day can be passed alone on your bed staring at a computer screen. Evenings can be wholly uneventful in the same manner, with nothing more than a tired dinner followed by an hour or two of online diversion or attempted productivity. There are no serendipitous moments; no times where you hear about excitement second hand or are introduced to a new friend simply by lounging on the couch.
I am reminded of the importance of a living area every time I return to my comfortable home of youth, with the family all present and an entire backyard in which to play and host. At my childhood house, a day spent entirely within the confines of the property can still be an active day full of fun and memory, as opposed to the guilty evening that a similarly confined existence would bring in an empty house. Indeed, I must consciously budget my time spent at home in order to hew to outside deadlines or committments, or else I found myself playing with brothers and visiting family from dawn til dusk.
While enjoyable, it leads to a life of dull comfort where no greater ambitions are achieved. Plus, it is the place where I have spent the majority of my life, with people who are the closest to me that they possibly could be – same socioeconomic status, ethnicity, beliefs, and worldviews. It is the epicenter of my comfort zone, which mean I will never truly push my own boundaries there. That is a high price to pay for the luxury of having the fridge magically stocked whenever I open it.
What, then, is the optimal home? What balance of work and play, consumption and creation, shapes the perfect place to come home to?
I claim that the the best living space (and partners) force you to grow as a person. It is a place where you can come home and uncompress, yet learn something every time. It is a place where you can have social interactions punctuated with laughter and fun without ever leaving the house, or even budgeting (mental or physical) resources to do so. It is a place where things happen on their own.
You’ll notice that most of these characteristics come from the people you live with, not the physical space itself. The brick and mortar you sleep under may constrain or aid your efforts, but I believe that you could have more fun in a hovel with friends than in a mansion with acquaintances.
And yet that is what so many of us resort to – living with strangers who we make wary peace with in order to have a place to live. I firmly believe that in today’s information rich world, we can do better. We can live with friends old and new, instead of just another person to help pay the rent.
I currently work with OnMyBlock to try and reinvent college off campus housing into a utopian vision similar to what I describe above, or at least one that is more streamlined. Since writing this I have also been kicked out of the comfy big house with Craigslist randoms by the landlady deciding to move back in, and have relocated to a monthly hostel with international students for the near future. Every day I am reminded that I have traded long peaceful sleeping hours for the chance to experience new people and things on a daily basis. Perhaps I will write another piece on the learnings form this experience in the near future.
How much effort have you put into your living situations? What truths about the world and its people have you learned inadvertently simply from living with someone new?