Thursday, December 21, 2006

Perception is Reality

My sisters and I use to play house in an area at the edge of our yard. The land, originally shaped by the foundation of my great-great grandparent’s first home, mimicked the space inside our nearby house. We would walk up a slight rise to enter the “kitchen” – a level area measuring approximately 20 x 20 feet. A mossy bank on the right was our “stairway” to the long “hallway” that led to our “bedrooms.” In reality the “hallway” was a two-foot wide path tucked into the hillside about four feet above the “kitchen.” Our furniture consisted of a picnic table, old camp stove, worktable and two large boulders were our “beds.” Young trees studded our “walls” and their leafy canopy created our “ceiling.” We pretended a large hollow tree trunk in our “hallway” was our “bathroom,” but we weren’t above stripping the decaying bark from the inside to serve as “meat” for our dinner table.

On a nice day, my sisters and I could spend hours in our make-believe home. Since reading The Lure of the Local by Lucy Lippard and The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard, I’m just beginning to recognize the significance of our play.
According to Bachelard, the physicality of the space we initially inhabit affects how we perceive and relate to all other spaces throughout our lives. He says,
But over and beyond our memories, the house we were born in is physically inscribed in us.
He continues,
…the house we were born in has engraved within us the hierarchy of the various functions of inhabiting. We are the diagram of the functions of inhabiting that particular house, and all the other houses are but variations on a fundamental theme.
Our make-believe house at the edge of our yard could very well represent the first time I projected my sense of space, derived from my “birth house,” onto another environment. I traveled the mossy bank and path the same way I climbed the stairs in our home. The imaginary walls offered a similar familiarity – the texture of the tree bark could have been cracked plaster. Even the cramped quarters of the hollow log felt akin to the toilet squeezed between the wall and the large tub occupying the closet-turned-bathroom in our old farmhouse.

It was easy for us to re-create our home in the nearby landscape. We naturally gravitated to this particular area because its features were suggestive of spaces already familiar to us. As Bachelard says, “The space we love is unwilling to remain permanently enclosed. It deploys and appears to move elsewhere without difficulty; into other times, and on different planes of dream and memory.” Our movements within our imaginary home echoed the movements within the spaces of our actual home. Our imaginary home was the equivalent of our actual home reduced to its most primitive elements and our play embodied the most basic notions of inhabiting space.

Because I was very young when we created our make-believe house, I am convinced its features are imprinted on my psyche as deeply as those of my birth home. The textures and sensations, smells and sounds of the actual location settled within me – essentially blending my recollections of the original space with the physical reality of the landscape. Therefore, in addition to the physical inscription of my birth house, I developed a strong connection with the land.
Furthermore, the result of these early spatial/sensory impressions extends beyond the physical realm. Lippard and Bachelard both acknowledge a higher level of impact.

In Lure of the Local, Lippard notes, “In his evocative book on domestic interiors – Home: The Short History of an Idea – Witold Rybczynksi traces the human dwelling place from campsites to bare rooms to the complex spaces we inhabit today, drawing parallels with the development of self-consciousness, ‘the house as a setting for an emerging interior life.’” And Bachelard claims, “Now my aim is clear: I must show that the house is one of the greatest powers of integration for the thoughts, memories and dreams of mankind.”
Bachelard also says, “Our soul is an abode. And by remembering ‘houses’ and ‘rooms,’ we learn to ‘abide’ within ourselves.” So, as the spaces of our birth home determine our physical interactions with subsequent environments, they simultaneously influence us on phenomenological and metaphysical levels. In other words, our thoughts and perceptions – the very essence of who we are and how we identify ourselves – are affected.

This notion could explain the difficult time I had in my early twenties when my sister and brother-in-law bought our family home. The transaction happened to occur while I was experiencing some difficult personal challenges and for the first time in my life I felt like I had lost “me.” In addition to the changes he made to the actual house, my brother-in-law completely altered the landscape of our childhood play area. The physical loss of this place was mirrored and magnified by an emotional loss I had suffered. I floundered for a couple of years before I developed Bachelard’s understanding that “the houses that [are] lost forever continue to live on in us.”

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