Dwelling in Possibility; Searching for the Soul of Shelter
Peterborough, New Hampshire 2013, 238 pages
Let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them. (Exodus 25:8)
Not since the paragraphs in À La Recherche du Temps Perdu that evoke in their form the plump, inward-turning shape of the petite madeleine have I read anything the form of which so perfectly suggests its contents as Howard Mansfield’s peculiarly moving Dwelling in Possibility; Searching for the Soul of Shelter. Reading the book was as compelling, pleasurable and strange as visiting one of the centuries-old homes of one of my Bucks County, Pennsylvania, relatives: strange twists, hidden spaces, eccentric passions, lapidary phrases one wants to hold and own, curious outbuildings, unexpected depths that suggest “dwelling” can be a sacred occupation – or a sacred space – that how we construct our dwellings makes a cosmic difference in the quality of our personal and communal lives.
All houses are mysteries. In all houses we are struggling to live the life we should; we are confined, cluttered, slothful or ambitious, planning, rebuilding, self-improving. In all houses, we are hiding out, from the neighbors, from the world out there, from the world in here, from each other, from ourselves. The domestic is strange. Unheimlich, as the Germans say. Not home-like, haunted. The unheimlich is intertwined with the heimlich, the comfortable and familiar, Freud said. We settle in our routines. We shield them. We need to. We don’t want to be found out as being ordinary or extraordinary.
The mystery that holds my attention is that some houses have life – are home, are dwellings – and others don’t. Dwelling is an old-fashioned word we’ve misplaced.
When we live heart and soul, we dwell. When we belong to a place, we dwell. (Page 15)
The structure of this lovely uncanny book does exactly what Mansfield says a dwelling should do – provides space for dreams, silence for imagination, organic development for a sense of possibility and lived-in-ness. Beginning with “Dwelling in the Ordinary,” Mansfield ranges from his own journal of the 2008 ice-storm in rural New Hampshire, through the topic of household clutter to the utterly uncluttered Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Zimmerman house to the attempted preservation of the soft landscape of a local footpath he describes as standing in for “the pattern,” “the language of the village.”
After Mansfield establishes the authority of the ordinary, his next section, “Dwelling in Destruction” moves from a childhood bower in the woods to the burning huts along the Mekong River: “War is about destroying your neighbors’ home.” Domicide in rural Vietnam shifts to the aerial destruction of European and Japanese cities during World War II and their subsequent reconstruction, considered from the optic (quoting Eliade) that “The house is not an object, a ‘machine to live in’; it is the universe that man constructs for himself by imitating the paradigmatic creation of the gods. … ” or (quoting Jackson) “The dwelling is the primary effort of man to create heaven on earth.” The meditation on destruction ends with a memoire of volunteering in post-Katrina Pascagoula, Mississippi, “There is no place like home. But after Katrina your home is like no place you have ever known.”
I dwell in Possibility –
A fairer House than Prose –
More numerous of Windows –
Superior – for Doors –
Of Chambers as the Cedars –
Impregnable of eye –
And for an everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky –
Of Visitors – the fairest –
For Occupation – This –
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise –
Mansfield’s final section, “Dwelling in Possibility,” takes the reader from census-taking (“Counting Houses”) to sheds (including ice-fishing structures in all their glory) to a final consideration of the mystery of right dwelling – for which there is neither formula nor floor plan – since “We are not shaped by our houses; we are our houses.”
The book’s disparate chapter topics are treated with consonant differences in style, yet the whole feels like an organic and continuous expression of Mansfield himself, much the way he describes a nest, “A nest is built by a bird from the inside, pressing her breast round and round. The nest is the bird.”
A bard of place, Mansfield busy with the census muses, “But these days, it seems we are running short of here. We have a heap of now – but it’s a placeless now. Old houses are brimming cups of here.” Old houses incorporate the special qualities of unique places and resist the encroachment of soul-destroying homogeneity. Mansfield quotes architect Christopher Alexander, “I believe that, at root, this is one of the most profound reasons why people of the Twentieth Century began to feel alienated and despairing. Deep in our hearts, I suspect we know that every situation is unique, each person, each moment, and therefore each place, must be unique. To live in a world which denies this truth by creating an appearance of sameness … is degrading and impossible to bear.” Or, as Mansfield himself notes later, “Modern technology reduces places to space – a uniform, measurable, tradable commodity – and leaves us nowhere.”
In its form, content and texture, this subtle and quirky book creates a distinct somewhere, a felicitous space, both capacious and snug, hospitable to musing and invention, an invitation to participate in creating a more humane home for us all.