By Niki Barbery Bleyleben
Niki Barbery Bleyleben is a Bolivian-American social scientist and artist living in London.
I just returned home.
Flew into London on a Bolivian tailwind in time to witness the extraordinary turn of events that have forever changed the course of history.
For the past year, I have become increasingly preoccupied with the concept of HOME; the way in which we define our borders: our continents, our countries, our communities, our families. It’s hard not to be, given the fact that there are more displaced people living in the world today than ever before in recorded history. The most recent stats coming out of the UN suggest that the number of people forcibly displaced due to war or persecution exceeds 65 million (more that the entire population of Great Britain).
These facts behind the figures simply overwhelm and it can make it difficult to think creatively about how to truly instigate change.
To find an outlet, I do what I always do: I talk to children. For years I’ve been turning to children to help shed light on age-old philosophical questions because they seem to ask the questions we grown-ups have stopped asking ourselves. I believe children return us to Plato. The conversations took place with small groups, all under the age of ten. I gave each child pen and paper and asked them to write down the first word that came to mind after I said, “HOME”.
By and large, most wrote down the words: “family”, “mummy”, “daddy”, or “house”. But when I asked the children to continue writing anything else that came to mind, there were some wonderful surprises: “ice-cream”, “bed-time”, “breakfast”, “carrots”, “football”– lots of pets’ names were listed too.
These wise young people helped me to question what really goes into the creation of a home, particularly the non-physical components. What are the smells, tastes and sounds that provide us with a sense of home? Which memories of HOME do we treasure most, and why do they hold us so tightly? What does it mean to “feel” at home (or not feel at home), irrespective of geography? Is community participation a prerequisite for claiming a sense of home? Is it possible to find a way to truly be at home with oneself? We lose loved ones, we lose our shelter from the storm, and yet we often survive this pain by tapping into a sense of home lodged deep within our ancestral past, or to the earth or to God.
Human life itself is wholly involved in the issue of finding a home, not necessarily a structure made of sturdy permanence, a bed and a roof (as Maslow may have us believe) – but rather a constant search of an essence of home. If it is an essence we pursue, rather than a structure, maybe there is hope beyond the limits of infrastructure, ways in which we can feel at home, despite the distance from our place of origin.
In light of the recent referendum we have decided to embark on a collective journey, one that seeks to understand every facet of HOME. This project will be a series of essays launched with The Pigeonhole, a global book club that will bring together readers, writers and artists who want a shared experience around the following themes:
(1) Roots, Ancestry & Tradition
One of the fastest growing hobbies in America today is the study of family ancestry. With the availability of DNA testing kits, and an ever-expanding number of genealogy websites, the average person can now trace family lines back hundreds of years. Why does the desire to know our ancestry exert such a strong hold on us? Perhaps it is a deep-seated need for differentiation or a desperate craving for a sense of belonging and wholeness? What can we learn from our ancestors, our roots and traditions?
(2) Senses, Space & Orientation
It is said that one of the worst things that can happen to you is to lose your sense of smell. Why? Because among all our senses, one’s sense of smell provides our strongest orientation within the world we inhabit. As such we want to explore the power of our senses in providing us with a feeling of HOME.
(3) Family as Home
Here we are looking to explore the complexities of HOME from the context of family life. What happens to our sense of home as a family expands, as we add members or when members leave? Family life involves an enormity of love, but also pride and judgement that can lend itself to feelings of confinement within the home. What makes us want to leave our families in our journey to find/create homes of our own? What is it about the journey away from home that sometimes leaves us homesick?
We are all migrants at some level. In this section we will challenge the concepts around identity, assimilation, citizenry, social inclusion/ exclusion. Migration isn’t just about geography; we all have friends who’ve migrated from one religion to another or have an auntie who married into another ethnic group. Each is a migration. What do these experiences help us to learn about ourselves?
(5) Absence of Home
Shelter is one of our basic needs: it is a place that can protect us from the elements, keep us safe. According to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, shelter is one of the requirements for addressing our physiological needs, along with the need for food, water air, sleep, sex. It would be interesting to investigate the human drive to create a semblance of home even under the most challenging circumstances. What makes us want to share our home, leave our home and/or escape into someone else’s? This is not only the era of refugee camps; it is also the era of coach surfing and the sharing economy.
(6) Community & Hospitality
What does it mean to be a part of a community? What responsibility does it imply? How do we contribute to the sense of belonging to new arrivals? Why is hospitality such a core tenet of major religions?
(7) Borders within the Mind, Body & Spirit
There are those who claim there is a disconnect between body and mind, that the spirit is something altogether celestial. But in this age of avatars and the heightened state of self, what does it take to feel at home with oneself? How do the societal rigours affect our every day lives? What role do patriarchy and politics play in the creation of ego?
(8) Earth as Home
There is one undeniable fact of life, and that is despite your creed, colour, gender or age, your home is on this earth. How does one become a steward of this earth? How do we scale the sensation of home to encompass the whole of the earth and its precious natural resources?
There is a large community of people out there who are as equally passionate about the issue of HOME as we are and we’d like to invite them – invite you – to be a part of our project. We are a society that lives its life through online validation. But we believe that words can change the world. Together we will bring this discussion to the fore, through serious discourse, through laughter and tears. A journey home is ultimately a journey into our humanness. And we are very thoughtful, weird and funny creatures.