A single-word prompt

Ideas for writers: Use a single word to prompt a story…

I find it curious how a single word can act as a prompt to a flood of memory and ideas. But that is what happened when I came across a rather common word that we encounter all the time: home.

Yes — home. This simple four-letter word is encumbered with a multitude of associations all of which reflect our own life experience and, sometimes, our longings. It made me wonder why, out of all the possible associations that I could have made with the word, the first to come to mind was a day in the inner urban Sydney suburb of Marrickville, a garden growing herbs, vegetables and fruit, and a woman.

Home is where you park it

There is a community food garden, a place people come to grow food and to spend time with others, trucked away behind the buildings at Marrickville’s Addison Road Community Centre. I was there that Saturday to attend an event in the adjacent building.

I was photographing in the garden when I looked up and saw a some people under the shelter at the end of the garden. I wandered over. They were extracting seed from the dried pods of chilli.

I wanted to ask her about how she lived… did she park in a friend’s driveway?

“It’s so we can plant the seed next growing season”, said a thick-set man as I approached. “We collect, save and replant our own seed here in the garden”.

A good idea for sure, I commented, as the man and the young woman who had been sitting on the opposite side of the table went to get some more unopened pods. That left me with a woman in her mid-to-late thirties, perhaps, slim, neither short nor tall, her round face enclosed by a mass of curly, red hair.

We got to talking. I assumed she must be a local person, someone living nearby as local people are what you find most in community gardens. I was wrong.

“No, I don’t live nearby”, she explained. “My home is my van. I live in my van”.

I had met van-dwellers before so the news didn’t perturb or astound me in any way. I wanted to ask her about how she lived… did she park in a friend’s driveway? Did she know secluded and safe places she could park on the street overnight? Just how did she live in a van in the city?

I never had the chance to dig deeper into this friendly woman’s lifestyle though, as the others were returning with a cane basket loaded with vegetable pods ready for seed extraction.

I’ve never seen her again. Where is she now? A question unanswerable.

I don’t know why my encounter with this woman, brief it was, has remained so fresh in my mind as if awaiting my encounter with that word — home. Strange stuff, the mind and its memories.

Home is where you make it

That woman’s home was where she parked it. My daughter and her family’s home in distant Tasmania is where they have recently rebuilt and extended part of it.

Like the red-headed woman in Marrickville, people living in vans have to be organised so as not to let their abode descend into chaos. They by necessity practice minimalism and demonstrate multifunction in what they own. My daughter is organised too. Her’s is one of those homes where everything has its place and is kept there.

Her’s is not a showy home. Nor does the family accumulate belongings. They have just what they need but not a great deal more.

“Oh, I like this style of furniture”, she said to me when I commented on it. “I bought it secondhand. There are people who do it up”.

“Hmmm… 1960s modernist,” I commented. “Contrasts yet it blends with your contemporary modernist, stark white interior with its polished timber floors”, I said.

“Much the opposite to my apartment, which someone said resembles the interior of a beach shack”.

Her’s is not a showy home. Nor does the family accumulate belongings. They have just what they need but not a great deal more. In contrast to that van-dwelling woman my daughter’s home epitomises the settled life of home as fixed abode. It is a base in much the same way that mountaineers set up a base camp and set off from there to climb adjacent peaks. It is a place to come and go from, a place of refuge and security where things important to the occupants are located. So it is with most who have a house or apartment.

Home is just an old beach shack

But my home… I mentioned that it looks a little like a beach shack inside and maybe that’s no coincidence. It’s not contrived to look that way, it’s more an expression of my casual approach to how I arrange my abode. But I suspect it is more than this, psychologically anyway. That’s because I have lived in shacks and that I liked living in them. I have called shacks home.

Large houses cause sweeping, sweeping causes cleaning and cleaning causes work. It’s a viscous circle and one best avoided.

The last one I called home was a hundred metres or so from Fairlight beach. That’s adjacent to Manly, the southernmost of Sydney’s Northern Beaches. It was a small building that had been added to over the decades since being built some time in the 1920s. Being uninsulated it was cold in winter and baking hot in summer, however it was roughly comfortable in the in-betweens seasons.

Large houses cause sweeping, sweeping causes cleaning and cleaning causes work. It’s a viscous circle and one best avoided. That’s why I like my little apartment and it is one of the reasons why I liked living in that shack among the fruit trees and within earshot of the clucking chooks of the main house’s occupants.

Home — that’s what that shack was to me and it is the sort of place I could easily live in again.

Home is in the imagination

Home — it was being prompted by encountering that word that made me realise that the word means different things to different people. Whether your home is on wheels and takes you places where home becomes wherever you park it, whether it is a neat, modern, large house or whether it is a modest-sized shack with a few rough edges, it is still home.

Home, you see, is perhaps less the vehicle or building and more what you imagine it to be.

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