At Home in the Everyday Sublime

A House. My House.
A House. My House. | Author's Collection

I live in the small, tract house my parents bought in 1946 just before my older brother was born, two years before me.

When I tell this to interviewers, I get a look of mild amazement. This has happened so many times that continuing to live in that house has begun to seem like a stunt, like sitting on a flagpole or eating only kelp or taking a vow of perpetual silence (something my great aunts did when they joined the cloistered Carmelite nuns in Brooklyn).

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Although I sometime feel that I ought to move away, mostly out of deference to other people's opinions, I suspect I won't. I remember too much.

I remember digging in the adobe soil of my backyard when I was a boy, excavating roads, mounding up house walls, and laying Popsicle sticks over them for a properly modern flat roof. A few minutes work, and there was a house.

There are no orthodoxies in children's play, but there are always self-imposed rules that give play some narrative coherence. There is always a context (even if it is only the edges of a flowerbed).

That digging in the dirt -- the architectural practice of my childhood -- was both a joy and an education. I learned how make something imaginative out of materials literally at hand. In the end and after some reflection, I learned how humble materials shaped what my imagination could become.

Gradually, often imperceptibly, and sometimes contrary to original conceptions, through the interplay of memory and the material world, a place becomes a home.

The stories I tell myself about my home don't describe a perfect place. The best of them account for my preference for ordinariness and help me resist the subordination of my everyday life. These stories acknowledge that place making is a collaborative work and possibly redemptive.

Against faded and over-hyped images of Southern California as "an extraordinary, unattainable, and ultimately disappointing place," stand the lives sheltered in our homes, in our gridded neighborhoods, and in the overlapping communities to which we return again and again to give scale and value to our experiences.

If you look with wonder and interest, you will see ordinariness becoming sublime.

D. J. Waldie, author and historian, writes about Los Angeles twice each week at KCET's SoCal Focus blog.

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