The Political Home – An Essay by Sandra Tzvetkova

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Looking out the balcony of my childhood bedroom, I see twinkling lights caught in the dark shapes of socialist-era apartment blocks. Shapes upon shapes that in the daytime are slabs of seemingly lifeless concrete, now studded with tiny golden squares. Our apartment is on the 9th floor, relatively high up for the neighborhoods flanking Sofia’s city centre, and my room faces west with a clear view out. In the distance, Vitosha mountain is as black as the sky it scrapes and the city stretches all the way to its base, dots of light crawling up then dwindling out. This is the rudimentary idea of home that first emerged when I would look out years ago: thousands of lit-up rooms, evidence of the 6:00 pm stories unfolding out of reach of the biting cold outside.

Being back in my childhood bedroom for the holidays brings back memories of old feelings. As a kid, during a sleepover at a friend’s or a vacation in a new place, I would sometimes wake up in the middle of the night and feel a startling confusion. The dark shadows stretching over foreign walls and unfamiliar sheets against my skin ushered in a dizzying disorientation. So stable and permanent was my notion of “home” that my senses had firmly attached to the angles of my room, with its carefully curated posters of baby animals and bands, and its position firmly wedged in the property owned and lived in by my family. In school – a private one in Bulgaria, then a public one in the US – I was surrounded by peers with visibly similar arrangements, so that at least for a while it was possible to sustain the idea of a world humming along with orderly, cozy lives lived out in tiny squares that lit up as the day faded. A lot of well-intentioned shielding takes place to build this construct over the shifting tectonics of a different reality.

There was a moment a few years back that has negotiated its way, almost video-like, into my leaky memory. The exact date or place is characteristically uncertain – somewhere in Italy’s Ligurian region, maybe 2013 – but the rest is clear: my mom, dad, sister, brother-in-law, niece, and I are walking down a central promenade of this coastal Italian town. The town and its other tourists are doing like us: enjoying the closing hours of daylight, window-shopping and chatting. As we walk, our path approaches a man sitting on the ground, haggard and in dusty clothes, his cap placed in front of him for donations. My niece, four or five at the time, is walking ahead of me and must have said something in the form of question or concern to my parents, because after a moment they produce some coins and she dashes over to clink them into the man’s cap. This memory makes me think of how these encounters – perhaps initially saturated with pity and sadness on the part of the kid – are patched over to maintain the construct of a generally fair world. “He’s down on his luck” or, maybe he sang all summer like the lazy grasshopper from Aesop’s fable. Certainly these explanations – usually tied to the individual’s abnormal circumstances or character flaws – are easier to conceptualize than the larger, less personifiable currents that push people around. They’re a simpler tool in assuaging a kid’s sensitivity to unfairness and their ability to feel another person’s struggle personally. Then with age, something happens. As the world expands in size and time picks up its pace, as dependence on parents transforms into independence, a new set of obligations and priorities cloud over childhood empathy. Some of us do become more informed about socio-economic currents, but the sudden necessity to carve one’s own path in a competitive world can overshadow other realizations. One sentence from Knausgaard’s My Struggle (whether he intended it this way or not) seems to sum it up well. “As your perspective of the world increases not only is the pain it inflicts on you less but also its meaning.”

This widening of the world has a strange effect on “home”. Far away from my childhood home in Sofia, when I first moved to New York as a newly minted adult, I was aware that I shared the city with tens of thousands of homeless people. The actual figures[1] are brutal, but also distant. Almost everyone else around me was still busily carving their own paths forward. Perhaps for this reason, individual stories of struggle and misfortune, rather than statistics, were to be found in charity campaigns on the subway ride to work. They are both easier to relate to and easier to brush aside after a quick donation. But in the long run, donations merely place a band-aid over a recurring status quo. The situation is reparable only on a larger scale. Put in simple terms, there is little doubt that the capital to house and feed all New York residents – including the 24,000 homeless children – exists in abundance within the city itself. But it also exists in tightly clenched concentration. It won’t be systemically parted with, so it is coaxed out occasionally with self-congratulatory galas and marathons. This situation, however abstract it may seem, gives “home” a political layer that mingles uncomfortably with its romanticized version. The childhood barometer for unfair situations swings into motion. For me, growing up, home was a place of stability and sanctuary. For thousands of other kids, waking up in the middle of the night in a makeshift bed or car is the norm. This doesn’t call for a burst of feel-good generosity – it calls for systemic change.

The Palm d’or winning film I, Daniel Blake aptly illustrates this conversion of “home” from idealized concept to political lightning rod. Daniel Blake is a regular man, with a [formerly] regular job, but the labor market isn’t a static entity, nor can skills and regions adapt seamlessly to follow its motions. Mix in a deterioration in health, and an equally vicious deterioration in the social safety net, and suddenly “home” is recast as a precarious construct that is quick to vanish when there is no money. We see Blake forced to sell off his belongings for insufficient handfuls of cash, we see his dignity coldly chipped away. Coziness and comfort are a thin veil that’s whisked off to reveal the underlying mechanism: home is not where the heart is, it’s where the money is. In a system that has enabled capital to amass within a small percentage of the population and to flow to tax-free jurisdictions, all while “home” is less a guarantee than a commodity, people like Daniel Blake are no anomaly.

By some estimates, automation is slated to eliminate about 47% of US jobs, and even more in poorer countries. It would be a darkly twisted outcome if technological advances, with all the attached promises of improving human wellbeing, instead plunge yet more people into precariousness.

The politicization of home is thus a necessary catalyst. As we grow up, we often lose touch with the fairness we are carefully taught to look for as children, but “home” can be a conduit for its timely reintroduction. The status quo is not inevitable. Steady, reliable shelter is a human right, and a society (especially a wealthy, “developed” one) that fails to provide it, is in need of a serious rethinking.

[1] There are over 62,000 homeless people living in New York, of whom nearly 16,000 are families with over 24,000 children.

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