We talk about “feeling at home” as a signifier of safety, familiarity and comfort. For some, it does mean exactly that. It is a feeling that first embraced us in childhood before our parents’ dreams for us were rudely interrupted by reality and our agency. For some, it remains, but for many of us, that feeling is a distant memory.
Although I’ve made it clear that there is no longer a home for me to go back to, many victims of domestic abuse, immigrants, wanderers, and queer or people like me still yearn for it and make the effort from time to time. The decision to go home draped with indifference comes at a cost. It is an emotional cost, expressed economically.
Over the festive season, home is often a place where culture and tradition repeat themselves daily, uninterrupted by the intrusion of the daily capitalist grind that has us dressed up in costumes of palatability and professionalism. It is the yearly return to who we truly are, within bounds. The othered members of the family are often an open secret, expected to perform the role of who they were expected to be. For those without the means to resist, this is a fate they must accept if they are to enjoy the festivities of community. For others, there is a loophole: money.
As with most things, you can buy yourself out of judgement and control at the right price. The queer cousin, the wayward aunt, the teenage mom sister, the tainted daughter can all buy a pleasant stay and some respect for the right price.
As if to say: “we deserve compensation for fielding the embarrassment of your existence” our families often place a tax on our right to family participation. We find ourselves financially responsible for the proceedings of an entire month of festivities and do not dare resist unless we are ready to be reminded of how we are tolerated for the sake of some mythical promise of family.
At the heart of it, we are considered a threat to the normative values that families are meant to abide by. We have broken a commitment to sameness – a quality so essential to the ability to recognise a family as such. We interrupt the illusion that families are created by a preconceived formula and leads to a predetermined outcome that is predictable and stable.
Though I am at odds with citing the ideas of dead white men, I must suspend my reticence temporarily to invoke French social theorist Pierre Bordieu who said that the dominant definition of a normal family rests on a “constellation of words – house, home, household, maison, maisonée” which seem to describe social reality but rather constructs it.
What this means is that we create our home dynamics through trying to enforce these ideas of what a family is, to create an ideal that not all of us can attain. Those of us who fall outside the confines of what is acceptable pay, in different ways, to keep a seat at the table. When we refuse or fail, we are denied community and protection from harm.
There is a lot to say about where love features in the family debate. After all, families are made synonymous with love that is said to be unconditional. Love, I’m afraid, is a matter of circumstance and perspective. It is a highly dependent act of service that often takes more than it gives.
In Khamr, I wrote:
“Love does not always mean comfort and ease. Love is not what we think it is. Love does hurt us, maim us and – in its final form – kill us. When we truly reckon with the full spectrum of how love can be expressed, we may stop absolving it of its ugly faces.”
When I say this, I do not mean that acts of violence are love. I am saying that those who love us believe they are loving us when they harm us in these ways. How do you argue with a mother who ill-treats her “different” child, in hopes that she can “normalise” them through pain when she says that she is doing it because she loves her child enough to rectify them? That is love to her and so many others.
The concept of home is a contentious one for those who yearn for such a specific sense of community but find themselves depleted on departure. The economics of going home when you have not ticked the right boxes makes of us emotional and economic refugees, over and over.
Perhaps it is worth considering how high a price is too high to pay for belonging. Does the warmth of a distant idea that once brought comfort sustain so long when we must be taxed for a shame we don’t carry, in a currency we cannot afford?