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An illustration shows people boxed into drawers that represent their homes, with plants, laptops, and other items surrounding them. Illustrations by Patricia Doria for Vox

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Home, bittersweet home

Can a single place — one that’s failed us in the past — squeeze in everything it takes to live a life?

Part of The Home Issue of The Highlight, our home for ambitious stories that explain our world.

Close your eyes, forget the pandemic, and imagine the perfect home.

From the mailbox to the backyard, it should have everything anyone would want in it. And maybe then some. Maybe it has your dream Nancy Meyers-esque kitchen (Viking range and all), a Hollywood-worthy screening room, a recording studio. Maybe it’s a beachfront property in Malibu or a 40-acre Hamptons farm. Maybe it’s more subdued — just a nice house in a nice neighborhood. An apartment just off the water, or a townhouse with exposed brick, high ceilings, and bay windows. And a porch. And it allows pets.

Now imagine having to spend all of your time there.

Not even the perfect home could rise to the occasion. In any fantasy, at any scale, one building — ultimately, just four foundational walls — will never be enough to host what we know to be a full life.

Eight months ago, we lived lives, creating shapes on maps, individual vectors tracing out invisible lines of the places we went, in a day, a week, a month. We commuted. We traveled, making 1.4 billion international trips in 2018. Our maps, and the shapes we drew on them as we went, covered cities, countries, oceans. At less distance, we went into other people’s homes, their businesses, unimpeded and without a hint of reticence. We luxuriated in libraries, lingered in boutiques and bars, raged in nightclubs, showed up late to parties at houses or in apartments, with rooms packed full of people. We did it without thinking twice, some of us not even stopping to say goodbye. We went wherever our means could take us, wherever we wanted.

The distributed weight of those vectors of our lives has since fallen onto a single point on a map: home.

So maybe you’ve started to notice people making changes. Maybe you’ve started to notice your own. Since March, we’ve seen a run on everything from desks to dumbbells, Pelotons to pools, patio sectionals to sweatpants, and, of course, edibles. We’ve gone from occasional layabouts to running panopticons of our possessions, hunting for ways to convince ourselves that we’re emboldened — rather than encroached upon — by this pandemic, by the very places we used to find peace away from everything else.

Our homes transformed overnight into offices, schools, gyms, mosques, synagogues, bars, confession booths, practice spaces, yoga studios, and first-date spots. Whereas it used to just be a place, more than ever, home has become every place. This has wreaked havoc on our equilibriums, causing divorces and a depression crisis. Maybe some people are still thriving, or just starting to. Good for them. The rest of us are just trying to cope.

“New couch, rugs, home recording studio,” one person told me when I asked what they’d done around the house since the pandemic hit.

“We bought two Pelotons and a ton of other workout equipment. Made a guest bedroom into an office, and another one into a living room/workout room.”

“Made an office and built a patio. Moved all my shit from my studio to my house. Lots of painting and decorating.”

“Living room became a podcast studio smfh.”

“We moved and I became a landscaping lunatic.”

“Now I do bong hits in the kitchen, in addition to the other rooms I typically did bong hits in.”

Truly, whatever works.

An illustration shows a woman close up gripping a book to her head.

Before all this, plenty of us weren’t too attached to the idea of home. That was by design: A lot of us grew up in the suburbs.

In a 1992 Atlantic story titled “The Suburban Century Begins,” two architects named Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk described these inoffensive master-planned communities — where American homeownership once exploded — as what they really are: “Less a community than an agglomeration of houses, shops, and offices connected to one another by cars, not by the fabric of human life. ... The structure of the suburb tends to confine people to their houses and cars; it discourages strolling, walking, mingling with neighbors. The suburb is the last word in privatization … and it spells the end of authentic civic life.”

Lucky for you if you liked the one you’re from. I’m from the famously anonymized and weird suburbs of Las Vegas, where I was born and raised. I would’ve taken the suburbs of a normal city, one with some sense of identity. Or a rural football town in Texas. Instead I got Vegas, where Cirque du Soleil constituted culture. Of the six houses I moved into and out of while growing up (in the same city!), three were in planned communities.

And as a kid, it mystified me to no end that homeownership was a key ingredient in the American dream, given how absolutely dystopian and shitty it looked from where I stood — in a house that looked like everyone else’s, houses that turned out to be as reliable a version of “home” as the fields of slot machines that pocked the city. They sold winning and delivered anything but. Suburban American real estate came to no greater zenith before the housing crash of 2008 nor lower a nadir after than in Vegas. When the needle of reality punctured this homeownership fantasy, Vegas saw the highest rates of foreclosure and unemployment in the country. Its suburbs went bankrupt.

Most suburbs are an absolute middle ground of American life. That is the point. There’s nothing remotely romantic about them. They’re a corporation’s idea of what most people would think of as an acceptable aesthetic, imposed with crushingly draconian order. To me they always felt like barracks under another name, a euphemistic version of “home” that at best resembles less an actual home than the Hallmark holiday version of one. The strange irony is that because of all that moving around, I wanted a home, some permanence, a place to put down roots. I fell more in love with the idea of home the further away from it I felt, even if I didn’t entirely know what it would eventually look like.

That dream of permanence would be entirely called into question at the moment in life I thought I’d be ready to settle into one, as a reasonably responsible professional in my mid-30s. The “moment” was not a pandemic. It was record unemployment, low marriage rates (and, with it, deepening inequality), and, yes, a lack of homeownership.

I watched the summer of 2008 alongside the rest of the world, with a mixture of awe and affirmation. Forget buying a house. Together, we learned just what a garbage storage of wealth a home can be — like a cruise liner sinking in the ocean, a home going underwater can and will drag you and your entire lifeboat with it. Young adults were racing from the suburbs by then, and the crash was pure afterburn: The idea of a more metropolitan lifestyle untethered to the deadweights of traditional middle-class economic burdens — mortgage payments, car payments — had poured gas on the fire of upwardly mobile migration into cities.

The terrible middle ground of the suburbs and their monolithic corporate pushers had followed the money inward. American sameness reigned supreme. We’d also, in that time, so given up on individual provenance — our own homes — that thanks to the magic of Silicon Valley, we could alchemize them into getaways for complete strangers.

And sure enough, almost seamlessly Airbnbs started to resemble one another, as though everyone was reading the same magazines and following the same accounts. So many of us under 40 had not only given up on owning homes — thanks to crushing student debt, a rising cost of living that didn’t match our raises, and the aforementioned volatility of a decade ago — but had also become resigned to the odd impermanence of giving up our own homes to vacation in other people’s homes. Which, if they didn’t resemble ours, resembled ones we’d like to live in.

A couple days in the city, pretending to live like cosmopolitans who own a bunch of Knoll?You can have that. A few days in the woods living out your hygge hype-beast fantasy in a tiny home, hard-posted to the ‘gram, with the added benefit of making your ex mad? Easily done. And that’s where so many of us are now: Unattached to a true, hard, individual idea of home, rootless, a permanent renter class in one way or another, with a multitude of other ways to spend our money. Fixated on getting rid of all our things and #VanLife. A digital nomad class.

It’s a weird conflict: We know that homeownership confers wealth, but we also know that trusting it to do so can be ruinous. We can live anywhere. We don’t have to live anywhere. We might have to only be here.

Which is fine, because most of us have other places to be than here. The offices, with their free snacks and catered meals; the gyms, or the respective boutique fitness studio brand of choice; the coffee shop; the galleries; the standard first-date spots; the movie theaters; the bars with dumb schticks like axe throwing; the comedy clubs; the concert venues; the intramural sports fields; the wedding venues; the record stores; the brunch spots; the microbreweries; the museums.

The point is, who needs to care about capital-h Home when it’s such a weak proposition? When we know better and have a stacked economic deck against us? When there’s so much time to be spent anywhere else? When our lives have such a distributed weight?

Or had, as it were.

Because then all of this happened.

An illustration shows a woman sleeping, curled up with a cat in tight quarters.

Herbert Hoover once told America that homeownership was an aspiration that “penetrates the heart of our national well-being.” It makes for “happier married life,” for “better children,” for “courage to meet the battle of life.”

He said those words in 1931, as he oversaw the country during — you guessed it — the Great Depression.

So let’s assume, for a second, that everything goes back to normal.

Will we ever view our homes the same way again? Is there a world in which we don’t put so much pressure on the walls around us every day? Or has this permanently reconfigured the notion of a home? Is it a point of residence, a fixed epicenter of our vectors? Or is it just a temporary way station on a map we’re constantly redrawing? Will it change the way we live in these spaces? Will we ever look at a new apartment or house and think: “What’s the pandemic configuration?”

Can we ever unsee the need to work from home and where we would do it? Will you look at a new apartment or home and not think: Could that basement be the school or where the Peloton goes? Can two of us work from here? What would a full standing-desk rig look like against that window? Is that enough natural light for a 15-hour day spent inside, not counting sleep? Or maybe you’ll forever consider the glaring fact that “this does not have a backyard, dear God,” and somewhere else might. The way we build, design, and take root in these places will forever be affected by this singular moment in time, because how could it not?

Remote work’s been proven out, and the orthodoxy of the office as an utterly necessary space has been upturned. Some people who commuted into urban centers haven’t needed to commute for months, to say nothing of the people who lived in those urban centers only because of the proximity to a headquarters or central node of an industry that made it entirely (supposedly) necessary. We can work from anywhere, because we’ve had to. The devotion to geography so many feel like they’re obligated to? As it turns out, they’re just not. For many, the definitions of the places we’ve needed to be and have wanted to be have been redrawn.

We assumed we needed offices. And gyms. And schools. And bars. We took all these places for granted. And now that we’ve had to relegate our lives, concentrate them into our boxes, we’ve proven — mostly reluctantly — resilient. And adaptable. Even if we haven’t thought of ourselves that way. Assuming you haven’t completely lost your mind, the fact speaks for itself.

Not to put too cheery a spin on it, but maybe as we rearrange our homes, as we reconsider these spaces we’ve filled with our lives, there may be something actually decent to come of this yet. We’ve thought of home so much the same way for generations, of the place it has in our lives and the design or aesthetic conventions by which a space needs to be shaped. This year has forced us to change our homes into places, more than anything, to get by.

So we do the same things we do with our lives anyway: We move stuff around. Hang the art. Paint the walls. Get the Peloton. Get rid of everything. Or just start filling your house with (sanitized) bric-a-brac. Put the monitor on the dining room table. Or take it off. Change the medicine cabinet. Refinish the doorframe. Or just take it from Whitman: “Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!” Find the room with the good light.

And maybe we’ll get better at this. Be less reluctant to change whatever’s around us, whatever we think of it. Better at nesting and re-nesting. Decouple ourselves once and for all from the old ideas of where we had to be and what it has to look like when we’re there.

Foster Kamer is an award-winning writer and editor whose reporting on culture, media, trends, and technology has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, New York magazine, and Gossamer. He is currently the content director of Futurism.

Patricia Doria is a Manila-based illustrator with a background in industrial design and graphic design. Inspired by airbrush art from the ’80s, her work combines nostalgia with vibrant modern settings.

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