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I have this idea.  It may or not be original, and it may or may not even be viable, but I have it, so here it is.

I want to apply the principles of microcredit to the problem of affordable housing, which is a significant issue here in Guelph, and make loans available for people to convert their basements or attics or other spaces into legal apartments that would be set aside to be affordable housing.  The loans would have no fixed repayment term, but the owner of the house would agree to rent the apartment at rates within affordable housing allowances and would also agree to have the full amount of this rent be applied to repay the loan until the full loan plus an additional amount, perhaps ten or fifteen percent, has been repaid.  This money could then be used to finance future projects.

There would also be an expectation that the owner of the house would not just provide an apartment for those in need of affordable housing but would also provide community and social support to those who are renting, in whatever form this might need to take, whether helping new immigrants negotiate the governmental and legal system, or driving the physically disabled to their medical appointments, or visiting with the elderly, or providing childcare for a single parent, or whatever.  Ideally, the owners and renters would even eat together regularly and share some of the tasks of the house.

The loans would probably be provided by a non-profit group like a church or like Habitat for Humanity, but it might also be possible to do this through private means.

I see the following benefits of this approach:

1.  It provides affordable housing outside of government housing projects that, even in the best cases, turn into ghettos.

2.  It provides people who are at financial risk with both a place to live and also the beginnings of a community and a social support network.

3.  It encourages more efficient use of existing housing rather than requiring the construction of new housing.

4.  It encourages communal and relational rather than governmental and institutional solutions to social problems.

5.  It encourages mixed income neighbourhoods, which reduces overall crime rates.

6.  It forces people to encounter and relate meaningfully to others who are not in their existing social circles.

There are probably other benefits that I am missing here, and I am probably willfully overlooking the potential difficulties, but I am interested to hear what others think about this proposal.    It is exactly the kind of intervention that I think needs most to be made in the world, but I am not sure whether it is one that will appeal to anyone else.  Any thoughts or comments that you might have would be appreciated.

As should be clear by now, the space of the home is a subject that is of great concern for me, so I was sincerely pleased to learn that my friend, whom some of you will know as TC from her comments on this site, has begun a blog of short quotations and photos and reflections on the meaning of home.  TC’s comments have often caused me to think differently and more deeply through the idea of home over the past two years or so, and two of her book recommendations, George Perec‘s Species of Spaces and Gaston Bachelard‘s The Poetics of Space, have become a significant part of my personal canon, so I will enjoy the opportunity to read her in the coming months, and I think many of you will as well.

Today is tomato sauce day.  Actually, it is the first of what will need to be two tomato sauce days, which is apparently what happens when you have the assistance of two children under five years of age.  To this point, we have been harvesting and processing the basil, the oregano, and the garlic from our garden.  Our tomatoes, the very few that we have, are still too green, so we had to buy a couple of bushels from the market on Saturday.  I hope to start making the sauce this evening.

I have always loved this process.  I love cutting the herbs and digging the garlic.  I love stripping the leaves from the plants.  I love washing and chopping the ingredients.  I love blanching and peeling the tomatoes.  I love these things, not despite the fact that they are mundane, but precisely because they are mundane and because they therefore allow me a kind of solitude to think and to reflect. I have always found that it is theses mundane tasks, those that do not require my attention but that nevertheless occupy me physically, that seem to open a space for thinking.  It is weeding and kneading bread dough and processing vegetables and cleaning cupboards that permit me a kind of solitude in the midst of everything, an intellectual clearing in which there is nothing do but reflect.

Labour of this sort, therefore, is often more restorative for me than simple relaxation, because it takes me away from myself for a time, beacuse it forces me to confront myself for a time.  I am forced, not just to do the mundane task, but to think through it.  Though I do not set out to think, though I do not even know how to go about thinking, it is in these spaces that I find myself thinking nevertheless, that I find myself unable to do anything else.

I wrote on the image of the threshold a few months ago, and I have been wanting ever since to supplement this discussion with a few passages from Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space.  There is much that I would like to explore in these passages, but I will not take the space and the time that I would like.  Even so, this post will be much too long.  I apologize in advance.

In a section on the image of the door, Bachelard says this: “Outside and inside are both intimate spaces; they are always ready to be reversed, to exchange their hostility. If there exists a borderline surface between such an inside and outside, this surface is painful on both sides.”  Though he does not use the word ‘threshold’ explicitly here, his language of the borderline surface between the inside and the outside of the door is clearly linked to this idea, and the connotations of this passage lead me in two directions.

The first and most obvious direction is to the passage that I quoted from Heidegger in my earlier post, or, more exactly, to the passage that I was too lazy to quote in that post but eventually included as a comment at the request of one of my readers.  However, since it is a particularly significant passage for me, and since I will be referring to it very closely here, I will quote it properly this time.

The section comes from an essay called “Language”, which can be found in Poetry, Language, and Thought. In it, Heidegger is discussing a poem by Georg Trakl called “A Winter Evening”, and he is analysing the line where Trakl says, “Pain has turned the threshold to stone.”  The larger passage reads as follows:

“The threshold is the ground-beam that bears the doorway as a whole. It sustains the middle in which the two, the outside and the inside, penetrate each other. The threshold bears the between. What goes out and goes in, in the between, is joined in the between’s dependability. The dependability of the middle must never yield either way. The settling of the between needs something that can endure, and is in this sense hard. The threshold, as the settlement of the between, is hard because pain has petrified it. But the pain that became appropriated to stone did not harden into the threshold to congeal there. The pain presences unflagging in the threshold, as pain.”

The relation between this passage and Bachelard’s is in the pain that they both ascribe to the space between the inside and the outside, though their description of this pain is not identical.  Bachelard says that the pain is on both sides of the borderline surface, a pain that derives from the readiness of the inside and the outside to be reversed, from their readiness to have their hostility exchanged.  His interest is in how the inside and the outside of the doorway relate to one another as exchangeable and reversible intimacies, rather than on the between of their exchange itself.  In fact, he is not even willing to say definitively whether there is such a between.  “If,” he says, “there exists a borderline surface,” and only then, under the sign of this hesitation, does he suggest that such a surface must be “painful on both sides.”

In contrast, Heidegger insists absolutely on this space of the between, saying that its dependability is what in fact enables the outside and the inside to relate as such.  While he is like Bachelard in affirming the interchangeability of the outside and the inside, which he describes as penetrating each other, and while he is also like Bachelard in assuming the pain that this interpenetration produces, he does not share Bachelard’s hesitation to name the between of this relation precisely as the between.

Bachelard’s understanding of the between also differs from Heideggers’ in that it seems to be produced by the reversal of the inside and the outside, by the exchange of their hostilities, where Heidegger seems to say that the between precedes the relation of the inside and the outside.  His between is characterized by its dependability, by its injunction not yield in either direction, in its capacity to settle into the threshold.  This between, far from being provisional or dependant on the relation between the inside and the outside, is the dependable space that makes this relation possible.

In fact, in Heidegger’s terms, Bachelard is not describing the threshold at all, but the between which is sustained by the threshold and which settles into the threshold, because it requires the hardness and endurance that it provides.  In Heidegger’s terms, Bachelard has no threshold, only a between, which perhaps explains why Bachelard’s between remains so tentative, marked only by the pain that it suffers on both sides, because his between lacks the ground of a threshold to bear and support it.

The second direction that Bachelard’s passage leads me is to Jacques Derrida and his work on the relation between hostility and hospitality.  Derrida argues that these two things are inseparable, going so far as to join them together with the neologism ‘hostipitality’.  Derrida touches on this idea in several places, including an essay called “Hostipitality” that can be found in Acts of Religion, a chapter on absolute hospitality in The Politics of Friendship, and a short work called On Hospitality.

It is Bachelard’s phrase about the inside and the outside being always ready to exchange their hostility that reminds me of Derrida’s idea of hostipitality.  There is in his words the idea of an openness of the one to the absolutely other, of the inside to the outside, of the outside to the inside, a readiness to be reversed, to be interpenetrated, even though this exchange, this giving of the one to the other, this openness of the one to the other, this hospitality, is also, always, a hostility.  The inside and outside are ready to exchange their unavoidable hostility like the gift of hospitality, there, right there, at the door, on the threshold, in the between.

It is because of these Derridean overtones that I find Bachelard’s words to evocative, I think:  “They are always ready to be reversed, to exchange their hostility.”  The possibility of a true hospitality finds profound expression here.

There is much more that I would like to say, but I have already written more than enough, so I will just include two further quotations from Bachelard.  Treat them as an envoi.

“How many daydreams we should have to analyze under the simple heading of doors, for the door is an entire cosmos of the half-open. In fact, it is one of its primal images, the very origin of a daydream that accumulates desires and temptations: the temptation to open up the ultimate depths of being, and the desire to conquer all reticent beings. The door schematizes two strong possibilities, which sharply classify two types of daydream. At times, it is closed, bolted, padlocked. At others, it is open, that is to say, wide open.”

“There are two beings in a door; a door awakens in us a two-way dream, that is doubly symbolical.”

In The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard relates an anecdote about the dramatist and poet Jean-Francois Ducis.  Apparently, at the age of seventy, having wanted a country house all of his life, Ducis decided to construct one for himself in his imagination.  He even went so far as to write poems about this place, and he is said to have taken pleasure in it as if it actually existed.

I have myself imagined houses in this way more than once, have dreamed of them also, until I could find my way through their rooms and their corridors as well as my own home.  The houses of my imagination are always stone, old stone, and they are always larger within than they are without.  When they are approached from the road, they seem the merest cottages, with small lighted windows and thatched roofs, but their doors always open onto vastness, long hallways and stretching staircases, dark corners and grand halls.  There are always gardens around them and libraries within them.  They are always warmed by fireplaces and lit by candles.  Their centre is always a broad, rough, wooden, kitchen table.

I found many of these elements in Bachelard’s description of the home, just as I have found them in other houses in other books over the years: Vane’s house in George MacDonald’s Lilith, Badger’s house in Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, the professor’s house in C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the Athelny house in Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage, among others.  These houses resonate with the houses of my imagination.  They are the houses where I feel at home.

I have been revelling in Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space, his exploration of intimate space, and one of the images that has resonated with me most is that of the house as tree. Speaking of the cellar, he says, “The house, the cellar, the deep earth, achieve totality through depth. The house has become a natural being whose fate is bound to that of the mountains and of the waters that plough the land. The enormous stone plant it has become would not flourish if it did not have subterranean water at its base.”  Then, later, while exploring the image of the garret, he adds, “The well rooted house likes to have a branch that is sensitive to the wind, or an attic that can hear the rustle of leaves.”

My appreciation of this image is not solely based on the conjunction of two things that I love: the house and the tree. It is also based on the aptness of these two things in conjunction. The house, as Bachelard assures his readers throughout the book, is not still, is not dead, is not immobile, not if it truly inhabited. The image of the house as tree recognizes, however, though Bachelard does not make this explicit, that the life of the house is not an animal life. It grows and moves and changes and lives with the slow deliberation of trees. This is not a growth that we ourselves can experience. We can merely inhabit it.

It is in this sense that homes take root beneath us. It is in this sense that they seek deep subterranean waters. It is in this sense also that, once rooted, they can have branches that are sensitive to the wind, can have the whole sky as their terrace. This is an image that I have lived myself. It is an image that I am, even now, inhabiting.

My friend James Shelley has just recently posted on how community gardening has given him an appreciation of the role played by fertility dieties in agriculural societies.  Though anthropology is not exactly my area of expertise, and though I am wary of drawing conclusions from anthropological generalizations in any case, I think that there is something significant in the relation that he is recognizing between the physical labour of farming and spiritual practice of religion.  In fact, I am inclined to extend this relation to other aspects of the home as well, to cooking, to building, to eating, to storytelling, to sewing, to all the activities that should form a spiritual practise for us but often do not.  It seems to me that as we engage in these things more fully, as we participate in them more intimately, we begin to understand the spiritual significance that these things once had.

As James recognizes, it is only in our affluent society that we can afford to be separated from these things, by technology, by the labour of others, by space and by time, only in this kind of society that we can seriously believe that the activities of the home and garden are not in fact spiritual in nature.  It is only because of this affluence that we become subject to the illusion that these things are merely physical and mundane.

To use the language of classical mythology, there can be no dryads so long as trees are merely for shading our patio sets, no nyads so long as rivers are merely for feeding ducks.  There can be no Pomona when the garden is just one more way to impress the neighbours, no Lares or Penates when the house is just the place where I sleep between work and amusement.

The local gods and godesses only appear when we become concerned with them, when we begin to love the trees and the rivers, the garden and the home. When I grow the tree from seed or from cutting, when I nurse the tree from a sapling, when I eat of its fruit and sleep in its shade, when I watch it grow year by year, then I discover that a spirit inhabits the dance of its branches.  When I wade in the water of the river, when I clean garbage from it with my own hands, when I watch the tadpoles and the minnows increase as the water grows cleaner, then I discover that a god stirs its waters.  When I plant what feeds me, build what shelters me, cook what nourishes me, sew what clothes me, then, and perhaps only then, I discover the gods of home and garden, the little deities that make the work of the home and the garden into a spiritual practise.