If you happen to love the place you live in – truly love it, not simply appreciate its benefits and features – then there is no place in the world that has more placeness, no convergence of dimensions that is more “you”: it defines you, you define it; you change it, it changes you; you know it, it “knows” you. This place – your home – is more than just a comfy spot, or a cozy space, but an external expression of you, the oversized physical manifestation of your wants and wishes, your past and present – it is the shell for which you are the seed. It is the strands of your own double helix unraveled then knitted around you, for warmth, and protection, and identity. It is the thing we humans most want – that place that, when you go there, it not only has to take you in, it can think of no lovelier thing to do.
This musing about the placeness that resonates in the places we live in is no stranger to arslocii discussions – it is also the core pondering point of a book we are fitfully working on about our own house. But it all, so to speak, comes home to roost because of two things: one, that we are working on our wills, and, two, because of a movie that we just saw.
Writing a will is no easy thing: it is that activity in which profundity and pettiness butt heads in the biggest, ugliest scrum ever fielded. Who should get that lamp, that sculpture? How much money should we leave to that relative, that friend, that organization? And, who not to? Who should be rewarded – and who screwed? And to what degree? (It is, or can be, a tawdry exercise, but concentrating on the details of Mammon can help to take your eye off the ball that is whizzing straight for your noggin: that this is all about the end of you, and that portion of existence that follows in which you have been written out of the script.)
And, then, there’s the house. Sell it? Bequeath it? If you love it, if you truly love it, if it is for you the greatest repository of placeness – that is, that place that echoes in you, and is the echo of you – then, what is best? And if you have taken it from nothing, and, over the years, turned it into something special and personal and expressive of you – then what? And this is where profundity and pettiness are joined onstage by grandiosity. The alterations made in the house, the furniture and collectibles placed just so, the art both purchased and made by the inhabitants (one of them, anyway) and which have provided the foundation for what you consider to be the best possible home for you – well, you begin to believe that nothing must happen to this Camelot of the mind and spirit and sensibilities. You begin to believe that it must be retained, in its totality, in its current form, no hair out of place, and preserved, because the world would be diminished by its passing (as much or more as by yours). As you ponder the power and finality of the will you are writing, you might even wonder, momentarily, grandiosely, if there might not be a way to save it, to keep it as is, in amber – say, create a foundation to fund its existence in perpetuity, or donate it to a museum or arts organization with the proviso that it live on in current form, or maybe, somehow, in the remaining time left to you on this Earth you will in some way become so famous or do something so momentous that society will honor you by taking the place that is imbued with your placeness and deem it a national treasure. Across such fields of folly do thoughts scamper when one loves, truly loves, one’s place of personal placeness – the home that defines.
Such thoughts cross minds, especially when dovetailed with the shivery fear that everything that we have done here that matters, once we step away, will be undone, that the Goths will storm our (custom-made) gates laden with granite countertops, stainless-steel appliances and framed “art” bought to complement the upholstery. Are we being disgustingly snobbish? Absolutely. But this is, after all, our sine qua non place, where the ghosts that matter to us reside and, for us, always will.
And, then, during a break in our will-writing, we watched “Summer Hours” (“L’heure d’été”), a beautiful, insightful, breathtakingly understated French film by Olivier Assayas about the dismantling of a place and, in the act of it, the dismantling of the lies and secrets of a life, the tensions and distances of a family, and the understanding of the value of possessions. It was serendipitous that we watched this. It was important that we did.
In the movie, a family has come together – a not-common event for them – in a luminous and lushly gardened French country estate to celebrate the 75th birthday of the matriarch. It is a place not only of elegance and serenity, but also one of palpable placeness, the site of much of the family’s history, and the repository of not just memories but of a fabulous art collection. It was here that a much-loved (in all ways, we are to learn) uncle, himself a renowned artist, lived and worked and surrounded himself with works by famed creators – Josef Hoffmann, Corot, Redon, Degas, Louis Majorelle – that are now worth bushelsful of Euros.
During the party, the object of the celebration pulls aside her eldest son – and the only one who still lives in France – and begins to list for him all the things that need to be taken care of, including the disposition and dispersal of the paintings and sculpture, as well as the house and the property itself, when she dies. He, wanting to avoid the conversation entirely while also seeing himself (or having been nurtured to see himself) as the person responsible for the perpetuation of the family legacy, argues that everything, as is must remain, intact, even if the house is to be used only a few times a year; it must be not just a monument but an unchanging conduit to the family’s heritage, a place that will pass on to the present generation’s children, and to theirs, and on. To which his mother replies that his children and future generations will have “better things to do than deal with bric-a-brac from another era” – the “residue,” she calls it. “It’s sad,” she goes on, “but that’s life. … A lot of things will be leaving with me. Memories, secrets, stories that interest no one anymore.” She tells her son that there is “no need to become keepers of the tomb.” And she says, “After me, it’s another story.”
Yes, exactly. As we write our wills, and look around us, and feel so at one with the home we love, truly love, we realize that some spots have a placeness that is so inherent to them that time does not dilute it, while others are founded in the hearts and minds of those that dwell in them now. This house of ours has placeness … for us, and, perhaps, for a few of those who know and love us and have been here to experience it. But we, and they, and this will pass. As we have seen in the writing of the book about our house, it is not ours, really – we are merely the current tenants in a blink in the continuum, clutching the baton passed to us and necessarily, if reluctantly, moving our arms forward to pass it on. The next person will change the house to suit her, as we have done to suit us. And, soon enough, there will be little left of what we did, and were. It will be somebody else’s place, somebody else’s time – after us, another story. And what we did here, ultimately, was to keep it going, with the hope that love, like cooking aromas, might permeate the walls, and remain.
It’s sad, but that’s life.