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Home Truths: Belonging No Place, Belonging Every Place
In my first article in the Lily Pad Sutra series, I shared how both Vipassana meditation and a homeless man named Graham inspired me to embark on a combination of location-independent living and letting the Dharma take the lead—or, as I call it: lily padding. Seven years on, I’m still jumping from lily pad to lily pad and have lost count of how many times I’ve been asked a version of the question, “What? You don’t have a base? No storage? You’re basically homeless?” It makes me smile and think of Graham as I’m anything but homeless. If anything, the last seven years have brought me writer Maya Angelou’s home truth:
You are only free when you realise you belong no place—you belong every place—no place at all. The price is high. The reward is great.
While I don’t for a second pretend that living on the streets isn’t a harsh reality for many, I think the people asking me about my living situation in surprise often forget how humanity has been (and often still is) nomadic, and that the concept of homeownership is a fairly recent invention. Rather than being without a home, I prefer to think I’ve had many. And that, paradoxically, housesitting the homes of others has taught me that home isn’t somewhere, but everywhere I am.
The Dharma began unfolding this understanding many years before I started lily padding. When I was four, a head injury put me in a coma for three days. I had what is commonly referred to as a near-death experience, and the light I experienced in that suspended state felt more like “home” than any place or structure since. It also dissolved any fear of death. I was too young at the time to articulate this, but it left me with the sense that “home” was like a radio frequency that meditation later helped me tune into again in my thirties.
While I also don’t compare lily padding with the gravity of political exile, in the recently published The Book of Joy, this is how the Dalai Lama summed up his forgiveness of the past, in a conversation with Archbishop Desmond Tutu:
So, personally, I prefer the last five decades of refugee life. It’s more useful, more opportunity to learn, to experience life. . . . There’s a Tibetan saying: “Wherever you have friends, that’s your country; and wherever you receive love, that’s your home.”
The Dalai Lama then goes on to credit living in exile with bringing him onto the world stage in a way that staying in Tibet would never have done. On a humbler note, lily padding has indeed made me at home in ways living in one place may never have done.
As a housesitter, I’m usually serving as a presence in the absence of the homeowners who consider that particular location home. It’s interesting to observe how this attachment can change once they physically leave. Sometimes, homesickness takes the form of daily calls to check in or even coming home earlier than planned. And, sometimes, homesickness goes to the other extreme when a romantic breakup while away meant that, rather than return, the homeowner disappeared without a trace for two months . . . leaving me in the awkward position of looking after three dogs without knowing whether, legally, I’d gone from housesitter to house squatter!
One of the most inspiring homes I’ve looked after was in Hanham Hall, just outside of Bristol, England. It’s considered the country’s first purpose-built zero-carbon community of 185 houses, complete with sustainable energy sources, allotments, and communal orchards. I looked after a springer spaniel and an actual water lily pond in the back garden. Even after the homeowner’s departure, the local children continued to stop by daily to check on the prgoress of frog eggs in the pond. They also asked questions that most adults are too shy to ask:
Where do you live?
Yeah, but where’s home?
Wherever I am.
I explained that I had a postal address so I could receive mail somewhere but, pointing to my heart, that my home-home was inside. They smiled with an understanding no adult to whom I’ve tried to explain this in the last seven years has shown. And then they went back to inspecting tadpoles.
In the third article of this series, I shared that two friends I made while housesitting in Windsor have taken to lily padding vicariously, by visiting me wherever I land. They have both lived in their respective houses for more than three decades so, out of curiosity, I once asked them whether I changed according to my new surroundings. They looked at each other, thought about it for a second, and then surprised themselves by realising the answer was no: “We’ve seen you enjoy some places more than others, but fundamentally you’re still you in each and everyone of them.”
Their confirmation solved a mystery that had puzzled me for several jumps: why was it that the most peaceful surroundings usually came with the least peaceful neighbours (who had usually moved there specifically for the peace)? I have lost count how many people I’ve encountered who felt miserable moving permanently to their favourite holiday destination. While our surroundings can certainly influence or comfort us to some degree, perhaps what they were looking for cannot found on the outside?
In contrast, I remember receiving a lift from a homeowner, who asked me to input their home address into the satnav system on the dashboard. I assumed it was new, so did as they asked while they laughingly explained that the device was not all that new but was already programmed with local police station under “home” in case the car was ever stolen and the thieves felt tempted to help themselves to even more!
Three years into lily padding, I visited a friend on my way to look after some chickens in Derbyshire. She had recently moved from London to nearby Nottingham to start a PhD program, and had found a gorgeous Georgian house to rent near the city centre. It had been trashed by the previous tenants and, as she is a homemaker in the true sense of the word and loves interior design, she negotiated a rent reduction in exchange for redecorating.
This all sounded great on paper but on arrival I had my doubts: the DIY tasks had barely begun, and the fridge was empty. I offered to help paint and cook, and ended up staying nine more months until the lease was up. As we gradually made her new home worthy of an architectural digest and watched all 12 seasons of her favourite tv show, Murder, She Wrote, my friend opened up about her difficulties more than in any straightforward conversation. Instead of an actual pet, I realised I was sitting a black dog (an oft-used euphemism for depression).
The PhD was not meant to be and, after our efforts wowed the landlady, my friend moved back to London and I moved on to Scotland to look after two actual dogs. She later thanked me for being the only person during that phase of her life who simply witnessed and supported her, rather than attempting to offer advice. The story has a happy new beginning: after a few years in a houseshare, my friend texted me to announce she’d bought her first flat and found a home.
One of my favourite artists is Hundertwasser, who opposed any form of standardisation in building design because, in his words, “an uneven floor is a melody to the feet.” His work is instantly recognisable by its organic forms, bright colours, and rejection of straight lines. Hundertwasser, known as “the doctor of architecture,” believed that buildings were unhealthy. By decorating and renewing, he “treated” buildings to diminish the visual pollution of the environment. In 1959, Hundertwasser was also involved in the campaign to help the Dalai Lama escape Tibet.
I suspect they both would have a lot to add to this discussion on the nature and fluidity of home, so I’ll sum up with what is probably Hundertwasser’s most famous slogan celebrating World Earth Day:
You are a guest of nature, behave.
Related features from Buddhistdoor Global
Lily Pad Sutra: Living in Transit for Seven Years
Sowing the Seeds of Metta to Dissolve Fears of the Unknown
Shoshin and the Fear of Others
Traveling Light and Lighter: The Life-changing Magic of Lightening Up
Ladakh – The Beauty of Spaciousness