The Soul of Home

What makes a house a home? Author Howard Mansfield explores this sense of place in his book “Dwelling in Possibility: Searching for the Soul of Shelter.”

Doorway at a restored Colonial home in Gilmanton. Photo by John Hession

For as long as he can remember, writer Howard Mansfield has had a fascination with buildings — among them, houses, barns, even sheds. But his fascination became a passion when he and his wife, Sy Montgomery, also a writer, began searching for a new house back in the 1980s.

Mansfield says it would take him about 30 seconds to know if a house wasn’t the right one (“we know intuitively when we feel at home”), yet he found he lingered long after, full of questions: Why is this place the way it is? Did someone design it? Who had a say in the design? Are people happy here? How could this be a better place?

They would settle onto eight acres of what he describes as “old-field pasture and woods bordering a brook.” The house, built in the 1880s, is sheltered by aging sugar maples and other “great old trees.”

Two apple trees stand in the pasture, still bearing fruit despite their age. “When our neighbors’ horses stand under the trees at apple blossom time, I feel rich,” Mansfield says.

For him, a moment like that — an ordinary joy in the here and now — is intertwined with his love of the buildings life is lived in: “I came to wonder about the possibility of dwelling in the ordinary. What would it take? Why is it that the ordinary is so hard for us? Not the 9 to 5 daily slog, but the grace of the ordinary. The world is a cup running over with grace, and we walk about parched.”

Parched, he says, because in today’s wired world “we’re losing the here and now for a digital wonderland. We’re trading the ordinary joys — and sorrows and boredom — for being present for the latest virtual show.”

It is a sense of place, where a house is home, that can anchor us, provide us with a feeling of authenticity, allow us to dwell: “When we live heart and soul, we dwell. When we belong to a place, we dwell. We are not possessed by our home places. Dwelling has left our buildings. We have Home Depot, but not home. This lost quality of dwelling — the soul of buildings — haunts most of our houses and landscapes.”

Mansfield explores this theme in his book “Dwelling in Possibility: Searching for the Soul of Shelter.” He had become a census taker to research the book, and along the way he found “the houses that seemed the most pleasing are the ones that are settled each day, in which each activity binds the people to the place — planting or building or being in a way so that house, land and people seem to be breathing at the same rate.”

If that’s not happening in a house, what can be done? “There is no quick fix,” Mansfield says, “since we first have to change ourselves in order to change our dwellings. We need to clear the way for the ordinary graces that enliven dwelling.”


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