When we moved out of the bus and into a house in July 2008, I found myself often pondering the difference between home and shelter. At the heart of it, our walls and roofs are there to shelter us from the elements, and I suppose, from danger (animals, strangers, thieves, and so on). For most of us I’d wager that they are far more than that.
My thought when I first made the transition from bus to house was that our modern world has taken this concept of shelter much farther than is perhaps necessary. In our duplex, I was so completely sheltered that I no longer had a daily, intimate connection with the outside world, including the weather and the neighbours. The living space was at the rear of the house and the side facing the street (and our neighbours) was dominated by our garage. Other than when we chanced to see someone as we came or went from our front door, we had no interactions with our neighbours. We also felt completely cut-off from the natural world, behind our double-pane windows and cozy with our electric baseboard heaters.
In the bus, our lives were intertwined with the weather. We could hear the rain dripping, tapping, drumming, slamming on the metal roof (only a few feet above our heads as we slept). We had a woodstove to stoke and a propane furnace to feed (40Lbs of propane—two BBQ tanks—every 4 days in the winter). We monitored our propane usage to try to avoid the dreaded scenario where we would run out in the middle of the night, which meant waking to see our breath in the morning and no chance for hot tea (propane stove) or a hot face cloth (propane water heater). Without leaving our home, we could tell when the temperature dipped or climbed outside. We could tell if it was stormy by the sound of the rain on the roof and the rocking of the wind. In the winter, we had to wrap our water lines with insulation and cover our 26 windows with plastic. In the summer, every window and both doors would be wide open to circulate air as the temperature in our metal box home climbed to the 40’s.
Those rows of single pane windows also put us in touch with our neighbourhood. We learned quickly the value of curtains, living on the corner where a city bike route intersected with one of the most well-used East Vancouver parks. Being an unusual sight in the city and being in a high traffic location put us in touch with our community: the dog-walkers, the families, the bicycle commuters, the Farmer’s marketers. We certainly didn’t blend in, try as we might. We felt as if we were an integral part of a vibrant community. We heard stories of people in other parts of the city talking about the bus at Trout Lake. Our community included strangers who would only nod as they walked by, it included the regular passers-by that we would recognize around the city or on The Drive, it included the neighbour who babysat for us, the neighbour who brought back gifts from Bali, the neighbour with a hat collection.
We lived in our duplex for a year and never really got to know anyone in our community. Our street was a cul-de-sac but there were no street hockey games, no block parties. Often when we got in the van to go somewhere, nothing would be moving, no life would be visible. The duplexes around the cul-de-sac were all the same. We disappeared. Our neighbours disappeared. Once inside, we were sheltered, cut-off. No chance to create or feel a community.
Our time living in that duplex felt like a year of sensory deprivation. Our duplex never did feel like a home because homes are not meant to shelter us from community. Our four walls don’t just ward off danger; the keep family together. They embrace us. They connect us. In most parts of the world, homes are not built in isolation, but in groups. They connect us not just in our small family units, but also one to the other.
Sometimes it feels like our society has it all wrong. We’ve taken the concept of shelter to the extreme and we’ve blocked out, not just the elements, but the world.
I want my home to be a shelter as a safe haven, as in safety from storms and safety in numbers, shelter as a gathering place, and shelter as a beautiful thing to yearn for when you’re lost in the wilderness.