Home Sweet House: Voluntary Simplicity and Home Ownership

One of my favorite movies of all time is “House of Sand and Fog.”   To give credit to the author of the book upon which it was based, Andre Dubus III, I’m sure it’s a wonderful book, but I was introduced to this story through the movie, which starred Jennifer Connolly and Ben Kingsley.  Jennifer Connolly plays an alcoholic young woman, who, because she was simply irresponsible and not paying attention, lost her home to the bank.  Her father, whom she adored, had built that house, and it was all she had.  She had no family, no career, no relationships.

The person who bought her house was a military official who was ousted from Iran.   He was hoping to rebuild a life for himself, wife and teenage son.  The house appealed to him because, with the crow’s-nest type of deck he built on the roof of the house, he could see the ocean, which reminded him of the home he left behind on the Persian Gulf.

The meaning that this little wooden-framed home gave these two people was incredibly intense, and the drama and the plot of the story is driven by the memories and hopes of both the American girl and the displaced Iranian family.   It’s an incredible story.

It made me think of how important our homes are.  Not just the idea of “home” (where the heart is, so to speak), but the actual, physical, structure that serves as the setting of our life drama.  Most people want their own home.  The home might be a big one, a small one, a mobile one, or a multi-family one, but there’s something about the feeling that your home is YOUR castle.   It is an emblem of what you can do for your family in a very deeply-rooted sense.

While there are some simple-living people who abjur ownership of any kind, and who are happy to pay rent for the freedom it brings,  most have that primal yearning for a home of one’s own (which calls to mind another great movie with a similar theme:  A Home of Our Own with Kathy Bates).  Doesn’t  matter where you might be on the simplicity bandwagon.

I have been reading the works of Dorothy Day, that great American Catholic convert who is veering on beautification I believe.  She started out a socialist, thinking that politics were the way to class and socio-economic equality.  She came around to a belief in the power of the individual powered by Christian faith.  But even this one-time socialist and Christian activist took a windfall she got from the sale of a novel and bought a little cottage on the beach in Staten Island.

What is it that drives this need for the fistful of dirt that Scarlett O’Hara held up to the gods with a vow to “never be hungry again,” while her childhood home, Tara, glowed in the background?   The American Dream is built on the notion that each of us has the right to drive our stake in the ground, and protect it, with arms if necessary.

Yet, the property we own is really an illusion, in many ways.   Many families are certainly learning that now.  As they become upside down in their mortgages they  realize that they are still in their homes by the grace of Bank of America and their faith in their ability to continue paying the mortgage.   The Jews in Germany during the thirties and the bourgeoisie in Russia during the Bolshevik Revolution learned that home ownership can be an illusion. There, the political climate shifted radically, and property deeds were suddenly not worth the paper they were written on.   And speaking of climate, just let a tornado rip through your town, or a a hurricane rip through the levees, and the home in which you may have lived your whole life will be a memory in a moment.

Home=security to most, and maybe that’s the draw to home ownership–even though it might be a false sense of security. Could you emotionally detach from your home if you had to?  If you were forced to leave, how would you react?  How hard would you fight for whatever it is that your home has come to mean?  At what cost?

Or maybe through a turn of events, or winds of change,  lies the lesson that the security we have built inside the four walls–the nest we call our own–is not what we think.   Maybe those walls–whether made of straw, wood, or brick–are as transient as sand and fog.  If we knew that to be true, how might we live our lives differently?


  1. Spin-off of that discussion – what do you think, then, of women(or men, though less common) who constantly redecorate, reorganize, shift around, renovate, build onto, and tear down parts of their home?

    Wouldn’t that make a case that we are not actually drawn to a stable home environment? That we’re naturally migrators who need change/exploration, so homeowners relieve that biological instinct with altering their home’s interior design so frequently?

    Just a thought! Interesting post…

    • Catherine says:

      Hmmm…. interesting. I think in a way, it’s almost the opposite. Think about birds building a nest. They spend a lot of time preparing the nest and building a protected spot for their little ones. In the same way, they say that pregnant women in the third trimester are hormonally-driven for “nesting”–a physical urge to go out and fix up the nursery as well as the rest of the home environment in preparation for the baby. It’s a way to establish permanence and safety (i.e., security), not change.
      People who rent or have plans to move on tend not to invest time and energy in their surroundings. Once you own, however, those sometimes necessary, sometimes unnecessary redos are a way to mark your personal territory. I knew a woman who married a man who had lost his first wife. For cost reasons, she moved into the home he had built with Wife #1. The first thing Wife #2 did was demolish the perfectly good kitchen and make it hers.
      That being said, I think your comment speaks to the continuum of tolerance for change. Some people (a few) welcome it; but most want to believe they can control their lives, that they will not be tested too frequently with impermanance and instability; and a deed is a symbol, if not a guarantee, that if nothing else, they are commanders-in-chief of their physical space.
      Thanks for the food for thought, Britt!

  2. I would like to comment on the transient nature of our homes. We think of our homes as permanent residences, not realizing that everything in life is transient. We may live in it now, may own the title, but at some time in the future, we will have passed on, other people will be living in “our” house, making it their “own”. I consider my husband and myself to be caretakers of our home; we live in it, made changes to make it suitable for our lifestyle, but when the time comes to part with it, I will gladly pass it on to whomever wants to be the new “owners”. No attachment, no pain.
    I also try to look at it from a spiritual point of view. I am a visitor on this planet for a short while, but my real home is beyond this earthly sphere. I may return to this planet many more times, and may have called this planet my home many times before, but I am never more than a visitor and my life here and all its “possessions” are temporary. No attachment.
    Just wanted to add that Dorothy Day was a Catholic Worker and quite a rebel at her time. Not sure the Catholic church was very fond of her.

    • Thanks for your comment, Ruth! I would like to think that, like you, I view my home as a simple dwelling, with no attachment to it, but I don’t think I’m quite there yet… perhaps that’s why House of Sand and Fog spoke to me. I’m working on it, though!

  3. New to your blog & just found this from another site. This post really makes me think. Our house is upside down as many are. Sometimes I worry but always think that if we ever lost it, we have our motorhome. The thought of that is almost freeing at times thinking about the freedom of not owing anyone anything. So on one hand I am very identified with my house but on another I know I’d be OK without it

    • Thank you for your thoughts. Yes, I know exactly what you mean. I was forced to leave my home many years ago, so maybe that’s subconsciously what drew me to this topic. As I get older, different scenarios play through my mind for where I might live, which include maybe just getting a little Tumbleweed House and just roosting from place to place (don’t tell my kids I’m planning to occupy their driveways someday 😉 All the best to you.

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