On particularly trying afternoons, my mother would recount her lifelong fantasy of building a home from the ground up. In my memory, her reverie involved an expansive piece of land, nestled in the mountains, and interiors that operated exactly to her standards. The kitchen was practical, the bathroom tiles pristine, the overall layout intuitive.
Like most children, I thought my mother was crazy. Not because she was, necessarily, but because I couldn’t decipher her desire. I loved our home. It was cozy, near the beach, filled with many open doors through which the breeze could blow. What more could she possibly want? I was still too young to understand this innate impulse—this primal need—for absolute control.
In her essay, “Making House: Notes on Domesticity,” the novelist Rachel Cusk opens with a scene about a woman who mentally rearranges a hospital waiting room while anticipating her husband’s diagnosis. By the time the doctor delivered the news, the woman had redecorated the space entirely. “She had created domestic spaces for so many years,” Cusk writes, “that such thoughts had become a sort of mental tic, a reflexive action she performed to soothe herself.”
Because my parents worked often, they’d leave me with babysitters overnight. The homes were always welcoming, but I was uneasy in these spaces so clearly not my own. Almost instinctively, I reorganized the interiors in my mind: I would brutally knock down a wall there, carefully apply a new cabinet elsewhere. Once I was finished, I could withstand staying there, temporarily relieved by the haven that only I could see.
Unlike the woman in the waiting room, I had never created domestic spaces—only occupied them. Perhaps this is why I found this ritual pleasing: because it gave me, a powerless adolescent, some element of control. Upon finishing the essay, I sent it to my mother without comment. A few days later, she responded. “Indeed a ‘home’ is something we build of thoughts from our mind and psyche,” she wrote. “We all want it perfect, or to fulfill some unattainable, unconscious need.”
Her own childhood home was an unhappy but immaculate one, overlooking Lake Stevens near Seattle. Her mother kept it sparklingly, neurotically clean. Despite its appearance, “something in our home was always messy and secret, and you couldn't talk about it.” When her father would drink too much, or her mother would rage, everyone would wander outside or into other rooms. My mother’s justification for her fastidiousness is that if she could control the house itself, she could control what happened inside it, too. A place that looked and functioned exactly as she envisioned—that was paradise to her.
My own utopia was an elaborate home on the south shore of Oahu. Along a steep sea cliff near Diamond Head, the heiress Doris Duke built a 14,000-square-foot home on 4.9 acres of land, filling it with thousands of pieces of Islamic art. She dubbed it Shangri La, after the Tibetan utopia in James Hilton's novel Lost Horizon, where no one ever ages, although the New Oxford American Dictionary defines it as“a place regarded as an earthly paradise, especially when involving a retreat from the pressures of modern civilization.”
Indeed, her home is virtually concealed from the outside world. A high rock wall, a winding driveway, and an oceanfront view ensure this. But today, anyone with $25 and a penchant for planning can tour her opulent creation through the Honolulu Art Museum.
Although Duke had many homes, “Shangri La is the only one that she built from the ground up and filled from the inside out,” or so the property’s website reads. She’d commission artisans—installing a marble jali here, a replica Mughal suite there —accumulating an abundance of artifacts over her years of travel. “There was no such word as ‘finished,’ Duke’s friend Johnny Gomez once said about Duke’s design process.
After visiting Shangri La in middle school, I silently decided that this was how I would live. And similar to my mother’s desire to build a home, my own attraction to Duke’s mansion masked an unutterable need. Between my own home (comfortably upper middle class), my father’s mother’s (a small two-bedroom apartment in low-income housing), and my babysitters’ (always solidly middle class), I’d spent a childhood bouncing between every tax bracket. In seeking my own Shangri-La, I wanted a space that assured me the comforts—if not the security—of high socioeconomic status.
While I’ll never be rich now, I understand how to fashion a home rich with detail. Like Duke, my bedroom in Brooklyn has an ocean view. On my wall, above my desk and directly across from my bed, hangs a framed photo taken at Bondi Beach, the sea swirling at dusk. When I walk through my hallway, I pass a faded sepia print of a palm tree I purchased in Paris. And in the evenings, I flick on a Noguchi lamp that mimics Hawaii’s soft, burning sunsets.
Despite the additions, my apartment never feels finished. Missing is the woven rug to cover my strange kitchen tiles; absent is the credenza for an empty space in the hall. Whenever I open my front door, I encounter not a home, but a place I imagine my mother saw, too: a space perpetually in progress.
That’s why, after living on my own, I’m convinced paradise is other people’s homes. Even if you’re unimpressed with its aesthetics, at least you’re unencumbered by your belongings, unburdened by domestic projects you’ve failed to execute correctly. I feel this way whenever I stay with my uncle who camps in an old trailer out in the Hamptons. Past the often empty mansions lining the road, he’ll settle on a stretch of sand where the beach and the jetty intersect, overlooking the ocean.
Cruising through the neigh-borhood on the way to his trailer, watching absurdly expensive properties blur by, I no longer see objects of desire—only structures to maintain, rooms to fill, so much money to spend. My mother confirms this reality. Two years ago, she remodeled our home. The garage she always wanted was erected; the kitchen island she dreamed of was installed. Now she could be happy, or at least content. Only the sink was too deep, causing water to splash out, staining the countertop. The new cabinets were defective, causing the finish to separate from the wood. Even in its ideal state, a home is a burden to bear.
Thankfully, my uncle’s camper is a space of pure utility. There’s a kitchen, a tiny bathroom, five beds. (One is a full-size mattress, two are narrow bunks, another a pullout couch, plus a futon placed over the table.) Its interior is crammed with every necessity: a few pots, pans, endless towels. We store bread in the microwave.
To this day, it’s the only place on earth I don’t attempt to imaginatively reorganize. That’s because altering the camper wouldn’t just be impractical, but foolish. Sand sneaks into every crevice; salt coats every surface. And so, for a few blissful days, I’m relieved of scrutinizing interiors at all. I can appreciate the space as it was intended: a reprieve from the outdoors where we can read, seek shade, rest, and finally relax.
My uncle doesn’t live here, of course. Not really. His real home is across the bay. Last time I was there, he gutted the kitchen. Translucent plastic and sawdust were everywhere. Almost a year later, where there once was plywood, granite countertops and a kitchen island have appeared. Outside, he painted the exterior shutters a glossy red. Today it feels homier. Only he still has areas to fix. His improvement list isn’t quite finished yet.
Art by Michael Marcelle.