When I was a kid, spending time indoors was a kind of prison. It was nowhere you would want to return to. The vast expanses of desert, and later, tropics surrounding our houses were more hospitible than the shelter we slept and ate in. There was no solace among the piles of unwashed clothes and cluttered corners and table tops. I remember fishing cockroaches out of tubs of peanut butter to make myself lunch in Arizona and in Costa Rica I remember the smell of paperbacks rotting in boxes we never quite managed to unpack no matter how long we lived there. There were cobwebs and blackwidow spiders but also, maybe worse, moods that hung in the air. Often I could walk into a room and brush up against a silken thread of despair fastened to a corner or else a little bit of displeasure, spit out and strewn from one end to the other. The snapshot taken of the three of us in Costa Rica sums up much of our existence together: clinging together for survival and sacrificing privacy. In the photo, Sasha blaring bagpipes while I try to read in my muddy hiking boots. The shiny white breeze block walls and fold- out camping bed under a tin roof folding in on us. There are many many more memories of squalor and claustophobia but they are too many too list here. Suffice to say there was a reason that the three of us would flee the house: in Arizona, despite the soaring heat, we would roam the neighborhood, playing among the mesquite tress while the other kids were at school, we would scramble into dumpsters in local business parks and retrieve objects we could use as coins or props for whatever game we were playing and when we moved to Costa Rica, I would get on Agatha’s warm back and ride for hours into the mountains to escape the cigarette smoke and dirt. When I was a mostly stay-at-home mum I did anything but. My impulse is always to bolt. For as long as I could carry him, he spent his hours and days, first on my chest, in the cloth sling feeding, and then, until he got too big in late toddlerhood, on my own warm back and we walked the city together. I did not want to be indoors with him.
My husband gave me an image: of french doors leading out into the garden. He wants to move to the suburbs to a house. We start looking at properties and I realise I do not know how to use inside, or at least, interiors do not spark my imagination the way walking the city does. The dream of french doors leading into the garden (we could have our morning coffee in the sun, he said) feels alien. I cannot find my hunger for it, it is not something I want, yet, but it is a lovely image and I am curious about my lack of desire. So I go to my bookshelf and rummage for Gaston Bachelard’s the Poetics of Space which I haven’t read since art school. I read it and understand that I do not, in his words, have much good memory to draw on, much to ‘daydream’ about. I love the whole book, how much meaning he allows for corners and wardrobes and smells and shelters but he seems to talk about the interplay between ‘intimacy’ and ‘solitude’ and the penny drops. Solitude is not a word I associate with home, though it is something I seek out when I do my customary bolting. I begin daydreaming about the french doors leading out into the garden and find the first hunger pang. Maybe it is possible to have intimacy and solitude in the same place. Other psychoanalytic writers and religious writers have used different language but I think it is maybe a very human longing: is there space here for both autonomy and connection, or, at this table, when I drink the wine and eat the bread, can I experience both imminence and transcendence?
Lockdown ravaged my pysche. It reminded me what it felt like to live ontop of one another again, trapped in a family, trapped in a country not of my choosing, what it felt like to have little choice and little privacy. I have recognised that some PTSD was probably triggered and I woke up often in the middle of the night, heart pounding, white knuckle fear electrifying my body. I dreamed of houses collapsing, of kidnappings and basements and trapped, shoeless horses tethered and starving in tiny, dark stalls. 2020 taught me that as much as I love my family and enjoy spending time with them, in order to feel safe, I need some space. Not neccesarily a room of my own, but some differentiation between rooms. A staircase and a floor or a room or a door between us sometimes. Something between us, sometimes. When I talk about edges and divides my therapist looks amused and suggests I might be talking about “boundaries.”
I have started daydreaming of the new house, of thinking of my own ‘poetic of space.’ A friend gave me another image to play with, one that she has dreamed up for her own house: a kitchen table. Here is a bit of furniture that keeps everyone close, so there is intimacy: the kid can do their homework and I can get on with my cooking and perhaps there could be a chair for someone else to read or sit in. There is a gravitational centre to pull us all in and keep us together, somewhere to meet, but there are rings of orbit as well, a trajectory that loops away for a turn or two. With a table between us, there is some scope for solitude. We could be asborbed in our own thinking and doing without disturbing one another. I could be in my elaborate cooking reverie, the kind where I’m listening to 80’s power ballads and chopping things and reading recipes and he could be playing just outside in the garden, just beyond the french doors or else absorbed in playing under the table or pouring over some school assignment or drawing. And this is only the beginning of my daydreaming. I have a little time before we buy. Could I think up how we might all be if we had a games room, a study, bedrooms, reading nooks? What if it is possible to dream up the space for solitude so that a home is something to find solace in, a place to return to, a place you might want to stay and live from, not just a place to flee from.
Copyright Diana Smith 2020
I am very grateful to my sister Sasha for bothering to archive family snapshots. And for responding to my cold sweats and nightmares by sending me family photos and videos to remind me that it really happened and lockdown triggered some PTSD for a reason. And to both Sasha and Ariel for helping me survive our childhood