Close to the bone

For years when I talked about the place where I grew up, when I talked about that first home that's supposed to be the most important of them all, I would talk about a deepest, darkest suburbia, about a one-road-out inaccessibility, a 90-minute, two-trains-and-a-bus commute into the city, as if these things were important, as if these things were unusual, or aberrant, in a city like Sydney, so sprawling and unruly. When I talked about Menai, the place where I grew up, the story I would tell was one of flight, of leaving as soon as I was able (although in truth, I moved out only at the age of 24), of finding my tribe, as if that's a process that's ever neat or complete. My parents built their house in 1980; it was the first on their street, which was named, like all of the streets around it, after a cricketer. I like to imagine them, ridiculously young, my father thickly moustached, my mother's head haloed in frizzy curls, standing in the dirt outside the back door, grinning and holding shovels. They look excited, and in love, both with each other and with their new, own corner of the world. My parents still live in that house, although it's bigger now, and our childhood bedrooms have become the study, the sewing room, the grandkids' room, respectively. When I stay there overnight, I always sleep deeply, darkly, long, it is so quiet and so unlit. And then I drive away.

It used to bother me, deeply, darkly and for far too long, that I didn't feel I fit there. I never did, but it was worst at the height of my illness, when my visits were fuelled by awkwardness and anxiety, so much so that I was barely present, even though I was physically there. I'd drink too much and talk too fast and eat too little, always caught up in the demands and constant calculations of my disease. I didn't know what was happening. I blamed myself: it was me, after all, who didn't fit. But what I came to realise, slowly, was that the place didn't fit me. This sounds like platitude, perhaps, but it was an important realisation: that our places and our built environments are precisely that – they are built, they are designed and planned, there's nothing natural or inevitable about them. There's nothing inevitable about our homes, about our cities, about the ways we move in and through them. We just forget to see this because we see our places everyday; and when we grow up within them, they shape our baseline expectations of the way things are, will always be.

Menai in 1982: "It used to bother me, deeply, darkly and for far too long, that I didn't fit there.

Menai in 1982: “It used to bother me, deeply, darkly and for far too long, that I didn’t fit there.
Credit:Gerrit Alan Fokkema/Fairfax Media

I was still "living at home" – that strange phrase that really means living in my parents' house – when I first became ill, with a rare and complicated stomach condition, that saw me throwing up, without volition, almost every time I ate, that altered, abruptly and completely, my ordinary world, that eventually developed into the disordered eating and anorexia that I've spent years, since, trying to understand and overcome, through writing as well as through medical treatment. Illness is a state we do not think of as everyday, but it affects those of us it impresses itself upon every single day. Those baseline expectations I had to reset, and it's hard, sometimes, not to long or grieve for my younger, healthy self, whose world was unruptured, who was still able to forget.

It was easy to forget, because I saw them every day, that the suburbs were invented. That even though the vast majority of this country's population lives within the limits of cities like Sydney, these cities are new compared to the stolen land that they stand on, and their suburbs even newer. It is easy to forget, especially with our culture of historical amnesia, that the creation of these suburbs, at the turn of the last century, was a political act, and one designed to remedy the various ills that were believed to exist in crowded, inner-city terrace slums – poverty, illness, crime, fomenting socialism. With their gardens, their provision of light, space and air, the suburbs were intended to improve the lifestyle, and the moral and political character, of their inhabitants. Suburban homeowners, it was thought, were unlikely to radicalise, to want to tear down a nation in which they were quite literally invested. But the foreseen improvements were also physical, almost eugenic – the first chairman of the Australian Housing Board stated that children brought up in suburban conditions would "grow up taller, stronger, deeper in the chest". A better human being with a better body was very much a part of the original suburban imaginary of a bigger space, cleaner air, private lawns. That this body was white went without saying.

Writer Fiona Wright.

Writer Fiona Wright.Credit:Louise Kennerley

That the body and the home are linked is nothing new, of course; it's quite probably an inevitable consequence of the categorical distinction we still make between the body and the mind, where the physicality of the body, unthinking, untameable, animal, is important primarily because it is the thing that carries, or houses, our rational, remarkable minds – it is the home, that is, for who we are. And yet, as Gaston Bachelard argues in The Poetics of Space, the places that we move through often, that we inhabit, also become inscribed upon the body as habits of movement: that instinctual grasping of a door handle in the dark, the collapse into a favourite chair where we know it will catch us, and at what height. And in return our bodies shape our homes, leaving their traces in shed hairs and skin cells, indents in mattresses, scratched floorboards and the stains left by spilled drinks.

The feeling I have when I visit my first home – that originary suburb with its wide roads that pass my primary school, the playground where I scarred my knee, the shopping centre where I got my ears pierced – is never quite one of congruence, although it still feels like it should be and I still wish that it would be. Because if we carry our homes within our bodies, as Bachelard suggests, just as we house our bodies in our homes, I don't know what this means for those of us whose bodies are contested. Whose bodies feel unnatural, uncomfortable. For those of us who cannot be at home, as it were, within our flesh.

What I remember most about the year when I first became ill was an overwhelming sense that my own body had betrayed me, betrayed my will. My body was refusing to cooperate every time I tried to eat, every time I tried to do something that I'd previously taken for granted, that I'd only ever thought of – if I'd thought of it at all – as natural and neutral, something that simply was, would always be.

My body felt strange and hideously uncomfortable, but also strangely fascinating – and somewhere, later on, once my eating had become pathologically restrictive, I relished this. My body was different, very often an affront, and I had to adapt myself to accommodate its demands. Whatever my body had become, I no longer knew it. It was no longer safe, no longer forgettable, no longer my home. John Ruskin, the 19th-century art critic, once wrote that "we require two things from our houses, that they give us shelter, and that they speak to us about ourselves". We ask the same two things, I think, of our bodies when we dress them, decorate them, try to manipulate their size and shape. Whatever my body had become, I realise now, it was speaking for me, and it was saying, I am different and I am awful, and I am not like you.

Renovation, in the last 20 years, has become as much a trope of suburbia as lawnmowers, Hills hoists and Sunday car-washing were for the generations that preceded mine: it's no longer just about keeping house, but remaking it, physically marking our dominion over our domain. For sociologist Fiona Allon, renovation is always about desire, about chasing a different kind of suburban dream. Renovation is transformation, "the formula behind many fairy tales", whereby an old fibro ugly duckling can be changed into a modern and well-feathered swan. But as well as this physical desire, Allon points out a desire that is linguistic: the language of real estate, of looking at and buying houses, is not much different from the language of the body, of beauty and of sex.

More insidious, I think, is the similarity between the languages of houses and of bodies: renovations are "makeovers", or more gruesomely, "gutting the place"; houses in poor repair but with solid structures are said to "have good bones". One recent offering was even written up as "generously proportioned", as if the bosom in which it could hold a family might overspill a C-cup.

Transformation, desire and fantasy are also at the heart of the way we talk about changing our bodies, about dieting and fitness, renovating our physical appearances. Changing the body is supposed to change the very self it carries, at least according to the rhetoric of the diet industry. A changed, pared-back body will present the person who we really are out to the world; will allow the body to speak to us of our authentic self, alchemised, made over.

But renovation, Allon argues, is also about detail, and it is about distraction – "there's nothing like renovations to keep the world at bay", she writes, nothing like the never-ending lists of details and fittings, colour swatches, carpet samples, different kinds of benchtops and floor tiles and splashbacks to distract from the everyday worries and distractions of a life. "They focus our concentration on the here and now, the little details, and they appear to bring everything under our control." So much of our lives we cannot control, especially in an environment of unspecified global threat, imminent ecological disaster, increasing workplace uncertainty, but within the boundaries of a home (four brick walls, a fence) we can fixate on the little things, and we can fix them. This is also exactly how anorexia works.

My body felt strange and hideously uncomfortable, but also strangely fascinating.

I've been living now for 10 years in a different kind of landscape, a different kind of suburb, older, denser, more unplanned; and in a different kind of household, shared with friends instead of family. It's different – but it's not better or bolder or more exciting or progressive. And even here, I often feel precarious. I'm unable to predict how long my landlord will allow me to keep living in my home, or for how much longer I'll have income from my string of casual and temporary freelance jobs. This is the case, too, for so many of my friends and peers – our new normal is a less settled one, less homed, but I don't think we have, yet, the new narratives and metaphors we need to understand this.

"The house we were born in is physically inscribed in us all," writes Gaston Bachelard, describing what he calls the "passionate liaison" of our bodies and the spaces we inhabit, our homes (although French, the language that he writes in, makes no distinction between the physical house and the idea of home). By this formulation, we cannot move away, because the unconscious habits of our bodies will always take us back. We can neither escape, nor be exiled from our first suburban homes, and we shouldn't even try. But what I like about this formulation is that it's hopeful, it suggests that even with great distance from and discomfort with any idea of home, the memory of wholeness, of homeliness is always alive somewhere within us, always animating our bodies, even and especially where we're not aware of it at all.

But this inscription, I think, is more complicated for those of us whose bodies are unsimple, for those of us who have been ill, especially chronically so – for those of us who go hungry. We're overwritten with different stories, inscribed with different physical experiences, some that contradict, some that complement, and some that simply cannot comprehend the diagrams we carry of that first home, and this process never stops. For those of us who write, for whom inscription is something we do with our bodies, rather than something that is simply done to them, the formulation can never be this clear. I don't want to go home. And yet I do. I can't go home, and yet I never left.

This is an edited extract from Fiona Wright's essay "To Run Away from Home" which is published in her collection The World Was Whole (Giramondo, $29.95).

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