“I am…an old silkworm spinning his cocoon. It is not a hundredth the size of the house of my middle years. As I complained my way through life, each passing year has added to my age, and each move reduced my dwelling.”
After living through fire, famine and earthquake, Kamo no Chōmei (鴨 長明, 1155–1216) made in his sixties the remote hermitage he describes in his brief but vivid Hōjōki (方丈記) – known in English as An Account of My Hut or The Ten Foot Square Hut.
He describes in tender detail – much as Thoreau will in a later time and place – the small additions to the original structure he has made over the years: a three-foot awning, a veranda of bamboo slats, a dividing screen. And while he is most often alone, he delights in the occasional company of a small boy belonging to the local warden:
He is ten, I am sixty – a vast difference in age, yet we find our pleasure in the same things. We pick the seed-heads of grasses, collect rock-pear berries, gather mountain yams or pluck wild parsley. If the day is fine we scramble up to the peak and gaze off the to the skies of the capital, my old home, or look out over Mount Kohala, Fushimi Village, Toba and Hatsukashi. No one owns a splendid view, so nothing prevents the heart’s delight in it.
To read his short essay for the first time is like finding a still-bright dried flower pressed in tissue: a concentrate of place. How grateful I am that he made it.
Even before this time of necessary confinement to home during pandemic, my subject and experience as a writer was one of constraint: how to live with it, and tend it into meaning. A series of accidents and illnesses since earliest childhood has had me spend long periods confined to home and hospital beds, so that I have sought out stories about solitude in small spaces, both chosen and enforced: Tenzin Palmo’s 12 years in a Himalayan Cave, Richard E Byrd’s account of his solo stay on Antarctica in 1934, Edith Bone’s seven years of solitary imprisonment without trial in 1950s Hungary. A common feature in all such accounts, as in Chōmei’s of his hut, are these close and almost-loving descriptions even of spaces that were unpleasant or unchosen.
During the hardest times of my adult illnesses, I have created a sense of mental space by revisiting in words & maps the interiors of my childhood – a creative practice I share now in my work as a writing tutor and artist-in-residence, and one which always surprises intense feeling and new energy in those who take part. Choose a few rooms from earliest childhood, I say to people, and see how much returns to you from them. I keep my students company in these exercises, and it is always an authentic experience for me: I remember each time things I’d forgot –
An only child, I spent my pre-school weekdays haunting the cold spare rooms of my grandfather’s house. Turning little fretted keys in flimsy wardrobe doors, counting the pig-skin spotted kidney beans that were spread on newspaper to dry for the next growing season, uncapping ointments (my real, unreasonable grief when I rubbed myself with Vanishing Cream and it did not remove me from my solitude). Writing on dresser tops with furniture polish. Singing in the understairs cupboard, the bathroom, the front porch to hear my voice bounce back to me so I could imagine myself in company. Too too long alone at my own devices so that I invested inanimate objects with life, personality: Imperial Leather talcum powder, Original Eau de Cologne in its grand blue and gold wrapper, Vosene shampoo – my friends before friends.
It is always a thrill, too, seeing what happens with others when they make the journey: Last year at Wealden Literature Festival, a married couple chose to share a large sheet of paper having grown up in the same area. His childhood territory was the whole of the Isle of Sheppey; hers was a single bungalow and back garden within it: they each, however, reached an equally deep seam of sense memories, despite the different scales at which they were working.
A Wild Patience Exercise
And this is my invitation to you now, in turn. Leave the rooms you are spending so much more time in than usual, and travel back to the ones of your childhood: your own first home, or a favourite elder’s. Somewhere that is comforting to revisit. Make a map and annotate it. Begin with the objects, and let them lead you to feelings. What ways of passing unstructured time can you bring back with you, and use in this unusual here and now? For yourself, or the children or elders you care for?
Alternatively, project yourself into your old age. What would be your ideal last dwelling? Your view, the objects around you? How would you choose to live in it?
The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard (Penguin Classics: 2014)
A depth meditation on the domestic spaces that shape us, as well as other forms/habitations that speak to our spatial imaginations – nests, shells, hermits’ huts.