Essay: Fiona Wrighton making homes

A Regular Choreography

View of Reykjavík from the tower of Hallgrímskirkja
View of Reykjavík from the tower of Hallgrímskirkja. Photo: Andreas Tille

The week after I came home from Iceland I felt despondent, so despondent that it scared me. I struggled to get out of bed, even though I’m normally alert and active enough in the mornings that more than one housemate has threatened to hit me for it in the past. I couldn’t write, and even more unusually, could barely read. Couldn’t find the energy to take my seven-month-old puppy to the park, barely four hundred metres from my house, even though the joy this brings her – the pure, animal abandon and ear-flapping elation – is one of simplest yet most expansive pleasures of my everyday. I avoided seeing Alex, but forced myself to go to drinks and parties with my friends, only to drink too much too quickly, every time; I would come home and sit on my living room floor, my knees pulled into my chest so tightly that I could feel my heart squeezing against them. The week after I came home I found, written in tiny, over-determined letters and black ink, a phrase I’d printed on the back of an envelope I had been using as a bookmark while travelling: I was right to be nervous.

This feeling, I was right to be nervous, is to me the worst of all of the things I think and feel out of anxiety, at least in part because it feels like a cruel joke. Clinical psychologists insists that the problem with anxiety is that the anxiousness – that tension in the gut and shoulders, the clamped jaw and cramping rib cage, the wildly-circulating thinking and breathless panic – is always disproportionate, always misplaced; that the fear itself, that is, is always worse than the thing that makes us afraid. And so the treatment focuses on exposure, on deliberately coming into contact with the things we fear and then coming out the other side unscathed in order to learn the hollowness, the mundanity, of the focus (and locus) of our fear. So when I get this feeling, I was right to be nervous, it always feels like a betrayal: this was not supposed to be the lesson that I learnt.

Before I left for Iceland I learnt that no existing policy of travel insurance would cover my costs if I needed to see a doctor if the reason I was doing so was related to mental illness. I learnt that the program of the conference that had been the impetus for my trip in the first place had scheduled fourteen-hour days to take advantage of the eternal summer sunlight at these high latitudes, when stamina is always a struggle for me, and the very first thing my body loses the ability to maintain whenever my illness gains any kind of foothold once again. I learnt that the early summer temperatures in Iceland are colder than those that Sydney reaches in mid-winter, when I habitually wear two thermal undershirts and three merino jumpers underneath my goosedown coat but still suffer, unable to keep warm. I learnt that Icelandic cuisine is based mostly on seafood and smoked lamb from the coarse-woolled and stocky sheep specially bred to survive the extreme cold, on hearty and warming meat soups, on potatoes, which can outlast the winter underground, and on skyr, a type of very mild cheese with the consistency of thick yoghurt – the exact and only texture that I can guarantee will make me sick every single time I try to eat it. None of these things I am comfortable eating, and I joked about this with my housemates and friends in order to avoid thinking through the ramifications of this fact. (Inside that envelope that I found after I came home was also a card that my housemate had slipped into my hand luggage; she’d drawn cartoon versions of some of the foods my illness currently deems safe for me to eat on its verso side, each one saying, in a wonky speech-bubble, I care-rot about you, you zuchin-need me, don’t brocco-leave me, call-me-flower; when I first read it on the plane I almost cried for its absurd and perfect combination of tenderness and tragedy, although I realise that tenderness and tragedy may well be the warp and weft of any life, not just my own.)

Before I left, I kept thinking: I don’t want to be the kind of person who is afraid of travel, that’s not the kind of person I imagine myself to be, it’s unadventurous, incurious, small. I said this to my best friend Laura before I left, and she leaned across the café table and took my hand: You’re not the kind of person who, she said, you are just you. Although, she added, you are still very small.

It took me some time to realise this, but part of what was bothering me about this nervousness, about this hesitancy around travel was not just my personal history (how I still joke that I’m the only person who has ever spent six weeks in Germany and come back thinner, how I fainted on the overnight train somewhere between Marrakesh and Tangiers out of a combination of malnutrition and horrendous gastro, how vividly I remember my flight home from Sri Lanka, the thin padding of the airline seats woefully mismatched to my protruding hipbones, shoulderblades that have never been more aptly named) but a cultural narrative too. Travel is supposed to be transformative, worldly, independent, brave. It is supposed to be a breaking free from the things that bind us to our everyday and repetitious – and by implication dull and stultifying – lives. We are supposed to value travel because of this, because it is international and not domestic, unsettling and not homely, disjunctive rather than routine. And I want these things, of course I want these things for my life and for that idea of myself as I’d like to be.

But this is a narrative that also devalues everything that lies on the other side of the equation – the domestic, the homely, the repetitious and the known. The worlds in which we ground ourselves, locate ourselves, build the small rituals and habits that makes us feel more comfortable, maybe even safe. The spaces where we may truly be ourselves, our private, unscrutinised and unperformed selves. Our small but significant selves.

When I arrived in Iceland, at the international airport originally built as part of a US Army base in 1943, before which the country had relied on seaplanes, with no real need for anything larger or more formalised, I climbed into a huge white coach waiting by the terminal to ferry passengers to Reykjavik, almost forty minutes away. I sat at a window, so I could watch this strange new place as we trundled through it; I was hyper-alert, wide-eyed and watchful, even though I’d been in transit, by this stage, for almost thirty hours, had barely picked at the trays of horrible airline food in all that time.

I felt raw, too, rubbed back by all of the small encounters I’d had in transit: the chatty Welsh woman returning home from Brisbane, where she’d been visiting her grandchild for the first time; the young couple, him with tribal-style tattoos curling up the sides of his neck, her entirely in stretchy black, who’d curled against each other to sleep and took photos out of the tiny plane window the moment the we landed outside of London, their new home; the mid-western American who’d asked me repeatedly to figure out the timezones in the places he was travelling between, until I’d shown him how to do this on his phone. By the time I landed I was feeling raw and so alone.

In the bus I sat on top of my hand luggage so I’d be high enough for a proper view of the flat fields of black basalt stretching unbroken to the coastline, the heavy sky pressing down upon them. There were sculptures by the highway, huge boulders arranged into eerie, almost-human shapes, these figures looking out to the horizon as if they too were lost, were new, in this landscape that seemed to me to be so ancient, although I couldn’t say how, or why. Occasionally, we’d pass a cluster of brightly-coloured and blunt-faced houses, or one more in a chain of oversized supermarkets with cartoon pigs grinning madly on their windows. The man sitting next to me wore a suit jacket and jeans and spent the duration of the journey holding a mobile phone in each tanned hand, alternately reading emails on one screen and sending WhatsApp messages on the other. I was irrationally annoyed by this behaviour, even though he was sitting neatly, quietly, unobtrusively (unlike so many of the other people, especially men, who I’d been seated beside in all the stages of my journey.) I knew that I knew nothing about him, who he was texting, what he had left, why he was here, but I still kept thinking, all this is extraordinary, so sparse and blank and stony that we could well be on the moon, and you are looking at your emails.

And yet within a week I’d find myself, each evening, after a full day of travelling around the Icelandic coastline along the only highway (named, accordingly, Road One), of hiking around waterfalls and glaciers or the rims of dormant volcanoes, of watching whales or standing in the steam of geysers or swimming in the cloudy blue water of geothermal baths while lifeguards in enormous fleece-lined jumpsuits and snow-proof boots stood sentinel on the shore, after all of these things I would sit in my guesthouse room by myself and pull out my computer, check emails, check social media, send messages to my family and friends, and it felt wonderful and relieving, every day, to do this.

What this speaks about, I think, is what Iris Marion Young (drawing on Simone de Beauvoir before her) considers the two kinds of time in which we live all of our lives, the transcendent and the immanent. Transcendent time is that rare, luminous time of important or startling events – like travel, or those intense first weeks of falling in love, or the sweeping grief of sudden loss, the shock of an argument that wounds. These are moments where we are transported out of our regular selves and assumptions, where time feels differently, slowed, or furiously hastened; it is time that breaks the rules of everyday life. Immanent time, however, is the rules – it is regular, unruffled, it passes mostly without us noticing. But we need immanent time, to rest, to reflect, to maintain our sense of self; and it is within immanent time that we live more completely and more often, if less intensely. It is here we are at home, wherever we may physically be. And it was to here I needed to return at the end of every day in order to return too to myself.

That first evening in Reykjavik, I rolled my suitcase into the basement flat of a beautiful three-storey white house, an Airbnb opposite a church built of grey concrete, arching up into the overcast sky; the people I was staying with, good friends and writers all, and all in Reykjavik for the same conference, were sprawled across the couches when I got there – reading, tapping away at laptops, marking up a manuscript. Earlier in the day, and after settling in to the house and exploring the nearby parts of the city, they had bought food for us all at a nearby supermarket: muesli, pasta, apples, skyr, crackers and cheese; two bottles of red wine to share. I panicked.

And so the first thing that I did in Iceland was buy groceries, walking through the suburbs, past garden beds exuberant with the largest, fullest tulips I have ever seen and round trampolines with children wrapped in parkas and helmet-style beanies bouncing through the endless twilight. I bought a tiny cauliflower, the size of my palm, a head of broccoli, a packet of dried figs; I returned to the house and stood under the shower that smelt strangely, strongly sulfuric because the hot water was geothermal, piped into the city from a volcano barely twenty kilometres away, breathing into the bottom of my lungs to steady myself, to hold myself in my body. That night I slept on a roll-out single bed in the same large bedroom as a couple and it was soft and thick and finally, so blessedly horizontal.

And from the very next day, I started building habits. After I woke in the morning, and dressed myself in six or seven layers, I walked across the city, past the angular town hall, all glass and granite and water features, along the shore of the lake lined with dandelions and scotch broom, and up the hill, the houses quiet still, and sleepy. I sat in a café that two of my friends had recommended, after they had travelled to Iceland last year in mid-winter, and I wrote for a while in my journal – I always (and only) keep a journal when I travel – trying not to worry about the full-cream milk in my coffee. I bought a loaf of crusty, oaty bread from a nearby bakery, with windows full of cinnamon scrolls and custardy pastries, to eat for lunch, much later, with tomatoes and basil and soft cheese.

That day, the day before the conference started, my friends met me near the café, and we walked for several hours through the town, crossing underneath the freeway to a forested park on its outskirts, talking the whole time of books and films and writing and ideas and wondering if we might see a bear. (There are no bears in Iceland.) When we got back to the house that afternoon we read and worked and wrote and I felt comfortable and properly present and in time in a way that I so rarely do.

Each day I did this: rose early, dressed, walked to a café and wrote quietly and by myself, even (or especially) once the conference started and I needed to be at the university by 8:30 am. Each day in this wildly unfamiliar place, where every time I headed to a new place on my map I would instinctively turn first in the wrong direction, where I hadn’t yet learnt to pronounce the long and thickly-consonanted street names, or to handle my money quickly or appropriately, I kept to a morning ritual almost identical to the one I have at home.

For a long time, I have been embarrassed by my rituals, or more precisely, by how fervently I cling to my routines. I know this used to be because I saw my repetitions as rigidity, the same kind of pathological rigidity I had been taught to recognise as part and parcel of my illness: it still makes me anxious to eat earlier than my regular meal times, to eat ingredients that aren’t part of my usual repertoire (and these two things, at least, are inevitable when I travel). I still feel jittery and unsettled if I have to change plans quickly, have to rethink the regular patterning of my day. But I also know that when I’m doing well, it’s routine and ritual that keep me on track, that keep me eating afternoon tea while reading in my favourite armchair, making supper even though I really do not want to, having breakfast while I write. When I’m doing well, it’s structure that keeps me from inventing reasons to walk the hour from my house into the city for not-really-necessary chores, or skipping meals because I’m busy, or reorganising my kitchen so that my spices are in alphabetical order (for all the myths of the intensity and extremity of mental illness, the reality is exceptionally dull). But I also know that my embarrassment stems from the way that we are taught to devalue this repetition, this immanent time, to see it as something that limits us, as something static, boring, immobile and immobilising too.

In Reykjavik, in summer, I was amazed to see so many people still on the streets and in the parks each weeknight, at close to midnight – adults and awkward gangling teenagers alike – wearing shift dresses and short-sleeves despite what felt to me like unbearably low temperatures; these people picnicking, or sitting outside bars, or simply walking, chatting. I mentioned this to an Icelandic writer, Svanna, whom I’d recently befriended and she laughed and said, oh, we all go a bit crazy in summer, we sleep again in September, in winter we become normal again. I loved the idea of this, this six-week summer of abandon, of course I did – it’s romantic, and exciting, and sounds like a surrender to happenstance and chance encounters, all of those things that make good narratives, good (or at least not terrible) romantic comedies, that make transcendent time – but at the same time, I knew I wouldn’t cope. That my body would fatigue, grow less resilient; that anchorless, my mind would slowly, but surely, unmoor.

Recent research suggests that habits and routines – repeated actions which are generally undertaken in what psychologists call ‘stable contexts’ – times of day or spaces that are unchanging –make up at least 40 per cent, and perhaps as much as 60 per cent, of our daily activities; and that when we act habitually, we do so without being fully cognisant of our movements. But this is precisely why routines are important: because of this repetition, this muscle memory, that means that we don’t have to make decisions, stay alert, our conscious minds are freed for other things – for remembering and planning, certainly, but also for rest and restoration, and for imagination, creativity, dream. Without habit, that is, we can’t reflect: I know that it’s often while I’m running errands, or showering, or baking biscuits for my friends, or walking my habitual routes, that I somehow unravel problems in my writing, or stumble upon phrases or images that might be the beginning of a poem; I know I’m not alone in this – so many of my writer friends so often say the same. I often think it has to do with rhythm – that when we move habitually we move according to a regular choreography, and the brain responds by dancing too. What this means, though, is that we need this kind of immanent time in order to function fully and, especially, to access our higher functions. We need immanent time in order to be able to transcend.

At the end of the conference, I left Reykjavik to travel around the countryside, and I did it by joining a tour. When I had booked this, months beforehand, I kept explaining the decision away: I was extremely busy and couldn’t find the space or time to properly research how and where I might get around on my own; it’s not how I normally travel but I’ll give it a go; if the people are terrible (they weren’t) it will make for good material. But what I was really trying to excuse, I know, was the idea that I was doing this the easy way, the lazy way, the inauthentic touristy way, the way that wasn’t clever or adventurous or brave. Much later, I realised that even when I travelled this way I still had to work and plan so much – and so much more than most people – to organise my food and keep myself well, and joining a tour simply relieved me of one layer of decision-making. This is true – and became even more true as the tour progressed, and I realised we’d be stopping everyday for lunch at service stations or supermarkets, from which the others would bound back happily with packets of licorice (Icelanders love licorice, and sell it everywhere) and savoury biscuits, or chips, the occasional banana, locally grown in the geothermal greenhouses we kept passing by the highway, but which left me too overwhelmed and panicky to choose anything at all; or when I tried to explain my dietary needs to a guesthouse restaurant, and the waitress returned to serve me a plate of three grilled asparagus spears for dinner. This was true, but it still felt like an excuse.

On the tour, though, I loved listening to our guide rattle off Icelandic place names, which sound complicated and ornate, but are actually bluntly pragmatic – waterfalls named Hengifoss and Litlanesfoss and Dettifoss: or Hanging Waterfall, Little Waterfall, Falling Waterfall; towns named Borgarfjöður, Akueyri, Dalvìk (or, Fjord City, Shoal Field, Valley Bay) even the famous volcano Eyjafjallajökull, which shrouded most of Europe in flight-delaying ash in 2010, and whose name confounded newsreaders but simply means Forest Mountain Glacier (it’s a glacier, on a mountain, in a forest). On the tour, I loved the way our guide, who introduced himself as Biggie (saying that his real name, Birgir, with its doubled, rolled rs, was too difficult to pronounce) would occasionally tell Icelandic jokes: driving past a pocket of stunted birches, growing sideways against the wind, he stated, what do you do if you get lost in an Icelandic forest? You stand up; after most of the tour had eaten fresh seafood from a roadside barbecue and then climbed back onto the bus with the smell of fish strong on their hands and clothes: In Iceland, we call that the smell of money (until the recent tourist boom, fishing made up 70 per cent of Iceland’s economy). I was the only person in the group travelling alone, and so I sat most days in the single front passenger seat, next to Birgir, singing along to the Icelandic music that he played through a Spotify list on his phone – Of Mice and Men, Sigur Rós, Emilíana Torrini, Björk – or chatting about his hobbies, which included ice-climbing, apparently something of a national pastime, whereby people scale frozen waterfalls in winter using hooked icepicks and steel spikes strapped over their shoes. It was relaxing to not have to make arrangements, to float along on that single highway, according to predetermined plans. Each time we stopped, Birgir would say, we will be here for 45 minutes, the track to the left is the more interesting one, these are the last toilets for about an hour and a half; he’d frequently phone ahead while we explored these places, confirming logistics and timings and menus. I wasn’t used to this, not at all, but I liked it.

And some of the things we saw were spectacular: a lagoon at the foot of a volcano, with cobalt-blue water and huge bobbing icebergs calved from nearby glaciers, some streaked black with granite, some teeming with Arctic terns, some clanking and groaning as they bumped against each other; a nearby beach with icebergs stranded on the sand. Bulbous lava fields, miles and miles of solid rock that still looked fluid, bubbling, and that were covered in lichens that take a century to grow. A steeply-angled glacier that we walked on, kitted out in waterproof pants and hired crampons – the staff had laughed when I told them my size, in both shoes and clothes, and handed me their smallest option, two sizes too big – the ice crunchy at the surface, smooth and strangely luminescent in its depths.

But even here, learning a new gait – wide-legged with a heavy tread – for walking on ice, wearing clothes that weren’t my own, or standing on a cliff edge in the windiest inhabited place in the world, ten time zones and 16,600 kilometers from anything I call home, I could not escape my self, my body. I was always cold, cold to the bone, even though, by the time we hit the south coast, I’d taken to wearing nine layers of shirts and a pair of stockings underneath my jeans (I couldn’t really move my arms, but also didn’t really need to). On the bus, too, I’d keep my down jacket on, zipped right up to the chin, my hands stuffed into its fleecy pockets. One of the group, an older, freckled man from Cape Town, said to me, you cannot really be that cold? and I answered, instinctually, but also feeling censured, it’s just because I’m underweight. He laughed at this, a full and throaty roar, and said, I’ve never heard a woman say she’s underweight before.

Two days later, whilst hiking up a rocky mountain path towards a waterfall, another man, this one part of a couple from Perth whom I’d befriended (and who’d slip me coffee bags in the mornings when we’d stayed somewhere that only served thick and awful American-style brew) turned to me and said, you’ve got a lot of fortitude for somebody so small, how much do you actually weigh? From the very first day, after the first time we stopped to buy lunch at a small town supermarket and I couldn’t find anything to eat, put on the spot like that, this circumstantial skipped meal had become an iron-bound rule within my mind: you don’t need lunch, you’re not allowed. Instead, I’d become flattened and vague by four pm; one day in particular I remember walking around volcanic rock formations – huge and crooked spires twisting up towards the sky, jagged arches, a hollowed-out dome almost cathedral-like in shape – and feeling my body drag, wanting nothing more than to be back on the bus, done for the day, heading for a guesthouse so I could stand under the shower until my fingers and toes felt mobile and alive again, then boil some vegetables inside the tea-station kettle in my room, be by myself, be quiet. We spent so much time outdoors, walking, hiking, climbing, standing at lookouts in the cold and it was beautiful and it was thrilling but it was also very physical, and my body – so too my brain – couldn’t keep up. This was what I’d feared before I’d left: this shutting down, this feeling of enduring, both because I know it now as a forewarning, but also, always, because it feels like such a waste, and wasting transcendent time seems almost criminal.

But immanent time, we’re taught, the time of ordinary rituals and the mundane, is time that we are always wasting, on chores and acts of maintenance, on menial and mindless tasks. These things seem unimportant, I think, because they’re small and because they are private and largely domestic (and largely the work of women), because they are unspectacular. But so much of our lives are lived in immanent time, so much of what we do is ordinary, and our habits are acts of autonomy and anchoring; they are integral to our sense of self, wherever we may be, and to our sense of normality. Our habits, Rita Felski writes, are ‘intermeshed with’ identity, because the ‘distinctive blend of behavioural and emotional patterns’ that make them up make us up too, and they are the simplest, most effective ways that we can grant ourselves dignity and comfort – two things, I think, that are so often denied to those of us who are unwell. Our habits are homely, but it is for precisely this reason that they are important – because the allow us to rest, to dwell.

I kept thinking about homeliness, about dwelling, in Iceland in part because I kept seeing, and being surprised by, how casually and comfortably Icelanders live beside – and occasionally directly underneath – active volcanoes. Reykjavik is built between a harbour and a volcano, the very first thing I’d see when I climbed up the stairs out of our house each morning, dark and spiny on the horizon; as we drove around the island, Birgir would point to the mountains we were passing beneath and say, this volcano erupts every ten years, this one every fifty years, this one every two or three years, this volcano is eight years overdue and could explode any day soon. The coastline that we were ribboning our way around needs to be remapped every fifteen years or so, because the lava that is so frequently deposited makes it bigger, changes its shape and surface area; a fact that seemed all the more remarkable and disconcerting given that I come from a part of the world that is keenly aware – although not aware enough to act – of how rising sea levels are shrinking entire nations in close vicinity to our own.

Every bridge we crossed was single-lane, because the bridges on the highway are so often destroyed by lava flows or washed away by the glacial floods that almost always accompany an eruption and it’s cheaper to keep rebuilding infrastructure that has just one lane. We passed towns beneath mountains that were cross-hatched with huge metal structures designed to divert lava flow, or at least slow it down long enough for the people living there to evacuate by fishing boat, a half-built mountain tunnel whose construction had been interrupted because the drilling had hit a thermal spring, and left 90-degree water pouring out into the sea, for months now, with no end in sight. We drove through vast and empty floodplains, dusty grey and littered with gibber-like stones, and Birgir would say, there used to be a town here, there used to be a fishing village here; once, my family used to farm sheep here, but it moved, we moved, after the volcano. Each of these things relayed so casually, so factually; it was amazing to me to think of a volcano as being so ordinary, everyday.

(And then there is the language around volcanoes, how many times I heard, they spew lava, they disgorge, they heave. The pressure builds and then they spit. Great, I thought, I’m fucking seismic now.)

But it’s exactly this that fascinates me about the ordinary, the regular, the habitual – that we stop seeing it, or at least, stop seeing it as remarkable when it becomes the stuff of our everyday lives. In the same manner that we only half-notice that so many of the activities and behaviour we repeat each day, we only half-notice the truly extraordinary landscapes, places and situations that we move through, and for the exact same reasons – that’d we’d quickly become exhausted if we had to apprehend each environment, navigate each decision each time afresh. My family home has been repeated threatened by the bushfires that spring up around Sydney almost every summer, we expect these, live alongside them; my friends and I, now living under the flight path in the Inner West, stop talking without thinking, mid-sentence, when a plane passes overhead, roaring loudly enough to drown out any speech we might otherwise attempt (we call this the Marrickville Pause). One friend surfs at Coogee every morning close to dawn; Birgir climbs frozen waterfalls in winter. One person’s transcendence, that is, is another’s ordinary immanent.

On my last day in Iceland, we drove back into Reykjavik, cheering when we crossed the intersection that marked the place where we’d started our circumnavigation of the island. Birgir dropped me at the bus station, the same one I’d arrived at from the airport, where I could store my bags for a few hours before heading back there for my midnight flight, and as I walked in towards the city centre I realised that I knew exactly where I was headed: away from the university, along the length of the lake, to the café I’d been writing in each day before the conference (I’d not had a proper coffee in six days); later, up the hill to the bookshop to buy some trinkets for my family, then looping back towards the harbour to a bar I’d not had time to try before but had admired from outside its huge bay windows. It was a wonderful and lovely feeling, to be coming back to the city and slotting back in to its spaces so easily, to be greeted at the café by a pixie-faced waitress saying, thank you for visiting us again, to not have to backtrack or check my map as I walked; all the more so because this city was not, is not, my own. It was, of course, only a small corner of the city, barely two suburbs, that I’d made familiar like this, but this familiarity (and that low, slow light) made the city feel gentle and dreamy, especially after so long in and beside the elements, on the road.

When I got to the airport, five hours later, the Air Iceland attendant booked my luggage through to Sidney, Nebraska, so unfamiliar was she with my city, the opposite side of the world.

When I arrived home from Iceland – Alex had picked me up at the airport, dressed up in his suit and carrying my puppy under his arm – my housemates had decorated a cardboard box with braid and ribbon and filled it with groceries for me, as well as the parcels of books that had arrived on our doorstep while I’d been away. We ordered Thai, watched a Netflix comedy on my bed; I had a long, hot shower to wash the transit from my skin. We had breakfast at my favourite café the next day, ordering my usual, but each of these things, usually so ordinary, usually so easy, felt somehow fraught: I was jittery and strange, glad to be home, but somehow not feeling at home in any way. In the weeks after, I struggled to pick up again my old routines; I know this is not unusual, that coming back home, back to work, back to regular, immanent time, is difficult for everyone, but I felt distraught, found myself crying in my bedroom in a way that I hadn’t for years, my dog climbing up my chest to lick my tears. Travel is and does so many things, I sometimes think, but so often and in so many ways it wounds (although I didn’t think it could happen in so short a time).

The French philosopher – and famous anorexic – Simone Weil wrote that ‘to be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognised need of the human soul.’ Weil was writing in 1943, towards the end of the second world war, and the massive upheavals and uprootings that it caused (and that she saw as causing it, in no small part); at a time when her own country was occupied and unfamiliar. Her version of rootedness is a sense of connection, both to the past and to the future, and to other people; it is durational, and it is also a precondition of leading a fulfilling and moral life, the condition to which we should aspire. I keep thinking too of those characteristics I had been imagining for myself and my travel – bravery, transformation, independence, adventurousness – that these are things we can really only want for ourselves if we’ve never been forced to actually draw upon them, if our ordinary lives have never been ruptured by events or circumstances that truly require them, like war, like violence, perhaps even like an illness that changes the way you have to be in your body, in the world, in time.

Rita Felski argues that our modern, global world has developed a ‘vocabulary of anti-home’, which privileges restlessness over rootedness, the transcendent over the immanent, and it means that we are conditioned to see standing still only as stasis, a kind of living death. But standing still, or moving in repeated tiny orbits, this is how we connect with, and cope with, the much more ordinary existence that really is the stuff of so much of our lives; and our habits are how we attend to it, pattern over it and shape it – unspectacularly, perhaps, but beautifully gently, and in a continual and immanent present.

Works cited

Rita Felski, Doing Time: Feminist Theory and Postmodern Culture, NYU Press, New York, 2000.
Simone Weil, The Need for Roots: Prelude to a Declaration of Duties Towards Mankind, Routledge Classics, 2002.
Wendy Wood, Jeffrey M. Quinn and Deborah A. Kashy, ‘Habits in Everyday Life: Thought, Emotion and Action’, in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 83:6, 2002, pp. 1281-1297.
Iris Marion Young, On Female Body Experience: Throwing Like a Girl and Other Essays Oxford UP, New York, 2005.