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Houses (and the things we unwittingly keep in them)

These are the days I regret my expatriotism. Hopefully, you’ve found somewhere inhabitable to hide, somewhere dark and cool, maybe in an underground bunker. For the Canadians here, while you enjoy the blissful reprieve of a meter of snow and frigid winter temperatures, down under we’re living in a fan-forced oven.

At least here, close to the coast we’ll get a cracking storm and some reprieve tonight, for those further inland, well, you’re used to this, aren’t you? But wherever you are, if you’re lucky enough to have access to one, a house is a small miracle today.

While traversing the southern coast of Victoria, the wind threatened to blow us off the continent. Every day we would wake to the wind tearing itself along the landscape and straight through our campsite. It paid little heed to the layers of pithy clothing we had packed or the op-shop ones we had bought to wear on top of those, or the extra blankets we had procured from a Kmart along the way.

I remember one particularly blustery night on Wilson’s Promontory when the winds were howling at 60km/h, hard enough to lift the back of the hard floor camper off the ground. I was packing up for the night, fantasising about the prospect of four solid walls. Imagine that, I thought, just a structure with four impermeable surfaces that would keep out the worst of it. I was grateful to crawl under the layers of blankets sheltered beneath the canvas, but I knew morning would be here soon enough and we’d have no choice but to be back into the Antarctic gusts that were trying to spur us North and home.

A suburban house at night dreaming of the wilderness

A few weeks later I cried a little when I opened the door of our house. I took one look at our clean, solid, enclosed living room and choked up. It felt ludicrously generous. As much as I didn’t feel ready to come home, there they were - four walls - the very stuff of dreams.

  “And tell me…what have you in these houses? And what is it you guard with fastened doors?     Have you peace, the quiet urge that reveals your power?     Have you rememberances, the glimmering arches that span the summits of the mind?     Have you beauty, that leads the heart from things fashioned of wood and stone to the holy mountain?     Tell me, have you these in your houses?     Or have you only comfort, and the lust for comfort, that stealthy thing that enters the house a guest, and then becomes a host, and then a master?

Kahlil Gibran wrote his profound collection of prose poetry, The Prophet, in 1923, but it hasn’t lost any of its edge. If anything, my experience has only sharpened the blade of poems like, ‘On Houses.’ Comfort has an irresistible allure and I’m easily seduced. Warm showers. Dry clothes. Clean sheets. Roofs and walls. Refrigerators with shelves so you don’t have to empty the whole damn thing every time you want the BBQ sauce. I like these things - a lot. Give me someone who doesn’t. Being comfortable is a wonderful thing. But it interests me greatly when it becomes the only thing.

I’ve been pretty suspicious for a while now that you and I live within a larger culture where being comfortable is the most convincing intimation of being a successful adult. In our house, we often use ‘adult’ as an adjective to describe nice things. Many people around about our age have ‘adult couches’ (the kind you don’t put your feet on), ‘adult cars’ (the kind that has air-con, a reverse camera, Carplay and typically comes with a loan), and ‘adult houses’ (think ducted aircon, aluminum windows, soft-close kitchen drawers, and floors and walls without gaps to the outdoors - also accompanied by a big ass loan). Renovations, extensions, toys with engines, bigger, better, shinier. You get the gist.

Targeted marketing is constantly shooting me between the eyes with things that will make me more comfortable: french linen sheets in terracotta, headphones, a magic cure for ADHD, the promise of pain-free running (there’s only so much pain that can be eliminated from running). It knows how my brain works. It knows how I’ve trained and strengthened the muscle of want, how I’ve evolved to crave comfort and protection from ugly, difficult, gnarly, gross, unseemly, cringe-inducing discomfort. It knows all too well. And I am so easily lured down the rabbit hole some days. Ok, fine, lots of days.

Which is why Gibran cuts so deep with the truth, “the lust for comfort, that stealthy thing that enters the house a guest, and then becomes a host, and then a master…” Cos there’s a big ol’ gap between experiencing comfort and then lusting after it. It seems so innocuous at first, you know? You’re just after some nice stuff. Just wanting, say, four walls and some running water, you know? Then before you know it, you can’t be bothered to save water in saucepans at the bottom of the sink to finish the washing up and you’re complaining about how sun-bleached the lounge is getting and you’re stressed about the birds shitting on the outdoor furniture and thinking about whether you should extend the top story to add an ensuite and all your stuff feels so tremendously important again, suddenly, and you’re not sure why you feel trapped in your mediocre life wishing you were still on an adventure somewhere.

Take a step back lady. THIS is why.

Across the whole front of my desk, from one end to the other, I have written in big green texta, “Everything you want in life is on the other side of something you don’t.” Joseph Campbell said, “The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure that you seek.” And Gibran (later in that same poem) says, “Verily the lust for comfort murders the passion of the soul, and then walks grinning in the funeral.” Yikes. That’s what we in the English profession call an effective extended metaphor.

Well, you’re not invited to my bloody funeral Lust for Comfort. I plan on dying after I’ve done all the work that will let me be OK with all the shitty, uncomfortable, terrifying, awful parts of life and holding that tension, taut as all hell, between acceptance and giving it everything I’ve got. And since I don’t know when that’ll be, I better hurry up.

Which is what this project is, isn’t it? Me trying to figure out how to get there, how to come to terms with being interminably uncomfortable, dissatisfied, and ultimately lacking, and finding the freedom in that. I feel that getting my head around this is the opposite of feeling sorry for myself, it’s permission to stop wasting time chasing things that I don’t need so I have the liberty and energy to get what I want. But more on that later.

Pencil drawing of an old gnarly tree

May you have some comfort, but give the finger to that sly, deceptive Lust for Comfort and figure out what it is you truly want from this one, fleeting moment in time called Your Life. Big call? I still want it for you. As much as I want it for me.

I leave you with the last line of the poem,

    “ For that which is boundless in you abides in the mansion of the sky, whose door is the morning mist, and whose windows are the songs and the silences of night.”

You shiny bit of the universe, you. Put your runners on and go and get it.

xx Kim

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