ON THE BLESSING OF BEAUTY
I have fallen in love with foreign cities in the past, walked besotted through their streets thinking I could never have enough of them. Some, like Dublin, I still hanker after. For a long, long time the city where I live now did not register on my radar. I was blind to its quiet beauty and thought almost everywhere, anywhere, more vivid and beguiling. Then, at a certain point of separation, the memory of it began to tug at me; it would not leave me alone. I wrote about it from afar and in fiction it became the thing I craved most. Eventually, I moved back home.
The early stages of this move were unexpectedly fraught and troublesome; nothing was the way I had left it and I was older, burdened with more baggage; I had been altered by the people and places I had known in the decades of separation, and their loss was a blow I had not counted on. For a while it seemed as if I was home again, but still not at home. I wrote another novel and set half of it in another country as if testing my intentions.
As a concept, home is slippery. When I lived away and yearned, I could have drawn a detailed map of home, yet the moment I returned, it began playing hide and seek with me, until I wondered where on earth one could possibly go from there.
Lately, I've moved house, swapped the seaside suburb of my childhood for one which prizes its stock of older houses and is located closer to the city. Suddenly, it feels as if something more than furniture has shifted, and I look around with a cautious feeling of being close to home at last.
Adelaide is not a flash city, except, perhaps, when the light in summer glances off its surfaces - the broad expanse of the gulf which is its shining backdrop, the newer high-rise buildings whose glass facades reflect intriguing angles of their own architecture, or drifting clouds. Its charm has an understated quality, yet within the leafy streets so meticulously planned by Colonel William Light in the 1830s, Adelaide's traditional architecture offers small, daily morsels of beauty.
I love the pale sandstone faces of its old villas, their shady verandahs, fanlights and side windows of intricate stained glass. Finials atop their pitched, corrugated-iron roofs add a sense of lightness and style, while brush fences, weathered to silver, achieve privacy for city gardens without the ugliness of modern fencing materials.
In an essay entitled "The Home and the Artist", 1 Kristjana Gunnars* talks about the importance of home to writers, of home as the 'site for all possible accomplishments'. She also discusses the importance of cultivating beauty, since choosing function at the expense of beauty tends to erode our aesthetic selves.
'Count your blessings,' my grandmother used to say at every opportunity and, counting them now, I realise how lucky I am to find myself in a house whose period details have not been tampered with. Every day that passes I take greater pleasure in its modest beauties: the front verandah, shady in the hot months and warmed by the winter sun, is tiled in a pattern of spinning stars; pairs of plaster sparrows squint down at me from ventilation grills in the breakfast room, while the clouded glass of an old mirror, found in a local second-hand shop, renders all that it reflects mysterious; in the back garden, a row of roses, whose variety I cannot name and of a colour I never would have chosen, explode in coral sprays against the faded green tin fence. From now on, the writing I make is bound to grow into and out of my relationship with this old house, but most of all there is the comfort of its quiet insistence on my being home at last.
So, how can one corner or a city feel like home, but not another? In my case, the suburb I left behind had been the family stamping ground since long before I was born, and perhaps that was the trouble between it and me: in the end it contained too many sites of loss and regret, not enough of optimism and celebration. Walking around it, I was assailed by absences, even if only of my younger self.
The new suburb feels like a clean slate, one which ought to be approached in the slow, thoughtful way that one approaches the making of any piece of art. And the old house, whose formal beauty was in place long before I came to it, is the perfect space in which to assemble everything that matters most to me.
This concentration of all that one intensely loves, in a particular place - a place where the light is right, where the eye is pleased - is surely what home consists of. Over time, the house itself will add defining touches; I see it happening already in the autumnal rain of leaves in certain corners of the garden, in the eccentricities of window latches and door handles, in the nocturnal creaks and rustlings, and even in the cracks, endemic in old houses built on clay soils, which already drive us to distraction.
The house has secret spaces, some of them accessible by ladders; an underground water tank lies concealed beneath a crescent of new, lime-green lawn; there is a cellar of ankle-cracking depth, covered over until the household's ancient dog and young child lose their morbid fascination with it. In a sense, these are dream spaces, dark and hidden; the house would not be itself without them, and it is this collision of differing elements, particularly chosen, that goes towards making a work of art, making home.
* Gunnars, Kristjana. "The Home and the Artist", Stranger at the Door: writers and the act of writing. Canada: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2004.