‘I hope that you live a life you’re proud of. If you find that you are not, I hope that you have the strength to start all over again.’ — F Scott Fitzgerald
Last November, I was lying on the therapy table of a nutritionist/masseuse/Reiki healer. I had arrived agitated but the dim lighting, the cosy interior of the consulting room, and the blanket I was under had started to soothe me. She started the session by holding my feet and asking me, in her soft voice, to picture my safe place.
I jolted up in a panic. I don’t have a safe place!
Then picture your bed, she said.
I don’t have a bed! I live out of a suitcase! I move every few weeks!
Picture a place where you felt safe, she said.
I scanned my memory of all the houses, apartments, hotel rooms, flatshares, friends’ spare rooms and the like that I’d stayed in throughout my life. I was five when my family moved away from the only home I knew until then – a large bungalow in Dhaka with a garden filled with flowering bushes, vegetable and fruit trees, a goldfish pond, ducks and chickens, and even a cow for a spell. It was also the place of my earliest memory: my body covered in eczema, my hands bandaged closed like a boxer’s by my parents so I couldn’t scratch my open wounds with my nails, sobbing to my sister to please scratch my face for me because the eczema was itching like crazy, and her telling me with tears in her eyes that she couldn’t, she really couldn’t, because it would only make it worse.
There were two apartments in Kuwait where my family lived over ten years, but they are forever marked by the loss of my brother. We left home one summer to go on a family holiday then we came back without him. His things lay in his bedroom for months before any of us could touch them to put them away.
There was an apartment in Dhaka when we moved back, but that is perhaps the one I detest the most, loaded as it is with the memory of my eczema returning, rendering me helpless in bed for a year, missing my O Levels, and being ostracised in school for being – on top of the eczema – the girl who didn’t quite belong.
Then followed a series of dorm rooms in college in the US, with a semester spent in Italy. Dogged by depression, the rooms from this period eventually took on the same oppressive feel of loneliness, wretchedness and trauma, mixed in as they were with stints at the university hospital where I was admitted and re-admitted (and re-admitted…).
The next seven years were a whirlwind of hotel rooms – a few dank, the majority wonderful – as I worked on film productions around India. I also spent a few months in a cosy studio in Florence with a skylight over my bed and my own stairs leading to my own rooftop terrace filled with plants in terracotta tubs, overlooking the Duomo. My parents, having moved back to the bungalow of my childhood, built a second floor where I would sleep when I’d go to visit, but as my father’s illness became worse, staying in such a large property that required 15 people to maintain it while only two of them lived there became too burdensome, so they sold it and moved into an apartment.
Then came my marriage and London as my base. My father gave me my inheritance early, and I was able to buy an apartment for my new life. It was a lovely space with park views, filled with light. I still went back to India for long stretches to work on films, though for the first time I began to feel a sense of belonging in London. But the marriage didn’t survive, and my ex wanted a large sum as settlement (because, by English law, he could) and the only way I could get that kind of money was to sell the home that my father, who had just died, had given me. I sold the apartment, gave my ex the money, and bought the tiniest flat in London with what I had left.
This, I told myself, would be My Home. And nobody would be able to take this one away from me. I even had a keychain that I’d bought in France the year before but hadn’t yet used of a hand-drawn image of a girl holding a giant key that said: la clé de mon chateau. The key to my castle.
But work and life continued to call me away. Every time I came back, it felt less like a haven where I could shut the door and exhale, and more like a pitstop where I made plans for the next stage of my life. The months it lay empty while I was away tugged at my mind (and bank balance) – a half-lived home. When I got offered a Proper Job that didn’t end in a few months, as all freelance film work did, I rented out the flat, detaching myself from it in the process once and for all.
I did my Proper Job for two years in my favourite city. For the second year, the apartment I rented from a very kind and stylish landlady was simple and compact, but well designed and lovingly cared for. I added to it by making white slipcovers to go over the sofas, and changed the curtains to layers of white on white cotton. I hung my clothes in the wardrobe and stocked the fridge with food and drink. I came home every day after work, put my bag down, kicked off my shoes, sat on the sofa and just smiled with contentment. It was this apartment that I finally grabbed – in my increasingly frantic ten-minute-long search, while lying on the therapist’s table – as my Safe Place.
I’m always moving. Nobody or nothing has made me live this way. I have chosen this life. Boredom, curiosity for different challenges, and desire for fresh experiences have forged a pattern where I keep getting up and going, however good I have it. The lifelong metaphorical significance of change, evolution and growth eventually imprinted itself onto the literal way I operated. I have, several times in my life, got rid of everything I own just so I could move more easily, wiping the slate clean behind me of all that felt outdated.
A friend recently described my way of living as ‘camping’. I have moved eight times in the past three months. I am overwhelmed by the generosity of friends who have given me keys to their homes and let me stay while they’ve been away. I know I am nothing without the kindness of my tribe. But, increasingly, as I packed away my hanging toiletries bag from the back of one bathroom door and then hung it on the back of another bathroom door at the next place, I wondered: for how long am I going to keep doing this? Did I somewhere mix up a fear of stagnation with a compulsion for flight?
The closest home I have is my mother’s but that’s because she lives there and she is the closest thing I have to a home. While I am content to be holed away with her, the other compartments of my life lie agonisingly flat. Dhaka is a place where I can visit but no longer stay.
This past year was especially full of movement and, with it, a growing sense of restlessness. I moved between my three countries with ease, but there was a constant shadow: do I know where I will be staying next?
And: what if I spend my life drifting because I have nowhere to go?
I landed for a spell back in my favourite city last December and searched for a short-term rental. I tried four brokers and exhausted three networks, all in vain. All I wanted was a simple, clean room where I could write. The places I was shown were full of neglect, mildew, wobbly furniture, cracked toilets and bare bulb lighting. While I might have accepted one in the spirit of adventure, I knew that even a few months of living with peeling neon green walls, crazy clutter, or the smell of damp would become intolerable.
Scrambling for more options, I messaged my former landlady. I had bumped into her last year at the market and she’d told me that the tenants who had moved in after me five years ago were never going to leave. She messaged back that my old apartment – my Safe Place – would, unexpectedly, be available again from early March.
Timing is everything
I’m not sentimental. The opportunity to move back into the apartment was not about pining for the good old days or clinging to dusty memories. But the session at the therapist’s table had shown me what I was missing – a place to call my own for a while, a bed I’d think of readily when asked to think of ‘your bed’. If it was time to throw down an anchor for a spell then this was a good spot.
My modus operandi for years was to try to control everything. Make a plan, zero in on the goal, make it happen. And with it: be fully charged, stay on high alert, be ready for battle. It was exhausting. Now, while I still do the hard work, I no longer think everything comes wrapped in struggle because I decided to believe that the Universe will help me out if something is meant to be.
And so it has. I got three job offers in one week (this has never happened before) each of which required me to live once more in my favourite city. The usual nightmares of moving countries somehow fell into place without undue hassle or headache. Even long bureaucratic checklists got miraculously fulfilled without angst. It was as if every time I came to a traffic light, it turned green.
And so I’ve moved back. I’m back in my Safe Place. My landlady put in endless frantic hours to get the apartment painted, serviced, updated and cleaned from top to bottom so it feels both familiar yet new. My white slipcovers and white curtains that had been put away by the tenants in the middle have been laundered by my landlady and put back. The bare white walls soothe me once more. I’ve put away my (few) possessions so I can navigate around the space with ease. I enter the door with la clé de mon chateau and feel, for this moment, as if I’m home.
‘As you move toward a dream, the dream moves toward you.’ — Julia Cameron
I credit this book with changing my outlook on how I now approach my life. It’s very woo-woo, but I love her spirited writing, wisecracks and wisdom. Read Tosha Silver’s collection of articles from her column at the San Francisco Examiner in Outrageous Openness.
‘I just need some place where I can lay my head. Hey mister, can you tell me where a man might find a bed? He just grinned and shook my hand; “no” was all he said.’ Listen to The Band sing The Weight.
A house bought for too much money in a far away county that’s already falling down? Watch Cary Grant in Mr Blandings Builds His Dream House (directed by HC Potter) as he and Myrna Loy try to fix it up.