The illicit joys of the comfort zone! Why are we not allowed to seek it or dwell there? I think it’s my favourite environment in the world. I would choose it over adventure any day. I love the warm and the familiar, white blankets, toast, cashmere, sponge cake, showtunes. This snug arena, with its saving routines and its pats on the back, its atmosphere of convalescence, compensation and repair, calls to me loudly. In Dorothy’s blue-gingham ringed words, it’s “some place where there isn’t any trouble”. In my mind, it’s a world that’s free from pain, free from constraint, free from grief, misery, anxiety and distress, a place of physical ease and lightness, the alleviation of all difficulty. I agree, put like that, it sounds a little like being dead (sans everything) but, as a state, I think it’s underrated.
Unfashionable as flannellette or chicken-in-a-basket or coveting your neighbour’s ox, the accepted wisdom about the comfort zone is that it holds you back and hems you in, leading to stasis, rather than productivity, mere survival as opposed to growth. I’m not sure this is true. What if making our environments as soothing as possible is what will help us blossom and flourish, rather than stretching ourselves constantly, setting ever higher challenges and taking unnecessary risks? A friend who recently returned from scaling Mount Kilimanjaro for charity spoke of the utter helplessness and despair brought on by altitude sickness. I’m sick of hiding under my coat, like a Victorian photographer, in films with “disturbing adult themes”. (I don’t even really like to watch strong sarcasm.) Is it time to reassess the comfort zone? What if it might be the making of us?
I do see if you grew up with everything just so, jolly yet not inane parents, in a house filled with all you might need in your life: order, plenty and care, but not too much of these things, regular bedtimes and even spells of boredom… then a life pulsating with daring-do might be just the thing for you. But when comfort has been hard won and long fought for, carefully constructed, brick by brick, 50-minute hour by 50-minute hour, then turning your back on it seems foolhardy, ungrateful almost, borderline unhinged. Not wanting to scale Mount Killimanjaro does not mean I’m squandering life. However many times I sing Climb Ev’ry Mountain, the sentiments expressed are not contractually binding.
And yet I bore myself sometimes. How many hot baths and cashmere blankets does it take to make up for the past?
I had an unusual childhood, certainly. My mother brought up five children on her own with little money or support. I somehow gleaned from her that life was about selecting a particular set of excruciating circumstances and then suffering, bravely, with a ton of style. I may have lived on a street named after an emancipator of slaves as a teen, but it was in the middle of a red-light district and, most days, cars crawled along next to me on my way home from school. There was often a family friend passed out in a chair, croaking like a drunk in an old Western, little nests of syringes in the kitchen bin. I imagined my grown-up existence would be like that of a Jean Rhys heroine: fraught, chaotic, punctuated by betrayals, brimming with loss, but I’d also have hard work and courage to sustain me. I read that Jean Rhys “had the highest standards of courage and honour, but no judgment or common sense”. That’s what I was going for…
But at the last moment, something saving intervened. I remember the night it happened distinctly. I was 24, on the roof of my flat with five others – musicians and fashion people, glamorous types hell-bent on self-destruction. I witnessed a shocking accident, saw one of our party fall through a skylight, watched her hanging, cartoon-like, by her fingertips from the window frame over a 24ft drop below. I saw the near-miracle of one of the men hauling her up by the elbows, all 6ft 1in of her, blood streaming down her forearms. There were screams of terror, bottles of vodka, shards of glass everywhere. I gazed at ruin, and ruin gazed right back, and I did not like what I saw... I sat everyone down, switched on the gas fire, put on Stevie Wonder, made bacon sandwiches! I realised I didn’t want to go through life sharply, holding my nerve and swallowing my needs any more, but to soften things…
Am I now meant to feel stodgy because I don’t embrace the visceral or head off to the Cresta Run on bank-holiday weekends? I don’t think so.
And yet I bore myself sometimes. How many hot baths and cashmere blankets does it take to make up for the past? Will the sharp sparks of alarm stop igniting eventually? I sometimes wonder if my surfeit of caution is actually a little dangerous. Yet, if I take risks in my novels, attempting to write with scalpel-sharp clarity about the whole landscape of human feeling, how we bear the things we cannot bear, will that count? Apparently not!
Last month, to my amazement, I went to New Zealand to the Auckland Writers Festival, four 12-hour flights within one week, and I am no traveller. (It took a lot of persuasion last year to get me to Wimbledon to see Anything Goes.) I was nervous about being cooped up, but I needn’t have been, for lying in an armchair under a padded coverlet, reading and watching films and eating sweeties, is one of the most comforting ways to pass great swathes of time and yet, if you did it at home, people would be scandalised.
In Auckland, however, the circumstances were testing. I was to speak at the gala that opened the festival for seven minutes on the subject of “going under cover”, with no notes or props in front of – oh! – 2,000 people. I wandered on to the stage in my sparkly blue dress and gazed out at the audience, opening my mouth and closing it again, hot panic rising. Then I began to tell my particular tale of going under cover. I did not speak of disguise or espionage; I spoke of the need, in the face of life’s worst trials, to retreat sometimes, to let yourself off the hard hooks of yourself, to stop striving and trying to do and be things, but to recharge and recoup for a spell, to go under the covers. In an atmosphere of extreme personal challenge, I held forth on the importance of the comfort zone. A nice irony crackled in the air and I suddenly had a growing sense that, possibly, at some point in the future it might not be quite so either/or in life but a little bit more both/and…
Love & Fame by Susie Boyt (Virago) is out in paperback now.