Aesthetic dissonance and the remembrance of things past: a missive of humility and regret

This is not my room.

This is not my room.

I am a person who is very sensitive to space, to the environment I’m in and how it affects the background noise of my brain and my emotions. When I read Alain de Botton’s Architecture of Happiness it all made a great deal of sense. What surrounds you directly influences your state of mind, your sense of yourself and of your place in the world. Some people are, I think, passively affected by these things. I am very definitely actively affected by them.

Last night, I was awake for hours when I didn’t want to be, tossing and turning and agitated. I ended up settling for two night-time cold and flu tablets to try to help me sleep. It’s been a long time since I have been so anxious and so agitated, though for months I have been feeling unsettled with a low-grade anxiety humming along in the background.

There are lots of reasons this might be. My life right now is in a state of balanced stress, or regular irregularity. I’m working in two jobs, one of which is freelancing for a strategic communications company and the other is teaching; both of these require attention and focus. We have a young daughter, with all the merriment and frustration that’s part of a family. My partner is studying full time and working part time. We’re both the kinds of people who do things, make things, have ideas about things all the time; this is not a naturally restful state.

Then there’s the rest; drinking too much coffee, probably, and drinking wine most evenings; not doing regular exercise. All of these things are contributing factors.

But. I put my finger, finally, on what it is that’s been a bit wrong.

Two months ago I started a sort of redesign of our home, using this great group where people have been ‘paying it forward’ offering things for free to the local community. I’ve given heaps away using this group, and it feels good. For a while though I was completely obsessed with checking and looking to see what amazing, awesome things people were giving away. I found this beautiful couch and jumped. Yes, I thought. Finally we can get rid of our slightly run-down, though beautiful, antique couch. I didn’t realise this would trigger a kind of existential crisis. A crisis of furniture. A mid-century turn. I was envious of friends who, because of moving house or getting together when they were older and had money had been able to start fresh with their house of stuff. It felt at the time like we’d always been having to make do — an incredibly privileged and ungrateful attitude that I’ve never felt before, since I am proud of my ability to find and use and fix things. It was too red, I decided. Too old. Ridiculous to call something too much of itself. I wanted a ‘look’ — made, constructed, deliberate. Even though I am none of those things. Somehow, stuff became personality. I got caught up in the wrong-headed notion of being of the world, rather than in it.

I realise now I had a grudge against the couch for reasons that had nothing to do with the broken spring and the slightly faded cushion. If you can accept (however foreign the idea might be to you) that stuff can become part of your sense of yourself, hopefully this will make sense. The associations became temporarily negative. We’d had a period of illness in the house, resulting in one or other parent sleeping on the couch for a couple of weeks. Then a house guest. Then another house guest. A close friend passed away, and then the mother of a sister-in-law. Plus, the friends who’d given us the couch moved overseas a few years ago, which of course has nothing to do with us but felt like a broken link, an Error: 404 in the context of our home. I realise now I was blaming the couch for making the house crowded and sad, when in fact it was just a crowded and sad house for a while. The strength of this association became resentment.

I wanted a new couch. A new couch would make everything better. I wanted to leave the stress of the last several years – study for a doctoral thesis, multiple house moves, a beloved sister’s death, a new baby – and start over. Start with new things, deliberate things. I wanted pale colours with splashes of strong vibrant hues – orange, turquoise, pink, green. I wanted clean lines and smooth edges. I wanted no clutter. Even in this I now realise I was following my original couch friends, who had gone from the antique turn of the century era to the late 60s. So even this crisis of faith in myself, in my overly-ornamented furniture, was related to friends.

I listed the existing couch on two for sale sites, since we needed some money. A friend ended up buying the couch and the two deliberately mismatched armchairs, and they sailed off in a ute as I pulled into the driveway shortly afterwards. This started a cascade of searching and hunting for the next bargain. I wanted a mid-century modernist aesthetic, I decided; cigar turned legs, pale woods, a circular dining table. Maybe an atomic era clock on the wall. Some artful turquoise ceramics. Plants.

The new couch didn’t actually go with any of these ideas. As a contemporary take on the “antique look” it was in every way an aesthetic fraud. It’s not pale, it doesn’t have cigar turned legs. Instead it’s dark gold with a vaguely baroque print, and there are gaps between the seat cushions waiting for the unwary buttock. An unkind person could call it beige. I am not beige. It’s a one night stand couch that I woke up in the morning and regretted. Now, too late, I recognise that I derive psychological as well as physical comfort from things. The old couch was genuine, it had history, and it was beautiful. It was made back in the day, it had been restored lovingly by my friends after being used as a broken down dog bed for years. Then they passed it to us when they moved house, and we loved it. And then for some reason after a long-term relationship I got disgruntled and broke up with it. And I know that it’s just stuff, but I don’t think I’m necessarily a complete materialist for wanting the right kind of stuff around me. It’s not for reasons of status or appearance, it’s all about comfort.

The comfort thing was bothering me. We are caught between two aesthetics. So while we’re part way through, why not get a new bed while we’re at it? The existing bed gives us both backache. I love the frame but the slats are shot. More online scouring. More hours wasted trying to optimise something that can’t be optimised. My internet research skills are almost pathological, and they combine in a perfectly (and I do mean perfectly) dysfunctional way with my desire to DIY everything. Maybe I could recover the couch.

I found a circular table, kind of a cherry glaze over the top. Not quite right, but it’d do — maybe I could strip the varnish. I packed up the glorious scarred table we’d been given for our wedding, and the four mismatched dining chairs, and installed the new table after calling in numerous favours from friends. For some reason I didn’t think to resurface the existing table, but I guess I’d tried to move my aesthetic to a different era by then.

No joy. Since the table arrived, the background hum and pressure of slight anxiety as I scour website after website, spending literally hours at a stretch trying to find things that are perfect all at once for this new look, is exhausting. I’m not able to make them go together. Last night I realised what it was that has, I think, been going on.

Whether simply by long association, or because they actually were great together, all the previous big bits of furniture have happened piece by piece, drifting into our lives with the continental speed of friendships and years. The couch: a gift from very dear friends leaving the country. The dining table: a wedding present. A previous coffee table, now on permanent loan to relatives: a housewarming gift at least 10 years ago. Then the other bits, the bits I’ve found and been proud of: a stunning bureau, at least 120 years old, rescued. A chest of drawers that belonged to Charles Blackman. A step-style bookshelf that I’ve had since I was a wee lass, which still bears my shaky print declaration ‘Fiona’s books’ on the top shelf.

These things sang in harmony with one another. They jostled along well together, although we had a bit too much furniture for the space. They worked. Not only that, the very thing I thought I was exorcising by changing all the furniture — the past few years — now feels unapproachably distant. What I hadn’t realised this might risk is a new feeling of distance from myself. What for Proust was the smell of madeleines and tea that generated his writing is, for me here, in part a sense of home and familiarity formed by remembrance and association of things past. The couch represented all those periods of upheaval, yes; but it was also given to us by loving friends; it hosted other friends, and my sister, in its curving embrace; it’s the object of a beautiful portrait of me asleep with my brand new daughter in my arms, surrounded by the chaos and rich clutter of life. Getting rid of the couch meant that nothing went alongside anything anymore, which meant it was easier to let go of more things, which meant I slipped further and further from myself.

Now I’ve changed too much at once, and everything is beige instead of the rich oak and the red brocade that we had before. I’m giving the table away on the same website I got it from, and the old table is coming back. I want to lavish love and attention on my furniture, which has in some unfathomable way become part of myself. I want to live in a mismatched house, where the history of each thing is unique and known and part of the story of my weird life.

Not that I don’t still want picture shelves and a retro wall clock. Hell maybe even some trailing plants in turquoise pots. But changing everything at once was a dumb idea. I regret the frenzy of dissatisfaction, of giving way to an impulse of stuff-buying, of self-constructedness, that isn’t really me or who I am. Like all other regrets in my life, though, it’s time to learn and move on.


I am angry and feel pathetic and I’m tired of both of those things. I have had poor vision for my whole life, in one way or another. As far as I know, the timeline goes something like this.

  1. age 3, develop strabismus in my right eye, rapidly becomes serious and threatens blindness
  2. age 5? have surgery to correct this at the camperdown children’s hospital, with Dr Wilson (I only remember this because other eye people talk about him whenever my history comes up); wear glasses and patches to try to rebuild vision in that eye
  3. age 15 wear glasses to correct slight shortsightedness, generally only when studying or rapid switches between close and distant objects (note taking in class being the clearest issue)
  4. age 18 have to wear glasses all the time at university during lectures, as this version of the problem is much worse in larger amphitheatres. don’t wear them apart from this
  5. age 24? visit an opthalmologist rather than a regular optician, who tells me All Sorts of Things I Never Freaking Knew.
  6. ages 24-33 (now) nearsightedness gets worse and worse over time, unevenly, am told this is “surprising” by numerous people as the ages for vision change are usually teens and then mid to late 40s

So this needs some explanation to account for the anger, some of which is irrational. The experience and the diagnosis are so far removed in time, and so incongruous to one another, that they might as well have happened to different people.

Although I knew I had had surgery, I knew virtually nothing about it. Of course, I was very small at the time. I remember the visits to the hospital, exciting gritty trips on trains, the tiled corridor under Central station heading towards the buses, clutching my mother’s hand and walking along busy roads, all very urban in greys and browns; beautiful in a different and more rushed way than our usual suburban existence. I remember the smell of biscuits and chocolate from the Weatons factory that used to be across from the hospital (it is now the infinitely cool Deus Ex Machina shop and cafe), and billowing steam. I guess it was autumn or winter, it was rainy and I remember grey and oil slicked roads. I remember the owl prints on the curtains; blinking owls, winking owls with one or other eye, all sleepy Scandanavian birds on branches in the night sky. I remember them very clearly. The intense and unbearable light on the end of a pen shining to gauge (I guess) pupillary response and dilation.

(I now know that there’s a reason my eyes always look huge and unearthly vampiric in photos; my pupils are 30% larger than normal, and I am as a result incredibly sensitive to glare and bright lights — now a problem when driving at night sometimes, since it interferes with my ability to calculate distance.)

I remember lying with my head in my mum’s lap as she stroked my hair, staring blurrily and stickily at hospital doors while we waited for something after a numbing agent had been put into my eyes.
I remember having to focus on a monster on the end of a pen held at different distances away from my face.
I remember having to match colour layers of an image of a house until they seemed to merge in my vision.
I remember clinging onto my mother’s neck while nurses attempted to wheel me on a gurney and in a tiny hospital gown into a terrifyingly shiny room, and screaming and crying. They waited until I fell asleep to put me under a sedative, wheel me in, anaesthetise me and operate on my eye; so the next thing I remember is waking up and seeing red fill one half of my vision with blood on the pillow that my face was buried in.
I remember wondering whether I could see through things. I would lie in bed with the doona half over my face, winking alternate eyes and seeing very different things.
I remember bring endlessly frustrated by not being able to do magic eye puzzles, no matter how much I obeyed every minute instruction from my big sister about how to do them.

When I went and saw the opthalmologist in my early 20s and told him this whole history, he explained a lot of things that I had never been told. I was, he said (after rigorous tests and carefully non-leading questions) more than half blind in my right eye. I had never entertained this as a possibility, and it had never prompted further investigation by opticians, because I had no missing fields of vision. The vision loss was almost perfectly even across the retina, and certainly a result of the critically early age of my initial muscular problem (the strabismus). My eye had been receiving dud information for long enough that my brain was learning to ignore it when I had the surgery. So it is neurological rather than physiological blindness. This explained why it always seemed to me as if, looking out of only my right eye, I was seeing the world through cloudy glass, or (he laughed at this explanation) as though a child with her nose pressed up against a flyscreen. The bits missing were so close to my own face that I couldn’t see they were missing, but there was always — there is always — this sense of lost information, somehow.

Then there was the magic eye puzzles. I would not, he explained, ever be able to do them; I had technically zero stereoscopic vision, which is what such illusions rely upon. But, I exclaimed, I can catch a ball, I can drive! Should I not be driving? I can see distance! No no, he reassured me that other parts of my brain had learned to compensate for this lack of hemispherical co-ordination, and I was able to calculate distance, speed, acceleration, by other visual cues.

He also measured my vision and determined that my eyes in any case had different levels of nearsightedness, +1 in the left and +2.5 in the right. This massive difference accounted for my nearly constant headaches. This has changed over the years to +1.25 and +3.25; it’s getting worse in one eye (my dominant eye). If I can afford lasik and if I am a good candidate for the surgery, I will get it on that eye.

After seeing the excellent Dr, I called my mother, angry and upset and astounded to learn such fundamental things about my own body and its function — or dysfunction — at such a remove. Her bored responses — “Oh, yes, I knew that” — outraged me. It had never been discussed; it was never part of any explanation in the family for my various problems and complaints. I suppose, to them, the obvious trauma of the surgery was the Main Event; everything that happened after was just details. To me, though, those details are really important. They are with me all the time I have my eyes open. They make it, at present, unbearable to wear glasses when working at my laptop, but painful to lean close enough to be able to see what I’m working on. Since my visual range is fine (with left eye dominating) closer than about 30cms, and acceptable but not ideal (with right eye pulling more of a share) from about 1.5 metres, there is a field between 30cm-1.5 metres where my eyes constantly vie for focus and dominance, leading to massive headaches. From the 1.5 metre distance, I see double vision, and frequently squint my left eye shut so as to see more clearly, even when wearing glasses. Much, perhaps most, significant events in my life occur within the sub-optimal, difficult distance of 30cms – 1.5 metres. I read in bed a lot; when I do I need to half bury my face in a pillow, so as not to get conflicting information from each of my eyes. Double vision is with me for everything further away than 30cms, because my dominant eye is the more shortsighted, and the more rapidly deteriorating.

I hate it. I know there are worse problems but it is unrelenting. When an optometrist I saw recently (not being bothered to trek all the way out to the good dr) resented me for asking him to pass on my script to another (cheaper) spectacliere, I was right royally pissed off, since he had 4 months prior persuaded me to buy a pair of frames and glasses with all the trimmings for nothing less than $700. I bought a couple of backup pairs from this other place, and will not go and see him again.

Ugh. There’s not a neat end to this; no slow crane shot with upbeat song to imply resolution. I’m a visual artists and a writer and this really, really sucks.

This too, too solid flesh: palimpsest

I seem to be a bit of a style sponge at the moment. Maybe it’s always been that way, actually, I’ve always been highly suggestible. I wrote a piece about how my body changed as a result of pregnancy and my difficult labour, and a friend re-posted it on her blog ( and it got a lot of traction. I had lots of people comment and repost on facebook, and a few people who I haven’t seen in literally years sent me long, winding emails about what they thought about my experiences and my writing and hey we should catch up more.

It’s great. I find myself wondering how visible my changes are in the last several years, though, and in response to those emails have sent off almost stream of consciousness mixed with philosophy treatises. They almost form small chapters or interludes of this memoir by essay that I’m working on (which will now encompass, it seems, not just myself and my older sister, but now also my mother, though she doesn’t know about the other 2/3. How like our real history). I want to save them, to turn them into other things. To build on them. In another time I would be embarrassed to have been so effusive, so transparent, in writing; now I am actually grateful that it wasn’t while tipsy at a party, for although I deeply love those conversations they are ephemeral. What I want right now in life is surety, evidence, proof of life.

I might post them here. I want feedback on my writing.

I so want for this to work. I want and want and want. I have so few genuine regrets, but they are always regrets from not taking action, rather than from taking the *wrong* action. Nothing can bridge the space between existence and non-existence, writing will not bring N back to me, but it will mean she can keep changing me, and that we are in a form of elegiac dialogue.

Theo is going to publish ‘Lethe: the river” later this year.

Ah, mia cara.

Books by the bed:

  • Amanda Palmer, The Art of Asking
  • Phillipa Perry, How to Stay Sane (underwhelming so far; better info in Harris and others)
  • Sam Harris, Waking Up
  • Kay Jamison, An Unquiet Mind (trying for insight into my mother’s mind, and realising some truths about myself and others too)
  • Herodotus, Histories
  • Christos Tsiolkis, The Slap (redeemed in the second half, but an unrelentingly bad first half in my opinion)
  • Neil Gaiman, Good Omens (always good comfort reading)

And something to tuck into the sleeve:

news, liver surgery, surprise-bits of possible cancer, and being pissed off.

Absolutely incredible writing with heart hurting clarity.

sky between branches

i’m going to need to take a bit of an ease off on twitter for a bit: partly because i am super behind on emails, and partly because i need to process the next bit of news. that, and i’m trying to write some stuff which is NOT just about cancer, and one is due on the 11th to submit to The Lifted Brow which i would love to be published in again.

anyhow. liver surgeon appointment this morning. surgery is still going ahead, no date decided yet. the procedure he needs to do has never been done in australia, and has only been done 50 times. it involves something to do with splitting a major artery, cutting bits up to kill the liver, stitching me up again, waiting a week, then going in and getting the right lobe out. Dr McLiver thinks there is probably cancer in my left…

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