Finding Comfort in Small Spaces

Jessica Gross considers her preference for certain types of confinement.

Jessica Gross | Longreads | September 2018 | 11 minutes (2,864words)

In January of 2014, I rode a train from New York to Chicago, then back again. My little cabin had been provided by Amtrak: a “test run” of what later became the Amtrak Residency. In an essay for The Paris Review Daily, I tried to explain — that is, explain to myself — what trains offer writers, and, particularly, me. I arrived at the sense of containment I felt, bound by the train car and, even more so, by the little private bedroom that ensconced and held me.

What I didn’t say in that essay is that, when I began the journey, I was very, very lonely. On the overnight train trip to Chicago, I rotated between crying, reading Adelle Waldman’s The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. (which, by absorbing and distracting me, would make me abruptly stop crying), talking on the telephone, taking notes for my essay, and frantically researching a last-minute freelance assignment. When I got to the hotel in Chicago — my plan was to stay over that Saturday night, then take another overnight train back the following day, to arrive back in New York on Monday — I called my mother, forlorn. She suggested I go home early. Instead, I took myself to dinner and people-watched. But it wasn’t until the next day that I was lifted out of my loneliness and into delight, or maybe peace.

On Sunday, before my train home and after an obligatory visit to the Bean, I took myself to the Art Institute of Chicago. There, wandering the basement in search of a bathroom, I happened upon the Thorne Miniature Rooms, a collection of intricate dioramas. Nestled into the wall, behind panes of glass or plastic, were almost 70 tiny scale models of interiors from different eras: European homes from the 1200s through the 1930s; American homes from the 1600s through the 1930s (the models were constructed between 1932 and 1940). I spent many minutes peering into these rooms: the replica of a New York parlor from the mid-1800s; the early-1700s-era English library; the Virginia dining room from around 1800. I suppose another person would have viewed the rooms in their proper historical context, or concerned themselves with what the designs revealed about the styles of the time. I — a person who has just listed several rooms out of chronological order — viewed the rooms from a position of purely personal need. I projected myself into their spaces, imagined sitting on the tiny couches and lying in the tiny beds. Their very littleness gave me a way to contain myself; and suddenly I was not lonely anymore.

* * *

Writing is frightening, and so is life, with its multitude of surprises and disappointments and, too, its overwhelming pleasures. I am a sensitive person, and so I don’t remember a time when, as a defense against life — its terrors and its rich abundance — I did not crave the comfort of smallness. When I was growing up, my twin bed was wedged into the corner of the room, and I would often fall asleep on my left side with my right foot sandwiched between the bed and the wall. My childhood shelves were lined with stuffed animals, Russian nesting dolls, miniature tea sets, a tiny model of a clarinet, snow globes, a scale replica of the Sears Tower I’d made in middle school. It occurs to me now, typing this, that much of what’s made for children is in miniature: I suspect this is not only a matter of practicality, but also one of comfort. Beholding the itty-bitty, you feel momentarily omnipotent. You have control.

I am a sensitive person, and so I don’t remember a time when, as a defense against life — its terrors and its rich abundance — I did not crave the comfort of smallness.

If there is a seat in the corner, I will take it. I dislike sitting with my back toward an open door; this is less a matter of fearing that someone will enter the room and startle me and more an existential distaste for feeling uncontained and exposed. In high school, I often kept my jacket on indoors: it was cold in winter; high school was also scary. There was, in college, my senior year library carrel, a little room several floors underground in the library, in which hours unfurled as I wrote my thesis in an ecstatic trance. There was my bedroom in my first apartment in New York City, the year after I graduated from college: big enough to fit only a twin bed. It was cheap; I also loved it. That twin bed followed me to my next apartment, even though the room there probably could have accommodated a full or even a queen. In my mid-20s, a friend dubbed me “Tiny Jessica.” He had another friend named Jessica, and this was how he differentiated me. I could not imagine a nickname that would have given me more pleasure.

***

I’m sure one could have an intense appreciation for smallness and yet not want — crave, need — to be small oneself. In that world, the connoisseur of miniatures must get something out of it other than the pure relief of containment and control. This was not the case for me. I do not need to dwell on the specifics of my eating disorder, but suffice it to say that from as far back as I was obsessed with miniatures — as far back, that is, as I can remember — I thought obsessively about the size of my body, and sought both comfort and punishment in food.

The eating disorder, which took various forms over the years, often manifested in excessive eating at night, countered by exercise and highly restricted eating the following day, and on and on. I weighed myself with extreme frequency. There was a two-pound range that was acceptable to me. If I found I was below this range, I was euphoric. If I found I was above this range, I would despair. During the years that the calculus disintegrated and my weight hovered stubbornly above the two-pound range, the antipathy I felt toward my body was extreme. Having an eating disorder is miserable.

I’m not sure when people stopped calling me “tiny” — an adjective I certainly hadn’t heard for the first time in my mid-20s. For much of my life, I subsisted on a constant infusion of such descriptors. I don’t know what I weigh anymore — it’s been years since I’ve weighed myself, and I hope never to do so again — but I suspect I’ve gained only about 10 pounds since then. The fact that I just appended the word “only” to “10 pounds” is, itself, a shock to me: in the depths of an eating disorder, which is a place divorced from reality, if you gain 10 pounds, you might as well die. Regardless, although I am still a relatively small person, I am not called tiny anymore. My body now looks as it’s supposed to — it was meant to assume a petite-curvy shape, and it now does. I was called “tiny,” I think, not only because I was actually small, but because there was something about my body that looked unnatural, as though it wasn’t quite itself. It was arrested; I had arrested it in girlhood. Now, it’s simply mine.

* * *

I remember, in the early days of experimenting with foods I had previously forbidden myself, eating pasta in cream sauce that a friend had made. Halfway through the plate, in a state of transcendence, I realized with a start that I had been eating without censure or guilt. I nearly laughed. I was feeding myself; and I was grateful for the food.


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The glory of butter, the glory of bread at any hour of the day, the glory of three full meals, the glory of being hungry and then full, the glory of not living each day by the scale, the glory of whole milk in coffee, the glory of detaching food from its punishing numbers, the glory of seeing my body as a whole rather than a set of parts, the glory of looking in the mirror and loving my own face.

* * *

One of the things you learn in recovery from an eating disorder — or in any kind of recovery, or perhaps in any period of healthy development — is that your deepest flaws, in different degrees or intensities, or differently directed, are also strengths. Aggression, for example, when not channeled into hostility toward others or toward self-destruction, can be sublimated into exercise, creativity, ambition, sex. You can stubbornly refuse help, refuse health, refuse kindness; or you can be stubborn about accepting these things, about creating for yourself a worthy and fulfilling life. A respect for containment and confinement, when not over-indulged as a need for control, can be channeled into responsibility, dependability, a capacity for setting and upholding expectations.

Recovery from an eating disorder is not a free-for-all. That, in itself, is an eating disorder. You don’t go from punishing yourself for eating bread to eating twenty loaves. This is a difficult concept for someone prone to black-and-white thinking — as almost everyone I’ve ever met who has struggled with an eating disorder is — to absorb. “Intuitive eating,” or eating in attunement with your hunger and fullness cues, as I strive to do, necessarily also involves a degree of judgment. I might feel like eating a whole cake, and then I might realize that doing this might make me feel ill, so instead I may have a single slice.

The goal is not to do away with containment altogether. The goal is to have limits that are flexible. I am never going to give in to wild and crazy disorder, though I may fantasize about it. I am probably always going to be a claustrophile. And yet the aim is for these small, containing spaces to still be capacious enough to allow for life. The way out of an eating disorder isn’t insane, unbridled freedom. It is attention. For me, this is a work in progress. It is challenging, living somewhere in between nothing and everything, tiny and enormous, despair and ecstasy. It is challenging to live in reality.

* * *

I thought about all this a lot while reading Sheila Heti’s Motherhood, a deeply interior account of Heti’s narrator’s years-long decision whether to have children, and simultaneous consideration of her life as a writer. I don’t share the narrator’s anxiety about the constraints motherhood might impose on creative life; my own anxiety is about whether I will get to experience this particular constraint. Yet I have experienced the all-consuming indecision that Heti evokes so well, with its incessant round-and-round-and-back-again thoughts. Though this state feels like an endless circle, it’s more like a loop-de-loop: every time the narrator comes back to what feels like the same place, she is digging slightly deeper, having a little sliver of a revelation. She does make a decision, in the end.

In her insightful review on Slate, Willa Paskin argued that the limitations imposed by having a child might have sharpened Heti’s art:

Since she was a child, Heti writes, “I wanted to be free.” She laments the writer who denies herself the freedom to write, the whole day to work — “I really need an infinity amount of time to work; to access infinity” — and the woman who does so too. “The most womanly problem is not giving oneself enough space or time, or not being allowed it,” she writes. “Having a child solves the impulse to give oneself nothing. It makes that impulse into a virtue.” I underlined this quote in the book and wrote next to it, “True.” And yet I began to wish for some limitations — the squalling baby of her imagination — that might have made the book sharper. Motherhood is an exhibition of Heti’s freedom, of all the time and space she has made for herself, but as she perseverates, providing us with tarot readings, backslidings, and repetitions, the book drifts, languorous and limp.

I disagree, but this is a matter of personal taste; the backslidings and repetitions are exactly what I love about Motherhood. But Paskin sees, too, what I saw: that no matter how much the narrator insists she wants and has freedom, she needs constraints in order to create, and so has created them for herself. Paskin points to the book’s major device: interstitial passages, inspired by the I Ching, in which Heti’s narrator asks yes-or-no questions and then answers them with a coin toss. This “artificial limit,” Paskin writes, is “a kind of baby, an irrational authority that demands she mentally accommodate it.” This is a clever note. Yet I saw limitations functioning in the novel more on an existential plane than on a practical or logistical one. Consider the narrator’s description of the cocoon-like state she enters when she writes:

Perhaps the cocoon I am meant to make is the cocoon that forms around me while writing. Then every day to go into it — into that cocoon of time and space, where everything stills, and my self becomes mush, and something new is formed. Inside this writing place, time and space are completely without form. Life has some defect of soul.

This is the me I most recognize as me — a self without fear, the self I most like to be with. It is not a me that is concerned with making choices or anything; it’s a self without form, unimprisoned. The answer I gave when I was a child when someone asked me what sort of animal I wanted to be, always was, turtle. Maybe because a turtle is always at home? Even then, I always preferred to be at home. Perhaps I can carry my home on my back, if home is nothing but this cocoon, in which I can write and feel fine.

I want to be in this cocoon for as much of every day as possible — to remain within it as long as I can, and spend as much of my time as I can within it, and for it to be my shell, my protection against the world. No one can be in here with me. In here I feel no tears, I feel no emotion at all; no pleasure or pain.

The narrator is writing, here, of a small space within her own mind. In this cocoon, this turtle shell, this mental home, she is protected. Given the gift of this protection, she can then be free.

* * *

Perhaps all of this is obvious. Who doesn’t know that necessity is the mother of invention, that limits breed creativity, that there’s a reason we aren’t all pure hedonists, and it isn’t just that, practically speaking, we can’t be? Yet I know I am not the only person who has struggled to access the gray area, where you can have some but not all. I know I’m not the only person who has had to wend my way toward a form of moderate containment — flexible and forgiving, rather than rigid and punishing, but still there. This is, at root, like everything else, a matter of degree. Consider the therapist’s office: it’s a small, safe space to retreat to. “The project is to enable somebody to speak,” psychoanalyst and writer Adam Phillips said in an interview in 2012. “It is as though Freud invented a setting or a treatment in which people could not exactly speak the poetry that they are, but that they could articulate themselves as fully as they are able. [A session] lasts 50 minutes, and it’s always at the same time each week, just like a sonnet is always 14 lines. It’s a similar thing. The form makes possible the articulation.”

A respect for containment and confinement, when not over-indulged as a need for control, can be channeled into responsibility, dependability, a capacity for setting and upholding expectations.

But the idea isn’t to live there forever — not in the therapist’s office, not in the train car, not in the pages of a book, not in a childhood body, not in a childhood home.

* * *

In Paris last August, at a Palais de Tokyo exhibit called “Dioramas,” I encountered a clip from The Truman Show playing in a silent loop on one wall for the first time since I was 12. In this clip, Truman discovers the shattering reality that he’s been living in a literal bubble, while his daily interactions with the actors who populate his small universe are being filmed and broadcast. As a child, this movie filled me with terror, and for a long time after I was suspicious that I was being filmed, too — that everyone in my life was a fake, tricking me into “performing” for their pleasure. I say terror, but underneath that fear was desire; to be deeply anxious is to conceal a deep wish. I wanted to live in that small, contained, certain place.

Beholding the clip again, all those years later, remembering my earlier cravings, I thought, I should watch that movie again. Yet more than a year has passed, and I still haven’t. Nor do I want to; something about it repels me. I stood for a few minutes, grateful the clip had no sound, so I couldn’t really be transported back. And then I walked away, through the exhibit, out of the museum, and into the terrifying, thrilling, uncontrollable world.

* * *

Jessica Gross is a writer based in New York City.

Editor: Sari Botton