BLACK SAND IN GLASS BOTTLES | Emma Hutson
NOTE: The story can be found in ISSUE 3: WANDERLUST. You’ll have to view the piece in ISSUU — it’s on page 14.
I like when journals publish themed issues. The themes are typically conveyed in a single word so full of cultural and psychological implication that there’s no telling where the enclosed works will go. Such is the case with the “Wanderlust” issue of SEVERINE.
Most associate wanderlust with the impulse to go places, experience new cultures, have adventures. Many will think of stamped passports, twelve-hour flights, and eating bugs in someone’s hut.
Not surprisingly, creative storytelling has found a way beyond this traditional definition, as we see in Emma Hutson’s beautifully understated “Black Sand in Glass Bottles.”
This is the story of a woman with agoraphobia. This is the story of virtual wanderlust, globetrotting by proxy.
I had to look up the term agoraphobia to get a fuller understanding of the concept; my working definition has always been “when you’re afraid to go outside.” It’s a little more complicated than that, and the medical community’s understanding of agoraphobia is rapidly evolving (with definitions changing from one edition of the DSM to the next), but Wikipedia‘s broad-strokes definition seems like a decent explanation for the purpose of today’s story:
Agoraphobia is an anxiety disorder characterized by anxiety in situations where the sufferer perceives the environment to be dangerous, uncomfortable, or unsafe.
How does an author write about the experience of wanderlust, the thirst for movement and adventure, as it relates to someone with an intense, even debilitating aversion to anything beyond the comfort zone of her house?
Meet our protagonist Beth, who has transformed the rooms of her home into exotic global destinations–the China room, the India room, the Thailand room. She dips her toes in heated sand, she collects and enjoys the decor of distant cultures. Her sound system fills the space with splashing water and the calling of seabirds. Beth is both a dreamer and a pragmatist–recognizing her limitations, she has the world imported into her home.
When it comes to disorders or diseases, no word seems more likely to be paired with the condition than “suffer.” This seems particularly true for those who do not have the condition in question, speaking of someone who does. I suppose it’s an inherent sense of pity that causes people who don’t have ____ to refer to those who do as suffering from ____. In fact, there’s no rule that says the paralyzed have to suffer from paralysis, or that people with agoraphobia must suffer from their agoraphobia.
Beth, for her part, seems to have adapted reasonably well to her situation. Not only has she reimagined her home as a microcosm of global culture, she’s developed a system to address her needs: the items she needs arrive through the post, she finds emotional support by chatting with her peers online (via the Agoraphobia Support Network), she has friends like Gina and the postman Jacob who drop by, and she seems to draw an income through online betting. Hell, she’s even figured out how to get laid without stepping out her front door (thanks to Tinder–the Domino’s of casual sex). It’s a fairly remarkable self-sufficiency.
Beth’s domestic mini-world seems both a passion project (“She had a world to cultivate”) and a practical attempt to preserve emotional order.
Her world is constantly filling with trinkets shipped from around the world (including a beautiful mandala tapestry from India). Things seem relatively peaceful. But Beth’s a complex person; there is still an underlying yearning, we infer.
Consider Beth’s resignation toward her agoraphobia, which we discover through her opinion of the fellow members of her support community:
Someone was always trying too hard to pretend they weren’t what they were. She’d given up on that years ago and had a shelf of discarded tokens in the bathroom to prove it.
The author has an effective method to subtly convey Beth’s conflict: the observation of others, largely uninflected by Beth’s emotions, which nonetheless hints at her sense of deprivation. We see the bottled black sand that arrives in the mail–a souvenir from Beth’s friend Gina–along with a postcard where Gina recounts her international adventures to the homebound Beth. (A bit of a FU for someone confined by agoraphobia, in my opinion, but I’m sure Gina means well.)
Plus there’s that moment when Beth surreptitiously watches her letter-carrier interact with a neighbor, the two chatting with complete immunity to the outdoors. We don’t read what Beth’s thinking during this moment, but the very fact that Beth’s secretly watching life transpire beyond her window is testament enough to her sense of confinement.
On the upside, a brand new mandala tapestry just arrived in the mail for her India room. The mandala, a sacred depiction of the universe that’s prominent in Hindu and Buddhist traditions (as well as on yoga paraphernalia and the concert posters of shitty jam bands), was popularized in the West by the likes of Carl Jung as a symbol of the individual’s internal cosmos. It’s fitting that Beth, whose wanderlust is restricted to imagination and mail order, would want an image that speaks to the limitless nature of the human imagination.
Tragically, on some level, Beth knows her fabric mandala is just a nicknack. Out her window, the world awaits.