Prompt 243. The Question of Home
& an essay on beds and memories by Tamzin Merivale
I’m very much the quintessential third-culture kid. I was born on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and raised mainly in upstate New York, though in the early years, my family was often on the move, spending a couple of year-long stints in Switzerland and Tunisia. I have three passports and grew up speaking three languages (none of them very well at a certain age). Because of that, I’ve always struggled with the question of home. I especially struggle to know what others mean when they ask me where I’m from. Often I’ll answer, “New York,” only to get the dreaded, “But where are you really from?”
Rather than a specific place, home for me has always been where my family is. Because we lived on the academic calendar, we were tethered to the U.S. during the semester, but on long breaks or over the summer, we’d rent out our house and travel to see family abroad or go backpacking somewhere we’d never been. My mom (pictured here with me in the sling she used to carry me around her studio) has a very particular gift for making a home anywhere. We always traveled light, but in tiny, beautiful ways, she created a sense of consistency.
A great example of this is when I was finishing treatment last time, we spent the winter break in Mexico. And one day after being out and about, we returned to find our little bungalow shining with Christmas lights. My mom had packed a string of them and some small ornaments in her suitcase, and suddenly—with just those few things—she had transformed our short-term rental into a very festive, very cozy nest.
These small gestures are an anchor. Wherever we are, my mom will clip a flower or branch of green leaves and nestle them in a little vase on the bedside table. Habits like this have helped me so much, especially in the last year, as I’ve been in and out of hospital rooms. Even if I’m in a tiny space, or a less-than-ideal space, I can make it my own with little more than a couple of LED candles. Even if things feel structureless and chaotic, I can find a sense of order amid the chaos.
For many people, Mother’s Day is complicated—something Rebecca Solnit writes about in this piece that I return to each year. I’m not a mother myself, and as someone who can’t have children in the way I expected, that’s true for me. There are many ways to make a family, of course, through adoption or surrogacy or fostering, though given my health, it’s not clear if even those are available to me. But my mom has taught me so much about how to mother as a verb, which is to say she’s taught so much about how to nurture and care for the people I love with little thoughtful gestures, like the single flower on the bedside table, or bringing someone a cup of tea unbidden. To mother in the most holistic, all-encompassing sense, whether to loved ones, or yourself, or your work, or whatever other tender thing.
With that, I’ll turn to a different, more straightforward association with home—a bed. Today, we have a gorgeously evocative essay and prompt from the artist and writer Tamzin Merivale, where she recounts all the beds she can remember, and in doing so, traces a life’s trajectory.
P.S. If you have any away-from-home rituals, I’d love to hear them! Drop them in the comments below.
Some items of note—
We’re meeting at the Hatch, our virtual creative hour for paid subscribers, on Sunday, May 21, from 1-2pm ET. It’s truly the highlight of our month, always so creatively inspiring and connected. I hope you’ll join us!
Over the last week, so many of you have written to me to say that you either donated to Be The Match or joined the bone marrow registry, and I’m so grateful! If you haven’t had a chance, you can find more info in last week’s newsletter. I hope you’ll sign up, and—as my husband Jon says—help create “a world where we have more people of all walks of life, existing as angels for each other.”
Prompt 243. From My Bed by Tamzin Merivale
It is my firm belief that true happiness in life is a rock-hard mattress.
From this flimsy hospital bed, the sterilized linoleum floor looks more inviting for a good night's sleep than this narrow, sagging, hot Mattress of Despair. It makes me think of all the beds I’ve ever slept in, and all the ones that I’ve forgotten. The beds that felt like home, and those that felt like hell. The beds I shared with friends, and others I shared with lovers.
It makes me think about my mattress at home, of how we struggled to buy it, in a new country and a new language, and about the airbed we slept on while we waited for it to arrive, which deflated every night.
It makes me think of my third apartment in Florence, living alone—at last, where I slept on an old sofa bed and woke to the sound of motorinos and the passionate arguments of my neighbors, which I eventually came to understand.
It brings back a hot and sweaty room that I can barely remember in northern Zambia, a hotel room in Harare shared with strangers, a bunk bed in a hut, a damp floor in Aden, another hospital bed—not so different from this one—in Marrakech. And a filthy room in Dakar, buzzing with mosquitoes, which I loved nonetheless, because I was seventeen years old and on my own in Africa.
I think of a blanket on the sand under the stars in Mauritania, bats flapping about. Of crawling into a tent in the Tuscan forest at dawn, after lying in the hot springs in the dark, sotto la luna. I remember “The Bus,” a room with a view in Sana’a that belonged to a friend, where I woke to the gentle muezzin’s call every morning—replaced, soon after I left, by the whistle and roar of bombs.
A cozy bed by the fire also floats into my mind, where every year with friends, after walking along the coast in the wind, rain, or sun, we laugh and talk for hours into the night. Never mind the beds where I’ve been violently ill while traveling—should’ve been more careful—or the beds that held me through sadness and grief, in their desperate grip. The bed where I woke to the sound of a church choir in Slovenia, holding beauty and mourning together in my heart.
My parents’ bed, where I went for cuddles when I was little. Or the house on the cliff on an island in Spain, where I could breathe for the first time after a year of sorrow, and where, waking early, I stepped out onto the balcony to watch the sun rise over the sea, filling me up with color and light.
Waking, drifting, tossing, turning, dreaming, laughing, crying, bonding—so many beds, so many memories, and inshallah, many more that lie ahead.
Your prompt for the week:
Write about all the beds you’ve ever slept in—the beds that felt like home, those that felt like hell, the beds you can barely remember and those you’ll never forget. What memories float up? How did you feel in different beds? And what beds do you hope to sleep in one day?
Editor’s Note: For further reading, see “Beds” by Toi Derricotte.
If you’d like, you can post your response in the comments section, in our Facebook group, or on Instagram by tagging @theisolationjournals.
Tamzin Merivale is an Irish artist, writer, and mentor, currently based in Europe. In creating her unique Soul Sign Energy Portraits, Tamzin guides her clients through an immersive experience to unearth their powerful selves, their incomparable light, and their strength. Her mission is to hold space for greater empathy and understanding, as these are the true enemies of prejudice and judgment.
For more paid subscriber benefits see—
Studio Visit: Hospital Edition, where I give you a behind-the-scenes tour of my hospital room and how I made it my own
Beholding the Body, an installment of Dear Susu where I write about how Frida Kahlo’s work helps me feel at home in a changing body
The 30-Day Journaling Project, which explores the art of journaling and all it can contain—available until the end of May!
I just made my bed in the albergue I am staying in on day 33 of the Camino de Santiago. I’m walking it with my brother who left home when I was six. The bunks in this beautiful home away from home are sturdy and I anticipate a good night of sleep. My chemo regime doesn’t allow my lungs to enjoy the mountain climbs here so here we are, 86 miles from the finish having taken a ride this morning to this paradise. I am sinking fast into the stone walls and sound of large flies, birds and creation heaving. I said I was coming here to walk and rest and walk and rest and we have done just that. My brother has been filling in many holes of our upbringings, some bringing me to tears, some confirming my patchy memories. He moved to New Zealand when he was about 20 and in the fifty four years since he left home we figured we have spent maybe 3 months together made up of pieces and days, usually around illness or death.
Suleika made a comment about bringing a journal and I have done so, doing a painting a day, it has been transformative, healing, exceptional, including the day I left a page blank because a man in the bunk room next to us just didn’t wake up. He died on a bottom bunk, in the middle of northern Spain, his wife shouting “no,no,no.” If I died tonight, I hope the only “no” being shouted would be that I was in the know, that I had done this incredible journey with my long lost brother, the black sheep, that I had risen above the fray of leukemia into a new place. I will sleep well.
Thank you so much for featuring my essay, such a pleasure to see it here ❤️ huge thanks to Suleika, Carmen and Holly!