Tuesday, September 29, 2009


It’s thought of as a disease but I wonder if it isn’t a sensible approach to a frightening, hostile world. I first learned the word when I was a girl, growing up in the 1960s. My mother was keen for me to pay visits to a woman who lived eight or ten houses down the street from us. Her name was Mrs. Pia. I went to school with one of her nephews or maybe he was a grandson. Anytime I mentioned David, just to make conversation, Mrs. Pia shrugged and didn’t seem interested.

I don’t remember Mrs. Pia’s first name or anything about her, if I ever knew much in the first place. “Mrs.” offers a clue – I suppose she was a widow. She lived in a charmless bungalow that had been built in the 1920s or '30s when our street was still a dirt road. Mrs. Pia kept the drapes and shades of her house drawn. Stepping inside her house was like entering a tomb or a cave. On even the most torrid summer days, I didn’t find it peaceful, soothing, or cool. I longed to get back outside in the sunlight, in the air, away from the faintly odorous stillness of her house, which was bland and featureless inside and out. Mrs. Pia wore housecoats, faded ones. I can’t imagine what she did all day. She seemed pleased to see me when my mother would send me over, and reluctant, though not overly so, when I made noises to leave.

My mother told me that Mrs. Pia was an agoraphobe. She never leaves the house, she said. How is that possible, I asked, how does she get groceries, for example? Someone brings them to her, her son, or another relative. Why is she an agoraphobe?, I asked. My mother shrugged. So the world needs to come to her. You’ll do her good to visit, my mother said. I don’t know if this was good for me, or bad either. I dutifully paid a few visits, which I didn’t enjoy, and when I was in Mrs. Pia’s living room, or seated at her kitchen table while she dished out Entenmann’s or poured tea, I so itched to get out of there that I felt I was there under utterly false pretenses. I was ten or eleven at the time, surely a little young to be made to keep company for a lonely, non-effusive septaganerian.

I think my mother had agoraphobic tendencies, as do I, and maybe my mother knew this. Did she want me to see how a real live agoraphobe lives?

Matisse, The Red Studio. I’ve always liked this painting. My home reminds me of it, though I don’t have red walls. But my office space in the upstairs aerie is lightfilled and colorful, and I’m surrounded by comforting, pretty things as well as cheerful cats, that make me content to be home.

Agoraphobia is from the Greek – literally, “fear of the marketplace.” I’m not afraid of marketplaces. I love farmers markets, for example, stands heaped with fruits and vegetables, buckets brimming with flowers. I love looking at the wares, taking in the myriad colors and sensations, seeing the seasons progress as offerings change with each passing week.

What I don’t like is the sensation of being an object in a marketplace, to be looked over, sniffed at, inspected from all sides, viewed with suspicion, discovered to be flawed (blemished, bruised, a bit overripe), and finally either grudgingly selected, or rejected, put back, put off, disdained, or ignored entirely. Perhaps to be agoraphobic is, in a broad sense, to be uncomfortable with capitalism. I prefer to be outside of it.

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