The Void is all the rage


(Day 44 Living Alone – Social Distancing)

The Void is all the rage                                

When I first decided to stay at home, on March 17th 2020, I wrote a complicated timetable of daily activities.  The day was organised to enable me to thrive: physically, mentally and emotionally but most important of all, to ensure I were productive. There was a flow chart for each part of life and a hierarchy of checklists to guide me, like a kind but firm parent which would make sure I wasted no time in procrastination. Within a week my website would be ticked off the list; I would then move on and edit and publish the two collections of poems I had nearly completed, and write the second half of my secret project in progress. There would be plenty of time.

On the third day I found the timetable under a pile of notebooks on the kitchen table and decided I might give myself a week’s holiday before I began. It had been a very tricky year. I piled a few books on the kitchen table and decided which to read first.

A fortnight later I thought I might get on with the timetable.

On April 17th my website caught a bug and disappeared taking the address with it. The day before I had jettisoned the two collections of poems as well as the secret project in progress because I had read them all twice again and found them an embarrassment. This was not good news. I had been at home for a month and simply deleted everything I had had to start with. On a more positive note, I was feeling very well.

It was all very well feeling well. The idea of having all this time was to fill it up with things not throw everything out and return to the world having done nothing other than gain 10kg. I wrote a more detailed timetable. I would stick to it. Up at 7am. Bed at 11pm and a sensible regime in-between.

At 5am on 27th April 2020, when BBC iplayer released me from the fascination of the entire box-set made of Sally Rooney’s masterpiece ‘Normal People’, I was cramped, thirsty, hungry and changed. Home again – in fact I had neither moved from the room or my seat since 11pm the night before, but it seemed now a more familiar space. I had had an epiphany.

I re-read James Joyce ‘Eveline’ from Dubliners the next day. A story told in spaces between what is and what isn’t, where life lives in fragments in the liminal silence and becomes the story’s hook. Evelyn faces the unknown, paralysed, frozen and voiceless but also changed. She is still Eveline and is not, also. As is the reader.

Of course I had read Eveline again because of Rooney’s Normal People in which I am that child/woman who cannot speak and her older/younger self who wills her to speak, caught between the two. As I am her male equal-opposite, similarly but differently in another pool of not-knowing. And even I cannot speak or move reading-second-guessing the narrative doesn’t work. The emptiness and silence of the void is multi-faceted. No single guessed-solution satisfies. The void becomes the story’s hook, the unfilled space magnetising – and agonising as in Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles where again, life burns on unspoken, silenced and paralysed as pages turn, breathless until the spell is broken and the void is endless.    

Lock-down leaves us living out the characters we play outside/inside. Now, private and working lives intersect on screens: we talk; we share films, charts, illustrations; we take breaks and send jokes, music, poems, films, news about Captain Tom, Kirsty’s crafts, Joe’s jumping and Jack’s recipes; we play bridge/chess/computer games I know nothing about; surf Twitter/Snap-Chat; Zoom to virtual pubs; teach, learn, complain, applaud and make up life in binary zones. We use a flat screen to decide, assuage, comfort, love, offer relief, learn, train, counsel and act in a productive manner in zone A or B – but there is no liminal zone on screen.

And I am frozen to an extent. Living on-line, there are no voids. Here are Joyce’s binaries without the liminal; this is Rooney’s writing without the space. Virtual does not hook me. It has no voids.

The void is the driving force of life. The void contains the gifts we miss and instead it hooks us, compelling us to fill in the space with new clothes, bodies, partners, shoes, addictions, beliefs, divisive-fights, cars, jobs, ambitions, qualifications and books out there on the shelves with a name you know on them. Yours perhaps, mine, another’s.  The void is already full of life and yet, just as we fill Space and our seas with debris, so do we unhook from life’s mystery, paralysed, deaf to inner voices driven by blind-purpose and dread of our own imagination. Unwell. Unhappy. Busy. Productive. Frozen.   

Few now are unaffected by grief associated with Covid-19. Many are bereaved; many depressed; some frightened and in unsafe situations; some have no access to outside space; some have lost income, businesses, care or the continuation of a life’s ambition. Perhaps all face an emotional, physical, mental, material, or existential void in the immediate present. We live in suspension – most of us face a void, daily and ask ‘what shall I do?’ It is the wrong question.

Just as Normal People, Eveline and Tess of the D’Urbervilles hold us in suspense and dangle us, hooked, over the void, held as the void deepens, so now Covid-19 holds all in uncertainty – deaths distanced without the closure of funerals; work closed down with no known future and families, friends and lovers do not know when they might be reunited. None of us are either the same or different – and all are uncomfortably aware there is no future certainty except the old favourite.

Even when we have beaten death once or twice in the course of life, death’s unspoken, silent void has had us hooked from birth.

I have thrown my timetable in the bin. If I find myself asking,

‘What shall I do?’ I answer,

‘That’s the wrong question. Work backwards. First, decide: How do I want to be?’

The void is all the rage.       

Cherry Coombe

2nd May 2020

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