London in August. A mocking sun occasionally appears, setting the backdrop for the temporary migration of people out and in of the city (locals out, tourists in). In this month London feels even more of a transitory place to be, and with it a confusing pattern of weather in a place that only truly suits greyness. I find that I endure August waiting for September when greyness descends once more and the days get shorter so that my sadness can hide better in the darkness.
People said to me that submitting the PhD is an anti-climax, yet it wasn’t quite that. Rather I experienced a hollowing out which was both a relief and an empty feeling. I am lighter but I am also more pointless.
Lauren Berlant described writing as a performance of stuckness. Recently I have wondered if once unraveled, writing leads you back to stuckness. But along the way you hope something might shift.
A week after submitting my thesis the country descended into the biggest political and economic crisis of my generation. Soon everyone was aware of precarity and how porous safety can feel. It can feel sudden, or somewhat arbitrary, the way that familiar structures dissolve. Left with liminal spaces and no hidings places we were all just blobs striving to divide ourselves – remain/leave, British/other: all that was solid melting into air.
In this way stuckness is never just stuckness. It’s a dynamic and moving reconfiguration, but one where the transformation cannot be known in advance. Yet we still need images and visions to hold us, to keep us in place, on track. In short, we need optimism.
For this reason stuckness has always fascinated me, theoretically. The ambivalence of grief is an extraordinary demonstration of becoming an obstacle to one’s own flourishing, to progress, to recovery. But the desire to hold on to what is no longer there provides its own comfort and optimism even as it counteracts the notions of modern life, where life should be lived at a pace, and there are so many things to do, people to meet, roads to cross.
I like to think that flourishing is possible in stuckness, and that stuckness is only one interpretation of an experience. It might feel like stuckness, or it might feel boring and banal, liberating or terrifying. But stuckness cannot be transformed simply by changing how you think about it. Stuckness, liminality, is also a structural problem (its not necessarily a choice). It’s a state caused by the existence of structure, by falling in-between. It’s not nothingness.
Stuckness is also a judgment, a negative one, but only if existence is viewed linearly. I found that grief was one instance that can revert people to a cyclical way of living. As a vision of the future died along with a person, people focused on building new structures to get them through the everyday. The banal activities of daily life – grocery shopping, cleaning, taking the dog for a walk – became important strategies to navigate what I described as the liminal space of grief.
The repetition of the everyday is not always a reaffirmation of sameness but a hope for change. Its an energetic movement: if energies are directed towards particular actions, a shift must occur. But what actions to choose? The engagement with the seemingly banal activities of managing the everyday are viewed by the bereavement professional as distractions not cures. The judgment is that this is stuckness, not healing.
Perhaps, as psychologists of grief tell me, people need meaning and linear stories – we need conventional structures and to be able to make sense of things. Ontological security, sociologists would describe it. What then of flourishing? I think the thread I was trying to follow – that perhaps I still haven’t grasped – is that life is lived not only when the future is knowable, but in the liminal unfolding present.