on stuckness.

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.

 

Happy Be Fine

Oh I’m not going to fix you… or any of you people. I’ve tried about a million times to fix you, but it was so wrong for me to want to save you because I only wanted to eat you to make me stronger, I only wanted to devour all of you, I was cancer- Oh but I do this for you. Don’t you see I do this for you? I have done this all for you. I pretend that I do not but I do. I eat you to save you. I drink you to make you new. I gorge myself on all of you, and I stand, dripping, with fists, with heaving shoulders- I will look stupid, I will crawl, drenched in blood and shit, I will- … There is nowhere I stop and you begin. I am exhausted… I am there. I was there. Don’t you know that I am connected to you? Don’t you know that I’m trying to pump blood to you, that this is for you, that I hate you people, so many of you motherfuckers- When you sleep I want you never to wake up, so many of you I want you to just fucking sleep it away… if you’re going to fucking sleep all day fuck you motherfuckers oh when you’re all sleeping so many sleeping I am somewhere on some stupid rickety scaffolding and I’m trying to get your stupid fucking attention I’ve been trying to show you this, just been trying to show you this- What the fuck does it take to show you motherfuckers, what does it fucking take what do you want how much do you want because I am willing and I’ll stand before you and I’ll raise my arms and give you my chest and throat and wait, and I’ve been so old for so long, for you, you motherfuckers, do it do it you fuckers finally, finally, finally.

Dave Eggers, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, p435-7

Home (to return)

I am walking through the overgrown garden, grass up to my knees, wading across the lawn. The unruly stems and branches of the surrounding bushes and trees appear almost grotesque, hideously deformed from their previous groomed shape. The garden thrives on its neglect, out of control, greedy it feeds upon the loss. I enter the house, as ever it is empty, silent, cavernous; I am alone. A languid warm summer glow illuminates the rooms. Ahead I see the front door, slightly ajar, light lurking around the door’s edge. I hurry towards the door, it is open. I push it shut but it swings back again, the glow from outside overwhelming my vision. The open door fills me with an unspeakable fear. The fear of someone (thing) inside the house, intruding in my home. I try once again to seal the door. Panic.

As I begin to acknowledge that my time in India must come to an end I wonder where to go when I leave. People speak of going home – ‘when are you going home??’  But where do you go if you have no home? If my home is wherever I am then to where do I return? Is home not just a fiction we construct to enable us to feel secure so that even if it remains a lie, at least we feel assured and contained in our illusions.

As I am met with ambiguity in my life – the precariousness of my future, the lack of vocation, a restless disposition  – I struggle to form a home inside, a stability dependent on neither people nor place, wealth or possessions. But to find this home I must first dissemble the home of the past. In my dreams I find myself continually returning to one place. The house of my childhood. Even as I actively seek a new home in my waking life I return to the only home I know. As much as I wish my imagination to be free of this ghost I protect it against intrusion. I keep trying to shut the door on the world outside, maintaining this little bubble of sameness inside. This phantom house possesses me.

I have not walked through this house for years and yet in my dreams it appears vivid and alive. My dreams remind me of things I had forgotten (or choose not to recall). The garden of the house was once grand and as a child, a wonderland in which I would spend hours roaming alone. After my mother died, it grew and grew. I would peer at it out the window as the chaos multiplied. It disgusted me. The insatiable appetite of nature. Relentless, no pause to mark my grief but just going on, taking over (me).

In my dreams I keep going home again but this is a place that no longer exists. I can never go home again. But somehow the child in me doesn’t give up trying. So in my dreams I return, returning over and over and over again. There will be no end to this. It can never be changed. For this house (home) lies at the heart of all things.