Posted by Tania Kindersley.
The Younger Brother calls. He is back at home in the far east, and his voice blurs and cracks down a long distance line.
We talk for a while.
Then he says: ‘How are you?’
I say: ‘I’m still having a bit of trouble with this whole life and death thing. I resist going to sleep at night because it’s too close to death. So I sit up till all hours looking things up on the internet or reading books. As if knowledge will keep me safe. And then I’m tired in the morning.’
‘Ah, yes,’ says The Brother. ‘The Void.’
He talks then of the Sufis, but I don’t need him to explain. I know exactly what he means. It is a brilliant name for it. It is connected, I think, with what Jung called the shadow. He believed that our shadow side is where we put all the dark, dangerous, frightening thoughts. He believed that only by embracing the shadow side could humans find the gold within. In the shadow, lies the light.
The Void is a bit more specific. I think it is what happens when you get to middle age, and your father dies, and a voice in your head says: What the fuck was that?
I thought I mourned my father pretty well. I let all my emotions run free. I remember a great energy, in the early days, an elemental feeling. This is it, this is the real stuff. I talked about it and wrote about it here. I missed him and wept for him and planted a tree for him.
Then, normal life must resume. It’s just a thing, it’s what happens with old people. He was eighty; it was not a tearing rupture in the fabric of life. But little by little, this problematical thinking has crept up on me. However much I try to be usual and pragmatic and stoical, there is a part of me that is running round like one of those hysterical heroines in a B-movie, screaming: we’re all going to die.
Obviously, I cannot allow this maddening character to hold sway. I am a rationalist and an empiricist; I like things to make sense. Now, I sternly tell myself, we all have our allotted span, this is not news. And the point is that you make the most of all the wonders of life, and all the moments of glad grace, and all the fleeting minutes of beauty, and then, when it is over, it will not have been wasted.
‘Love and trees,’ I shout at The Brother. ‘That’s what it’s all about.’
He roars with laughter. ‘You are such a secret hippie,’ he says.
The problem is that even though I know love and trees should be enough, it is not quite, not just now. Even though I have love, and I have trees, the Void is nipping at my heels, like an angry sheepdog. You can’t bloody ignore me, it is saying. It doesn’t matter how many trees you plant, and how much you lift your eyes unto the hills, you and everyone you love will one day die, and no amount of acers will put a dent in that reality. (It is quite dogmatic, The Void.)
The Brother and I discuss this some more. We wonder if it has come on because it was our father. There is something terribly final and symbolic about your first parent dying. In the last five years, I have been to the funerals of the parents of The Expatriate, and The Beloved Cousin. They were men and women I knew and loved since I was eighteen. They had me for weekends and holidays and Christmasses and Easters; they watched me grow up, with a slightly quizzical, indulgent fondness. (I think they sometimes thought my young self slightly eccentric.)
That generation that made me feel as if I were still The Young are going. ‘We have to be the grown-ups now,’ I say to The Brother. ‘Which should not be alarming, but is, rather.’
The Brother thinks you have to walk up to The Void, look it straight in the eye, and make jokes about it. You can’t hide from it. You have to face it squarely, and see it as it is. He can really be quite wise, sometimes.
‘Anyone who isn’t wrestling with The Void,’ he says. ‘Well, I don’t know what they are up to.’
I start to laugh, helplessly.
‘But really,’ he says. ‘What are they all doing?’
We ponder this for a moment.
‘Although, he says, ‘Imagine if everyone was running around wrestling with The Void, all the time.’
‘I know,’ I say.
Then we laugh some more.
As I sat down to write this, I hesitated, my fingers hovering over the keys. I thought: Should I really tell them this? The poor readers; surely they have been through enough. I could just give my nice recipe for minestrone and put up some dog pictures. Do they really need the whole life and death thing?
Also, I have a faint sense of shame. I should know how to do life, by now. I should have the answers. There is an irrational part of me which believes that when I have difficulty with things, when I am having to wrestle, that this is a sign of failure and weakness. I know this is nonsense, but it comes to haunt me, when I am not getting enough iron in my diet.
On the other hand, there is no point pretending to be one of the flashy, glittery, certain people. I am used to doubt; it walks beside me like a faithful hound. I rather love it, as it saves me from bombast. I think it is probably a good thing to admit to weakness in order to combat the nutty voice that says I must never admit to weakness. Balzac said that we love people not in spite of their flaws, but because of them.
I have a terrible tendency to want to say: Look, Ma, no hands. (When I was a very small girl, I was a frightful show-off, always doing dances and songs and jokes, as if I were on the Music Halls, and I wonder if this streak still runs in me; certainly, in conversation, I shall say anything for a laugh.) Sometimes, it is vital to admit that I don’t know what to do with my hands. I imagine that almost everyone has to fight a few existential demons, at least once a week; it would be frankly freakish if I were immune.
So there we are, my darlings. It’s me, and The Void. I quite like that it has a name, now. I’m going to look into the whites of its eyes, and then we shall see who is boss. And for help, because, as I endlessly say, no woman is an island, I’m going to go and look up some of those old Sufis, because apparently they know all about it.
As I finished this, the glorious Scottish winter sun came flashing through my window. I ran out to catch the light, and this is what it looked like:
The Pigeon, looking south:
And doing her special serious, gazing face:
And two hills, one from this morning, one from this afternoon:
This, of course, felt madly symbolic. I had been writing about darkness; now here was the light. The light makes no sense without the shade.
Or something like that.