Tuesday, 10 January 2012

In which I contemplate The Void

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:

10 Dec 1 10-01-2012 15-55-49

10 Dec 2 10-01-2012 15-56-09

10 Dec 3 10-01-2012 15-56-47

10 Dec 4 10-01-2012 15-56-57

10 Dec 5 10-01-2012 15-57-05

10 Dec 6 10-01-2012 15-57-24

10 Dec 8 10-01-2012 15-57-38

10 Dec 9 10-01-2012 15-57-48

The Pigeon, looking south:

10 Dec 11 10-01-2012 15-58-18

And doing her special serious, gazing face:

10 Dec 12 10-01-2012 15-58-43

And two hills, one from this morning, one from this afternoon:

10 Jan 13 10-01-2012 16-01-07

10 Jan 14 10-01-2012 14-48-02

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.


  1. Love and trees. That's exactly what it's all about. Love and trees. Miss you and miss reading you. So glad to find you here this morning. I'll attempt to embrace both the light and the shadow this morning. xx

  2. Ah Miss W - so lovely to hear from you. I know you know all about this. Let us cling to the love and trees. (And canines, of course.)

  3. May I say, gently, why would you think you should have the hang of life by now? If it were so easy, everyone would have it decked by middle age, and then what would they contemplate for the second half of their allotment?

    I love it when you get going like this. Invariably you are on a universal topic and you voice things that most sentient beings consider, if only in those dark nights of the soul.

    In the meantime, love and trees, yes, but don't forget dogs and cats and horses. You can see more eternity in the Pigeon's eyes than you'll find anywhere else on earth.


  4. Your thinking is so similar to mine it freaks me out. In a nice way. I welcome your wisdom on The Void as my Void follows me relentlessly and that's just the thought of death, let alone experiencing the loss of loved ones close by. I like the whites of the eyes reasoning. That's what I shall do too. Lou x

  5. Bird - thought of eternity in The Pigeon's eyes makes me smile so much.

    Lou - the not being the only one thing is what sustains me. That is why I love the Dear Readers so. :)

  6. Thank you for posting this-- like Lou, this follows me around at the edge of my waking mind and comes right up and sits on me after dark. And I think that, like you, it began after my father died (he was 62, I was 24, and he was one of my closest friends). It makes me feel much better to know that we're all teetering on the edge of it together-- sort of as if we might be able to shout wry greetings to each other across it.

  7. So beautifully expressed as always. I sometimes think being a writer gives one an illusion of control, because the ordering of words requires structure and discipline. (I don't know if one becomes a writer because one is already controlling - I don't mean that critically - or if the illusion creeps up on one). But the Void, especially when it is fuelled by grief, doesn't respond to even the most eloquent descriptions. It is like a river, implacably following its own course. You write about it wonderfully, but that won't alter its trajectory.
    Time, however, will see it pursue different, less painful routes. I try not to see it as an enemy, but as a source of wisdom that flows from an acceptance of my own vulnerability and weakness. The American poet Adrienne Rich said only by going down into it did we discover 'our pagan heart'. It's been a fount of creativity for poets and artists for centuries.
    It's very hard to live with but it might be worse to live without it.
    On a lighter note, I meant to write and say how much I loved that account of Kauto Star's King George. I was in a country with no TV or radio coverage and found myself hanging on Twitter feeds to find out if he had won.
    Take care, Rachel

  8. I have read your lovely big red book, Backwards in High Heels: The Impossible Art of Being Female, multiple times, which touched me so and brought sanity right when I needed it. I have just begun reading your blog and admittedly, I spent one night reading so far back that night became morning and I had to stop myself. This post finally made me work up the nerve to comment, and to bless you and your writing. As someone who has been grappling with such thoughts since the age of 10, or younger, (I have been labeled by family and friends as an old soul and a constant worrier), it is a balm unlike any other to have a touchstone such as your book, and now your blog. So I thank you, a hundred times over, because I am still only 21 and I may have gone mad otherwise. The finality of death always takes me aback, no matter who or when it strikes. Also, how it can happen to anyone, at anytime, is so unnerving I just want to crawl into a hole. I am nearing graduation from university and it is bothering me more than I thought it would. Now, life begins, real life. I can't just twiddle my thumbs anymore and look to others. I must do something, and fast, or it will all be over before I know it. You've eased my far too troubled mind though, so thank you again and I hope you have a wonderful day.

  9. Ellie - oh I love the idea of the shouted wry greetings. :)

    Rachel - such a lovely and wise comment. I love the idea of the pagan heart. And so glad you enjoyed the Kauto Star post. Oh I do love that horse.

    Danielle - that is one of the most touching comments I ever had. I cannot tell you how much I love the idea of words reaching out and easing troubled minds; it is the finest compliment you could pay me. EL Doctorow once said a wise thing about writing: he said imagine a book is like a dark night road, illuminated by a car's headlights. You just have to write that immediate next part, that you can see, rather than looking ahead to the end of the road. I think perhaps that is quite good for life too. Just move down that next bit of road. I'm not putting it very well, but I suppose it's that old thing of one step at a time. I so hope you keep coming back here; I don't doubt you soon shall find yourself adopted by all the Dear Readers, and then the world outside the walls of university will not seem so big and wide. I wish you every good thing. :)

  10. Perhaps, where we go to sleep is exactly where we go when we die and is no more of a void than our waking life is, we just carry on, but less fettered.

  11. So very, very true. The Void, now I have a name for it. Personally, have started to worry about whether I should be trying to cram everything in 'in case', hard for one who really prefers to potter rather than always be doing. Also, facing realisation that time is not infinite as it once seemed, and I may well never get around to Remembrance of Things Past, which stares ever more accusingly at me from the shelf.
    In case I need any reminders, a most elderly, but not most beloved Uncle, currently in hospital recently declaimed 'this will happen to you one day' which is perhaps not the most charming remark to make to a niece who has taken the time to visit you.
    Just returned from a long trip, far away. It was restorative, I think.
    Catching up, but delighted to see there has recently been both blinking pigeon and Virginia the pig on the blog, two of my most favourite things, as well of course as excellent discourse on the US elections.
    Hope book goes well.
    Elaine x

  12. It's The Worry that is the evil one. The Worry robs us of the Now. If the Void is inevitable (and it is) why even dwell on it. It's time is not now. Push it away until it is its time.
    This is about Trust. And letting go of Control.
    And as for the fool in you...
    "I must learn to love the fool in me - the one who feels too much, talks too much, takes too many chances, wins sometimes and loses often, lacks self-control, loves and hates, hurts and gets hurt, promises and breaks promises, laughs and cries. It alone protects me against that utterly self-controlled, masterful tyrant whom I also harbor and who would rob me of human aliveness, humility and dignity but for my fool" Theodore Rubin

  13. What can I say? I am not much older than you, I suspect (b 1957), but things have contrived that I am a quite a bit ahead of you in thinking about and experiencing all this intimation of mortality shit, maybe.

    My father died in 1978, when I was not quite 21, my mother went very suddenly of a brain haemohorrage in 1982, when I was 25. I got cancer when I was 49, and am almost up to my five years after treatment. What I MOSTLY think is; if we didn't die this place would be very overcrowded. There's a biological imperative that we most of us breed and we all of us die. Even so, despite this determinedly pragmatic approach, I can have a moment, when sinking into slumber, when its resemblance to what dying might be like panics me a bit, and I rouse myself abpruptly thinking "Help, I don't want to die!"

    Then I rally a bit and remember that I HAVE to, and then I fall asleep.

    And then the next day I wake up again. One day I won't but hey! that's still a while off, I hope. What else can any of us think, at the rim of The Void?

  14. Sorry about the typos above, but I have dinner to cook. Having to cook dinner is a good way of avoiding overpondering The Void, I find...

  15. Lucille - what a lovely poetic thing to say.

    Elaine - so know about the Proust thing. And so happy you liked seeing the dear pig.

    Jacqueline - that Theodore Rubin quote is magical. Thank you.

    Goldenoldlady - that does sound like what one of my cousins used to describe as: 'too much, even for us'. I love that you are so stoic and philosophical. This great life experience and wisdom from the Dear Readers is such a wonderful feature of this blog, and thank you for it.

  16. I myself did not think of the void very much till four years ago when I had heart surgery for four blocks and where the doctors could not imagine that I had actually walked into the hospital and not come on a stretcher. None of us know the answers to everything in life. We just try to understand bits of it as time goes on - and then we try also to cope as best as we can. We do have inner reserves we draw on to cope - this is something I believe in very much.We may not realize we have it, but we do.

  17. Well I'm pleased The Void has a name. And now I want to squash it. xx

  18. "He not busy being born is busy dying." Bob Dylan in It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)

    Now that you have given it a name, everything becomes clear. I A-Void...and so stand with Em in a commitment to squash it.
    And find much solace in comments here, especially Jacqueline's on Worry. Thank you. Thank you.

  19. Just thank you. This is perfect.

    (I have been reading all month but not commenting as I have not known what to say - I stay a loyal reader of this and your other blog)

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