Present absences

Thumb idly scrolling, alarm clock snoozing for the seventh time, my day is starting with a whimper and a sigh. I tell myself to move before my back locks completely, but even while I am telling myself sternly to get up and get going, I scroll on. On through posts that I ignore – plenty of them, rightly or wrongly; posts that make me laugh – sadly few of them; posts that make me angry; posts that make me hurt. There are a lot of those, and they lurk behind my eyelids for the rest of the day, popping out of my subconscious and into my internal monologues whenever I stop for long enough to take a breath.

What is it that makes me hurt? It’s not the crisis after incompetence after tragedy typhooning through the world, though that does me no credit, I know. Those are the posts that make me angry, and my responses are either avoidance or self-destruction, as they consume my mind in a blinding supernova of rage. No, the things that make me hurt are the day by day moments that are so much more creative, more joyful, more full than my days are. Is it jealousy? Probably, in part, if jealousy starts with your throat and your eyes and your hope and moves on to your tummy, inching its way by repetition to your heart. I know those are the good moments, the islands in the storm for others, just as they are when I post the same. And yet, that litany of pictures, of family adventures, positive Lockdowns, weight loss, planning a holiday, making a difference, speaking out, being brave, achieving goals, taking a risk and getting it wrong, and just plain living – that cumulative scrolling makes my heart ache and saps my will.

This is not a post bewailing social media. Of course people should share their joys, their sorrows, their hopes and failures, if that is what they want to do. Indeed, for those of us who are congenitally incapable of maintaining relationships over a distance, Facebook is a marvel and a delight for much of the time. But when the presence of something is an expected norm, unquestioned and unquestioning, how do you share its absence?

I was one of the first in my friendship group to have children, so I won’t speak like I’m an authority on what it feels like to have none when your body and your mind and your soul are tearing you apart with longing. People I love have shared their experiences with me – of the fear and the pain and the praying, the debt and the hope and the impossible choices, but it is not something I can directly speak to. At the other end of life’s glorious spectrum, I have lost a parent when most of my peers were still living with theirs. I know that moment of jarring reminder when someone asks “Where do your parents live?” I have seen the dawning horror on their faces as the conversation progresses. I answer about my Mum, and they ask whether Dad will be joining us too.* Now my Dad died many years ago, so, although it still makes me sad to think of all he is missing and of all the things I can’t share with him, mention of those things no longer makes me cry. So if I’m asked, I answer the question. To be honest, I usually answer it bluntly. And then the person I am speaking to is left with no idea, at all, of what to say next. Because how do you respond when someone tells you that they are outside the box you expect them to be in and, no matter how much you want them to, they will never go quietly back to being normal?

Normal. Isn’t that an awful term? As though there is something we all started out as, and any deviation from that is somehow an error. But if normal is white, cis-gender, heterosexual, in a stable relationship, with children, able-bodied and neurotypical, with no mental health concerns and no traumatic events in their past – if that is normal, then normal is an awfully small collective. And where does that leave the rest of us?

It leaves us living with absence. It may be small. It may be life-changing or hope-destroying. It may be dictated by circumstances or forced upon you by another’s actions. But let’s not forget that it may also be a blindingly positive, proactive choice. How do you celebrate small, with the things you did not buy, the waste you did not create, the plastic you did not use? Or celebrate big, with the choices you made to not follow that expected path and the joys it has given you in the execution of your own vision? Living a more sustainable life, materially and emotionally, is as much about positive absences as it is about the presence of future-looking actions. It is about the counter-cultural refusal to cash into a society that tells you that the way to protect our communities is to buy and to fly and to keep on moving, spending, updating. It is the rejection of the message that if you buy this or avoid eating that or go there, you will be full and have no absences, because they are bad and must always be hidden from view. 

Epidauros II by Barbara Hepworth. Negative space can be extraordinarily beautiful.

Absence is as real as presence in our lives. Sometimes it is more real than the furniture around us and the lives outside our windows that all look so very, very different to our own. It can be a fury-filled growl of silence and frustration; a blank canvas of waiting for something to happen; an exciting and life-giving explosion of self over expectation. If we could share those moments of absence without fear, or pain, or judgement, or apology; if we knew the whole of our selves could be seen, how could the world not be a better place?

*As a side note, please don’t do that. Don’t repeat language someone else has changed. It wasn’t an accident. They heard what you said and they changed it deliberately. If you ask about someone’s wife and in their response they use the word partner, or husband, or reply about themselves in the singular, that’s what you need to use too for the rest of your conversation.

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