If I write this, before I know it I won’t be not-writing any more: I’ll be writing again.
It’s been so long since I put words together into sentences and those sentences into something that isn’t a business email, I’ve become nervous of it – but right now it’s easy to be nervous of everything isn’t it, so unaccustomed are we to anything outside the small area we have paced for over a year.
The rituals of home – making the place sparkly at Christmas; hanging blossoms for Easter; making the Seder plate at Passover; baking birthday cakes and hosting kitchen discos – were small lights marking the path out of winter into spring for me. But last year whilst I baked and folded and swept and watered the houseplants, I confess the comfort of things had slipped into dullness of thought, hampered by anxiety and fear. I mourned for the spark struck in the Old Days by things less familiar, places not-home: the joy of ordinary old walking up the street of a beautiful city or down a long beach or – hold still, heart! – immersion in a room full of astonishing paintings or listening to a live orchestra express the inexpressible for me.
This week a clever person told me that we had all been suffering in different ways from a ‘depravation of difference‘, experiencing only sameness: never drinking coffee that tastes different from the coffee we make at home; never hearing the stories strangers tell us at bus-stops; not travelling, visiting, adventuring. Ideas chime when we enjoy unexpected meetings and make new discoveries: difference is what makes the heart sing. A poverty of touch, art, provocation of all kinds has made life comparatively joyless. Life should be an active engagement, a jumping into the flow of it all; life deserves not be prosaic or passive — life should be poetry and we deserve for that poetry not always to be the poetry of loss.
At night as I wait for sleep I walk back through art galleries, standing again in high-ceilinged exhibition rooms feeling the challenge of great art with a kind of homesickness of the eyes and mind. One night I am zinged by Matisse’s cut outs, seven years after the first excitement. Another, I recall the cool white room in which Guernica hangs in the Reina Maria Sofia in Madrid, a gallery whose stone walls conceal astonishing work until the last second you turn the corner into a room. I remember the painted static of Agnes Martin’s mammoth works and the woven hum of Anni Albers’ tapestries. When I saw the photograph “Variety” booth, NYC by Nan Goldin for the first time, I fell hard in love with the coat-check girl and with Nan for seeing her. In the dark of my bedroom at night, it is easy to press replay on the parts of Goldin’s Ballad of Sexual Dependency that left me breathless with recognition, mourning and joy as I sat many times over watching it in a pitch dark room at MOMA and then again next to my daughter at the Tate. The Tate, whose rooms Wolfgang Tillmans filled with an extraordinary homage to intimacy that re-set again for me what love might look like.
Society, work and love can offer us purpose but only art gives us the language to fulfil it, allowing us to reach out and touch one another’s experience with our own. Art is generous: a description and a gift. I have missed that gift. And so here I am, writing about not-writing, proving again there is no such thing as silence because as soon as you note it and name it, it has a breathing existence of its own, as bustling as the pale brushstrokes filling an at-first-glance apparently plain white canvas by Agnes Martin.
When do we ever experience complete silence, when even in the country the wind is in the trees and creatures walking in the leaves, and in an empty home we are breathing and clanking our pots and outside someone is persuading a child into a pushchair? Our own silence is just the space between sentences, an intake of breath before we speak again. Silence is as shapely and vibrating as the gaps in a Hepworth sculpture in a garden in St Ives (see picture above) or on a hill in Wakefield.
Not-creating is not an infertile time, but a hatching, thinking, breeding time. I wrote a year ago of how low to the wall we lay in the pandemic, but we are not learning nothing, crouching low and turning inwards. Of course we have learned a lot about ourselves and the world. In forgiving ourselves for our internal smallness we might find it easier to uncurl ourselves and enlarge: we might grab hold of the spark and let it illuminate our lives. In expressing my longing for beauty, in some way I have made beauty real again for myself, reminding myself that the spark is not gone but instead is waiting to be seen and found in the smallest of things and, eventually, in the victory of being again with the ones we love.
This week I caught a train… I booked an outside table at a restaurant. The sun shone. It is spring and I have tickets to an art gallery for May: something is stirring in me again that is as beautiful as the bluebells that are ringing peals on every verge. I felt a tingling in my nerve-endings.
Spring came, I started to write, and now I have written about not-writing and am not not-writing any longer.