On the Verge
By Sara Hirsch
Liminality / ˌlɪm əˈnæl ɪ ti / n. The state or quality of ambiguity which exists in the middle stage of certain events or rituals
I finally ran out of excuses not to write. My house is uncomfortably tidy. I have baked so much bad bread. The invoices are in, the nails are filed, the washing is folded and put away. I painted every room except the kitchen. I hoovered. I have exercised for exactly seven minutes every day except for when I am bleeding heavily and on weekends. I went to the supermarket and stood in a queue for several days. I have written a strongly worded letter to my high school bully. I put the letter in a bottle and tossed the bottle in the recycling bin. I have washed my hair. I video called my mum and watched her cry. There are no new emails. I checked. Even in spam. There is nothing left except a blank page and the growing realisation that I am afraid of myself.
Two days before lockdown I had my pre-surgery appointment. It was an over-the-phone interview. The nurse asked me how much alcohol I take. I lied and said a number that sounded appropriate but honest. I did not question her use of the word take. It made alcohol seem medicinal, which I quite appreciated. She asked me if I am working currently and I laughed. She told me that I would have to take a week off work to recover and would that be ok. I told her that would be literally not a problem. She said that I would get a date in the next two weeks.
That was over a month ago. I am a mess of symptoms. I have symptoms coming out of my eyeballs. Except by eyeballs, I mean privates. I say privates because I am British and repressed.
My symptoms are delighted with the delay. Rudely, they have made themselves at home. My symptoms have turned me into a corner sofa. My symptoms have been watching crap on my Netflix account. My symptoms are making a meal of me.
I am not afraid of writing, I am afraid of writing badly and so I don’t write. Not writing means I don’t write anything bad. It also means I don’t write anything good. My writing is stuck in limbo. It doesn’t exist but at the same time, I spend so long telling myself how bad it would be if it did, that it begins to manifest itself into a sort of pre-existence. A breathing, dry- retching beast of what my mind assumes it would create for itself, given half the chance. In that way my writing is a living thing that I have killed before it was born. So my writing is both alive and dead. It is Schrödinger’s writing. Which makes me... a fucking idiot I think?
It isn’t vital surgery. But it isn’t un-vital. Otherwise I wouldn’t have it. I wouldn’t go under for no reason. The last time I went under my grandad died and my mum had to break the news to me on the drive back from the hospital I was woozy and it was horrible. My partner was in the backseat. That was only the second time he had ever met my mum. Grandad died from symptoms I think. I’m not sure. No one tells me anything.
Mum’s friend died from the virus last week. I found out on Facebook. My friend died the week before and I put a status up and Mum called me immediately and I blubbed like a baby and I felt awful because I don’t like to cry in front of her, not when I am so far away. I think this is because of the repression. My surgery seemed very insignificant when I saw that her friend had died, except it didn't because I am a selfish human and my life is all about me and I feel very sorry for myself in secret when the cameras are off and no one is video calling me.
When my grandad died his body had to get from Lincolnshire down to Essex (think Napier to Wellington) in one day. The day was a Sunday and this made everything much harder. I was recovering from surgery and also preparing for a funeral. Jewish funerals have to happen as quickly as possible. This is a rule that we invented to make sure that we have something to stress about to distract us from being too sad in front of each other. It makes arranging funerals extra difficult. Especially when everyone involved in the logistics, such as the nurses and the driver, are not Jewish and so do not really understand the urgency.
After a lot of paperwork and some panicked phone calls Grandad was given the all clear to head down south. The journey took just over 4 hours. He usually did it in about 3 and a half but that’s because he wasn’t one to observe the speed limit. While Grandad’s body was being driven down the country, slower than he would have liked, I took the fast train up from London. By the time I got off at Epping and into my brother’s rental car, everything had gone tits up. (I say tits up because I am British and was raised in the 90s).
There had been a murder.
Someone had been murdered and this isn’t a narrative technique to make my writing more interesting. Someone had been actual murdered in the pub next to the Jewish burial grounds and no traffic was allowed in or out of the thin country lane they share. Unfortunately for Grandad this meant that his body was stuck in the back of a hearse on the side of the road for about seven hours and we had to postpone the funeral. We all made jokes about how much he would have loved the attention. I called my boss and asked for an extra day off work. Mum put a status up on Facebook and we all had a glass of wine and a cry.
And some poor driver spent a full day in a vehicle next to the cemetery with my dead Grandfather in the back. I hope he brought a book.
I kill my babies before they are born. I mean this in a literary sense, not a literal one. Although literally I believe in a person’s right to choose. Obviously. But I am not writing about abortions. I can’t even get pregnant in the first place, with this thing inside me. Which is just a small part of the surgery. To remove it. I carry too much trauma from the insertion that it has to come out under general. But that’s not the main surgery. The keyhole part is investigative. To better understand my symptoms. But having children does rest on the results a little bit. Which makes me resent every period I get since the surgery got postponed. Which, because of my body being slightly broken, is one three-week long period. I resent it because it suddenly represents a little life that I cannot create because I didn’t get my date through yet. In this way I am scared of myself. Scared of what I would create if I could. An incoherent mess. My body is waiting and bleeding and waiting and I am bloody terrified.
In a very real way I am in an in-patient waiting room. My body is waiting, impatiently, by the side of the road. I am late for my own funeral. The same one that has been put on hold indefinitely.
Of course none of this matters in the grand scheme of things. Of course I am sitting tight, wrapped in my soft, silky privilege, while the doctors and nurses concentrate on more important things than my silly surgery or my silly writing. Like bodies. Like actual human bodies.
But in my small sheltered life this all feels quite important somehow. Just how nowhere I am getting with it all. How well that seems to suits me.
This transience is achingly familiar. I mean that literally. It is familial. The Jews are a placeless people. We exist in the margins, this unbelonging is in my DNA. But to be Jewish is also to suffer. So I loudly acknowledge my gratitude whilst I suffer this familiar displacement quietly and impatiently. Such is my birth right.
I think maybe, actually, being Jewish is to be perpetually ready to plan a funeral at any moment. I think of my womb and smile to myself. I am getting plenty of practice here in purgatory.
You want me to say more about the murder don’t you? That would be the obvious plotline to take. Follow the drama, nose to the ground.
And I tried. I wrote a short story about the murder from the perspective of the murderer. I wrote a poem about the murdered person. I wrote a prose poem. I then wrote an erasure poem based on my own prose poem. I then turned that erasure poem into a haiku and sent it to every literary journal in New Zealand, even though I didn’t live there yet. I think I wanted to foreshadow my arrival with a small poem about murder. Set the tone. I wrote a think piece for the local newspaper. I wrote a eulogy for the murdered person that I would read at Grandad’s funeral. I wrote a letter to the murdered person’s family and I put the letter in a bottle and I threw the bottle into the ocean with no regard for the planet or the fact that the burial ground is nowhere near the sea. I wrote a prescription for murdered people, for their symptoms. I wrote a bedtime story about murder. I wrote a manifesto for murderers to try and get inside their heads. I wrote Grandad a new gravestone. I wrote in my diary. I wrote in your diary. I wrote and wrote but none of it was good enough. It all ended up face down in the recycling bin, tossed out the back, bleeding out onto the ground. So I am afraid I cannot tell you anything about the murder except for the plain facts. It was a thing we cared about until we didn’t. At worst it was a funny story. At best, an inconvenience.
At Grandad’s funeral I read a poem. This was highly irregular, given that I am not a man. I had a think about how the older relatives would react to me speaking. After some deliberation, it turns out I didn’t actually give a shit.
I read a poem that Grandad taught me when I was too young to recognise that it was a bit of a weird poem about how great it is to be a human, if you are a human man. So I grew up loving it because he got in there early enough, before I could pronounce patriarchy. (Speaking of being neither one nor the other, don’t get me started on gender identity. That liminality deserves an essay of its own).
So, there is a verse in the poem that goes:
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise.
There is another verse which says:
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools.1
Spoiler alert: if you can do all the things in the poem then you will be a man, my son. But ignoring the gendered bullshit for just a moment, I think these lines are telling me something about waiting and about writing.
There is something honest here in lockdown. Here in the hearse, parked up on the verge. Something unburied. Alive and dead at the same time. All we can do is try to not be tired by the waiting. I can write without worrying about how I sound because no one is listening. I am frozen in the middle of it all. My voice feels powerful but not too wise. Which is a bit of a weight off really. I can write badly if I want to. Or I can write well. It really doesn’t matter. There is some stillness in this middle ground. Some great emptiness, without answers and endings.
We all know that tomorrow there will be funerals. People will start to speak and it will mean something again. There will be forms to fill in, there will be excuses to make. Conversations will need to be had. Someone will make a small incision just above my belly button. Someone who has been murdered will expect a eulogy of me. Some kind of beginning will happen, while simultaneously something else will end.
But right now, in the waiting, there is just middle. Now is the time to grab worn-out tools and take them for a spin. The time to write whatever the fuck you want to, for once. This almighty stopping, is the stoop and the build.
I make a cup of tea for my symptoms and smile at them nostalgically. I rub my belly and shake my head at something my symptoms do. Classic symptoms, amirite? I laugh the kind of laugh that says Oh, symptoms! Aren’t you silly! I tell them wistfully about everything we will do together when the lockdown is over. I talk to them in soft strokes. I lullaby them to sleep. Then, when I am sure my symptoms have slipped off into some sweet, sweet dream, I open up my laptop and I plot their bloody murder.
It’s Grandad’s birthday next week. On that day, when the restrictions have been lifted slightly, I think I’ll call mum. Then I will dig the keys out from wherever I left them before lockdown and take myself off for a long and uneventful drive.
1 Extracts from If by Rudjard Kipling. Read text
Sara Hirsch is a London-grown writer, performer and educator now based in Pōneke. Sara’s work has been published in journals such as Poetry New Zealand, Magma, The Shanghai Literary Review, Stasis and Iron Horse. They have two poetry collections published with Burning Eye Books. www.sarahirsch.co.uk @sarsbars89