Saint Lucy's Day

/ by Joanna Walsh

I was waiting to meet an artist in a cafe that was in neither of our countries, but in a country where we both work. It was between dog and wolf. We had known each other for a while, or at least we knew each other online. There were some words we could put to each other, and these words were not about national status, marital status, parental status. These words were not about employment status, or age or likely socioeconomic group. They were not even first names. These words were about art and sometimes about technology and sometimes politics 

 

Neither of us knew the color of each other’s hair. 


As soon as we saw each other’s hair for the first time in the cafe, and also each other’s skin, our approximate age and what we were doing about it, what shape our bodies were, the manner in which we walked through the door and sat in a chair, how much space we took up in the room, we began to talk incessantly or for about two hours. 
 

We talked about making art pay. 

We talked about how writing seldom pays, but art sometimes does. 

We talked about grants vs advances.

She talked about serving on committees.

I talked about the publishing “industry.”

We talked about multitasking between jobs

We talked about refusing to multitask at home. 

We talked about gender roles in marriage.

We talked about the long labor of living in families with men.

She said nothing changes (she was talking about committees).

She said people can change (she was talking about relations). 

She talked about working through the bad times.

I talked about refusing to work through the bad times any more.

We talked about feeling forced to put words to our relationships in order to emigrate.

We talked about feeling forced to put words our relationships in order to immigrate.

She mentioned the difficulty of being a middle-aged woman immigrant and all these words tasted strange to me.

We talked about difficulties with our blood relations.

We talked about difficulties with the relations we’d signed up to. 

We talked about being on Facebook because of relations.

We talked about refusing to be on Facebook because of relations.

We talked about how important Twitter had been to us.

We talked about anonymity online.

She talked about making friends missing friends being unable to make new friends. 

We talked about the countryside vs the town vs the internet.

We talked about national boundaries.

We talked about national forms.

We talked about the words needed for these forms. 

We talked about these forms being all our friends talked about now.

We talked about these forms being the first thing we talked about to strangers.

We talked about how we did not talk about them like this 'til recently, but we could not pinpoint the time this changed.

Only in the end did we talk about politics. 

Only in the end did we talk about art. 


This was a private conversation, so we talked incessantly about “private life,” which is something we had been told to sort out for ourselves before we could begin to lead any kind of life in public. We knew we should be talking about public life, which, we had also been told, was distinct from private life: more important complicated full of moral weight. But public life was not not what we talked about, incessantly. We were unable not to talk about private life, which seemed so urgent, despite the urgency of the public situation. 

 

Two hours is a long time between dog and wolf. We had situated ourselves there, because we did not wish to be situated, yet we found ourselves situated nonetheless. We found we had already been situated via words we had written on national forms, after which we had not been allowed to change our situation. We were not allowed to change our situation by renaming ourselves, and we were not allowed officially to change our address. We found we might make some advance toward changing our situation by adapting or discarding another person’s name, but we were still not allowed to change our street number, even when our street number became, actually, different. Professionally, we both write online, where we are asked to situate ourselves little more than virtually. Offline, we found we cannot situate any non-virtual parts of ourselves as we might imagine, nor even record accurately how we are situated. Professionally, we are allowed to write speculatively. Personally, we are forced to write speculatively. Personally we are forced to second-guess. Professionally we know what we’re doing. Personally there are situations in which we are not allowed to write nothing, professionally, we are at least allowed write “nothing.” 


I am beginning to be frightened by this situation, and the way I am situated in it. I am frightened by the power of the speculative words I have been asked to use to second-guess my situation on forms that situate me in space across time. I am frightened I might be occurring at an unfortunate time, a time in which space and time might become a historical situation which—like that of those women in old photographs with improbable hairdos, with undergarments I wouldn’t know how to put on—will never be related because things were different then. I am frightened of the difference between those different things I am required to write on forms and the nothing I am allowed to write professionally. I am frightened of becoming subject to those different things, which are necessarily speculative because they continue to be unrelated by the women to whom they occurred, other than via their situation as related on historic forms. I am frightened of the speculative nature of difference, which is expressed as the difference between the words I am required to write on forms and what I imagine to be my own situation. I am frightened that history takes its time while words take none, not until they are written down, at which point words can take longer to cross than countries. 

 

My name reminds me to cross. My name means “not from here.” There are names with similar sounds all over Europe, that mean similar things, or similar not-things. My name all over Europe (or its versions) means those people. It doesn’t matter who those people are, it only matters who those people are not. Things which are not, wrote John Donne, on Saint Lucy’s day, between dog and wolf, and he also wrote I am re-begot. Being begot is a situation in space and time, being re-begot, he says, is a situation that comes from dis-situatedness: He is re-begot, he says, of all that’s nothing. His renewed situation is possible because of dis-situation. He is re-begot, he says, from this dis-situation via love. 


Love is active in dis-situation and love, we are told, is a private relation. In nothing there is space for a lot (Donne says for “all”), including space for this private relation to become active in the re-situation of being re-begot. This is why resistance will be come from personal relations in private life. I don’t mean personal relations that are easy to situate in words on public forms: not birth relations, nor even relations we’ve signed up to, but from an insistence on continuing to relate the unrelated. We must make (or discover or find?) a poetics of relations that is not speculative in the manner of words situated on forms, but that is able accurately to relate a not-thing. This is easiest to relate in situations that can accommodate the word ‘nothing.’  


When we stopped talking incessantly and got up to go, the dog had left entirely and it was dark. 

....
Joanna Walsh

is the author of seven books. The most recent, Worlds From The Word's End, was published by And Other Stories in 2017. In 2018 Break.up will be published by Semiotext(e) in the US and Tuskar Rock in the UK. Her writing has appeared in many journals and anthologies including Granta Magazine, and The Dalkey Archive's Best European Fiction. She is a contributing editor at online literary journals 3:AM Magazine and Catapult, writes literary and cultural criticism for an number of publications including The Times Literary Supplement and The Guardian. She founded and runs @read_women, described by the New York Times as "a rallying cry for equal treatment for women writers." She is the UK Arts Foundation 2017 Fellow for Literature.