Thursday, 19 May 2016

On Vestibules

In the garden there are dewdrops on the grass, and between the grass small flowers are growing. The black paint on the outhouse door is old, it is cracked in places, and where it is cracked you can see the pale wood underneath. The wood, too, is old.

It is Wednesday and I am home, drinking coffee, listening to John Coltrane, thinking I should be happier. It is easy to forget, at work waiting to leave, that the absence of a negative does not always feel like a positive. Sometimes you stop and in the stillness you become a target towards which all those clawed thoughts that have been prowling can pounce. But then if there are beasts back there, in the recesses of the mind, maybe they need to be given room to leap.

For a long time I thought I worked in bars because something was broken inside me, because bar work was what was left when I had lost the ability to try at anything else. Its frustrations, the claustrophobic dimensions of its existence, felt symbolic of my wider failings. It was the place in which I waited for my true life to begin, and then I woke up and I was 31, and I realised it probably already had.

But maybe this is not uncommon. Perhaps we are all struggling against lives of barely-masked dullness, raging pettiness, vague disappointment. We sense something wrong, some unnameable beauty lost, some weight dragging us back from climbing upwards to the rarefied air beyond. Our suffering is a barrier locking us out from our true destinies, and we find innumerable reasons for which this suffering can be blamed.

We blame work, customers, clients, bosses; we blame the weather, politicians, our parents, God. We tell ourselves that if only we could finish that degree, sign that record deal, lose that weight, make that person love us, change that government, write that novel, then we would be happy, we would finally have arrived.

Our lives are lived as if in an antechamber, a vestibule, putting our faith in a room beyond, waiting to be ushered through ornate doors into a palatial ballroom, free from suffering, devoid of pain -- and until that happens we kill boring hours here, paying as little attention as possible, running down the clock. We do not progress and we ruminate on our denied entry, whether it could be because of our wrong shoes, our wrong bodies, our wrong minds.

Or else we try to go back. With growing awareness of the miserliness of life, the sense of being cheated out of something we can't quite place -- often manifesting in our 20s, as it dawns that the hand we've been dealt isn't exactly loaded with aces, and the dealer might not allow us to burn -- we attempt a scramble back into childhood, to a time when strong arms cradled us, when our suffering was someone else's responsibility. We let the dishes pile up and we eat junk food and watch primary-coloured superhero films or Kardashian cartoons under blankets, gathering the ease and warmth around us like a parental embrace, forgetting that, stripped of nostalgia, our youths were as fraught with pain and angst as any time.

Or if we're feeling intellectual we might cry for a return to the pastoral paradise before Facebook and Instagram hijacked our dopamine systems, before computers designed to ease our lives made slaves of us all, back to a simpler past of perhaps the early 20th Century, when everyone on Planet Earth was happy all of the time.

But what if there is no escape? What if this vestibule -- slightly cold, a little small, permeated with blunder and embarrassment and gently humourous failure -- is the only room in which we will ever exist? If we are dragged in here from the cold of the cosmos, through the gateway of consciousness, in order to shuffle around for a few sparse years in this quiet hallway, clumsily tipping our hats and tripping over our feet, saying never quite the right thing, blushing too often, until our time is up and we are led back out, confusion fighting comprehension on our fading faces, to merge back into the waiting night?

Would the true work of our lives then come not from defeating monotony, suffering, but from building an honest relationship with it? From admitting the pain at not getting more, and thus letting in the joy at getting even this?

Realising the finite nature of our lives, the proximity of the walls, we can cease wishing to be elsewhere and accept that we are here, do the work that is here, before us, now.

I don't know what that means for you. But in bar work I think it might mean greeting customers with a smile, holding them in awareness, letting the message pass from your eyes to theirs that you know about the vestibule, that you are in it with them, will do what you can to make it all right. I think it means pouring a drink carefully. Saying thank you and meaning it. Sweeping even under the shelves, where people can't see. Washing the jiggers as you go. Mopping the floor wet and then again dry, with attentiveness, with elegance, with what may amount to a kind of love. Meeting the boredom and lethargy head on, with eyes open, focusing on the mundane moments as if they were all that mattered, as if they were all you ever had.

We are in a vestibule, and it is dusty, decaying, does not feel like nearly enough. But to be clear it is composed of exploded stars, perched on the edge of an unknowable void, held together by forces mystical and everlasting -- as, in fact, are you. Most of the stories we tell ourselves, the entertainment we watch, the conversations we have, swaddle us in the illusion of catharsis, happy endings, a ballroom beyond. But I think the truth may turn out to be both less than this, and, in an odd way, much more.


  1. I really enjoyed this piece - and now I want to drink in your bar.

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