By Julia Sojka
Szczeliny Istnienia (Cracks in Existence)
Jolanta Brach-Czaina, Dowody na Istnienie, 1992
In the beginning, I found it difficult to put words to my experience. This was painfully apparent as I tried to stay in touch with my not-so-close friends during lockdown. Since most of these relationships relied on texting, the casual conversation pillar was repeatedly materialising on my screen:
‘So, what have you been up to?’
Ordinary as this question was, it seemed to have exposed a huge black hole in my existence. Well—what have I been doing? A couple hours of work every day, sometimes I make dinner, in the evening I might watch a movie or read something and in the afternoons I do some housework. But this didn’t add up to a full day. At first I would reply:
‘I am so bored. What am I even doing with my time? Haha’
Hidden beneath the panicked awkwardness was a genuine question that I desperately needed an answer to—and that none of my interlocutors ever noticed. And it was also a half-lie, because I wasn’t really bored. Yes, days weren’t exciting but I wasn’t missing things to do. And yet I was constantly tired. Confused and hoping that this wasn’t happening only to me, I began changing my reply to:
‘Oh, you know, usual lockdown stuff,’
which was usually accepted with complete understanding. But in truth, I couldn’t make any sense of it: I couldn’t even start to describe it.
The standard language of the pandemic is one of loss: we are isolated from everybody else. The story of the lockdown is not one of being inside—it’s the one of being barred from the outside.
This is also a language of community trauma. ‘Lockdown’ is the word written in bold red capitals in news headlines, signifying a collision of irreconcilable realities. It is a construct made up of experiences that have nothing to do with one another. Me, at home, safe and with the challenge of doing two online tutorials a week; and them, somewhere outside, the people on the front-line constantly at risk, the vulnerable with no support—the ill, the dead. Everything that was meaningful, and therefore worth talking about, was there—not here. And yet, I wanted to attend to whatever insignificant form of existence had been left behind with me at home. I needed a language of en-homent.
Now, en-homent is one of the most privileged positions one can find themselves in, but initially, it seemed so dull that it was almost not a form of life at all. More like a period of in-between, separating two parts of my life that really should have been continuous. A state of permanent waiting for ‘after-this-is-over’. There was no moving forward in this reality—no life to be lived. So, after all, it wasn’t that surprising that there was no way to describe it.
At the same time, for something so dull, en-homent was weirdly worrying, for there were missing hours in my day that nevertheless kept me busy; though I had no idea of how I was spending them, they made me tired. It was like being thrown into a different dimension in which more time in fact meant less time. The foundation of time-bound existence felt threatened.
Then, a couple of weeks into my en-homent, the to-be-read pile presented me with a small book that had a grey cover: it was a collection of essays by the Polish philosopher Jolanta Brach-Czaina, written in 1992. Her voice from three decades ago greeted me with the words:
The foundation of our existence is constituted by everydayness. We think that the fact of our existence has an immense importance, so we get puzzled every time we realise that it passes on idle things. Everydayness is the background to the extraordinary events that we expect—and we often expect them too much—that’s why it decides about everything. It’s of tiny size and of high frequency. It’s unobservable.
From these first lines, when Brach-Czaina spoke about the ordinary as if it had a power that was not fully appreciated, I knew she was capable of explaining the unbearable phenomenon of en-homent. By everydayness, she meant the unexciting, the repetitive and the necessary: washing the pans after dinner. Putting them back into the cupboard. Cleaning the surfaces. Getting rid of the mud on the floor. Hoovering the carpet. Washing the potatoes. Peeling the potatoes. Throwing out the peels. Cooking the potatoes. Eating the potatoes. Putting the plate into the dishwasher. Washing the pan. And so on.
I realised two things: firstly, that Oxford eliminated many forms of ‘everydayness’ from my life. Every weekday at 10am a cleaner at the college would knock on my door to collect my rubbish. During formals, meals were not only put in front of me, but someone would also take away my plate after I had finished. Secondly, that en-homent did the opposite: it magnified the everydayness and allowed it to grow to a level that I had not experienced before. The home that is lived-in every minute of the day requires care; en-homent means that every activity of the day is to some extent entangled in the constant circle of organising the space around us. But how does this ‘decide on everything?’ And why is it so consuming?
The whole trap that is set on us is this: our existence is devoured by everydayness, it is brought down to it, identified with it, and so we should be thankful to it: we exist thanks to everydayness, but it also makes us disappear.
Our existence relies on menial activities. But to what extent? It is possible to not make one’s bed for the entire day and it is possible to live with the dishes unwashed in the sink. But the question is: for how long? Eventually, dishes must be washed, beds must be made—and the order in our domestic worlds must be restored. Otherwise, the amorphic forces will cumulate over time, making it impossible for us to carry on with our existence: there simply won’t be any clean dishes left. Perhaps the level of disorder that different people accept varies: our tolerance will evaporate as the pile reaches different heights. But each of us guards these boundaries, and we won’t tolerate anything which invades them. There is something disturbing about the sight of an unmade bed: it keeps returning in the mind.
What strikes you when you enter a clean kitchen? Nothing. Everything is as it is supposed to be. Normal. To put it simply, the issue of washing dishes in a clean kitchen doesn’t exist.
And, so, the paradox thrives: we need to defend the boundaries we have set. However, even if these are respected, it doesn’t even occur to us that some activity has produced this natural state of affairs. We don’t notice it. One might put a lot of energy into cleaning the kitchen, but once this is done, it is as if nothing was completed at all—because everything is as it is supposed to be. Our efforts are erased.
The only trace is tiredness—something must have existed if it has made us tired. And yet, there are no traces: it is a crack in existence, not really an existence itself.
The foundations of our existence resemble non-existence. In the beginning, two forces fight with equal chances of winning: the amorphic dust settling on everything around, and our force of life that drives us to get rid of it. But once the latter wins, this conflict disappears as though it never existed. For every family, these struggles are ritualised in different ways, but this makes them a non-negotiable fact of everyday existence: the way we prepare breakfast, who washes the dishes and when the dog is taken for a walk. But we forget about the efforts we have just undergone—they’re immediately replaced by another. By constantly reclaiming our place to live, en-homent makes this reclaiming a central part of the day.
Everydayness is not just a safe, boring, shallow water of still boredom, but it is the center of existing, the place of a tricky and everlasting fight between forces of life and death.
This voice of reassurance that grounded my existence in ordinary matters was a profoundly feminist and revolutionary one. It explained a lot about the other side of the lockdown, too: the people who prove vital are those who disinfect, change bedsheets in the hospitals and deliver packages to where they need to be. The workers who, through repetitive and necessary work, build the existential order for their communities also build social order in the time of a crisis. Perhaps this calls for an alignment of our values with the facts that reveal the reality of our existence.
Above all, Brach-Czaina’s was a voice of a friend telling me that remembering little about tasks accomplished in your day doesn’t mean it was not a day fully lived. The feeling of existence is the feature of taking responsibility for your being, especially when there are no sweet illusions and distractions available. Life is lived, but its way of moving forward is often not that spectacular. Especially in times like these.
If my children ask me what I did during the pandemic, I will reply that I must have been busy—because I remember doing nothing at all.
Our efforts are such that they always end in nothingness. Of course, it must be so.
JULIA SOJKA studies PPE at Mansfield College. She has recently saved a snail that she found on a leaf of lettuce. (Hope you are doing alright, Steve!).
Art by Katherine Franco