This is the second installment of Nina MacLaughlin’s Novemberance column, which will run every Wednesday this month.
“I’m in the November of my life,” said Francesca, a fifty-eight-year-old curator with good shoulders and dark lively eyes and dark wavy hair and a laugh that came from deep in her gut. Two years ago, she was told she had two-and-a-half years to live. “This was my relationship with death before,” she said, holding her arms apart at full wingspan. “Knew it would happen. Never thought about it.” Then she brought her index fingers together so they touched in front of her chest. “This was the diagnosis.” Death was on top of her. The stamp of an expiration date on her forehead annihilated all other thought. In time, and with titanic mental effort, the initial all-consuming horror gave way. “In November, you’re winding down,” she said. “It means incorporating less sharp edges, more smoke.”
Which is maybe to say more mystery, more potential. The sharp edges of fact give way to the blur of the question mark, the uncertainty, the quiet. “The space of nothingness is where one finds his or her own self and life’s richness,” writes the Japanese architect Tadao Ando. “This is a wonderful time of my life,” Francesca said.
Francesca talked of her career as a curator, and the importance of “the space of nothingness,” how the gap between the works of art was as important to her as the works themselves. “Every inch mattered,” she said. She spoke of the sweet spot, a placement wherein two objects are in tension, in conversation, put at a distance that allows one to see the most of both at once. “There’s a perfect distance where empty space allows both to be alive in a different way,” she said. “Do you know the Japanese concept of ma?”
Ma loosely translates to negative space, to emptiness, vacancy, blankness. It is a pause, in time, space, music, conversation. “Ma makes nothingness palpable and tangible,” writes Ando. It’s a space ripe with an atmosphere of uncertainty, suspension, and possibility. The Japanese character consists of the graphic for door and for moon, suggesting “a door through the crevice of which the moonshine peeps in,” as the Swedish linguist Bernhard Karlgren defines it in his Analytic Dictionary of Chinese and Sino-Japanese. Ma is the crack that lets the light in.
In his slim book In Praise of Shadows, Jun’ichirō Tanizaki writes of seeing light in darkness. He writes of a large room lit by candles and tries to describe the color of that particular sort of darkness. He calls it “a pregnancy of tiny particles like fine ashes, each particle luminous as a rainbow.” The particles collect in a way that’s all potential, into a
“visible darkness,” where always something seemed to be flickering and shimmering, a darkness that on occasion held greater terrors than darkness out of doors. This was the darkness in which ghosts and monsters were active.
That quality doesn’t exist in small rooms lit by bulbs turned on with a flick of a switch. Tanizaki laments the extinction of a darkness that helps the mind see ghosts, that edges one up against the vast, the frightening, the nonunderstandable. The candlelight makes one better know the dark, the shadows, the spaces unseen. And the dark—the hollows and corners behind the curtains, above the rafters, the places where dimness pools—helps one better know the light.
Likewise, ma makes one aware of the presence of absence. It’s the gap where the moonlight sifts through; it’s the space between two slate stones that guide your steps along a path; it’s the hollow where ghosts gather; it’s the pause in conversation, the ripe silence of the unspoken.
Jeanette Winterson writes of the relationship between light and conversation:
I have noticed that when all the lights are on, people tend to talk about what they are doing—their outer lives. Sitting round in candlelight or firelight, people start to talk about how they are feeling—their inner lives. They speak subjectively, they argue less. There are longer pauses.
Certain kinds of dark allow us to be more at home with silence. An upped intimacy results. Night grows in November. It gets dark in November. We can quiet down in November. In the long evenings, embrace the pause, the fertile quiet. From the first of the month to the thirtieth, in a small city in the northeast, night extends by fifty-nine minutes. It’s not the month that loses the most light though. September and October get darker by far, each losing about eighty-three minutes of light. Even August, when the fireflies throb by the bushes at the edge of the yard and you still don’t need sleeves or shoes, loses more light than November by more than fifteen minutes. But the dark feels different in November.
That’s in large part due to daylight saving time. On Sunday, unless you live in Arizona, you bumped back the clocks, which means an hour of light that belonged to the evening now belongs to the morning. For many, that hour-earlier sunset is an abrupt reminder that winter is on top of us, that time is only ever running out. For those who prefer the lengthened twilights of summer, the afternoon dark carries with it a sense of gloom, a lethargy, a melancholy, a despair. At two in the morning on a Sunday in November, the slow creep of shifting minutes of light across the year accelerates all at once.
There’s a power to it: it’s the one day a year you can pick an hour to relive. Turning the clock back an hour sounds like a shoe dropped on a rug, a thud, abrupt, echoless, and then back to silence. It sounds like a candle being blown out, that quick canvas thwap of flame extinguished off a wick. The smoke rises in silence, the flame’s ghost on its way elsewhere, and suddenly, sooner than you think, it gets dark.
November holds the in-between. Between warmth and cold, between light and dark, between living and dying. The eleventh month, getting darker, getting colder, echoes our own eventual winding down and gives chance to live in the richest, deepest way. “The space of nothingness is where one struggles to reach a deeper layer of self,” writes Ando. November opens a path to those deeper layers unavailable to us during the rest of the year. It’s an approximation of the expiration date stamped on our foreheads.
“When death is right here,” said Francesca, her index fingers held up together, side by side and touching, “it eliminates everything else.” She kept her fingers pressed together. “When you are thinking too much about death, you are not experiencing the ma.”
She spread her arms wide again. “And when it’s right here,” she said, fingers apart again at full wingspan, “when you’re not thinking at all about death, you are also not experiencing the ma, and you take everything for granted.”
She moved her fingers back together, keeping them four and a half inches apart. “Here, though. Here,” she said, and paused, and quiet filled the room.
Nina MacLaughlin is a writer and carpenter in Cambridge, Massachusetts.