Rebecca Solnit’s The Book of Migrations: Some Passages in Ireland devotes much of a chapter to the mediaeval Irish tale Buile Suibhne (The Frenzy of Sweeney), which tells of a king afflicted with the behaviour of a bird. Two explanations are offered: either he was driven mad by the horrors of battle, or cursed by a Christian holy man whom he had offended. “His flight is an odd business”, writes Solnit. “Sometimes he skims along the earth, sometimes he makes prodigious leaps, sometimes he can rise up out of the trees, often he falls.” Not-quite-bird yet no-longer-man, Sweeney takes to the edges and wilds of exile, belonging nowhere but in the long shadows cast by 20th century literature – damned by Eliot, hymned by Joyce, translated and tempered by both Flann O’Brien and Seamus Heaney – until he is speared through the chest as prophesied, dies in a church doorway and is promised the ambivalent redemption of being sent to heaven.
I did not realise quite how much this story had touched me until I found it resonating clean through my reading of the following guest post from cricket7642. Stopped in the tracks of living by the gravitational push-pull of stories taking flight then tumbling to earth, meaning everything and nothing all at once, she leads us with fearless patience to contemplate that place of limbo too easily labelled ‘a breakdown’, as she disentangles for herself again lines of necessary orientation. Here and there, before and after; about, among, within and throughout. No choices without expectations – yet always the possibility of surprise. Stories that take wing again as soon as we recall the gift of choosing, and rewrite them as we must (no spear, Sweeney restored to the love and care of his family, reincarnation as a barnacle goose over heaven.)
This, then, a story of the grace and mess of being human, of being not quite a bird yet still, sometimes, able to fly.
The single clenched fist lifted and ready,
Or the open asking hand held out and waiting.
For we meet by one or the other.
A few weeks ago friends took me on an excursion to the ruins of a 14th century castle along the coast. I happened to be first in the door of the small reception room and shop, where the clerk welcomed me enthusiastically. However, when my friends followed in behind me, with their combat fatigues and steel toe boots, adorned copiously with tattoos, piercings and chains, the same clerk drew a thick cloak of caution around himself and bustled about, flustered and overconcerned with the rules of the car park and closing time. My friends noticed his change of manner and commented on it afterwards, stroking their beards and shaking their heads in amusement and weariness. How many people must recoil at their choice of fashion?
We take shortcuts, don’t we? We categorise and sort and filter all manner of information about the people that we encounter, as well as objects, events and observations. We try to contain all this inside the parameters of the familiar, whatever that may be to each of us. Sometimes we manage to reach beyond categories, but it requires time and effort which we don’t often spend. Our minds are set up to follow the shortcuts, which have evolved over millennia as a method of conserving our energy.
It left me pondering: was there a place between stories in that single encounter? There will have been one brief moment, with me in the doorway and my friends just behind me, one moment when the clerk was juggling the story of plain-looking me with the story of scary-looking them. We’re always gathering new information through our senses, the story is always changing, eternally changing. Margaret Wheatley has said “To resolve most dysfunctional situations, the first thing to do is flood them with information.” So we flooded the rattled clerk with information: we paid for tickets politely, explored the castle respectfully, and left the car park well within closing time. We provided him with a new story to consider – one in which scary hairy biker-type men are not always trouble.
The place between stories is a very small place indeed, like the moment after an inhalation and before an exhalation; it is the present moment lodged between future possibilities and past actualities. But it’s therefore also a very large place, a vast and formless chasm full of potentials.
Once upon a recent time, I took a visit to a place where stories littered the terrain like papers and photos from upturned boxes, like clothes strewn across the floor. Every step met the clutter of stories, some of which had been told to me as I grew up, some I have told myself; some of them truths, some of them half-truths, and some downright lies. Impressions and fears and beliefs and bliss all tumbled about together in a psychic spin cycle, contradicting one another at every turn. Stories piled up into thick heavy clumps; I picked them up and set them down, kicked them aside or carried them along, with neither rhyme nor reason guiding me. It all made sense yet none of it made sense, and no matter where I turned there were more, and still more stories. Our lives are simply full of them. I felt tossed about on frightening waves, overwhelmed and alone, until my family and friends anchored me.
Folly is an endless maze
Tangled roots perplex her ways,
How many have fallen there!
Our minds seek meaning. They filter the neverending flood of reality and select which material to receive and acknowledge. Our minds plot these selections into a cohesive narrative, just as I am doing now in recounting some things that have happened to me. My visit to the place between stories is just another story in an existential hall of mirrors. But as Cat herself says, In the First Place Between Stories, “it still matters deeply which stories you choose to believe, and what that belief then makes real.” The power to choose is profoundly humbling.
If we set the place between stories on a linear progression, with one narrative ending and another narrative due to replace it, we can envision it as a pause, a gap set after one and before the next. In the salvation story of Christianity, death is followed by resurrection; in the earned affluence story of consumer capitalism, hard work is followed by personal wealth; in the collapse story explored by the Dark Mountain Project, the cultural paradigms of the present age (including the linear model of progress, ironically) are followed by… well, by what? And as Cat has described, the personal narratives of self-stories too can sit on this line of before and after, when we consider our experiences as vehicles that transform us from the person we were to the person we are and even to the person we might become.
Like Cat, I have been dwelling in this transition space. Last year I wrote about limbo, a place of not knowing. I lingered there conceptually, and found myself haunted by expectation, paralysed by indecision – trapped in a fractured space between the pretty world of ideas, and the mucky world of actions which themselves descend so frighteningly easily into failures and shortcomings. Eventually this led me to my recent visit to a seemingly-real land of limbo, a place where past and future had me cornered, and every possibility was presented with its equally valid opposite; a place where surrender of self became so vivid that, reeling drunk on the human condition, I felt I had joined the living dead, unable – unwilling – to choose.
Expectation places a heavy burden on those who taste it, because it taints now with the demands of then. But it is part of our human nature, part of the set of skills we possess – remembering the past, anticipating the future: making meaning – allowing us to navigate the overwhelming flood upon our senses. There is no such thing as choice without expectation. The beauty of it is that expectation can be trumped by surprise. For instance, in the midst of my sojourn in literal-limbo I was offered an unexpected piece of sweet wisdom from a surprising source: a Catholic nun. She was friendly enough but I was guarded, and our conversation was brief and uneventful, except that as she took her leave she said to me, “If ever you feel that you must choose between God and yourself, always choose yourself.”
For me, the place between stories is becoming a place about and among and within and throughout stories: personal stories, cultural stories, family stories. Our stories surround us, they flap and fly around us as magically as the fantastic flying books of Mr. Morris Lessmore. I’m choosing to believe that the infinite present moment is poised among them, weaving them together into contrary complements which abide within a sacred circle. Fussy clerks, tattooed blokes in stompy boots, Catholic nuns, you, me, we all get to choose, and that itself is the gift.