Monday, December 21, 2009

The narrative of disappearance

Years ago I was introduced to a poet by the name of David Whyte. Since then, I have only half-jokingly referred to him as my "spiritual guru."

About once or twice a year, I get a newsletter from Whyte and it always includes an essay from him reflecting deeply about how he sees the world at the moment. Last week the newsletter arrived and I think in it, Whyte speaks to our current situation in a way that goes much deeper than our politics, and yet recognizes the political challenges we're facing.

I would encourage you, if you're interested in this kind of thing, to go read the whole thing at the link in the above paragraph. But here's a portion of it that I think gets to the essence of what he has to say.

Human beings stand at the center of these sometimes swift, sometimes slow, always moving patterns of presence and absence, but rarely intuit their own essence might be revealed and magnified by what is veiled and hidden, or by what has been taken away. Yet this form of subtraction may be the very hallmark of our time. At the present time we are asked to live in companionship with patterns and dynamics that are either disappearing, have not fully emerged or can never be fully named; patterns perhaps already changing into forms for which we have yet no language.

It is tempting, in this limbo time between the traumas of a world once said to be in ceaseless war with terrorism and a not yet fully formed future ideal, to feel righteously lost. Everything seems to be paused and hanging in a mist-wrought, barely moving dance. The world's economic systems, the world's ecological systems, the relations between haves and have-nots, the sovereignty of nation states upon which many millions of individuals have based their identities, all these are taking forms which we cannot quite recognize, and in that movement through form seem to be on the verge of disappearing.<...>

Little wonder then that if we prefer the appearance of stability or clear unobstructed vision we will manufacture fake narratives to replace the complexity, changeability and raw beauty of real ones, especially if the stories we always wanted to be true seem to shimmer and disappear. <...>

It may be that we live in a time of collective heartbreak, where for the first time in history we are being asked to witness the disappearance and reappearance on a global scale of what it means to be fully human; to give away our identity and see how it is returned to us through a sincere participation in the trials and necessities of the coming years. Part of that heartbreak is the sense that we might not be equal to the ecological, political and economic transitions that are necessary, that our own selfishness may be writ too deeply into our genes and that the future is therefore untenable and unreachable. We do not as yet know if this is true, but the old humanistic story around ourselves as a successful species, always on the up and up and appointed to some special destiny, is fading and silvering into the night air, and we are left, at this point in history, contemplating the unknown immensity of the night behind it.


I believe that Whyte has captured here the basis for so much of the angst we feel both in the world at large and in this tiny little space of interaction we call the blogosphere. If indeed, we are being asked as humans to give up what we have known as our identity without really being able to see the alternative, it is no wonder that, as Whyte says, so many of us feel the need to rush things and create a fake narrative to ease the strain. The problem he doesn't address is the fierceness with which we need to cling to those narratives because some part of us knows they're not real...at least not yet. And so we fight over whose narrative bears the closest resemblance to reality.

I have no grand answers to the question of what we do with that anxiety. But thinking about it once again reminds me of something Nezua wrote a while ago at The Unapologetic Mexican.

We are always new. Every moment is new. No moment need be like anything that came before, even when the resemblance is striking and our imagination lacking. And yet, of course we must learn from who we once were. But to let a lesson that once helped inform every step forward is to walk an old path, and to preclude the sight of new horizons from our view.<...>

Because life is not like a series of books in a course on ...anything. It fluctuates. We fluctuate. We are not a being, but a becoming, as Friedrich once said. And sometimes ideas are hammered out and we draw lines and walls and are told we fall on one side or the other and so do our thoughts and so does all that follows from them...and so it goes. We buy into these illusory borders, too.<...>

I am far more comfortable navigating the in-between than I am in any Place. I like no thing as much as the coming and going from one to another. It is on the purpling beaches of dusk and the roseing gauze of dawn that my true eye shines lidless and I see so much more than in broad daylight. In the falling away of my tired husk I remember my shape can only be held temporarily. And to cling too tightly to it is to rot.

Being sure is but the borderwall we place around a heart to ward off the skinstripping wind of the next living moment.


While discussing this quote in a comment thread at Daily Kos last week, jonimbluefaninWV shared a phrase that captures this position very well - he called it a "state of critical ambivalence." While Nezua finds that his "true eye shines" in that state, I think that for most of us, it is one that is extremely uncomfortable. And yet its where we find ourselves nonetheless. I expect that it is those who can navigate the "skinstripping wind of the next living moment" who will not only survive, but show us the way.

1 comment:

  1. Very good NL. I would add from "Our Lady of the Lost and Found," by Diane Schomplien(sp?),

    "It is time now to venture out of the comforting land of either/or opposites and travel into the uncertain territory of both/and...

    Time to accept the possibility that these, irony, paradox, and prayer, are still, the thin places, the perfect quantum qualities."

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