I’m not sure we all make it out of the underworld. Not the real underworld, I mean. I suspect that when one starts to feel as though one might be coming through, to the other side of pain, one doesn’t quite know for sure. I love Martin Shaw’s line so much: “Anybody who actually gets out of the underworld will carry a limp. You’re marked by it. You’re marked by it…and you’re meant to be.” I hear his voice saying those lines this week, from his new book The Night Wages (2019), and I decide straight up that I’m already on my way out, on the other side of the archetypal nightmare that has held its deathly vice relentlessly. And what I’m feeling now must be my permanent limp. Ok. I think I can manage that. I’m astonished to find that I’m kind of proud of this limp. Blood in the game type stuff. Maybe it will soften in years to come, although right now I’m still a bit conscious that I limp.
This last week I was with a group of students, working with origins, ecology and spirituality. It’s messy. It’s harvest time in the Boland. The temperature is high, and the air conditioner on and off to regulate noise and heat. We are absorbed in notions around becoming invisible, a story of place, weaving, contemplation and sacred activism. The students are questioning, tentative, a bit confused, just the way that explorative conversations seem to work. It is a bit bumpy and awkward. Connection lurches in fits and starts before settling in quietly like a ghost in the back row, without anyone noticing. And then it’s suddenly there, and something’s happening.
Some of the questions arising have kept circling, in and out of the last few days.
How have our ways of being, knowing and seeing been colonised?
What are our own hypocrisies?
As we become invisible, is our identity diluted? Have we become diluted chasing stuff?
Have we forgotten what it means to conduct ourselves?
When we are broken within, what does it mean to listen?
Age old grapplings between atheism, agnostics, spirituality and religion?
What is the true meaning of words?
How does one illustrate ones soul in writing?
Why does de-cluttering seem so difficult?
What would it mean to find sanctuary?
Why does fear take over paying attention, imagination and creativity?
Why the fear of silence, and quick to fill the void?
How do I live in this world vulnerably?
Why would you let us read your story? How come you put it out there?
And, to me perhaps the most poignant: why the unanswerable in our lives? What is its role?
These questions seem to be the kind that I must not to be tempted into answering. Or at least not too quickly. The danger in answering, is that we haven’t lived the questions, we haven’t let them brew and ferment. Quick answers are likely to be clever, maybe not necessarily wise. The quick answers are unlikely to draw our ancestors in from lounging around outside, smoking and listening with half an ear. They’ll only pitch up if we do. That is, if we start getting really interesting. When the questions are filled with story, living differently and acknowledging the aching yearning within. That’s when our ancestors drain the glass, and push their way through the door. Count me in, you can almost hear them say - finally, you’re cracking open. Bend the knee. We’ve arrived.
And what is it that arrives, in the moment that the yearning calls. Perhaps it’s the spirit of the questions, the breath of the stories. A sense that there is more at play than words. As if the words are portals into a wealth of being. It’s as if the writer has touched the void, come back and dropped a few pearls onto a page. And those words invoke that writer’s entire experience. We have, through words, access - just momentarily - to Maya Angelou’s wisdom, Ben Okri’s magical realism, T.S. Eliot’s six years in writing his Four Quartets, Ursula le Guin’s realms of imagination. It’s not the words per se, it’s what they open. And that’s why they matter.
When someone asks though, what’s the role of the unanswerable in our lives, normal words won’t come. Rilke filters through the sunlight dappled through the grapevine outside.
Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.
(Letters to a Young Poet, 1929).
I love this quote so much.
But in this question about the unanswerable, it is not exactly satisfying. After all, what IS the role of the unanswerable in our lives? Perhaps it is exactly that. To remain unanswerable. To generate that ‘aahh’ as an inhalation, or a soft sigh out. To create that place beyond words. Where little can be said of comfort nor explanation. It just is like that.
The weird thing is though, I’m pretty convinced that howls of laughter, marvel, joy and delight come from exactly that same place.
Look, maybe it’s one of my many irritating quirks. I just can’t bear unadulterated optimism. It exhausts me. It has no shadow, and gallops around without touching the ground. Until all the wonderful buoyant energy fizzles out in a few sputtering sparks, like the end of a catherine wheel. In a world as filled with agonistics as ours, instead I seem to notice inextricability. The exquisite beauty in art, the inevitable pain of the artist woven into the creativity, the unhappiness that is so often good for writing, the screaming agony of childbirth and a baby son delivered into his mother’s arms, the bleeding wounds of rape as the sea, trees and mushrooms wrap themselves into healing a woman, grief in inexplicable loss and the strange newness of seeing and being that mysteriously arrive. I’m haunted not by why the world isn’t perfect, but why we contort ourselves into sanitised, gleaming lives. With all the grunge airbrushed out.
Swedish poet and child-offender psychologist Tomas Tranströmer, (1931-2015), wrote in The Scattered Congregation, "We got ready and showed our home. The visitor thought: You live well. The slum must be inside you."
Maybe, we will never quite understand the shattering, unanswerable things that happen. Maybe we are not meant to. Maybe some things we are not supposed to ‘get over’. What if we saw these humungous blasts from space differently though. Something of mammoth and archetypal proportion. Something so significant from which, if we do survive, we will never be the same.
Then these unanswerables become initiations, initiating us into realms hitherto unexplored. While it sometimes seems the bigger the initiation, the harder the journey, one of the things initiation can do, is reveal a unique kind of knowledge.
And imagine instead of hiding our shame, humiliation and defeat, we wore our limps and battle scars openly and in quiet strength. It’s true. We will walk crookedly, but our smile may touch another’s soul and our hearts might see more kindly their wounds and fears. They would soften in our gaze. Because they would somehow know that we would have been long in our own darkness at times when we did not know if we would return.
And somewhere in this, lies beauty. The other side of pain, a joy in being, and in being alive. Also, a gentle relief in just being ordinary, without having to say very much.