Monday, October 19, 2015

Writing in darkness

In darkness things merge, which might be how passion becomes love and how making love begets progeny of all natures and forms. Merging is dangerous, at least to the boundaries and definition of the self. Darkness is generative, and generation, biological  and artistic both, requires this amorous engagement with the unknown, this entry into the realm where you do not quite know what you are doing and what will happen next. Creation is always in the dark because you can only do the work of making by not quite knowing what you're doing, by walking into darkness, not staying in the light. Ideas emerge from edges and shadows to arrive in the light, and though that's where they may be seen by others, that's not where they're born.

~ Rebecca Solnit, in her magnificent book, The Faraway Nearby (p. 185)

This really struck a chord for me. Like a string instrument - a chord with a lingering resonance. It feels like the times we're in. It feels like our human moment.

We are dwelling in darkness. Some of that darkness is terrifying. We walk through it blindly. We don't know what's inside it, where the next step will lead us, or if our foot will land on anything solid, anything that can hold us up.

And what could be more terrifying than the thought that within that darkness we might merge - with the unknown, with what we cannot see, whether safety or threat, whether dreams fulfilled, or forebodings.

We are in a time of creation then, by Solnit's description. But to what are we giving birth? That's where the portends can make one shiver a bit with fear and anxiety. Something is ending, something huge, something that has formed an arc of meaning for western humans for a very long time. Religion wedded to philosophies wedded to old cosmologies that describe a world that no longer exists, that never existed except in human imagination as we tried to understand our surroundings, to make sense of the world around us - which in the span of only a few centuries has gone from an Earth-centered universe with a revolving sky, a ceiling, just above us, to unlimited vastness beyond our comprehension - all of that is collapsing upon itself under the weight of how much of it we now know is simply not true, not an accurate description of reality. All the culture is feeling it, from the most intimate places in our lives to the vast scale of the planet's eco-realities.
Hubble Deep Field

Shouldn't surprise us that there are so many millions of people that would rather cling to those old certain smaller cosmologies, thank you. I mean, if our worldviews are shattered beyond repair, how will we see our way forward? How can we manage THAT scale of darkness - infinite, infinite before we arrived here and infinite when we are long gone from here? The gods birthed in the old cosmologies are as shattered as the cosmologies themselves. Watching people struggle to salvage them - a god outside us, or acting from outside us, patriarchies built on that old god, religions bent on forcing our soaring human consciousness into the smallness of old orthodoxies - this is part of the long deep sorrow of our days.

Reading Solnit's book, I could not help but see our need to create stories inside this vastly expanding sense of time and space. But what do our own small personal stories mean in such a space? As she writes, and as Buddhists iterate, and as the new physics and new cosmologies indicate - when do the stories begin? when do they end? The best we can do, it seems, is to use our stories, those particular "locations" along the path of evolving existence, as our own unique lenses through which to view our utterly mysterious journey through space and time. In those locations we can converse with one another, share what is common and what is unique, perhaps identify with one another's suffering, pain, joy, exuberance and allow deep wells of compassion to open. I mean, we're all in this together, this one story emergent on the planet. We have both a lot in common and a lot to learn from one another (which can never be done by imposition or proclamation of a singular truth or worldview).

When does the "I" begin, this identity and narrative of my life that feels so important and crucial to me? and when does it end? What gave birth to the meaning framework into which I was born and what will end it - because that is always what happens, another form of extinction, an inevitable part of the evolutionary process. What is no longer needed or adapted to its environment tends to disappear. That is the nature of reality.

Did my mother end the day she died, the day I heard that last intake of breath that was never released? And yet I recently dreamed her entering through a portal into my being with what I can only try to approximate by saying that it was like rushing water pouring into my consciousness, that I could perceive, that I could hear. I can still call up the image, which is mostly sensation, and yet vivid as can be - to me.

I don't know what that is. I don't have the slightest clue what that is.

When I write, having no idea if the words will ever be read by anyone but me and a few chosen readers, I feel like I am writing in darkness wanting to bring the words into the light. I want to create, and in order to create, creation has to unfold within the world. We can decide to open to it, to allow it to unfold through us, to participate - or not.

To say we live in dark times has been said of many other times down through history. But this darkness of our time, this particular unknown, feels of a different magnitude. This time, as a species, we have no idea where this story is going. There are people trying to write one that keeps humans alive in the narrative, and there are those making a world in which that may not be possible. Is that an end? or is it just continuation without beginning or end: humans - here today, gone tomorrow?

There are those opening their arms to the Great Transition occurring whether we want it or not, believing that if we welcome and cooperate with what we cannot see, but which is intimated now in just about everything we do or don't do, we have a chance at still being a part of it, part of the story evolving on this planet; and there are those fiercely resisting because it is too damn frightening, too big, too overwhelming, because "I will not know who I am in it because all the ground I stand on, all the walls that hold me in place, all the signposts that tell me who I am, will collapse."

But they're going to anyway. With resistance, they will collapse in a world overtaken by fear (as is already occurring) and one that is well-armed. That kind of darkness I would prefer not experiencing. Fact is, destruction rather than creation comes out of that kind of darkness (think Syria or Iraq or Yemen; or Charleston or Sandy Hook Elementary School or Umpqua Community College in  Roseburg OR, or the Sikh Temple just down the road from me), though even that will someday yield to some new form of creation, but perhaps not one we'd like to live in.

"Merging is dangerous..." We are merged with our mother's bodies before birth. We merge back into the unknown at death; we dissolve back into the darkness because we can no longer be "seen" (though perhaps in our dreams, as with my mother, we can still be "sensed").

When I sit down to write something new, I am entering into a kind of darkness, yes. Solitude is a kind of darkness. Awaiting the words, or struggling to find them, is a kind of darkness. Poems and fine art, stories, memoirs like Solnit's - to write or create these things, one has to go into dark places and find them. This takes courage. Not everything wants to be faced. Not everything wants to be dug up, even some necessary things. You never know what lies underneath, what was buried for a reason, and then what lies underneath that...

When does the story begin and when does it end? Maybe when we realize there is no beginning or end, we can get over the need to "understand," even to forgive, and come to an acceptance of this difficult path that is all about the struggle of life to emerge, that was always painful and difficult, propelled by something that keeps pulling us on (I was going to say forward, but we don't know if that's true or what it means), that is the reason why we so often do not do well with our fears, form tribes, take it out on one another, feel threatened by those "other" than us that challenge our ephemeral certainties and belief systems and constructed identities.

Maybe as we draw water from those wells of compassion we would find that we drink in empathy, that we find the water is a common source of life and that we all need it, that more than anything that's what holds us, or could hold us together, that without it we have a world torn by divisions and violence against other humans, other sentient and non-sentient beings, and the very planet itself that gave birth to us.

Is writing my story, or any story, all that important in times like these? Maybe in times like these, our stories are more important than ever. Maybe that's where we begin to find our common bonds.

Solnit's quest in this book is a reminder that we are all just living in a continuum that we will never understand, of which we will never know the meaning, though we so strive to find it, to put layers and layers of understanding over the mystery so that it feels graspable, safer, comforting. But as soon as we do that, it makes the mystery or meaning smaller than us, small enough to contain within us - which means it is not ultimate, not the meaning, not the purpose, at all.

And maybe that means that finding some body of truth is not the essence of the human quest either, but the quest itself is the essence, which means engaging a path that will never take us to the light of any ultimate revelation or truth or meaning.

The purpose of story-telling then is to keep engaging the creative ferment of this darkness, because I'm telling you, after reading Solnit's book right after reading Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See, after reading Marilynne Robinson's Gilead and then Lila, with some poetry mixed in there, like David Whyte and Linda Hogan and returning to Alicia Ostriker - the fact is that this quest, this search, this path into the unknown is more beautiful than all the answers humans have tried to lay over the world.

What could be more boring, what could be more fatal to the work of creation itself, to that magnificent gestation of darknesses and mergings and insights and living wisdom than thinking one has "found it?" The quest dies there.

So, back into the story-seeking quest, to the "amorous engagement with the unknown." It is so much more fun than the world of certainties that threaten to destroy us.

Margaret Swedish

About The Faraway Nearby

Fog, water & mother photos by M. Swedish

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