This month, I’m writing words and posting images relating to the landscape of memory. I hope to write poems most days and also share photos, quotes, and more prosaic thoughts related in some way to memory, nostalgia, longing for place, remembering and forgetting, landscape, dreamscape, landscape’s memory and memory’s landscape, the intersection of the layered historical physical world with personal memory, the frames that both landscape and memory use to contain and order our focus, the landscape of childhood, the landscape of devastation, how memories lie and tell the truth, the fragmentation of memory, how landscapes shape us and our memories, and so on. All the posts will be linked to the Introductory Page as they are posted. Thanks for visiting.
Today, some more thoughts on inner and outer landscape, thresholds, and memory.
I love this thought, by Irish poet, theologian, and philosopher John O’Donohue, when he was interviewed by Krista Tippett on “On Being” in Aug. 2007 about “The Inner Landscape of Beauty.”
“I think, for instance, to give a very simple example of [the relationship between beauty and thresholds], is that if you are in the middle of your life in a busy evening, 50 things to do, and you get a phone call that somebody that you love is suddenly dying — it takes ten seconds to communicate that information, but when you put the phone down, you are already standing in a different world, because suddenly, everything that seemed so important before is all gone, and now you are thinking of this. So the given world that we think is there, and the solid ground we are on, is so tentative. And I think a threshold is a line which separates two territories of spirit, and I think that very often how we cross is the key thing. … Where beauty is, I think, is — beauty isn’t all about just nice loveliness, like. Beauty is about more rounded, substantial becoming. And I think, when we cross a new threshold, that if we cross worthily, what we do is we heal the patterns of repetition that were in us that had us caught somewhere. And in our crossing, then, we cross onto new ground, where we just don’t repeat what we’ve been through in the last place we were.’
O’Donohue is making a connection between crossing thresholds — moving through a “doorway” from one space into the next — and a spiritual or psychic transformation that involves, one might say, forgetting what we know. Moving through visible or invisible thresholds — intentionally, unexpectedly, or reluctantly — can relocate us from one state of being to another, and this can make our lives more “beautiful” in O’Donohue’s sense of the word (more substantial, more satisfying, more whole) because this crossing causes us, or gives us a chance, to change our habitual patterns, those repeated ways of reacting to stimuli that stem from our perception of past experiences, that is, from those images, connections, feelings, and thoughts what we call our memories, which are more deeply etched in our psyches each time we repeat the reaction. So in a way, a change in space (physical or psychic) can change us — our mind, our soul, and our actions — by making us forgetful, by helping us to unremember.
“People remember things differently, and memory being what it is, no one version is necessarily truer than another … So many times the meaning of a moment takes its value from our feelings about the things we’ve been through.” — Ron Carlson, from “A Interview with Ron Carlson” by Leslie Wootten in The Writer’s Chronicle (September 2015)
O’Donohue’s example of the phone call that forces us to walk across a threshold is very real but it’s not physical. He says “when you put the phone down, you are already standing in a different world,” and that’s true, spiritually, metaphysically, but in a literal, concrete sense you’re actually still standing on this same Earth, perhaps in the same physical spot as you were before the phone call.
In his example, the threshold is an invisible transition — it’s what occurs in your mind or soul on learning something new, it’s an inner shift, it’s “a line which separates two territories of spirit,” similar to the invisible threshold or transition from college to the day after college, when you get married or when you realise the marriage has ended, when you learn you’re pregnant or receive a terminal medical diagnosis, when you uncover a significant forgotten memory, when you make a critical decision or when you first realise that the decision has been made. Something clicks, or something washes over you, and you have a new awareness, an insight that may lead to new ways of being, if you can unlearn, unremember, heal the patterns that have “caught” you. Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, in Turning the Mind Into An Ally, writes that “meditation is how we unravel the illusion” of permanence, stability, a solid self; crossing a threshold, willingly or not, is another means.
Thresholds of course are also visible, real-world phenomena: a real doorway or window, a gate, openings, stairways and elevators, physical places that lead to other physical places. O’Donohue uses words denoting physical place in the paragraph above, even as he speaks of non-physical space: world, solid ground, territories, new ground, the last place.
Sometimes a real-world threshold occupies a larger space than a doorway. It could be any place whose function is to move people across boundaries, such as airports and train stations, which are devoted to transition; places that exist “in-between,” like foyers, hallways, parking lots, which aren’t destinations but which are intermediaries between two places; places that have lost their function permanently or temporarily — such as abandoned houses, former industrial sites or military bases, schools on break, places like playgrounds and empty laundromats at night — or are functioning in unusual, unexpected, unfamiliar, disconcerting ways. An interesting example of the latter is the lighting section of a hardware store, a space with redundant functioning: “Lighting sections of stores … provide examples of how to light up a room, but the lighting samples’ purpose is not actually to light up the room they are in at the store” (in an essay “Understanding How Liminal Space Is Different From Other Places,” by Julia Thomas).
Both these intangible metaphysical thresholds and the actual three-dimensional spaces are liminal (from the Latin ‘limen’ which means ‘threshold’), meaning that they elicit a subtle response from those in the space. These momentary ‘waiting rooms’ between one space and another or one point in time and another are all transitional spaces, inherently unstable, and because they disrupt our sense of continuity and normality, they can transform our inner landscape. They can make us feel disjointed and “weird if [we] spend too much time in them because these spaces exist for the things that come before or after them. Their ‘existence’ is not about themselves” (Sarah McLaen in “Places Where Reality Feels Altered,” Odyssey, Oct. 2016).
Many of us notice the effect of thresholds when we walk into another room and briefly forget why we’re there; we feel the slightest degree of dissociation for a moment. We sense the “in-between” nature of liminal spaces, of being on the threshold, on the brink, on the verge; we feel then the reality of how we are not fixed but always becoming, of how nothing, nothing at all, is permanent, not even the self our memories have created.
“It may not be written in any book, but it is written —
You can’t go back,
you can’t repeat the unrepeatable.
No matter how fast you drive, or how hard the slide show
Of memory flicks and releases,
It’s always some other place,
some other car in the driveway,
Someone unrecognizable about to open the door.
Nevertheless, like clouds in their nebulous patterns,
We tend to recongregate
in the exitless blue
And try to relive our absences.
What else have we got to do,”
― Charles Wright, from “1,” Littlefoot: A Poem (2007)
Featured image: waiting room at Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, MA, June 2010