“The trouble is, Nick, you don’t know who you are.”
It’s true. This Lent I have been occupied by a phrase from the letter of St James: purify [your] hearts, dipsychoi, people with divided souls. Like some kind of fidget toy, I’ve twisted it this way and that, coming back again and again to wondering about honesty, authenticity and truth. The headline challenge from a friend this week came with greater force than the discussion in Confession the weekend before. Three or four, or even more voices and choices have been raised in me and around me, and the nail is hit home with that phrase: “you don’t know who you are.” Dipsychos, a person with a divided soul, and it is friendships, two revelatory friendships in particular, that have shone a light on that division. This post isn’t about them, really, but is trying to make some sense of this “unknowing” model in terms of my work and my research.
It would be lovely to talk about how being outside clears my head, about “the mountains, the solitary wooded valleys,” but is it just about walking?
When Rob Macfarlane writes, it’s not just about walking; in today’s looking at my relationship with Garner’s Thoon and Ludchurch it seems hardly to be about walking for me at all, but a sort of pilgrimage (that overstates it) towards a personal integration. When I have written about “being real” before it has been about creating a relationship with place through story; this post, this week’s thinking is about me making sense of me through people, through place, through story but as I attempt it…
…I am back to Ludchurch and the disquiet I felt when I met that dark place, the darkening wood and the disempowerment of the Green Knight in the dusk. Maybe what I turned from there, the thing that chased me from Thursbitch for weeks after our first visit, was a shapeless Big Thing made of what I couldn’t see: an anxiety that I cannot find a self under all the guises I carry. One of the coats I wear is about the research, the language and literature reading and thinking and walking I have been involved in, the Wild Spaces Wild Magic project. I come back to it again today in something of the spirit of Richard Mabey’s Nature Cure, where he suggests that walking can be “like gazing into a crystal ball.” Walking, maybe, and reflecting on that walking – but he also warns that “the imagining and mythologising of nature is an ambivalent process.” So while pressure of work and demands of family mean not much one-foot-in-front-of-another walking has been going on, there has been a lot of (very ambivalent) crystal ball scrying: it has been a week where time and again, sitting in my office or in my meditation or as I drift off to sleep I have walked from the Gradbach hostel up to the Green Chapel, and as I reflect on this I keep coming back to the blog post and the John Fuller poem I cite often, where in the one I claim I am my own Gawain and in the other Caliban concludes, angrily:
… I think it is not good
To be unhappy with your freedom or
My language (learnt, but nothing understood),
Lost like my name within the magic wood.
This Good Friday evening, the first night of Passover, let me add some more thoughts.
Perhaps it is the rhythm of spring and Liturgy in both Christian and Jewish traditions have been (in part) agents of bringing me to a point where I have to acknowledge, as Rob Macfarlane describes it in The Old Ways, “the co-present ghosts of the former and the future.” The ghosts of past relationships and the uncertainty of present ones; the ghosts of past half-finished research so beautifully topped by more able medievalists at home and elsewhere; the hopes and fears of all the years. Maybe “imagining and mythologising [of anything] is an ambivalent process” – solvitur ambulando, but I feel like I am on a fatigue run, carrying so much. It feels like time to stop running: to change the metaphor, it feels like time to look to the ordering of my life, to make sense of the bits I am carrying, like a hiker rummaging in a disordered rucksack, or a mosaicist faced with the task of creating a picture from random tesserae.
The poet who “got me through” the bleak and beautiful four years of studying and working in Durham, Anne Stevenson, challenges the reader at Easter with the lines
What god will arise and slouch
through this realm of rubbish?
And I think the place I am at the moment is just what she describes in North Easter: a realm of rubbish with real flashes of beauty. That is to say that I am unconvinced by the Olympic myth of “anyone can be what they want to be,” but I am in sympathy with Auden (in lines again I have come to this Lent):
Instruct is in the civil art
of making from the muddled heart
a desert and a city where
the thoughts that have to labour there
may find locality and peace
and pent-up feelings their release…
Let Fuller and Anne Stevenson end this. She complains in her poem A Sepia Garden of creating identity as
the daily irritation,
the cramped frustration of attempting
the jigsaw with pieces missing
and my plaintive joining Caliban in saying
…I framed what syllables I could
because we all create who we are with what we have. The trouble is I’m not sure what the picture I’m creating should look like.