Living Between Stories
Image is Synchronicity 3 by Rob Woodcox
Living Between Stories
What does it feel like to lose the plot? What does it feel like to wake up, one morning, smoke flattening the sun into a clementine penny, and realize you do not recognize the shape of your narrative? Everything is gelatinized. Formless.
For those with illness, for those experiencing dramatic loss and grief, for refugees, for those exiting marriages, for survivors of assault, the experience is not fluid. One story does not neatly pour itself into the shape of another. In Tibetan Buddhism, the term Bardo refers to the liminal realm between death and rebirth. A soul confronts and works through issues before entering into a new body. The experience of narrative Bardo, though, happens firmly and uncomfortably within life. You don’t get a new body. Or if you do, it is often the body you accidentally arrive at through unexpected illness or accident. The people around you don’t necessarily understand that, while waking and eating and participating in daily tasks, you are between stories.
Today, I sit in my living room and I sit between stories. A potato bug on my windowsill crackles and jumps like a spark loosed from a campfire. I pull a card from my Tarot deck. The Fool. The Fool Card is the zero of the Tarot, standing outside of linearity and organization. The Fool Card is both the first and the last card, living interstitially, a non-participant in the dramatic narrative of the Tarot. I close my eyes, imagining my foot hung in void air like the figure in the card. “As if there were a story. As if it could be told,” reads one of the final lines in Ann Lauterbach’s poem “Company”. What a fool I was to think that there would always be another chapter. The Fool card tells me to jump, but I insist that illness, that heartache, that ecological collapse, have already pushed me before I ever chose to jump. Who can help me navigate the Bardo realm between different lives that, paradoxically, exists within a single life? When we receive a diagnosis, when we fall ill, when a partner leaves, we feel the cards fall out of our hands. We are not holding a book. A story. We are holding the zero, the empty air past the cliff of the Fool Card.
I think of the hermit crab with a fleshy stomach, a delicate structure, and the dire need for a shell that its body cannot independently produce. These little crustaceans make do with snail shells that they eventually outgrow. The curious moment occurs when a hermit crab, spilling out of its shell, exceeding its narrative, finds another shell, a little too big. Instead of trying to enter into this spacious shell, it waits patiently, sometimes for up to eight hours, for another, slightly bigger hermit crab to arrive and take the big shell, discarding a protective home more suited to the original hermit crab. Sometimes as many as twenty crabs will congregate and perform a truly amazing ritual called a vacancy chain. When they have finally assembled, the crabs will quickly evacuate and exchange shells, each claiming the new one that best suits their size. What does it feel like to be that first hermit crab, overflowing its shell, waiting beside another shell that it also cannot properly inhabit? What does it feel like to be so soft, unprotected, and incapable of immediately producing a new story? The hermit crab says wait. And he also says, we never reach the next story on our own. We need a group. A group of people all willing to vacate and exchange their stories. Even more wildly, these stories do not belong to any single one of us. They were produced by something outside of our species. A snail. The story that will fit your new body, your new desires, your new needs, will be intimately excreted by a being living well outside the bounds of the human.
Perhaps when we are jelly-like, formless, without a guide, we should look outside the bounds of human culture and narrative for our new shape, our new shell. What beings have left behind their shells for me? Shall I wear the skin of the mountain, the creek, the blue heron, for a while? What feral, furred, horned, lichenized stories can I live inside briefly, while I navigate this narrative Bardo? Hermit crabs, when at a loss for snail shells, have been known to live inside pieces of wood and stone. Shall I be a tree today? A moonlight streak of quartzite in the cliff face?
The Fool Card by Uusi Design (See work here )
I stare hard at the Fool card once again. Into the zero hovering above his handsome head. I think of the electron swooping around a nucleus, denying a single story, living between classifications as a particle and a wave. One of the most intriguing aspects of the electrons, the study of which led to quantum physics, is the electron's ability to “hop” orbits around a nucleus without being traced. The only way we can locate where the electron has gone is by the photon it emits when it jumps orbits.
I think of the Fool card beginning to jump off the cliff. I think of the electron jumping between orbits, between the solidity of the particle and the oscillation of the wave. What if there was something beautiful that happened when we jumped between stories? I’m less interested in the particular science right now, and more in the poetry of the imagined electron. What if we, too, emitted a photon of light as we navigated the gray realm between narratives. It’s only initiation if you survive. This is something I’ve been telling people lately. It’s only meaningful if you safely get to the other side. But living in uncertainty, I do think there is something incandescent and unclassifiable about the experience of refusing to immediately enter the next story. You show other people that we don’t have to know immediately. We don’t have to produce or progress or move immediately.
Yes, shells protect and guide us through the oceans. Stories deliver us into events and relationships that create meaning and movement. But sometimes we must expose our soft bodies. We must sit outside the shells. We must jump between orbits in order to produce light.
Join me and Bayo Akomolafe discussing “New Gods at the End of the World: Disabled ecologies, healing, and a mythopoesis of worlds-to-come” with Science and Nonduality on September 7th. You can sign up here.
My book The Flowering Wand: Rewilding the Sacred Masculine is now available for pre-order from all online booksellers here and from my publisher Inner Traditions.
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