Thresholds: The Sacred Rituals of the Everyday

On Monday, in my writing group, we read Maggie Smith’s poem “Threshold.” The three of us all thought of threshold differently. One, thought of the exact moment of crossing between as in the point when the light turns to darkness each evening. Another imagined a going between space, the movement from one thing to the next, as in a phase of life, perhaps. I imagined the threshold of reaching a limit, as in a threshold for pain. What do you think of when you hear the word threshold?

The first line of Smith’s poem:

You want a door you can be
            on both sides of at once.

Reminds me of the space I often occupy. I feel between things. I am on the threshold of middle age, not quite ready to accept this transition. Some would easily call me middle aged and others would laugh at the suggestion. It seems reviewers love to call women in their forties middle-aged. To make a note of it, as though we need this information in order to understand their work. I noticed it again recently in a review of Eula Biss’s new essay collection Having and Being Had, on class, property, the demands of capitalism, and how we spend our time. The word “middle-aged” feels like a stain or a check against her. Youth being the ideal of our culture, and entirely wasted on the young, or so they say.

field as threshold

Precision and exactness are something I secretly love, but also loathe. I know that, for example, scientifically speaking, I could identify the exact moments of change. But I prefer poetry as in the feeling one gets on the day that it becomes clear summer has crossed over into autumn. The sinking loss before I turn towards the next season with hope for all it has to offer.

Reaching the threshold could also mean reaching the pinnacle, the prime. But in my mind I think of limits. In many ways, because of my class, whiteness, education, I have fewer limitations than most Americans. The limitations I struggle with are mostly my own use of time and imagination, and my choices around how I make or don’t make money. I have always been pulled by the spoils of Capital towards a desire for comfort, wealth, status, money. But I am also, and I would argue this force is more powerful in my life, pulled by the desire to reject capitalism, to live in my own way, to support others with the work I do, and to write. To make a masterpiece of my own life is to focus on and relish the daily work I do and not its product, which brings me to the sacred nature of everyday ritual.

winter field: light turns to darkness

We make our lives sacred through recognizing what we most value and focusing on it. We do not let the voices of “not enough,” the voice of fear, overcome us. When it arrives we greet it, we welcome it gently–hello, old friend–but then we turn to our sacred, everyday rituals of walking in nature, lighting candles, baking, reading, friendship, and so on. These acts that give our lives meaning also make our lives sacred when we relish in them. Living under the pressures of capitalism, we need a daily refuge and reminder to turn towards what is true and right.

During this most sacred time of year, we battle the wound of Empire. We are taunted by the stuff we must buy, we must do, we must be. But we don’t have to do it. We can turn towards ritual instead. Make this season about the sacredness of your life. Sit under the stars and tell stories to your dear ones, light a bonfire and drink hot coco, walk quietly through the woods, along a lake or a river, through your town or city with all its windows lit up and its comings and goings, sew or bake or write or make, dance or run or twirl alone in your living room. I promise, nothing you buy and no gift you give for the holidays will render as much joy as these simple acts of renewal and gratitude.

with love,

-e

How We Live Our Lives

There are two Canada geese nesting on the pond, but only one mate. My son and I go out in the kayak in the middle of May. The frogs are mating. Guttural and loud, the sound echoes from the shore of the pond. We watch them in the shallow water laying on each other. There must be hundreds of them who have traveled to the water to mate. The male holds the female in a hug called amplexus and she releases eggs that the male fertilizes. Some frogs laze alone at the water’s surface as though relaxing before looking for another mate. The males appear smaller than the females.

Mo in the canoe

            We paddle along the shore. Mo sits in the little indent behind my seat, a perfect perch for an eight-year-old. He notes the animals he sees: fish, turtle, Canada goose, duck, sandpiper, blue heron. Five baby turtles sunning on a log in the pond, slip under the water as we approach. They dive into the murk to hide. We are hot enough to wear t-shirts and worry about burning.

            As we approach the first nest, the two mallards—a male and female pair—swim off. They’re often visiting the goose but depart abruptly when they see we’re coming. She lays out flat with her long black neck along the ground, still and lifeless, waiting for us to move on. We paddle past to the deer head; its hide looks like clean white rubber from its time under the water. It’s face, barely recognizable—blackish mouth, eaten back and teeth protruding. My husband saw it there a few weeks ago on his maiden voyage in the new kayak. It appeared as a kind of horror-movie omen at first. But now, Mo and I like to visit it. We also visit the racoon carcass near the old cabin. We are waiting for it to decompose so that we can take the skull home, like treasure.

            In the time before, he went to school every day and I worked. At night, we ate dinner together, I read him and his brother stories, they went to sleep. On the weekends, I mostly graded papers or wrote or worked on other employment, but, we often walked to the pond or went to a movie, for sushi, to visit friends. Time now has changed. Days pass like afternoons. Yesterday, my husband sat on the porch reading all day. He wasn’t in a good mood. I went for a run and he and the boys came to pick me up at our friends’ goat farm. We chatted outside with our friends while the boys went with their two girls down to the pond. I fed the newest baby goat in their herd of nearly 300 with a bottle and discussed the library plant sale with Holly—no browsing this year, call ahead to order and then pick-up.

Will came back alone from the pond and Holly gave him a cup of fresh, warm goat milk, which he gulped down. I’m very thirsty, he hinted for more. I cherish these brief visits with friends even as I fear what may come as we begin to socialize again.

Back home, we eat dinner, we bring in the chicks, we tuck in the boys, we get into bed. The day passes, and little is accomplished in the way we had once imagined tasks should be completed, days filled with plans and lists. But we no longer rush. We sleep for as long as we can, we rise at seven or eight. We sip coffee in bed for an hour while scrolling on our devices or out in the garden listening to the birds.

The children play imaginary games with animals. Sometimes dragons. The games emulate what they know about the animals—territory, family units, conflict and friendship. Sometimes there is screaming and ranting and whining and so on. The regular sort of expected behavior during a time of difficulty or abnormality. But mostly we don’t mind because time stretches out and releases itself from limits.

Time moves back towards the cyclical kind of time that John Berger writes belongs to another era, one long ago. He writes of two kinds of experiences of time passing. “Our experience of its passing involves not a single but two dynamic processes which are opposed to each other: as accumulation and dissipation.” He says that time seems to move at two different rates. The experiences of deeper meaning, he insists, accumulate and therefore stop the dissipation of time. I interpret this as meaning we remember them more. The springtime hours are much more accumulative because plants grow rapidly, offering a physical sense of passing time, a way of holding it in our mind’s eye.

It is really only our bodies and the things we make that hold up time. Everything else lives in cycles that include and absorb death. It is the physical changing of our bodies alone that creates this concept as far as I can tell. Perhaps too, the desire to thwart death with posterity.

*

All week, I have felt quiet. I’ve reached a shore of silence. Please, sometimes I think, don’t speak to me. Then there are times I look over at my husband in bed, wrapped in his elephant blanket, and wonder who he is. Speak to me, I say, poking him. He grunts and rolls away.

On and on the days go, flowing out towards summer, a time when I usually pack up and head to Minnesota with the kids. Where I sit on the deck and drink coffee with my mom or lounge beside the lake with my siblings and their kids or spouses. Everything about this slower, sunny season in Minnesota or Vermont, feels like a luxury, and affirms my life choices, which are normally a source of anxiety for me.

I wonder what this different life would be like. One in which we are farmers or makers or stay-at-home teachers of children; one in which we value our relationships with our family and the landscapes that surround us so deeply that we refuse to work excessively in offices spaces or the like, and it’s somehow possible to live this other way. I wonder if Berger’s concept of time applies here. But, though I have read and re-read his passages on time in his book And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos, I can’t quite distill them. I only sense an affinity to his words, a knowing that I have held like water through my hands. A flickering that once passed can’t be made into words. There is a different way of knowing death, a way to make it a part of life. To draw up close to it and hold it gently near to you and it is in this way of knowing we return to another way of life lived close to the land, close to each other, in quietude. Our constant longing for more, fed by living. All our loss absorbed in the soil of the body, renewed.