Magic and Metaphor

A chapter from my PhD…

A Structure of Feeling

‘Metaphor is a type of thinking and expression towards wholes as things. The word comes from the Greek ‘to carry across,’ and in metaphor one set of patterns is, as it were, carried across to another set in the mind, and in a way that safeguards the integrity of relations of the whole that cannot be spoken about directly.’   — Sean Kane, Wisdom of the Mythtellers (1998, p.143)

I remember when I knew I had something of substance to write. Walking back from a friend’s place one winter’s night, crossing the Yarra by the suspension bridge near the bottom of our garden, I stopped, like I usually do, in the middle. The gentle sways of the walkway ceased. Leaning against the railing, looking down to the black water tumbling over stone, I understood in that moment there was more to say. I wasn’t sure what it was, but I knew the bridge was involved. Its pilings made of whole trees, leaning together to form the two towers that support the swinging walkway, the many strands of twisted metal that together make rope, tied to the bank, threading between hefty eucalypts and slender wattles to attach to and steady the deck, the cables arcing down from the piling towers and holding the whole structure in perfect tension, I love every bit of that bridge. It is a structure of feeling in me. The stars above, the moon glowing the manna gums, the cold water below, looking into it, seeing only darkness, but feeling so much more. Looking into darkness and seeing something inside it. Seeing it. Seeing it from this made thing, this elegant structure of age-silvered timbers and steel, tension and weight in balance and nothing but what is needed to carry people, a few at a time, over water. I write about the bridge for a reason: to write as bridge. Standing there, alone, the night, the mountains, the river: not alone. With. With all of them, and with me, a made thing. Knowing that Bridge made me, long ago, not so long ago as mountains and rivers, but Bridge made something rather particular about who I am, because unlike the old ones, bridge made me as I made bridge. And knowing this means knowing that as Bridge carries me, I, also, carry Bridge. 

The knowing of this is a feeling. The feeling is deep in the memory of flesh, my flesh, the transformative stuff speaking here. Of once being a clever monkey making a passageway for my need, to pass across water. I stood there, then, above the water, and felt learning, felt changing. Not only am I made. I make. The made makes. The made sees that it makes.

Be careful here. You could fall. It is dangerous.

So dangerous. What a risk, creation, that you would do this to yourself!

Look, oh look at what you have made.

Self-awareness, here, in this part of the universe, has brought itself to the edge of annihilation. All of us, all of us, did this together. I cup my face in my hands. I breathe. 

I didn’t mean to come here. But I have, and perhaps this is the right path. I just wanted a true way to tell of my sense of the connections between traditions of depth perception, and I thought, how cool, metaphor literally means to carry across, it’s the actual work of the bridge, it’s not, it really isn’t, a metaphor. Snazzy huh? But then I fell a long way down into the feeling of this work, a long way down. There was a bridge, I stood upon it, then I leaned too far over. The weight and wonder of what we are pulled me right in. 

Metaphors are dangerous. I learned that long ago.  

Once made, they can carry you across, without dumping you in the deeps. The water is the place where there are no words. The place where the invisible either holds you, or drowns you. Everything I could say about the spiritual terrain I seek to describe is better known through knowing water. For water, over millions of years, shaped the nature of this knowing. 

Once made, metaphors carry you across to a new place. Jane Hirshfield explains that ‘every metaphor …points to the shared existence of being and things. The mind of poetry makes visible how permeable we are to the winds and moonlight with which we share our house’ (1997, p.99). Metaphor can enlarge space, you can feel it, the feeling of spaciousness in the body, yet they are still a place where words are. Words are a place where words are. But as Hirshfield hints, they point to the deeper place: ‘Metaphor is the way language carries itself past its own powers, to enter new realms’ (1997, p.111).

There, on the other side of the bridge, is a new realm where there is a richer understanding of the interconnections, a place where the pattern is glimpsed, like something seen in the sunlight glinting on the water on the way over the bridge. But it’s important to keep going. My tendency to overbalance, to be drawn in by those glints, to lose myself in wordlessness and a sense of drowning at my desk is something I hope, with maturity, to come to terms with. Literally. I know I’m the type to go in deep — who knows what I may one day find language for in there. Yet for now, I need to discipline myself to keep walking, to just cross the bloody bridge. 

And hopefully you’re here with me, you cross too, you too are carried on over. 

Streams of deep unknowing, they spread through all lands, and every one of them flows to the one vast ocean. In every place, every time, people have sought to cross the unknown safely and bring back the gifts given in the encounter with mystery. I cannot know if it is the nature of the knowing or the nature of me and my desire to build bridges, to connect you to you that says, please, all of you, you know the one precious thing, in various guises, but it’s the same wonder nevertheless. Let’s learn from each other, share our shattered histories of knowing, so we can come together to love this place and each other more beautifully, to mend what has been broken. With this proviso to show the longing and loss at the heart of this endeavour, that strives not for intellectual advancement but for learning a better language of love, I resume. 


Below the Bridge

‘We have a deep need to be intimate with the things of the world. … the central faculty of our human be-ing is imagination, and this is how it manifests most powerfully in us: as a drive towards increasing the range and extent of our intimacy — by loving more widely, more fully, more intricately, more completely. Imagining, exploring and loving to ‘extend the intricacy that intensifies intimacy’ is how we are incarnate. It is our incarnation. First dissolve the idols of literalism, then swim deep into things with all your senses. Bring an underground perspective into the day-world: be attentive to ambiguity, metaphor and mystery — let all our knowledge be founded on a deep unknowing. …Then we find the world springing to life.’   — Tom Cheetham, Green Man, Earth Angel, (2015, p.3)

An image comes of tramping down to the river, to the earth below the bridge, to lean in, there where the pilings are showing the first stage of rot, and colonies of miniature mushrooms are growing in the softening wood. I lean in to the changes in our bodies. My body is learning to notice itself, and trust what it feels, decades of muscle rigidity gradually softening as fear gives way to compassion. The body of the bridge is changing, the dead trees of which it is made are sprouting new life. This river has known bridges for the briefest of times, and this one is already returning to earth. There are feelings here, shining in shadows, elusive, slippery like fish. Most of our lives cannot be said. To be loyal to the experience of feeling is a walk toward water, is gazing in and dreaming there, is joining with the given. 

Meditation teacher Reggie Ray is helping me keep faith with this method, if that is what it can be called, that showing you a place (in this case the place where this work announced its intention of manifestation) is more telling than telling you what I know. At this stage of my learning I trust my capacity to conceptualise far less than I trust things. I’m afraid of the artificial simplification I’d surely do by: 

‘creating a conceptual framework for something that is really only fully known nonconceptually. It is important that we don’t confuse what we understand conceptually with the actual experience of the process, which is ever so much more rich, subtle, multifaceted, interesting, informative — and unexpected — than any abstracted version could ever be.’ (2016, p.100) 

Ray cites a sledgehammer of a factoid: ‘It has been estimated that out of every million parts of information received and processed by our body, we humans only admit thirteen parts into our conscious awareness. That means we only allow ourselves to be conscious of .0013 percent of the data, of experience, known to our body’ (2016, p.18). Contemplation of which reminds me to align with where and what I am rather than what I think (while groaning at the paradox of how he, and now I, resort to the story of some unknown laboratory, and my left-brain question: how could they ever do such sums?).

It’s not that I’m not seeking to communicate some specific things. I’m not trying to wriggle entirely free from the conceptual net, but to find a way to keep returning to and acknowledging how these specific things are mostly to do with how to communicate, and communicate with, the non-conceptual. 

Hence metaphor. Metaphor holds pattern in a place of love. It brings things together, body to body, reconnecting in language the sundered things that once were joined. Making the connection in conscious self-awareness, which is knowing itself in and through and with and as human animal. It is seeing mind made from and as and with and through each other and in wonder at its own complexity and beauty. It is slow and careful and gentle with this. It is humble in the face of this.


I Walk Across

It’s raining today. Slap bang in the centre of winter, the rain windthrown on the windows, clattering the tin, dribbling down saturated earth, spilling to river. I’m still in bed in the centre of the day and the bridge is out there, straining at its many leashes, lashed to the earth, gusts of water and air shuddering the timbers. I won’t be visiting today. But I walk across it inside me, under sun and under stars, in heat and icy rain because I love it and trust it will take me where I need to go. It takes me into the now beyond the glass.

Out there the mountains are cloud, the nearer flanks a mistmoist blur. But I know there is more. Leaf and stem and limb and trunk run with rain to earth and trickle in to root and rot. Loosed leaves turn to slime, moulds cling, fungi spore. Wet scents, crushed mints, slip and pitch. The leeches come they come for me to live as them. Thank goodness for houses. I come back here to bed, which I had not left. 

In every direction, invisible mountains, running with rain, are swelling the river. Every inch of the invisible around me is brimming with aliveness and potential for transformation. The quest to write with and as the awareness of our shared aliveness is a conversation with wisdom in many forms, including human. I wrote the above, then I found a book I’d not know of by Tim Ingold, and read this:

‘Bringing things to life, then, is a matter not of adding to them a sprinkling of agency but of restoring them to the generative fluxes of the world of materials in which they came into being and continue to subsist. This view (is) that things are in life rather than life in things… Things are alive and active not because they are possessed of spirit – whether in or of matter – but because the substances of which they are comprised continue to be swept up in circulations of the surrounding media that alternately portend their dissolution or – characteristically with animate beings – ensure their regeneration. Spirit is the regenerative power of these circulatory flows…’ (2011, p.48)

This was my day, Ingold and in mist, written rugged up at evening by fire, the warmth of the sun, stored by fallen trees, now fuelling me. 


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