The road in the end taking the path the sun had taken,
into the western sea, and the moon rising behind you
as you stood where ground turned to ocean: no way
to your future now but the way your shadow could take
walking before you across water, going where shadows go
This is the beginning of a poem by David Whyte called Finisterre, which means “end of the earth”. It was serendipity when I stumbled across it, printed in a magazine I was reading during a day when I needed some space from my own thoughts.
Reading this poem in the context of my faith journey officially messed me up (in a mostly good way). I can’t begin to assume what Whyte is referencing in this moving piece, but perhaps that is the way all good poetry is supposed to behave – malleable enough that one can take it and roll it around in one’s own mind, try it on in one’s own private dressing room to see where it fits, where it’s too tight, where there is room to grow. If you’ve been reading my writing for a while you will no doubt know I am a huge fan of metaphors, and Whyte employs them so evocatively in Finisterre, that I found it instantly and completely compelling, as I imagined myself a part of it; I could picture myself tangibly in that space and that scene. But this is not supposed to be a review of the poem.
About half-way through the poem is where it starts to get real for me:
no way to make sense of a world that wouldn’t let you pass
except to call an end to the way you had come,
to take out each frayed letter you brought
and light their illumined corners, and to read
them as they drifted through the western light;
to empty your bags; to sort this and to leave that…
The past few years I have certainly been in that place, by the waters edge; at the place of in-between, on the shoreline, a place where elements meet and nothing seems stable and permanent, with a sack of tattered correspondence that I have dragged along on the journey – sorting – and knowing that I am calling an end to the way I have come, knowing that I cannot go back.
It’s an incredibly lengthy process. Sometimes painful, at other times poignant and beautiful – my fingers becoming stained with the ink of a hundred thousand words along the way – this process has had its challenges and its triumphs. There have been moments of wonder and freedom, as I have let go of damaging dogma about who I am and where I should be. There have been varying levels of uncertainty as I have sifted through the contents of this bag, asking myself “Can I really leave this theology behind? Isn’t that doctrine kind of essential to the faith to which I supposedly lay claim?” – sometimes it was a great load off, at other times I longed to pick things back up again for comfort, but the weight was too much to bear.
I have just started reading the new book from my all-time favourite blogger Sarah Bessey, titled Out of Sorts: Making Peace with an Evolving Faith. I’m sitting here on my metaphorical beach, and I’m thinking that this book was left here by a fellow sojourner, who has crossed this way before, left as a beacon; an altar. It has been purposefully, deliberately placed in the sand as a stake and a marker for people like me, people who have paused to figure a few things out. The book begins…
Once upon a time, you had it all beautifully sorted out.
Then you didn’t.
Oh yes. Have you been there? Have you felt that shift? I know I have.
Sarah goes on to describe what her book is about:
It’s about loss and how we cope with change…. It’s about embracing a faith which evolves, and the stuff I used to think about God but I don’t think anymore, and it’s about the new things I think and believe that turned out to be old. It’s about the evolution of a soul and the ways I’ve failed; it’s about letting go of the fear and walking out into the unknown.
It’s about the beautiful things we might reclaim and the stuff we may decide to kick to the curb. It’s a book about making peace with unanswered questions and being content to live into the answers as they come….
Really, it’s a book about not being afraid. This book is my way of leaving the light on for the ones who are wandering.
[ From “Out of Sorts” cHAPTER ONE, by Sarah Bessey ]
There is a place in Spain called Cape Finisterre, which I suspect may have inspired the poem by Whyte, but I can’t be sure. According to Wikipedia (that font of all reliable knowledge), in Roman Times Cape Finisterre was considered to be the end of the known world. I can almost imagine what it would have been like in those times, prior to knowing the world was a sphere, prior to the horrors of large-scale conquest and colonialism, standing on the edge of that cape, looking out to sea and being held captive in awe and wonder and fear of what may lie beyond, just knowing you could see the waters tumbling down over the edge and into the great abyss, and being hypnotically drawn out towards it, all the while being paralysed with the fear of leaving behind what you have always known, forever.
I can almost imagine what it would have been like, because when I close my eyes that is where I see myself, right now, reaching out in trepidation with the thrill of the fierce forever before me, knowing and seeing behind, glancing back to where I have not been true, where I have coerced myself along paths made for other’s footsteps, and getting tangled in the process. Then reluctantly – but also with a sense of relief and rest – coming to this place, climbing down from the ridge onto the forgiving sand…
to promise what you needed to promise all along,
and to abandon the shoes that had brought you here
right at the water’s edge, not because you had given up
but because now, you would find a different way to tread,
and because, through it all, part of you could still walk on.
no matter how, over the waves.
There’s a sense that I am letting so much slip through my numb fingers, that friendships – along with my once-muscular faith – are falling away like dry sand, as I have unintentionally distanced myself from the memories and practices I have carried along with me, and from the echoes of friendships fading away and disintegrating at the bottom of this over-sized suitcase. It’s been almost two years since I have had to mostly let go of church and holy community, for reasons I can’t quite pinpoint, other than this: I haven’t given up, but maybe I have just finally given in… given in to that haunting beckoning beyond the brushy dunes, given in to the sharp particles that whip about my ankles and weigh my sorry old sneakers down.
I’m sitting here, in the sand, next to a lantern and a worn-out pair of shoes. They brought me this far, but they can’t carry me now. I’m staring out at the seemingly endless ocean, and wondering what I might be reaching for beyond the horizon, what creatures I might meet out there in the surf in the dead of night. The light flickers merrily, casts my lithe ethereal shadow out onto the shore line and over the swell, an impermanent outline that responds to the allure of the wind’s whisper. The chill waves reach my outstretched toes.
We sort on the threshold of change…. Of course there is grief in the process….
And we need to tell our stories in order to move forward….
Every ending is also a new beginning.
I’m finding a different way to tread now, softly, bravely – sending my shadow out over the waves – searching for the wild voice calling out over the waters.
Ending and beginning and rolling on into the unknown.
Out of Sorts is available now for international pre-order on Kindle/paperback at Amazon for release early November (or wherever else you usually by books! It looks like Book Depository won’t be releasing this title until Jan 2016, though). Note: This is not a sponsored/affiliate link, I do not receive any kickbacks from sales of Sarah’s book, I was simply invited to participate in helping launch her latest work, and of course I jumped at the chance! Even though I’ve only finished chapter one, I recommend it, and you should definitely buy it!
If you’d like to read more of David Whyte’s poetry and prose, start at his website, of course! Buy a book or two or three (or one for me, it’s my birthday next week, hint hint!)
Oh and hey – I’m back, for now. It’s been a while, but I’m so glad you’re here, and I’m so glad I’M here too. If you’re a new reader or you haven’t subscribed to my blog it would mean so much to me if you would take thirty seconds to chuck your details in the subscription box – I won’t ever spam you, Scout’s Honour (oh, I’m not a scout, but I still won’t spam you. Unless you want real SPAM, then maybe I can post some to you? Let me know, Bx).