Kay Ryan #3: Magnets and snake skins

Words have loyalties
to so much
we don’t control.
Each word we write
rights itself
according to poles
we can’t see; think of
magnetic compulsion
or an equal stringency.
It’s hard for us
to imagine how small
a part we play in
holding up the the tall
spires we believe
our minds erect.
Then North shifts,
buildings shear
and we suspect.

KAY RYAN, “Shift”

I was talking to a friend in Vienna on Skype last night who’s hitting a big wall in his mid-30s. And I was talking to an old Uni friend last month who smashed and lacerated himself through the last two years of his mid-40s and only now is blinking, calmer in the daylight. And I had lunch with some friends who have just left London and moved to the countryside as they approach 40. And I, myself, wake up these days happy to see the sun rising over Seaford Head but vague about the terrible turmoil of the last 3 years (in my mid 40s) that brought me to this seaside place.

‘Mid life crisis’ is a poor set of words for this experience.

It feels more like the sloughing of an impossibly tight snakeskin.

We go through the first 40 years of life with a largely improvised and jerry-rigged set of life-strategies that we snatched together when we were kids and which seemed to meet the moment. Probably any fittingness was co-incidental. These strategies – which were mostly magic thinking of the ‘don’t step on the cracks in the pavement’ sort – are hopelessly out-dated by the time we hit our 20s but by then they’re too rigidly cemented into our personalities to be changed. “I’m the sort of person who…” or “I never feel…” or “In our family we always…”

These sanctions and rules have the absurd and touching zaniness of Nasruddin who, in the Sufi tale, is found in the street clicking his fingers and whistling. ‘What are you doing?” some one asks the wise fool. “I’m scaring away the tigers”, he answers. “But tigers don’t live in Iran,” someone points out. “You see,” say Jalludin, “it works.”

So we proceed in our life by the logic of OCD. Irrational and unreal thoughts surface in our minds – “No one loves me” – and we feel anxious. Rather than noticing that the thought is wrong and taking time to correct it, we rush on as if the thought were right and fuss and obsess about ways of getting rid of the anxiety it produces. We become extra nice to everyone. Or we become super sexual and seductive. Or we are compulsed into being richer and wealthier that all those people who we believe do not love us.

And so thirty years of our adult life skip by. Speaking personally, I bulldozed blindly into a career in television, driven invisibly from behind by the paranoid childhood fear that everyone wanted to kill me. (It’s almost absurd to voice these primitive infant thoughts but it’s profoundly healing as well…) Being celebritous, being on telly, being complimented on my nice looks or my pleasant manner quelled my anxiety temporarily – but the underlying thought pulsed on. In fact, when you think that everyone is against you, the sugary compliments and unfounded admiration of a television watcher feel … well, almost sinister.

It took a physical breakdown with a mysterious ‘illness’ to take me out of London and down to the seaside where I could break down for real and dissolve the straight jacket of out-dated strategies that had ended up suffocating me. At the time I had no idea what was dragging me down to the sea but my world ruptured and cracked and ice-cold salt water rushed in. I made sense of it all much later.

As Kay Ryan says, when “North shifts, buildings shear”. We suspect that the underlying structure of our lives has been built wonky and the powerful torsion of reality will no longer tolerate the bad build.
I think there comes a point in anyone’s life (sometimes precipitated by a life-threatening illness or a bereavement or just becoming 40 something) when the superstructure of Life starts to exert such a powerful influence on us that we can no longer live in the houses our child-selves built. I eventually realised that I didn’t have to wear myself out appeasing would-be assassins with ever-new escapades of charm or creativity. I could simply undo that unfounded assassin-thought and step out into the field of Life.

People who survive the “sloughing of the Straitjacket Skin” (and not everyone does) talk about things being calmer, more spacious, less painful.

It’s like the throbbing magnet of that childhood fear gets switched off and the iron filings of our life start to arrange themselves according to the life around us instead of the fear inside us.
Reggie Ray talks about this implicitly, I think, when he talks about the ‘central channel’. This is the column of spaciousness that we carry energetically inside us and which is empty of, but responsive to, the ‘stuff’ of our lives. (Interesting there is a spatial specificity here: it’s not below us or above us but it is seamed through us like a spine of space.)

So we might be all wrapped up in our worries about work, or our love life or our financial concerns – but within us there is this core of spaciousness and energy which is actually the true ‘North’ of our being. This core is actually what holds us up. The ‘tall spires’ we believe our mind holds up are actually supported by forces way beyond our imagining. These are what we flow out into when we shed that skin.

This requires modesty. That overarching and unstoppable narcissism of youth has to give way to a much quieter recognition that we’re not the Star of the World’s Show and not everything is about us. This is a wonderful relief. We can start to arrange ourselves to so that things lie more simply in the field of the World’s magnetism and we are flowing with that field rather than shearing our selves into to anguished contortions against it.

Ryan talks about words but I might say energy. The energy of life rights itself according to poles we can’t see. Meditation helps with this – gradually untying that straightjacket of silly childhood fears, knot by knot, strap by strap and giving us permission to shuck it off and step out into the wider fields of energy that flow off in all directions, fresh and warm like the sun on water, or the sound of gulls in the morning.

3 Comments

  1. Penny Roper

    January 25, 2016 at 2:09 pm

    Thank you for this Alistair, it’s been so helpful. x

  2. Richard Harries Dagger

    January 25, 2016 at 2:52 pm

    Beautifully put. And this point can be reached at any age, or in relation to any life event. It took the loss of both of my parents, in my late 40’s and early 50’s, for me to really have this kind of conversation with myself. It was a success.

  3. Andrea

    January 29, 2016 at 8:08 pm

    Thanks Alistair, you speak from the bottom of my heart. I just turned 35 and I still feel like a 18 year old girl looking for the meaning of life (and for the next episode of my favorite tv shows)… you are so right – DANKE!!!

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