“Sometimes I feel that my life is a series of trapeze swings.” So begins Danaan Parry’s The Parable of the Trapeze.1 He speaks of the steadiness and confidence that comes when you think you’re in control of your life, with a handle on the questions and even some of the answers. “But, every once in a while,” he continues, “. . . I see another trapeze bar swinging toward me. It’s empty, and I know, in that place in me that knows, that this new trapeze bar has my name on it . . . .”2 The problem is that Parry has to release the old bar to grab on to the new one, and it’s the bottomless abyss between them that holds all the scary things. He calls it the transition zone.
I call it the space between . . .
There is a space between things, between all things. The space is sacred and it is rich with blessing. I know this because I have lived in one such space for more than a decade, and I speak from it. The particular space I inhabit is that between church and what the church refers to as “the world.”
Whether the space between, or the transition zone, Parry’s description reflects our own life processes. There comes a moment—call it space, groundlessness, free fall, transition—that we have to let go of the comfort and practice of what we’ve known and cherished, or even simply held for fear of the unknown. Not one time only do we have to do this, but many. Letting go is number one on the required list for all creative endeavor, including self-knowing as well as knowing self in relationship to all life. Letting go is likewise a prerequisite for clarity of focus and safety in the space between church and not-church. The problem is that it’s frightening; letting go is risky business.
Parry continues, “I have a sneaking suspicion that the transition zone is the only real thing, and the bars are illusions we dream up to avoid the void where the real change, the real growth, occurs for us.”3 Parry is saying that the real risk lies in not letting go. There is no possibility for self-awakening until we let go.
Church and not-church, we have been hanging on to our respective bars for a very long time, and this is our moment to release them. This is the moment for the blessed space between us, where the unknowing—uncomfortable as it will be for a time—gives rise to a trembling newness and wonder that allows us to recognize one another, to remember our place within the earth community, and to celebrate this utter magic and mystery of which we are a part.
In a recent radio interview with Tom Ashbrook,4 the naturalist and environmentalist Bill McKibben claimed that we have already lost that which is most precious, the earth as we have known it over the past ten thousand years. It is a more than just a puzzle to me, and it should be to all of us, how we have managed to ignore our eco-messengers so thoroughly, for so long, and with such devastating consequences. That we continue to do so is an indicator either of unparalleled greed or of utter paralysis, perhaps both.
Consider, for example, the Deepwater Horizon explosion and subsequent flooding of oil. When all is said and done, this is what matters: the loss of life, the loss of habitat, the loss and threatened loss of the most fragile and cherished coral ecosystems of the planet; and the fact that we had to turn off our radios and televisions because we can’t bear to listen.
What are we missing here?
William Sloane Coffin grabbed a piece of it when he wrote of “re-sanctifying” nature, the need to “re-wed nature to nature’s God.”5 Reverence for the planet is what’s missing; sacred ritual on behalf of the planet is what’s missing. Before we can get there, however, we have to lose the distinction between nature and nature’s God. We have to lose the distinction between human and nature. There is a vast difference between the words, “I love nature”, and “I am nature.” Intellect doesn’t get us to that place, only the experiential. Life in the space between church and not-church begins with the experiential.
In Southern Maryland lived a scientist/educator/songwriter, Tom Wisner, whose lifetime commitment had been directed to the healing of the Chesapeake Bay. A few years ago Tom extended an invitation into the community for “a beautiful something” that would capture the hearts and imaginations of Bay area Corporations and D.C. area politicians, compelling them toward such a glorious vision of a restored Chesapeake that all objection and resistance and self-interest would simply melt for the sake of this sacred body of water and watershed.
The iconic “something” was imagined into being, with the help of plywood, PVC pipe, chicken wire, and water-resistant glue for the papier mâché. She emerged as a tundra swan, a species formerly but no longer a resident of the Bay, thirteen feet in length and seven feet high, with the identifying black bill and gracefully curved neck. She carried her cygnet in her wing, and the two embodied the sacred story of life and death and the battered hope of new life, an ancient story finding new shape and form, a call to hope and rebirth, clear and powerful as the singular story of the empty tomb.
One of Wisner’s many Chesapeake songs is titled “Made of Water,”6 and its lyrics are a call to remember—the church’s word is anamnesis—our very identity.
I’m made of water
flowing water sun and salt
and winds that blow.
Though my bones
were formed in the mountains,
it’s through my blood this river flows.
June 2009 marked the twenty-second year of the annual Patuxent River Wade-In, and for Wisner, the man who inspired the ever-evolving ritual, it was his last. It was fitting, then, that Maryland dignitaries such as retired State Senator Bernie Fowler, and current Governor Martin O’Malley would use the occasion to celebrate Wisner’s life as well as their own continued commitment to the healing of the Chesapeake and the rivers, such as the Patuxent and the Potomac, that feed it. Later that month my husband Jim and I were among those who gathered with Tom in the living room of his old farmhouse. Tom’s eyes focused slightly beyond us, eyes holding years of remembering. “For a brief moment,” he said softly, and to no one in particular, “a moment which might have lasted a lifetime, I could forget about the river.”
At that my head shot straight up. What did he mean? How could Tom forget about the river? We all knew what the river meant to Tom, and we knew that the Wade-In was the most significant ritual of his year. “When ritual is live and imbued with meaning,” he went on, “it makes me one with the river in such a way that I can forget about it. I lose awareness of the water itself for the sake of the . . .” he struggled for a word. “Fellowship. I couldn’t tell where I stopped and where Bernie and O’Malley—or even the diatoms and the blue crabs, for that matter—began.”
As Tom found the words to describe the experience, he shared with those of us around the table that the ritual had dissolved the separation between himself and the river. “The separation is of the ego,” he said.
To claim no memory of the distinction between self and river is to release the egoic piece to become one with the water. This is the experiential, and I have come to believe it is the first piece of the shift to a biocentric perspective. Such ritual experiences awaken our capacity to change and to learn, and as we learn, the shift in perspective is strengthened. Experiences such as these are hard to come by, however, because we continue to lull ourselves into believing we are already acting in concert with the planet.
1 Danaan Parry, “The Parable of the Trapeze,” in Warriors of the Heart (Seattle, WA: Earthstewards Network, 1991) 84.
4 Bill McKibben, Interview by Tom Ashbrook On Point, WBUR, April 30, 2010.
5 William Sloane Coffin, A Passion for the Possible, Louisville KY: John Knox Press,1993, 2004), 29.
6 Tom Wisner, Made of Water, (Lion and Fox Recording, produced by Tom Wisner and Jim Fox, Washington D.C.), 2001.