“I forgot what things were called and saw instead what they are ..." by Christiane Pelmas
When I was 14 I found a quote by fearless truth-teller Margaret Atwood.
This quote, “I forgot what things were called and saw instead what they are” worked its disastrous mysterious magic for the next twenty-five years, popping up here and there, only enough to cause me to feel constantly unsettled, relentlessly restless, but never entirely disrupted.
Then, as if it were part of some larger plan (because perhaps it is), seven years ago my life as it had been so neatly defined, fell apart. In our culture we tend to only imagine this as a catastrophe, like something we’d all want to avoid. In fact, it was a blessing of a catastrophe. It was a gift from somewhere that continues to move me to tears. I do not romanticize this time of my life. I wonder how I survived it.
My life fell apart because for the last time (I imagine for the last time but perhaps it’s not a finite process) the veil of these short centuries of our human naming – of what things are called and of what I was called – fell away. I forgot everything in my field, everything I and others had constructed, everything that everything used to be. I just stood staring at myself and everything else as if I should know. Like an amnesia victim I stood for hours, days, weeks on end trying desperately to remember these familiars, remember what to call them, as if they were objects.
But in fact we are surrounded by and infused with Subjects. We are surrounded by Life, by Others with their own unfolding stories. Clouds over head, damsel flies in the breeze, (the horror of) cultivated lawns, that person next to you waiting at the red light, your mother, your son, your own beating heart. The single words necessary to label all these profound beings were no longer there for me. All that was left was to describe them.
I realized this naming is simply a way to make it acceptable that we have built a culture upon the enslavement of matter, including our own souls. We cannot turn back from moments like this. David Whyte cautions; this “revelation must be terrible.” Adyashanti warns, this is only the beginning of an impossible (and ecstatic) journey. It’s the process of Enlightenment or Awakening. Hardly ephemeral or ‘light’. It is the mother of all ‘ah-hah!’ moments...like a 4000 watt light bulb has been turned on and what is now visible is so beautiful, so unbearably beautiful, life as you knew it has no alternative but to fall to pieces and demand a re-write from the glorious ground of itself on up. Bill Plotkin cautions, “not everyone makes it.” It’s a gritty sweaty process that does not come with any guarantees.
For, in the void created by the exodus of names, there were descriptions, adjectives, emotions, relationships, intimacy, and (YES!) even eroticism. And in this describing there lies a great honoring. When we have the courage to describe Subjects rather than simply call them randomly by their names, we are forced to be in relationship with them. They are no longer ‘out there,’ but rather, in here. So I found that, in addition to the honoring that occurs with this new way of seeing, there is tremendous grief for having participated in this egregious naming. But, in this grief there is also praise and, for me, there was a shift of tectonic plates under my feet, as if the entire world were changing her shape beneath and around me. As I tumbled around in this new life, I bumped into Others and realized they had been with me throughout my entire life. Yet, they had never been named, because it might be true that the most glorious of all subjects can’t possibly be named. And because they had never been named, and we are trained to see only what is nameable, I had never seen them.
I have just returned from the Adirondack Mountains. This particular place is my soul’s home. The landscape is old and rounded, female in disposition. The mountains are smooth and gray, the tops made compelling with the bedrock of the earth’s skeleton lined with mosses and diminutive alpine beauty at tree-line. Words cannot honor these creatures fully. So far, I have found my tears are the only thing that come close to speaking my awe and gratitude. The tallest of these beings is now called ‘Marcy’ for the first white man who made his way to the top. And yet, the indigenous two-leggeds named this great one Tehawus, which means ‘cloud splitter’ because on a typical Adirondack day, with a high ceiling of light cumulus, Tehawus is often fraternizing with the atmosphere in a way that surely the other mountains around her envy.
What would it mean to call things as they are, to describe things rather than name them? What would it mean to imagine we have no right to label things? How would it change your life and all life around you if you awoke tomorrow morning, rolled over to look into the eyes of your partner (or the fiery copper orb that greets us each day), and said, “I see one who is alive with the electricity of his ancestors’ rage”, or “I am staring into pools made by the tears of the moon, having cried herself to sleep last night and all nights before, and I am now swimming in the waters of a broken-heart made possible only by Love.”
What if poetry became the only way possible to convey your experience of all living things, including your own soul?
A psychotherapist, facilitator, teacher and guide since 1990, Christiane Pelmas is dedicated to the re-wilding of the human soul. Of particular interest to her is the important - and often misunderstood - dance between the masculine and feminine and the arenas of sexuality and intimacy. She is also founder and director of The Global Culture of Women, a non-profit organization which resurrects and celebrates women’s wisdom worldwide. She is a poet and writer, activist, dancer and mother, living in Boulder CO with her two sons.