On Being In-between
March 3, 2010 § 1 Comment
One of the most frustrating aspects of working in the industry of creative pursuits – ie. being an “artist” – is the “in-between” stage that comes to haunt the completion of a project and the start of something new. I’ve had to experience this state of being in-between quite intensely over the last few months since I finished Taxi Casablanca, a documentary film project that occupied my life in the most beautiful and challenging of ways since 2007. It is true, as the memoirist Elizabeth Gilbert so wisely says, that in our culture, people primarily want to know “What are you going to do next?” before you’ve barely recovered from the years of energy and effort it took to complete your most recent work. It seems that however much we create, the most important piece of art is always the one that isn’t finished yet, the work that is yet-to-be, the embryo in the process of coming to life.
Sometimes life is generous with us, and one project moves swiftly into the next equally satisfying and inspiring endeavour. But most of the time, often beyond our control or desires, I’ve found that life takes its sweet time to breath. Life usually operates on its own schedule and sometimes we find ourselves “stuck” in the middle of the past that has been neatly packaged and completed, and the future that is yet to unfold.
This marvellous yet terrifying place of being in-between also has its advantages. It’s been particularly gentle here on Salt Spring Island, where being in-between has allowed me to go inside myself, to rest for the first time in years, to write, to take long walks in nature, to cultivate patience with my usually ambitious self. I’ve also been staying with my 93-year-old granny, cooking her dinners, watching the sea from her kitchen window, remembering the past.
The incredible beauty of this place has helped a lot. I haven’t been here in the Spring since I was a teenager. I’m enjoying the blooming daffodils, buttercups, plum blossoms and snow drops that all came early this year. It’s been a mild and gentle winter; the air has been soft on us. The sun is shining today and Ganges (the village) is bustling with smiling people.
This is a great opportunity to use a million dollar word that I’ve been pondering since my university days: Liminality.
Here’s a great definition: “Liminality is a period of transition where normal limits to thought, self-understanding, and behavior are relaxed – a situation which can lead to new perspectives.”
I recall the liminal stages of life are the most important. I remind myself that all of nature experiences a period of liminality, the only way change is possible.
Maybe this is the only time we get to know how deeply we are held by life. Even when creation, action and agency are put on hold, we are still here, we are still OK despite our lack of production. This is a beautiful lesson for people (like me) who usually define themselves by what we are accomplishing. We get the rare opportunity to feel exactly where we are; stuck or not, this is where we are meant to be. Then sometimes, that uncomfortable state of “in-between” miraculously transforms into a state of “being there” – the only place that ever existed all along.
With all this time on my hands, I’ve started to read through some of my grandfather’s (Jack Scott) old columns, which were published in a book titled Great Scott! One of his stories, titled “His Finest Hour” really made me laugh. I know my grandfather, a writer, was often tortured by that “in between” state, as was his friend and contemporary, the great Canadian writer Pierre Berton. Here’s a little story about one of their adventures together.
His Finest Hour
Our book page editor, assigning me to review the new Pierre Berton epic, The National Dream, the story of the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway, volunteered that he’d already read it, that it was first rate and that he envied Berton the glow of satisfaction that follows publication of such a work.
“What a thrill it must be for a writer to see his years of lonely toil come to fruition,” he observed. Book page editors talk like that. There is nothing that can be done about it.
The remark sent my mind reeling back to the week that follwed publictaion of Pierre’s Klondike, a genuinely fine work that consumed untold hours of time and energies.
Pierre had travelled across the country in the interests of launching the book. He was a weary man when he reached Vancouver. But it was more than just that. There’s a profound reaction, a kind of vacuum of anti-climax, it seems when a book that’s been a long time in the works finally materializes between hard covers.
“One might expect that the completion of a work would bring a feeling of relief,” he noted, “but what the writer actually experiences is a dreadful let-down. The great days of creation are over. You wander disconsolately about, trying, not very successfully, to read or look at television. You look back nostalgically on the long period during which the book possessed you and you long to relive those days. This is the most frustrating period of any writer’s existence, the limbo between books.”
Well, one thing led to another on that visit to Vancouver and we decided to take a brief holiday, foisting ourselves upon convivial friends on Vancouver Island. We took a mid-morning ferry to Nanaimo, drove down to Ladysmith for a splendid, liquid, giggley lunch with Mamie Maloney and, in mid afternoon, headed south to see our friends in Victoria.
As we drove down the Island Highway I tried to lift Pierre our of his mood of melancholy. Klondike had been unanimously acclaimed by the critics, I pointed out. It would surely make a bundle of money – as, in fact, it did. He ought to be sitting on top of the world.
“I know, I know,” Berton agreed. “It’s just that whenever I finish a book, or any other piece of writing, for that matter, I wonder if I shouldn’t be in some other line. It’s not simply that there are so many things in it I’d like to change or improve on. It’s that writing is such an inexact thing! Dammit, you never write a single sentence that you can look at and say, ‘That’s exactly as it ought to be.’ or ‘That’s perfect’.”
“Perhaps you’re too much the perfectionist,” I ventured.
“Perhaps so,” Pierre agreed morosely, “but I’ve always had this craving to do something – anything!- that would be absolutely flawless, something that I could look at and say, ‘Nobody in the world, nobody in the whole history of the world, will ever do that better.’ No writer can ever achieve that for the reason that nothing written, in the writer’s eyes, is beyond improving. I mean there’s simply no total, absolute satisfaction.”
So we walked on, spinning down the highway until we’d gone through Duncan. A long line of cars and trucks had come to a halt there just north of the Cowichan River bridge. We joined the line-up, wondering what had caused the delay. far ahead we could see men rushing about and hear their agitated shouts.
Suddenly, from my driver’s side of the car, I saw that they were all chasing a small, pink, terrified pig which, presumably, had escaped from the truck at the head of the line. The pig was making a magnificent run under and between the cars ahead. Several times the chasers had it in their grasp, but the pig spurted free and was off again.
What happened then has a kind of dream-like quality as if it were all done in slow, fluid motion. The pig came charging down the road on my side of the car. At the same moment Pierre opened the door on his side and stepped out. The pig made a scrambling U-turn behind the car, came careening back and with a single cry of “Oink!” leaped into Pierre’s outstretched arms. It was like a child leaping into its mother’s embrace. The whole performance took, at the most, 20 astonishing seconds. Pierre handed the pig to one of the chasers, got back into the car and we were off south again.
For several miles, Berton said not a word. I glanced over at him and beheld a look of such stunned serenity, such wonder and joy that one might have thought he had been recently embalmed.
“That was exactly it,” he said at last. “No body in the world, nobody in the whole history of the world, will ever catch a pig better than that.”