Any woman who has ever delivered a child vaginally knows the gap between pant and push. It is called Transition. The hard work of simply allowing the cervix to open to its full 10cm is paused as the body gathers itself for the next phase which will be actively pushing the baby out.
Women who have experienced a natural childbirth know firsthand the tumult of this whole process. We know how hard it is to be gentle in the face of great pain, to not contract against it, not panic in the face of it, to allow the body, the brilliant body to do its thing without too much interference. It is a deliberate non-action, in contrast to what happens next which is a dedicated focused action, encouraging your baby down the birth canal into the light of a new life.
I remember being warned by my most amazing English midwife that some women find the gap of about 20 minutes between these two distinct phases of birthing to be the most difficult time of all. I was one of those. My body/mind was in confusion, not knowing whether to push or pause. The opposing messages became all jumbled up with no clear directive. Not my favorite state at the best of times.
The capacity to hold steady when we really do not know our way forward, when we find ourselves betwixt and between, with no certain outcome appears to have its own arc and be its own art. The poet John Keats had some pointed words for this, he called it “negative capability”. Trust a poet to name the uncomfortable. He defined this as “being capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, and doubts without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”.
It seems imperative that we build our ‘negative capabilities’ in order to have any chance of being resilient and flexible folks. But, it is so tempting to grab onto something when the tension of not knowing becomes too strong, too uncomfortable. Something, anything, rather than not knowing.
What most intrigues me is why it is so hard, and appears harder with years, when really the reverse ought be true, since with some life under our belts, folding our skin, we surely get that it’s all rather uncertain. And what is certain is the degree to which so much is actually out of our control.
Two years after the completion of my last big creative outpouring, I sit with my empty notebook that is blatantly ignoring me, even as I gaze sweetly, even longingly at it. It is so counter-intuitive for me to simply wait, without closing down, pushing or grabbing or forcing.
There appears to be a natural ebb and flow between the active and the passive elements that have to be negotiated and respected in every creative project, whether a poem, a painting, a community initiative, having a baby, taking a breath or sitting in gap-land. I know how much harm occurs if we ever try to push when we need to be quiet, and how energy falters if we stay passive when the requirement is to go forth and conquer.
After all that busyness of summer, of tending the land, and being out in the sunshine to capture the goodness of long days and picnics, or parties, of peach and fig, blue and black berry harvests, of calm seas and whales, of watering and dealing with parched earth, smoke from forest fires, it all turns on a dime.
We built a fire yesterday as the rain pounded down, pooling on the hardened baked ground, heralding the shortening days that are precipitously colder. There is a relief, an outbreath and a confusion. It is so sudden. A transitional season too for those of us of a certain age geared up to the habit of action but find themselves as I do, turning the corner into a different chapter of life, where the finish line is death, winking at me from an indeterminate place just around the corner or down the long straightaway.
Yet here I am, wriggling around ungraciously in the many current crossroad transitions of my present. I sit with an inherent judgment about this, even through I know better, not knowing if there is another chapter, another poem, another creative engagement, even through quietude looms as the most compelling attractor on the horizon, as distant yet as desirable as winning the lottery. I sit in the pause between two life chapters with the possibility of a new rhythm beckoning.
My very smart daughter-in-law, Manda, who often speaks to the truth of the matter, pointed out that if you visit a place for two weeks, you can write a book about that place. After a year, maybe a short story, and after a lifetime, you have nothing to say at all or maybe at most a very short poem. I took comfort in that notion. The inverse relationship of time and content.
I’d love to trust that quietude arises as content dissipates. That stillness is its own language that speaks all the colors of the rainbow, calls the sounds of every living creature unto itself. I’d love to tell you that beyond the words, there is a current that is strong and enduring, that needs no words yet heralds an unfolding beyond this particular transition.
Maybe joy arises as the push of ambition melts, That is what I’d love to be able to say, that some new life arises as content dissipates and one distinct chapter of life completes itself. That is what I’d love to say.
Who knew that at this point, the muscle that needs to be strengthened is the very one that inhibits action and tolerates not knowing. Who knew that as an elder I would be cultivating ‘negative capability’. May it grow deep for all of us who need it.
on the stock still tree
who knows on what
fine filament it
it is brown, dry, spent
it will flutter to ground
and be absorbed
I cannot help but
how must I live
so when my
I too may