This past week has been, in Celtic & many other traditions, a time to mark not only the threshold between autumn & winter but also the threshold between our ordinary world and other worlds (whether the world of the dead, of spirits, or of faerie). This is the time of year to pay special attention to the Thin Places, the places where, according to local lore, one may easily slip — often unaware — from one world to the next. It was in such a frame of mind last weekend, that I happened to pick up Sylvia V. Linsteadt’s magical book of stories & poems, Our Lady of the Dark Country. I opened it, somewhat randomly, and found her remarkable story “Net.” It begins like this:
“Time is a net thrown around the universe, though every knot may be loosed. There are winds that live inside knots, and love affairs–solar winds that blow comet shrapnel through the glinting fishskin of the galaxy, stars bound to the same gravitational spin, like two pumas, golden and circling one another.
“Of course there is no saying what cordage was twisted to make that net, how dark space may tie a knot, but on ordinary days, when there are low clouds and then rain, when you have to turn on the heat or light the fire…, you can just as easily find the netted universe in the fascia of your own body. There are enough stars to last a lifetime, inside. Not all nets are for capture. Some things long to be contained–veins and muscles, fat and bone; stars and moons and striped planets, a hundred million other suns and all the dust that drifts between them.
“All witches know…. that the cords in a net are for walking, and all the empty spaces for slipping through, but only if you know your way back. It’s best to tie an extra cord to the knot by which you left, and unspool it from your belt so you can follow it back home.”
I was enchanted by the images: a net to capture or to contain; cords for walking and empty places for slipping through; a thread that leads the way home…. And, of course, my mind immediately flew off in too many directions at once — tightrope walking along the cords or (more often) slipping through the spaces between.
The earliest nets our species formed, being made of materials such as willow bark, were quick to decompose, so we don’t have a good archaeological record of when the first nets were invented. The oldest bits of netting found (in Karelia, Finland) were more than 10,000 years old. But fragments of string at least 50,000 years old have been discovered in areas of human occupation. Other evidence has lead to conjectures that string may have been made 150,000 years ago. Once string appeared — as anyone familiar with string or yarn might imagine — knots probably weren’t far behind.
We at least know that netting has been in our human repertoire for a long time, including — we can safely assume — our repertoire of stories. It was fun to learn that Polynesian stories include one of a sly man stealing the secret of net-making from fairies. And, of course, there is the majestic Hindu myth of Indra’s Net — infinite in size with each knot containing a jewel that reflects all the other jewels in the net — an amazing metaphor for the Oneness of being. I think my favorite story of nets comes from Norse mythology which tells of the Trickster god Loki, who invents the net and then, turning himself into a salmon to flee the angry gods, finds himself trapped by his own invention. (Perhaps this is a story with pertinent messages for our own times of climate change…?)
Nets = strong cord + open spaces. Opposites joined to create a new entity. Nets can hold something safe or can entrap it, can let something through or keep something out. For a fisherman, a net means food; for a fish, a net means death. Or, thinking about the netting used to make some old-fashioned curtains or nylon stockings — does it obscure the view or enhance it? Much depends on the perspective.
As I thought about it, I began to see stories as nets that — like a spell — are cast over our hearts and minds. How do we each decide which stories are nourishing/life-giving or unhealthy/perhaps deadly for us? I’ve found it’s an interesting question to ask about all the conspiracy and/or political stories that seem to dominate our news — and also, of course, the stories I tell myself about myself & others. I tend to prefer stories with lots of possible openings in their net, which may explain my fascination with Trickster.
In his lovely little book The Mystery Feast: Thoughts on Storytelling, Ben Okri says:
” Stories are the koans life sends us. They contain hints of multiple realities. [….] Great stories have lightness and multi-dimensional agility. They speak constantly to different levels in us. They speak to the level we are on.”
“Stories are the infinite seeds we have brought with us through the millennia of walking the dust of the earth. They are our celestial pods. They are our alchemical cauldrons. If we listen to them right, if we read them deeply, they will guide us through the confusion of our lives, and the diffusion of our times.”
“Stories are never what they seem. They are whispers from beyond the invisible screen of existence. They are whisperings from the gods we carry within us.”
This makes me think of the story of Alexander the Great cutting the Gordian Knot, and how we have perhaps taken the wrong lesson from that story, or taken the right lesson too far in the wrong direction.