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For your stray attention this weekend
On metamorphosis and floating ships
This week, I am channelling Edward Hirsch’s poem, I’m Going To Start Living Like A Mystic. It’s that kind of season, full of studiousness and intention, signs and wonders.
“I shall begin scouring the sky for signs/As if my whole future were constellated upon it,” he writes. I began yesterday morning outside in the pre-dawn light, gazing at the bright points of Saturn and Venus, and the waning gibbous moon. I still find it hard to believe that you can actually see other planets from here on Earth. It seems almost ridiculously abundant.
And then, in the afternoon, I saw a floating ship. It’s been a stressful week, with Bert starting what I’m no longer allowed to call Big School. I made a little video on Instagram about the nerves beforehand, that peculiar collision of hope and expectation, denial and terror that comes at big moments of change. For me, it’s been unexpectedly nostalgic. I’ve found myself poring over his daily timetable, the “double history” and “triple science” and feeling a profound sense of envy: all that learning, all that order! I want to go back there. I never thought I’d say that, but then hindsight is an obscuring mirror, isn’t it?
But anyway, the floating ship: it’s a well-known optical illusion called a superior mirage, caused by differences in air temperature - essentially, the air at the line of sight is cooler than the air above it (it’s normally the other way around). This temperature inversion causes light to refract differently, bending downwards. This makes objects look as if they’re floating above the solid thing on which they actually rest. Unlike the famous “fata morgana” illusion, which can make whole “fairy” cities appear in desert skies, the one I saw didn’t distort the object. It just made it look like it was a few metres above the sea at the horizon. Which was quite exciting enough for me.
This put me in mind of a brilliant piece I read this week about the medieval idea that, somewhere far away, the sea bends back on itself to extend above the sky. There were many stories to support this - for example the 13th-century tale from Clonmacnoise in Ireland, in which a church congregation watched a ship sail high above them one day, and then drop anchor.
“Soon a man came swimming from the firmament, trying to free the anchor. But the people of Clonmacnoise took hold of him and wouldn’t let him leave. The bishop realized that the man was drowning in the air, as if he was being held underwater, and ordered his congregation to let him go. Up swam the mysterious sailor, away into the air.”
The logic of this story suggests that the space above our heads can be filled with either air or water, depending on your angle of approach. That’s an interesting idea to consider. But mostly I can’t help but wonder if it originates from a superior mirage like the one I saw.
(As an aside, I heard a similar story a few years back, but located in Northfleet, a small town in north-west Kent very close to where I grew up. This one was C19th century, and told of a sailor coming down from the sky on a giant anchor. He didn’t drown though, but made friendly conversation with the locals and, I think, drank a beer, before ascending again. I cannot find a reference to it anywhere online, so I’m just going to note it here to keep it alive.)
Enough of floating ships. We are in the business of metamorphosis this week. I loved Lorrie Moore’s recent novel I Am Homeless If This Is Not My Home, and one image has particularly lodged in my mind - the idea that, to a caterpillar, a butterfly is a ghost. I’ve long been fascinated by what happens to insects when they metamorphose. I used to imagine it was like a Transformer, rearranging its limbs inside a cocoon. A couple of years ago, I learned that it’s nothing like that at all - caterpillars completely disintegrate into a biological soup before certain cells cluster together again to form the butterfly. But according to this article, it’s even weirder than that. To put it more simply than the topic merits, the brain of a larva is completely different to the brain of the insect that emerges - there’s no continuity of self. It’s almost like they’re two separate creatures. Or, as it’s explained in the article: “A caterpillar is a gut on caterpillar treads, which then changes into a flying machine dedicated to sex.”
At this stage, I cannot resist sharing this majestic footage of a mantis shedding its skin. I know it’s not the same thing, but it’s still excellent.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised by the complete rearrangement that insects undergo; after all, we know that feeling well. Big changes rarely happen incrementally, but instead feel like a revolution, a complete overturning of the old order, and a violent rising of the new. I’ve spent a lot of this week wondering how to let that process of big change happen without thwarting it or trying to make it stop. Perhaps for that reason, I loved this piece on the rise of the disability doula - essentially giving non-judgemental support and care to a newly disabled person - and its potential to support radical new identities during painful metamorphoses. It’s a role that many of us have naturally found, I think, because we understand the huge needs of someone trying to integrate new identities as much as physical constraints. A beautiful example of how we can manage change in communities.
We are all, after all, apprentices in this world, forever managing change, and forever conscious of the limits of our knowledge. How do we manage it? We look for signs. We immerse ourselves in wonders.
Or, as Lucille Clifton put it in new bones:
we will wear
new bones again.
we will leave
these rainy days,
break out through
into sun and honey time.
worlds buzz over us like bees,
we be splendid in new bones.
other people think they know
how long life is
how strong life is.
(You can find new bones in Lucille’s collection, How To Carry Water, which is full of incredible poems.)
Coming up at The Clearing
Events for paid subscribers
Next Hangout: Mike Sowden, Tuesday 12th September, 7pm UK
I’m looking forward to chatting with Mike, the creator of the brilliant Everything is Amazing Substack and all-round chronicler of curiosity, attention and wonder. Join us on what’s set to be an amazing ride.
Next True Stories Book Club: Thursday 28th September, 7pm UK
September’s book club guest will be Erica Berry, talking about her book Wolfish: the stories we tell about fear, ferocity and freedom, which explores our fascination with wolves, and asks: “What does it mean to want to embody the same creature from which you are supposed to be running?” Look out for a reading guide next week.
Next Creative Questions: Wednesday 11th October, 7pm UK
If you’re got a problem or query about your creative practice, and you think I can help, send in your dilemma. I’ll pick two people for an in-depth coaching session live on Crowdcast (if you can’t make it there live, no problem!), and I’ll do my best to help you out.
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