Poems From Thin Places: an Introduction

Iona From the Ferry, September 2012
Copyright Katherine L. Carlson, All Rights Reserved

Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (a.k.a. Lewis Carroll) would memorialize moments of great significance in his journal with the phrase "I mark this day with a white stone." He said it on the golden afternoon in which Alice Liddell inspired his most famous character. One of my own white stone days  a day that has forever changed how I view the world  happened when visiting with an Englishwoman in Durham, Northumbria. Her name was Mrs. Baggott, and she told me about thin places.

"Oh, I see you're going to Iona!"  she said, looking at my itinerary. "That's a thin place, you know."

"A what?"

Maybe you know the term, but I didn't. Mrs. Baggott proceeded to explain that because of the tiny Hebridean island's rich spiritual history, Celtic Christians believe that the veil between heaven and earth is almost incorporeal on Iona. Some describe it as a place where the meetings of earth and sky, sea and land smooth away the tension of  our compartmentalized modern lives. Flesh and spirit, sacred and secular, earth and heaven  these dualities do not feel at odds on Iona. Mrs. Baggott told me to expect this, but of course I was skeptical. She was right, and then some. My three Iona days were some of the most saturated of my life, and all I did was walk around and eat.

"All I did was walk around and eat." It is tempting to claim that is the point — I cut out the noise of postmodern life and was thus able to experience existence at its essence. That is true, yet it seems at once high-blown and trite. It also tempts one toward a pattern to which I am vulnerable:  making everything into an abstraction that helps me sort out my own psyche. Abstraction is, after all, what Eric Weiner writes in his New York Times piece on thin places. What constitutes a thin place, in Weiner's argument, varies somewhat from person to person. It is the internal experience of being a traveler that matters. I like Weiner's point, yet it seems to plunder the places themselves. Thin places, as the Celtic tradition defines them, are not our journeys, our moments of transcendence, our escape from a cliched but real cultural paralysis. They're places. The literal nature of their "place-ness" is probably what smooths our tensions, and these places will go on existing in close connection with the numinous whether or not we visit them. They're not about us, and that's why they're so freeing to us. Then we (or at least Weiner and I) turn around and figure ourselves in reference to them anyway. What gives?  

I'm rather shocked by how literal I want to be right now. I'm less shocked that I'm not doing a good job. I'm not sure Weiner does either. He concludes his article by stating that  "Maybe thin places offer glimpses not of heaven but of earth as it really is, unencumbered. Unmasked."  Did you see that? Weiner's celebration of semi-subjective travel epiphanies just turned to outright and earthbound essentialism. The language with which people  myself and Weiner included  often describe thin places seems at once unusually objective and hopelessly navel-gazing. Likewise, when one waxes transcendental about an out-of-body experience, one relishes the memory of a departure from self that is nevertheless all about the self. Perhaps the most beguiling aspect of thin places resides in the fact that they allow us to inhabit a paradox. In a thin place, one can have an objective and subjective experience at the same time. But in talking about "us," I'm again defining objectivity in terms of my subjective experience. After all, humanities scholars like me make our living out of narratives of transcendence, even as we affirm that there is no such thing as a truly objective human experience. Where do we go from here?

When I set out to write this introduction to a forthcoming blog series on thin places, I thought I knew what I wanted to say. Now I'm left with questions. That's not a bad position, but it won't do much to tell you where this series is headed. Here's what I know. It was 2002 when I met Mrs. Baggott, learned about thin places, and first went to Iona. I was in my last year at Whitworth University, and when I returned to college I wrote a series of poems called "Notes From Thin Places." They've been moldering in their own mediocrity and the back of a filing cabinet, but I like some of them enough to trot them out for my blog. Like most writing, they're as much about the writer as they are about the scene. They can't themselves be thin places, because they're not places, and because they only amplify the tension between subjectivity and the longing for objective experience. I just hope that somehow these tensions can resonate. I'd love to hear your thoughts.