by Annie Levin
In the North American culture in which I was raised, and in the many places where that culture is laid atop others’, the spell of “limitless” is cast with fervor. It whispers of infinite possibility, of a life lived without restrictions. It is incanted in service of everything from selling cars to selling enlightenment to convincing us to sell our time and labor for the promise of unbounded future reward. It goes something like this: “Limitation exists only in your mind. Break free of all that holds you back. You can have, do, or be anything.” Once the spell is cast widely enough, it permeates our speech and shapes our sight, and before long it begins to seem inevitable, irresistible, laudable.
But straining beneath that spoken story is a silenced one. Like the ostracized child who pronounces herself a loner or the rejected lover who praises single life, the lip service to limitlessness masks a deep longing. It is the cry of the exile wrenched from a state of belonging, written out of the vast story of relationship to place, ancestors, and the more-than-human world and relegated to a purgatory in which every man lives only for himself. The rise of the spell of limitlessness is an understandable, even compensatory response to a severed kinship to Life. In response to loneliness and disconnection it consoles, “The highest ideal is to be unbounded.”
The problem with spells, of course, is that they traffic in illusion. Limitlessness is infinite and deathless, which is to say, it’s utterly alien to life on this Earth. But spells are powerful magic, and this one was cast by acts as well as words. With ever-increasing speed, the way of life in the places that have succumbed to this enchantment drifted away from direct contact with the living — and thereby limited — world. We moved from the necessity of growing our own food and making our own clothing to the ubiquitous industrial production of both, separating us from the gestation, birth, tending, and death of every plant or animal that has fed us to this point and might allow our lives to continue. Travel by horse gave way to travel by automobile, and travel by ship gave way to travel by airplane, distancing us from the terrains we traverse. Medical care became increasingly specialized and dependent on industrial technologies, moving illness and death out of homes and into hospitals, away from view.
In the last few centuries, we managed to shove Limitation into the shadows with the brute force of energy reserves hundreds of millions of years in the making. Despite our frenzied conjuring, Limitation has not disappeared. He patiently continues his daily work all around us, even as we fail to see Him. It was death — the limit that creates the conditions for future life — that gave birth to the very energy sources that allowed us to fall under the illusion of limitlessness in the first place.
This news may be unwelcome. The promise of limitlessness is alluring. Who wants to run up against boundaries or loss? Who would choose a limited life if expansiveness, possibility, and comfort are on offer? Why would I want to go back to the limitations of my ancestors? Isn’t life better now?
The questions themselves speak the language of illusion; limits are not something we can choose to evade. Any examination of a time scale longer than a century, any understanding of Life that includes the more-than-human world, inevitably bumps up against profound limitations. The conditions required for life to continue are clearly delineated and deeply interdependent.
To take just one example, mammals need to breathe in order to live, and the atmospheric compositions that support mammalian life exist within a finite range that is maintained in relationship with other beings such as trees and phytoplankton. Straying too far outside that range — whether individually or systemically — has profound consequences. These kinds of limits, of time and of matter, are everywhere. They are the law of the land, the boundary within which Life unfolds, and we don’t get to choose otherwise.
Since Limitation is here whether we like it or not, does it not behoove us to re-introduce ourselves, to come to know the voice trying to lead us back toward the story of connection that is our birthright?
Our choice is not whether Limitation arrives on our doorstep, but whether we are willing to see, welcome, and learn from Limitation when He does so. Welcoming doesn’t require liking or approval. It’s not a feeling; it’s an action. To welcome an unexpected and perhaps unwanted visitor to your home is not to suddenly feel excited or pleased. It is to be committed to a kind of radical hospitality that dictates that those who arrive will be treated with honor, regardless of how you feel about their presence. It is a commitment to a relationship with the way things are that puts your personal preferences behind your willingness to respond to what is before you. In the face of the guest that Life has brought to your door, you pull the blankets out of the closet, stoke the fire, set a beautiful table, and offer the best of your rations and company. You court your guest, inviting him to share some of his best tales, and if he speaks, you listen.
And yet even the notion of welcoming Limitation in from the cold — a noble first step — may misunderstand our place in this story. Perhaps it is not ours to do the welcoming. Could it be that this is Limitation’s house, Limitation’s feast, and we are the guests? At first we might imagine Limitation as a distant presence sitting regally at the head of a great table, but this story is one of permeation — His gracious presence is visible everywhere: in the iris of the newborn baby taking in the scene, in the creaking elbow of the grandfather cradling that child, in the bones of the great ram stewed for the feast, and in the scent of cardamom, pepper, and curry leaf rising from the pot.
Circulating among the guests in the feasting hall, who represent every version of Life’s expression — Barred Owl, Cyprus Tree, Amazon River — and hearing Limitation’s voice spoken through their own, a greater story begins to take shape. A story that includes all the beautiful and ragged ancestors who came before us and all those descendants who will come to know us as ancestors.
A story in which we come from somewhere. A story that places human beings not at the center, as heroes, but as one thread amongst countless threads, weaving a great tapestry called Life. There are cultures in the world that still know this story; cultures with language, myths, and rituals — embodied forms of remembering — that keep the tapestry and humans’ place within it visible.
To be properly woven into the great tapestry, to be guests at the great feast, brings the pursuit of the limitless more clearly into focus as spellcraft. It makes transcending the deal struck with this world far less appealing. Paradoxically, it reveals the story of “limitless” — not that of Limitation — as lonesome and small, a tale only made possible by prodigious omissions from the Big Story of who we are and where we fit in the world.
So how, practically speaking, to break the spell? It is all well and good to describe the feast to which we are invited, but how to find the feasting hall? How to walk through the front door?
It is here that my longing outpaces my knowing. Convention would have me parade my competence across the page, providing confident and inspirational instruction in how to do this: “Five Simple Steps to Welcome Limitation!” But I was raised and continue to live with eyes obscured by the shroud of this spell. I have begun to know the contours of my inability to see and may have hints of where to go from here, but if we are ever to find our way back to the rich story of our belonging, we must start from the poverty of where we are.
Here is what I think I may know: Like a spider web invisible to our eyes until it catches the sun, the ability to see deeply the places upon which we stand removes the blinders of “limitless” and exposes the great web into which we are woven. In the place we find ourselves, Life has a particular, limit-bound way of being Herself, and by learning the languages of a place, we may begin to see the unseeable, the story that reaches beyond our view. As my own capacity to do so is still clumsy at best, I turn to others who have more skill.
In “Women Who Run With the Wolves,” Clarissa Pinkola Estes describes a childhood experience of coming to know a place with specificity: “When I was a child in the north woods, before I learned there were four seasons to a year, I thought there were dozens: the time of night-time thunderstorms, heat-lightning time, bonfires-in-the-woods time, blood-on-the-snow time, the times of ice trees, bowing trees, crying trees, shimmering trees, breaded trees, waving-at-the-tops-only trees, and trees-drop-their-babies time. I loved the seasons of diamond snow, steaming snow, squeaking snow, and even dirty snow and stone snow, for these meant the time of flower blossoms on the river was coming.”
Artist Richard McGuire has also traversed the territory of specificity of place, as well as the realm of deep time. In 2014 he published a graphic novel titled, “Here.” The first image is the corner of a living room in a house in Perth Amboy, New Jersey in the present day. From there the 300-page novel skips through time, showing that precise location ranging as far back as 3 billion years ago and as far forward as 8,000 years from now, often with images from different times overlapping: a 50,000-year-old landscape and a 1959 interior living on the same page. It is an astonishing book, the product of some combination of imagination, scholarship, labor, and a willingness to see the unseeable. It too hints at some of what might break the spell.
I look outside the window of my Brooklyn, New York apartment at the barren tree whose branches tap against my window with each gust of wind, and know I cannot yet adequately tell the story of this corner of the Earth that I might otherwise call “Here.” I do not know the history of this place, of the beings who reside here now or the ones who resided here before. My ability to enter the Big Story is hampered by eyes untrained in seeing the specific, feet unaccustomed to staying in a place long enough to learn its language, and hands unpracticed at rituals through which to remember the human place in Life’s tapestry.
Life is asking something of us, something that looks like a willingness to find our way back to Limitation’s feasting hall even in the absence of adequate maps. Luckily, it was never maps that were going to lead us home. The map is not the territory, and the task before us — together — is to start learning the many languages spoken by the terrain. We knew how to do this once — a few still do — and there is a chance we might learn to do it again. Belonging is a verb, an action. It will take time and labor, the courage to shatter well-rendered illusions, and the willingness to welcome endings with the same commitment as we welcome beginnings. In doing so, may we find ourselves re-entangled with Life and welcomed back to the feasting hall that was never hidden.
It is we who have been hiding.