My house sits on the edge of a salt marsh in Charleston, South Carolina. On one side of the house is the street, on the other, the marsh, teeming with life. I have a fence between my yard and the marsh, but the crabs, snakes, rats, and cockroaches all ignore it. The Night herons, in particular, use the fence as a perching place before they hop down and crap on my deck.
The bank is about to foreclose on this house, so I live on a threshold between homeownership and something else, something unknown. And that unknown place is where God keeps me. For better or for worse, here I am.
I got some insight into the meaning of thresholds last summer when I returned to Nantucket Island—my hometown—to help my son get his house in shape for the rental market. I pulled weeds and hauled stuff to the dump and painted, but every Tuesday evening I gathered up my notebook and scraps of poems and walked into town for a poetry workshop led by Greg Orr.
We met on the second floor of Mitchell’s Book Corner: Greg, a group of year-round islander poets, a smattering of summer visitors, and me. I began to learn how to write a poem.
Greg introduced me to a concept about creative energy I found so compelling that I have ruminated on it for almost an entire year. This is what he said: If you go to any threshold in nature, you will find a high concentration of life and activity. Go, linger, and pay attention at the edge of a forest, the bank of a pond, or the shoreline at the beach. They are places of great poetic inspiration.
In his book, Poetry As Survival, Orr writes:
The threshold is a place of transition; as such, it is a place of enormous vitality and activity as well as danger…poets are drawn to and write from their thresholds, either inner or outer. In order to write well, a poet needs to go to that place where energy and intensity concentrate, that place just beyond which chaos and randomness reign.
I thought about some of my favorite poets. No one could argue that John Keats was dwelling on the threshold of life and death as he wrote “Ode to a Nightingale.” Certainly Robert Frost had an interest in thresholds. Here, for example, is a stanza from “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”:
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
Orr’s poems from his volume titled, Concerning the Book That is the Body of the Beloved have become some of my favorites, and they are filled with thresholds. For example:
The shape of the Book
Is the door to the grave,
Is the shape of the stone
Closed over us, so that
We may know terror
Is what we pass through
To reach hope, and courage
Is our necessary companion.
But why stop with poetry? I look around my office and realize I’ve pinned photos of thresholds everywhere. I tore the cover off The New Yorker’s January 7 issue, its artwork by Chris Ware illustrating the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shootings. The painting is of teachers standing in a doorway, with a line of children filing in, and the anxious faces of their parents out in the street; safety outside, danger inside, teachers on the threshold.
I printed a copy of Michelangelo’s painting of Adam and God—God, straining through a portal from heaven, reaching out to Adam, who languishes on Earth, extending a limp hand toward God. Imagine the energy and tension between those two fingers.
The shoreline at the beach is the threshold that most feeds my creative imagination.
In the fall, The Thoreau Society issued a call for papers. They were particularly interested in Thoreau’s statement that he was “a mystic, a transcendentalist, and a natural philosopher to boot.” Natural philosophy is the predecessor of modern day physics, and my son, Nicholas Holdgate, is a physicist. Well, he was a physicist for NASA before he became a doctor, so I asked him if he wanted to collaborate. Our topic? Writing From the Threshold: Thoreau Amidst the Chaos at the Edge of the Sea. Here is a snippet from our work:
Thoreau grappled to understand the dynamics of the threshold between the sea and the shore that we all know and love as the beach. Generally the beach is considered to be a place of refreshment from the summer heat, a place to escape from the stress of daily life, and a place to relax. However, as islanders, we know it is also the slim space between life and death during times of storms and shipwrecks.
In his book, Cape Cod, Thoreau, the self-proclaimed “natural philosopher,” writes at regular intervals about the steady sound of the surf, for “the reader must not forget that the dash and roar of the waves were incessant.” This sound of turbulent surf, and the friction breaking down glass, wood, and stone against stone is the result of the transfer of the endless energy of the ocean to the shore.
This energy is largely the product of cosmic and terrestrial forces. The sun and moon’s gravity pull the tides into motion. Swells of water are traveling energies, much like light. Bent at the shore’s edge as though passing though a lens or prism, the energy stored in a traveling swell is condensed by the rising sea floor beneath the water that causes it to build and consolidate until there is a critical amount of energy, which overcomes gravity and discharges.
At the threshold.
I’ve spent most of my life teetering on one threshold or another (teen pregnancy, spousal abuse, divorce, breast cancer). Foreclosure is simply the current precipice.
I seem always to be in this place, squinting into a foggy distance, wondering what’s coming next. For this reason, the first thing I do every morning is go to my porch overlooking the salt marsh with steaming coffee and my Bible. I couldn’t bear the mystery of my future without the daily reminder that God is with me and that he’s placed many of his beloved on thresholds.
I think life on the threshold is evidence in and of itself that God is present. Who can forget Paul’s shipwreck on his journey to Rome? An angel visited him in the midst of a violent ocean storm. In the morning, Paul said, “Therefore, keep up your courage, men, for I believe God that it will turn out exactly as I have been told. But we must first run aground.”
On a threshold.
Elizabeth Kalman is the great-great-great granddaughter of a Cherokee Indian maiden picked up by a wagon train on its way from the Trail of Tears in Texas to the Kentucky coalfields. Her great-great grandfather was one of the first merchants to bring silk worms to the U.S. He kept a detailed hand-written journal that Elizabeth is in the process of editing. She is presenting a lectures this summer about Henry David Thoreau at the Thoreau Society’s annual gathering and at the Nantucket Atheneum. Her essays have been featured in the Charleston Post and Courier, The Gettysburg Review, Crazyhorse,and the blogzine Magical Teaching. She earned an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Seattle Pacific University.