Ah need I say, dear friend, that to the brim

My heart was full? I made no vows, but vows

Were then made for me; bond unknown to me

Was given…

William Wordsworth, The Prelude

I sat down on Sunday to write about our entangled lives, how we are caught up in networks of connection, obligation and expectation. I was reading David Whye’s Three Marriages which looks at these networks of commitment to love, work and the self. The tangle of these often contradictory commitments is what makes up a life. We may focus on the ease or the happiness of our lives but often the obstacles are the work. David Whyte references William Wordsworth’s Prelude and the bonds that come to us unexpectedly and even, at times, unwanted.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things

Mary Oliver, Wild Geese

As I tried to start writing about our everyday tangles, commitments and frustrations, the word skein came to mind as a wind of yarn. That idea brought with it a distant echo of memory that I found I needed to untangle before I could write. Like our many invisible connections, the word skein had a hidden pull on me. A dictionary confirmed my understanding of the meaning of skein, but offered another clue.

To my surprise, skein has a secondary meaning, the formation of geese in flight. The ever-shifting form is its own entanglement, as geese share the load of leading the formation and manage their three dimensional relationships through simple rules that maximise the performance, efficiency and safety of the skein. A reference to wild geese brought to mind Mary Oliver’ famous poem, but I knew I had not yet got to the heart of my own tangle.

Je jalouse le sort des plus vils animaux
Qui peuvent se plonger dans un sommeil stupide,
Tant l’écheveau du temps lentement se dévide!

Charles Baudelaire, De profundis clamavi

By this point, I knew it would have been better to let the mess go. I was now deeply distracted and unsettled. A connection broken or unfulfilled was taunting me and standing in the path of my progress. I couldn’t write anything until this lost idea stopped tugging at me. I wasn’t even sure at this point that there was anything inspiring my search. I no longer was clear why I had even wanted to write about entanglement. With a sense that there were likely better things to do, I searched on obligated to find the end. The tangle I was unravelling fell apart a few poems deeper in my search when Charles Baudelaire’s De profundis clamavi was pulled from the mess. The last line of that poem has been often translated:

‘So slowly does the skein of time unwind!’

That idea of ‘the skein of time’ was what the word skein had brought to mind. I found what I had been seeking through a lifetime of half-remembered threads. Life unravels slowly and these yarns entangle us more each day. Whether we want it to be so or not, we are on a thread of life stretching back and pulling us forward. We are our own narrative, other’s stories of us and a few unfulfilled dreams. I love Baudelaire’s poems and that phrase had been buried deep in a tangle of other memories of love, life and work. By the time that my curiosity was satisfied, I had lost the day. I had also lost the thread of the entanglement that I set out to explore.

Perhaps, I even got there through all the unravelling of half-remembered connections. After all, yarn has a second meaning too.

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