letters from the north

Cutting the painter


In Gretel Ehrlich’s book, A Match to the Heart, in which the author recounts and reflects upon being struck by lightning (for the second time), she brings up the Bardo Thodal, or Tibetan Book of the Dead. ‘I wander in the bardo state alone’ (Ehrlich, page 41). ‘Bar’ means between and ‘do’ means a landmark that stands between two things. As she explains it, when placed together, this word becomes ‘gap’, or, ‘the wandering state between life and death’, ‘confusion and enlightenment’, ‘the past just occurred and the future has not yet happened’, ‘a gray ocean with no reference points, no lighthouse’, and ‘uncertainty and groundlessness’.

Sir Ernest Shackleton and his 5 men cut the painter between the James Caird and the Stancomb Wills and from the remaining 22 men, waving from the shore of Elephant Island on April 24, 1916. The men stand between the grays of tall cliffs and a vast ocean. They stand in the pregnant pause, with the past 6 hours of exertion sent away with the gusting wind: the launch of the 22 foot James Caird into the water, the caddying of provisions and a ton of ballast into it, while resisting the unruly waves spitting them back into the tiny island.

The 22 men bellow three cheers as Shackleton + the five others dip into the trough of a wave and vanish. No reference points, no rescue boat, no lighthouse. Each man alone in their physical ache for England, for loves so distant, and for dry clothing. Only persistent, steady, horizon line.


The body as landmark. A body with groundlessness and steady tide.