Cliffs of Morsum
decisions around erosion
I have retreated to the island of Sylt, in northern Germany next to Denmark, to write. I’m trying not to think of my time here as free or empty, although I am all alone on an island. My duty out here is to myself and my writing, which are meaningful things, and in order to take care of them I need structure. But because I am the only one making the rules, and the only witness when they get broken, I learning the challenges of accountability when the only person I’m accountable to is me.
Little routines and time frames are helpful, like what I eat for breakfast and what time my writing blocks are. But the point of being alone is also about unstructured time in which to come and go from my desk, my book, my notebook, my thoughts.
The house I’m in belongs to my first housemate in Berlin, circa 2013. It’s in a village called Morsum, of the Morsum Kliffe. The name makes me think of Mordor, although the two landscapes are somewhat different. Mordor is a land of shadows, dotted with live volcanoes, walled within a fortress of mountain ranges on three sides. It is the home base of Lord Sauron and the locale of Mount Doom, where the hobbits must destroy the Ring.
The landscape of Morsum is barren except for the heath. If Sylt is “The Hamptons of Germany,” Morsum is its rugged edge. The cliffs, dressed in their hardy shrubbery, are twenty-one meters high at most, and are beautiful and not at all scary. Geologists, scientists, nature lovers and other frische Luft aficionados would be fascinated by the stark color contrast of the clays and sands on view, which date to the pre-glacial period. Hester and I head out there every day for long walks and we barely see anyone.
On this day, when she woke me with her hairy lips at 7am to point out the sunrise behind the snowflakes, we headed out and first tried to locate a turd I hadn’t had a poopy bag for the night before. Then, down by the cliffs, I let Hester off the leash so that she could go absolutely berzerk. I am trying to practice trust and letting go. I passively project onto my dog a lot. These days, as she runs free, I actively project that Hester loves me and wants to spend time with me, and that I trust that her desire to furiously chase rabbits is in harmony with her desire to not loose sight of me for long. It works! She comes back when the rabbits win the chase, which they always do.
The area is a Naturschutzgebeit, which is the German name for nature preserve. All the dogs are on leashes. All their owners are retired. It’s easy to roll your eyes at the German affection for rules and order. There are signs all over the Gebiet saying “Lebensgefahr!” (danger of death!) and “Die Kliffen nicht betreten” (do not go on the cliffs). When I spend time in nature I often think of my wild uncle Josh, who famously said “Safety third! After convenience and pleasure.” As a scientist and avid backpacker I know that he respects nature, and as a personality I know that he doesn’t like to be told what to do. I roll my eyes at these signs, and although I do not personally climb the cliffs I let Hester do it. Every day she gets braver and climbs higher.
This morning I appreciate the way the black clay peeks out from under the thin blanket of snow that will melt when the sun rises. Hester had been absent for about a minute, and each second grows more worrisome. I tell myself to continue walking and trust her. I think, how much trouble could she possible get into? So what if she kills a rabbit? The rabbits are probably overpopulated and anyways they are faster than she is. They are prey and she is a predator and maybe it’s fine if they do their dance. Who am I to put rules on an interspecies relationship that is beyond my understanding?
I think about Earthseed, the religion that Octavia Butler invented and wrote into the Parable of the Sower. In Earthseed, change is the only constant. “All that you touch you change. All that you change changes you. The only lasting Truth is Change. God is Change.” And I think, okay, I am changing this place by being here, and it is changing me, and I will never know how much Hester’s running around is going to change this place like I will never know how I am changing it. Change is just happening. I am co-responsible but not omnipotent.
Lately I’ve been afraid to pull tarot cards because I am afraid that I will believe everything they say. I am scared I won’t be discerning enough and that I’ll think, well, that’s just how the cards came out, so it’s meant to be. That’s just how it happened, and that’s what I thought about when I saw the cards, which means it must be true! Because it just happened, because it wasn’t up to me, because that’s what happens when you ask questions to things beyond understanding.
The reason I came to Sylt is to finish a manuscript. It’s creative nonfiction organized around the story of my life - basically a memoir - that narrativizes the intertwined storylines of dance and faith in my life, and their various crises. Though the writing process, I recalled a moment at a church youth retreat. A minister drew two cliffs: one side was earth and the other side was the kingdom of heaven. He was explaining to the group of teenagers that no matter what we do, no matter how hard we try to be good, we will never be good enough to make it to the other side. He asked for a volunteer, and my friend was told to sit down in the front of the room and take off his shirt so that the minister could write all the sins humans are capable of in sharpie all over his torso. Shaken by this act, and the indelibility of our nature as sinners, we were made to turn away from the center of the room and ask God for forgiveness. After fifteen long minutes of silent prayer apologizing for our fallibility and begging to be saved, he had us turn back towards him, and drew a bridge in the shape of a cross between the two cliffs. He explained that Jesus died to forgive us, not to worry, everything was going to be okay, we were going to heaven despite our wretchedness. It was a cathartic moment that left a big mark on me.
Meghan O’Gieblyn, an amazing writer and former Evangelical Christian who I am currently stanning, wrote a book of essays called Interior States, in which she mentions performing the old abyss graph trick, which her and her fellow evangelists used to do out on the street to try to get people to accept Jesus. Her essay made me realize that the context of that moment was Evangelical brainwashing, and that it had worked. The Episcopal church I grew up in, and with which I had attended the retreat and therefore assumed everything was chill and safe, never did anything as sensational as make us fear eternal damnation only to pull out the rug with a Just Kidding! Jesus loves you! You are saved! Better be grateful!
My ex said that I would have made a great cult follower. We used to laugh about it and I would say “totally lol.” Looking back on situations like the abyss trick, I would like to amend the narrative: I am an engaged, willing, and supportive audience member. When you are young, you are susceptible to all kinds of manipulation, and now that I am older I can recognize that that moment was violent. What part of the performance worked? the participation, the choreography, the visual aid, the use of one consenting audience member as a holder of the audience’s projection, and the dramatic reveal. What part was irresponsible? Scapegoating a teenager so that we would fear our fundamental nature and therefore need a higher power to ‘save’ us.
The context of this ‘abyss trick' was deceitful. It sold itself as education and spiritual practice, when actually it was a successful performance. I was used to feeling safe in religious situations, which in that moment made me porous and gullible. As my reticence to use the tarot cards demonstrates, I sometimes have trouble trusting the information I get from outside sources, be they cosmic, cultural, or governmental.
As a lover of dance and watcher of performances however, I consider porosity a strength. I love to say yes to what I am seeing on stage. I want to believe what is going on and I like to resist the Berlin dance scene’s gratuitous culture of criticality. Maybe caring criticality is only possible once you have accepted the invitation and stepped in.
What I got out of the abyss trick was the solidification of something I already believed: that God loves me and everybody else unconditionally, and what a miracle that is. The part about me being born into sin didn’t really catch on. It was and remains a dramatic moment. My friend Chris, whose body was written on, doesn’t remember it, and figures it must not have worked on him. Mostly he remembers mimicking kissing in front of my brother so show him and the other boys how it works.
Now I know that that moment wasn’t a revelation of God’s greatness or an affirmation of my faith, but a moment on indoctrination. Now that I have all the information I need about the context, it is up to me to decide which parts of what I learned that day can remain in my roster of upheld beliefs.
In so many situations, german “Ordnung” is oppressive and the behavior it calls for feels either obvious or unnecessary. When I researched the cliffs of Morsum for this newsletter, I learned that the big issue here is not endangered wildlife (the rabbits are fine) or protecting you from lebensgefährliche landscapes and weather (like in most places in Iceland). It’s that the island is eroding, especially the cliffs. Before the ice age, about 200 000 years ago, layers of sediments from different time periods lay atop one another. On the bottom was 8-10 million year old gray-black oceanic rock called Glimmerton, and above that lay 6-8 million year old Glimmerfeinsand. The reddish iron-rich Limonite is 4-6 million years old. A layer of yellow 3-4 million year old sandstone comes next, followed by a white Scandinavian sand called Kaolin, which are 2-3 million years old. During the ice age, glaciers pushed up against the island, and their enormous pressure folded up the earth into waves, so now the different layers lie side by side in differently colored cliffs. Every time someone or something climbs on them they get closer and closer to crumbling away. How fortunate I am to be a guest on this island whose coastline is in constant flux, yet boasts touchable 10-million-year-old minerals.
Discernment is challenging. There are many moments when it is hard to decipher what you next move shall be. But the perception that you live outside of context and history is an easy trap to avoid. Readily available information helps you to decide whether a rule is worth breaking, or whose safety and well-being gets priority. Is it the dog, the rabbit, the rock, or the writer? How grateful I am for my agency and power - I want to learn to use it wisely.
Obeying the signage doesn’t make me a sheep if I inform myself enough to decide that I too believe the sign’s message. There is a marshy area nearby where Hester can run and chase rabbits to her heart’s content. We can enjoy the cliffs side-by-side, on either end of our leash. How honored I am to witness Hester doing her thing. The lesson I’m learning now is to feel the same honor at witnessing myself doing mine.
Thank you to Fjóla Gautadóttir for guest editing and Soph Kahlau for the thoughts and talks.