my space, your space, everyone’s space

the runners up from our 2nd annual writing contest

photo by marianne larochelle,

So another Text Quest writing contest has come and gone. This year, all we had to do was say theme was “space,” and writers got writing. Other than a word cap of 800 words, no further definitions, explanations, or directions were given. We wanted to keep the playing field open and it was clear that contest entrants had little problem filling in the blanks.

Our top three finalists’ are available for your reading pleasure in the latest print edition of ascent’s space issue. As an ascent web exclusive, we are pleased to offer our 4th and 5th place finalists. The competition was made up of a diverse bunch: from non-fiction narratives to magic realism to what one might simply understate as space-poetry.

Thanks to all who entered and to the ascent staff for going through the pile of entries that poured in through the winter months. Special thanks to our guest judge, Mirabai Starr for her final picks and comments.

Text Quest 3 is around the corner, so bookmark or pick up our Autumn 2006 issue of ascent, on newsstands in September, for more information on the contest theme and submission deadline.

still looking
by Patti Sinclair

The Interaction of Interior and Exterior Space
by Daniel Goldsmith

I stepped off the plane into the sweltering, muggy, Bombay air, and ventured into the unknown city. My head was spinning from the combination of jet lag, blaring Hindi music, and the large cows passing outside my taxi window. I arrived in the center of town, and became lost in an endless labyrinth of humanity. Insane, chaotic madness wouldn’t begin to describe this scene. I watched the filthy, unclothed children playing, while countless beggars assailed me for money. In my naivety and confusion, I allowed myself to be twice cheated by avaricious con-men. I began to question my motivations for coming, and I passed judgment on India: filthy, disgusting, and repulsive. I took refuge in the railway station, and purchased a ticket for the next train. In a confused and delirious haze, I dreaded the thought of the next two months.

Sometimes we need to find a way to clear away the chatter and obstacles of our everyday life to open up a space for our minds to reflect. For me, this happens when I travel. It’s obvious that traveling alters one’s physical location, but perhaps not so easy to see how inner space is affected. As an architect must consider both the internal and external space created by his building design, so too must we consider how travel alters both bodily and mental states. Physically speaking, all I really returned with from my journey to the East were some good pictures and some nice shirts. Mentally, though, I returned with something infinitely more valuable.

When I entered the train, I just happened to be seated next to a man named Peter, a long haired, heavily tattooed British expatriate living in India. On this 24 hour train ride, as we shared chai, spicy peanuts, and tomato soup served from a kettle, he gave me advice on every aspect of life, from what (not) to eat to where to go. I thanked him, and following his suggestion, I headed for Varanasi, Hinduism’s holiest city.

On the banks of the Ganges River, I began to see the beauty in the chaos. The smoke of the hundreds of cremations per day hung heavy in the air, and the crowded, narrow streets were littered with manure. Like a zoo without cages, monkeys, cows, pigs, goats, and dogs all competed for limited, scattered garbage. And although many people were suffering from poverty, there was an incredible, almost orgiastic energy about the place. I told myself: if I can’t handle this, then I can’t handle life. This was life unmasked, without the illusions we normally put on it.

I was simultaneously attracted and repulsed by what I saw, and couldn’t decide whether I wanted to flee immediately or stay forever. My exterior space thus shaped my interior space in contradictory fashions. I couldn’t resolve this conflict with my preconceived notions and judgments. So I learned to judge less, since judgment was closing my mind, and rapidly becoming the only way in which I related to my surroundings. I began to see and accept the reality around me for what was, instead of projecting what I wanted or expected it to be. The more my journey progressed, the more I learned to do this.

By the end, I understood that life is a force that can bring about great beauty only if it simultaneously brings about its complete opposite. In the West, we have a tendency to dichotomize the world into good and bad, right and wrong. The truth is, though, opposites are actually complementary aspects of a larger whole. One side cannot exist without the other. This understanding, however, doesn’t make the ugly any less ugly: compassion is still the only appropriate response to poverty and suffering.

Because I changed the physical space I inhabited, my mental space was permanently altered. Events sometimes fit into a pattern that can only be understood in hindsight. The initial “bad” event of being cheated in Bombay lead me to the “good” of a deeper understanding of life. Now when something undesirable happens, I remind myself to relax, and know that there is neither good nor bad, there only is. Everything, from the most beautiful to the most repulsive, is part of this interconnected web of life.

The more we challenge our everyday physical space, and the further we remove ourselves from it, the greater the potential we have to alter our mental space. There’s nothing inherent in the act of physically traveling, however, that enriches the mind. Judgment is the quickest way to close oneself off, and to truly alter mental space, we must maintain ourselves in openness. The change in my physical space opened a mental and spiritual space where I cultivated the wisdom, patience, and equanimity that has allowed me to live a better life.

about our contest judge
Mirabai Starr is the critically-acclaimed author of two revolutionary new translations of sixteenth century mystical classics: Dark Night of the Soul, by St. John of the Cross and The Interior Castle, by St. Teresa of Avila.

Copyright ©2007 ascent magazine, first Canadian yoga magazine, yoga for an inspired life