I got thin this summer.
Not the kind of thin involving abdominals upon which to grate cheese or rock a new bikini, but instead, the soul-satisfying feeling of inhabiting a thin space. It's a place where (according to Celtic spirituality) the veil between this world and the "other world" is thin.
It's where truth and imagination abide at a point pulsating with energy that's hard to define. It might sound new-agey or weird, but bear with me and maybe you'll recognise a thin space or two of your own. Or feel free to call me nuts.
Part of what I miss when the quotidian carousel spins itself into a centrifugal frenzy are thin spaces. Pausing, watching and listening are gentle winds that blow back the veil between senses we're certain of and something we can't quite put our finger on – the thing that transcends knowing. While over-scheduling, driving in circles and sitting for hours before a keyboard don't necessarily preclude thin space encounters, busyness seems to harden the veil into a concrete wall.
What unfolds during summer holidays when calendars are less cluttered are stories. Tales told at the campground, the breakfast table, outside the hotel pool … Sometimes, encounters spark a sense of recognition, a flash of the past or glimpse of a potential future.
They're conversations with a stranger that prompt nodding, followed by, "I understand. I've been there." Like the chat I had with a fellow widow outside a Taupo hotel.
She, too, was travelling alone with two children similar in age to mine (my husband stayed behind to work). Her husband, who had the same first name as my current spouse, died six years ago.
While I'd remarried, she had not. I had taken time off work and left my home country, while she stayed in hers, working long hours and jetting to faraway business meetings.
Standing in the moonlight, dripping wet after a swim, the familiar wave hit. Our paths were similar. And very different. They had converged at a time when both of us heard something we needed to hear – me, about the struggle of full-time solo parenthood combined with a full-time executive role; her, about rewards and risks of intentional radical change.
Another thin space opened at my friend, Becky's. She and her family hosted the kids and me for several nights at their home overlooking Mount Manaia, Mount Lion and Whangarei Harbour. Even more comforting than the views was the company of friends and the opportunity – the first in nearly a week – to sleep alone.
My room happened to be Becky's mum's final resting place. Wanda died at age 94 last October in the bed I'd occupy. "Does that creep you out?" asked Becky. "No," I said. "I'd be honoured." I was also fine bunking with Wanda's ashes that sat atop a tall chest of drawers.
I didn't have any 3am spectral visitations. No noises, shadows – only the dreamless sleep of a traveller who's had too much sun and just enough wine. Becky, on the other hand, had spotted rainbows in this very room on a day without sun. Her mum, a life-long Christian, had promised she would draw back the thin space veil to deliver her daughter signs from the other side.
Meanwhile, no messages from my late husband, other than the koala bearing his name we met months after his death; or myriad men and women who've shared their own stories of love lost; or the depth of feeling that shines from his children's eyes. Nothing to see here. Nothing without that pause. Nothing without summer holidays. Or winter break. Or time spent visiting the liminal landscape – that place betwixt and between the familiar and the unknown. These thresholds are available year-round, yet I rarely visit. Too many lists, deadlines, activities …
The first time I visited a marae, shortly after arriving in New Zealand in 2011, I remember a kaumatua saying those entering the wharenui brought with us ancestors and those we loved who'd died. I could feel the hairs on my neck stand at attention as I stepped into that sacred place at Wairoa Marae. It was not unlike church, whose form and function encourage stillness.
Signs or whispers from lost loved ones mostly elude me, and I appreciate the debunking of ghost stories and myths more than I enjoy the initial tale. Still, I consider thin space encounters as learning opportunities – if not about ourselves and our relationships to the dead – then about ourselves and our relationships to the living.