Taking On the Trickster

Right now our house is full of dreams and preparations for crossing a new border.

“Maybe I’ll grow my hair out a little longer while we live in Spain,” says my partner. “Maybe I’ll start going by ‘Gustavo.'”

I express my support for these ideas and turn my attention from reading about the areas where pickpockets are the worst to researching undergarments with secret pouches for stashing valuables.

After my last post on living fully into liminal spaces, one of my dear, brainy friends left me a most intriguing message:

“Let’s talk about the trickster in liminal spaces sometime.”

Oh yes, let’s.

Ros Schwartz is an expert on just about anything she turns her focus to–travel, wine, languages, theatre, food, good books, yogic philosophy, mythology and archetypes. Sound like the most interesting person to talk to in the coffee shop? You bet, but good luck–Ros is a bit of a trickster herself. She inhabits many worlds, which makes it a little difficult to catch her. I was able to track her down this week, though, and I got her to share some of her trickster knowledge.

The first time I encountered the idea of liminal spaces was in a freshman mythology class at UNC. We talked about the importance of citizenship in ancient Greek society–the idea being that as a citizen (literally someone who lived in a city-state), you were afforded certain rights and protections. But the moment you stepped outside the city limits, you were no one and basically had no rights. Which is all very interesting in and of itself, but which also means that the boundary gains tremendous importance–it’s the place where safety becomes danger, where rules vanish, and where you literally lose a part of your identity.

Ros went on to talk about the more overlooked boundaries we cross regularly in our everyday lives as we present ourselves in different spheres. She used her own professional life as an example, which includes both a non-profit organization and a yoga studio.

To me, though, the concept of living in-between is becoming more and more attractive…When I was younger, I was overly concerned with how I was perceived, and badly wanted to mesh with my environment. Now, at 31…I can easily sit and work at a desk all day and also get up to do a handstand every once and a while. And I can easily sit in front of a class of yoga students in the evening, and maybe accidentally-on-purpose say “shit.” The threshold itself is becoming more and more comfortable, and choosing to inhabit it deliberately–refusing to be a citizen of either tribe–is also a way of defining it for myself and others. This is what tricksters do…

Ros cites an idea brought forward by cultural critic, Lewis Hyde…

“The very act of inhabiting a boundary space–being the one who crosses the threshold again and again–is an act of definition as much as it is an act of subversion.”

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An act of definition as much as it is an act of subversion. That’s juicy. Certainly many of us have been in situations where we don’t know where “the line” is until we’ve crossed it. And yes, usually when we say it that way, “crossing the line” means something negative.

Ros takes it back to ancient Greece:

…Naturally, the Greeks had a guardian God in charge of liminal spaces: Hermes, who also happens to be the classic Greek trickster…Hermes is the guardian of bridges and city gates, and he’s also the God who guides your soul to Hades. He is so practiced at walking between inner and outer, living and beyond-living, that he becomes your companion and guide at the end of this life.

We tend to love the trickster…as long as he’s not tricking us. Maybe that’s why we try to keep the idea of him outside of the city gates. (Traditionally, it seems the trickster is usually a him, doesn’t it? What does that tell us about how fluid we like the images of our women to be?) I grew up loving fables borrowed from other times and other cultures–tales of cunning foxes, crows and coyotes. And the shape-shifting Bugs Bunny was a huge influence on my early performer self, but I’m having trouble thinking of where the trickster heroes live in our contemporary American lore. There are plenty of trickster villains to be sure…

But where is our trickster who celebrates the places where the rules break down?

The one who shows us, See? You’re not who you thought you were, but you still exist here, too. There is a bigger definition waiting for you in this space.

I love the idea of Hermes as an archetypal guide waiting for us on the other side of the bridge. Interesting that he is not designated as the “protector” warding off tricksters lurking in the liminal wilderness–he is the trickster himself. While we could think about a winged messenger literally floating alongside us, guiding us by telling us to turn this way not that, it seems more useful to think of Hermes’ archetypal energy as guiding us by being available to us in these spaces.

If the trickster is not well-received in the town square, at least the boundary line gives our inner trickster permission to come out and play. Maybe we try on some new clothes and a new name and know ourselves better for it. Maybe we discover our own cleverness when we deflect a stranger who might have tried to take advantage of us. Maybe we observe our surroundings with a little more alertness, taking notes, knowing that boundary crossing is a most important life skill to be developed.

Says the wise Ros:

If we live in a world of fluid boundaries anyway, why not become practiced at flowing between them? There’s fun and adventure to be had outside the city gates, and comfort and stability to be had within. Both are necessary for a fully-lived life, so why not let the one bleed into the other just a little bit? By doing so, you’re allowing for the possibility of both existing at once. And maybe this gets a little closer to the truth of the matter–that a coin may have two sides and still be one single object. That here and there are both part of a much bigger Somewhere. That you and I are part of a much bigger Us.

And you, dear reader? What trickster hero has inspired you? What wisdom does your inner trickster have? What border crossing do you have ahead?

If you’d like to read more about the trickster, Ros recommends Lewis Hyde’s Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth & Art.

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