My home city, Cork, in Ireland, is built on an ait. For those of you who may not have heard the word, an ait is an island in the middle of a river. Having flowed about 60 miles eastwards, from the mystical place of its origin in Gougane Barra, the river Lee bifurcates and then rejoins, several miles before it reaches the Atlantic Ocean at Cobh – the last port the Titanic visited on its ill-fated maiden voyage. That bifurcation gave birth to an ait upon which Cork was built over 800 years ago. Initially, there were only two exits/entrances to Cork: the Northgate Bridge and the Southgate Bridge. They both still exist but, over the years, they have been joined by a host of new bridges.
One sunny, summer day around 1956, when I was nine years old, I found myself seated on the northern bank of the Lee downstream from where the two branches had reunited. And though rivers have always fascinated me, my attention, on that day, was not on the Lee’s fabled waters but on a group of workmen on the southern bank who were attempting to sling a thick steel hawser across the 150 yards of river. They were ESB (Electricity Supply Board) workers tasked with connecting cables from a new generating station to the homes and businesses on my side of the river. The huge cable was already attached to a great pylon on the southern bank, but the problem was: how to ferry it across, given that they only had a small rowboat. Even if they could have gotten the roll of steel into the boat, the weight of the cable would immediately have sunk the skiff.
After lots of cap-tugging, head-scratching and several Woodbines (the cigarette de jour of Corkonians in the 50’s), someone had a brainwave. He went off in the company van and returned some 30 minutes later with a coil of rope. They attached one end of it to the steel hawser and dropped the bulk of it into the boat. One guy rowed slowly across the Lee as another paid out the rope. When they got it to my side, they persuaded a farmer, who was passing by in a new Ford tractor, to give them a hand. They hitched the rope to the tractor and began to pull the rope and the hawser across the placid waters. I watched in fascination as the steel first entered the river and quickly began to sink. I wondered if the tractor would have enough power to handle the strain. It did. Within an hour the steel cable was firmly attached to the pylon on the northern bank, and the suburb of Tivoli was about to be illuminated!
Many years later this incident would spring, unbidden, into my awareness as I explained to somebody in a therapy session that it is important to test new relationships and not reveal too much too quickly, nor commit one’s heart too soon. Here’s the image I used: the steel hawser of a life-time commitment should be preceded by the rope of a strong friendship, that was built upon the string of a budding bonding, founded upon the dental floss of initial encounters. This I believe to be true in all relationships – romantic, professional or even spiritual.
Typically, when two people first meet, it’s their two persona’s that dance with each other. It’s me at my best waltzing with you at your best. This is the dental floss stage. If the relationship lasts a few months, the persona’s will, occasionally, retract and expose the two ego’s underneath. This is the string phase. Eventually it becomes too much work to hold the persona’s in place and now the two egos are going at it full time. This is the rope phase. If you are very lucky and if your Pre-Conception Contract called for it, you may have encountered your soul mate; in which case the ego’s tire of their fear-based, narcissistic battles and let the divine essence shine through. Now, it is twin souls dancing. The steel hawser is in place; now north bank and south bank share the same light. They have transcended even the river of life.
I learned that lesson from the most unlikely of teachers: ESB workers and a tractor owner. Just yesterday, I learned a beautiful articulation of this insight in another unlikely place – a hardware store! Nestled nonchalantly between a chain saw and a garden hose was a painted wooden sign that said,
“Don’t spend your life with someone you can live with;
spend it with someone you can’t live without.”