Describe a “thin place” or threshold you’ve encountered. It could be a location, an experience, a relationship, a period of time. Describe it in as much concrete detail as you can: what did you see, smell, feel with your hands? How did it make you feel? Who else was there? What led you there? What did you do? What happened afterword? Did anything change? It may feel hard to describe—that’s ok! Ineffable experiences are the hardest to describe. Get weird! –Jordan Kisner #TheIsolationJournals
This week, indulge me as I grapple with some of my more slippery thoughts. To me, thin places are best represented in the moments in which my own isolated experience of this world is interrupted, challenged, touched by someone else’s isolated experience. These moments can be deliberately crafted, or they can surface without warning and with little thought or skill behind it.
I have encountered my thinnest places primarily in one of two ways: in the pages of a book and and in the fabric of old things.
I am not a stranger to the ancient pull of heritage sites.
I’ve felt the magnetic tug of everything from proud castles to humble farmhouse ruins. I have dug through earth to find pottery and stone tucked away from time. I have stood in the presence of many standing stones, tombs, and brochs for my work in helping to digitally document sites around Scotland.
My work often means I spend a lot of time taking many hundred layered pictures of a stone, or methodically moving through a site with a terrestrial laser scanner a few meters at a time to make sure I capture it fully.
While it is true that anywhere you stand is technically to be in the footprints of history, heritage sites – especially those beloved and protected by generations – have worn the distance between past and present tantalisingly thin.
And no before you ask I don’t mean literal time travel. (I don’t think that if we all dramatically stretch our palms out to brush against ancient stone we will be whisked across time into the arms of a dubious highlander.) But. I’d be lying if I said these were not places where time is stretched thin.
Allow me to try and explain: Travel with me, if you will, across the sea to an island bursting at its seams with archaeology: Orkney. Drive inland a while and you will find cradled between two lochs, a massive stone circle, 103 meters in diameter. Welcome to the Ring of Brodgar. These Neolithic monoliths (36 stones remaining out of the original 60) have been standing since around 2600 BC, the original function of the ring remaining a mystery to us. And yet they pull you, like a dip in fabric, these thin places pull you towards them.
Now: scratched into one of the remaining stones at the Ring of Brodgar is a series of twig runes dating to the 12th Century that are thought to spell a name: ‘Bjorn’. If the date and interpretation is correct (still debated), to this particular vandal, the stones would have been over four thousand years old already.
Listen, as a heritage professional and a defender of archaeology, I have to say that I by no means condone Bjorn’s actions – like, please do not try this yourself. It’s not a cute look and super illegal. That said, I would be outright lying to you if gazing at that writing scratched into stone – these runes I couldn’t even read – didn’t make time fold a little.
Does that make any sense? How much of my mangled thoughts are making it into your brain intact?
Language can be beautiful, but it’s also clumsy, a burden. Whenever I write it’s like trying to pin down something that never had a form to begin with. Trying to explain movement in perfect stillness, looking for the connection. Looking for thin places.
And when someone does it right, when someone knows the craft and manages to spin just the right words – it’s like ah, yes that’s exactly it, there it is: When Rumi told us this being human is a guest house. When Mary Oliver wrote about the wild geese. And my God, when Plath describes that fig tree…
That is maybe the closest we’ll ever get to each other. With those words that hollow out your chest, make room. The closest we’ll ever get.
While our Viking pal Bjorn was clearly not exhibiting the craft of language that Rumi or Plath had, like them he was just another person desperately carving out “I WAS HERE” onto a vessel that could outlast him. With just a name, he managed to tug me closer, hollow out my chest – without a single mention of fig trees, wild geese, or guest houses. Just his name. Heritage has that kind of power over us, I think.
Whether it be Viking runes or your native tongue, language will always be a clumsy barrier between us. But it gets thinner when the ink and stone are drawn right: pages turning, time folding.
It might be impossible in the end to fully decipher these stepping stones that connect us to one another through time and through space. But God, if we do nothing else while we are here, let us become fascinated by the shape of the stone.
About Sophia Mirashrafi
I am an Oregonian living in Scotland. I am partial to reading stories of varying objective quality, oat milk in coffee, and evening runs. I collect and hoard copies of Jane Eyre. I have an MA in Medieval History and Archaeology from University of St Andrews and an MSc in Digital Heritage from the University of York. I now get paid to make digital models of Scotland’s sites and artefacts and use them to tell new stories about the past. My twitter is here if you’re interested in that kind of thing: https://twitter.com/ssmirash.