Suszynski: The land’s end syndrome |

Suszynski: The land’s end syndrome

When I was 21, I stood at what people once thought was the end of the world. It’s a place called Fisterra in the region of Galicia, Spain. The name Fisterra comes from Latin, “Finnis Terrae,” which means “Land’s End.” It’s a popular pilgrimage site.

The cape of Fisterra can be reached after walking up a steady incline. As I made my way, the sun was hot on my back and the pilgrims around me, also about to complete their Camino, blurred into a jumble of excitement and worn shoes. At the top, I sat down on a massive black rock and looked out to endless sea.

When I tried to pin the exact point at which the sea stopped and the sky began, I could not find it. I wondered, is this what an “end” feels like?

There exists a very strange but very wonderful small book, called “The Taiga Syndrome” by Cristina Rivera Garza, translated by Suzanne Jill Levine and Aviva Kana.

The narrator travels to Taiga, which is a border town close to the tundra, to find the second wife of a man who ran away with a dancer.

Before the narrator sets out, she has a conversation with the man. He says to the narrator: “certain inhabitants of the Taiga begin to suffer terrible anxiety attacks and make suicidal attempts to escape … Impossible to do when you’re surrounded by the same terrain for five thousand kilometers.”

The narrator equates Taiga, and the boreal forest that is very near to it, with being the end of the world: “I remember the image of the abyss. Above all, I remember the words ‘world’s end’ strung together.”

The second wife sends her husband periodic telegrams during her journey and one reads: “THE DISTANT NEVER SO CLOSE.”

In Fisterra, when I looked toward the horizon to find the vantage point where the sea met the sky, I was looking for a point in which to situate myself. I felt disoriented, confused even.  

The end of the world, the end of the pandemic, the end of racism — an ending seems a liminal space: a space in between things, a space on its way to becoming something else, a space in flux. The distant never so close.

When I stood looking at the ocean, my ideas, my identity, my bones, my breath did not stop, they did not end.

Last Friday, I hiked Notch Mountain. I hiked quickly, mostly with my head forward, until I broke through tree line. As I started the switchbacks, I slowed my pace to look out over the valley at each turn, at each small ending.

When I reached the top, I ate my sandwich and wandered around for a while. First to the shelter, then to the left, out over the ridge, and then atop a hill of rocks to be eye level with Holy Cross.

As I looked down at the shelter, I was reminded that this place is a pilgrimage site.

At the end of “The Taiga Syndrome,” there is a very poignant paragraph that I like to revisit and unpack: “Placating someone is also a spiritual exercise. Look at this: your knees. They are used for kneeling upon reality, also for crawling, terrified. You use them to sit on a lotus flower and say goodbye to the immensity,” the narrator says.

She had returned from her pilgrimage of sorts, changed.

On Notch Mountain, in Taiga, looking out on the cape of Fisterra, how do I locate myself? In any ending, how do I understand where my feet are grounded if everything is only dark ocean, or thick boreal forest, or limitless spines of ridges and the snow incised splendor of a cross? How can I escape if I am surrounded by this dark impenetrable mass? And what is an ending anyway, if there is a beginning afterward?

The idea of the end of the land induces an obsession with perception. As I stood on the black coastal rock of Fisterra, I was obsessed with trying to understand myself in the context of Spain’s culture, where my identity fits there. When I stood at the top of Notch Mountain, I was obsessed with trying to wade through my positioning in this current nebulous reality.

At times, in Taiga, the narrator is completely helpless and disoriented. The borders are blurred, she’s suspended and fears failing, not finding the couple. These feelings are not all that unfamiliar to me at the present moment. However an ending, because of its immensity, allows for new ideas, new cultures, new ways to look at oneself, to seep in. Once you become disoriented, there is boundless space to open up to things you never once considered.

At the end of the world, one can sit on the lotus flower. A lotus: symbol of purity, enlightenment but more importantly, rebirth and self-generation. Lotus flowers can grow in the dirtiest of water, but what flourishes above the surface is a flower.

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