On Washerwoman Bridge, where you and I
stood like the two hands of a midnight clock
embracing, soon to part, not for a day
but for all days - this morning on our bridge
a narcissistic fisherman,
forgetting his cork float, stares goggle-eyed
at his unsteady river image.
The ripples age him and then make him young;
a web of wrinkles flows across his brow
and melts into the features of his youth.
He holds our place. Why not? It is his right.
In recent years whatever stands alone
stands as a symbol of another time.
His is a claim for space.
So let him gaze
into our waters, calmly, at himself,
and even come to know himself. The river
is his by right today. It’s like a house
in which new tenants have set up a mirror
but have not yet moved in.
- Joseph Brodsky, 1968
Why am I so fascinated by bridges? After all, it is just “a structure carrying a road or a path across a river, road, or other obstacle” (http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/)
Maybe because I was born in the wet and windy city of Saint Petersburg, where bridges are omnipresent, and where sometimes, returning back home in the middle of a White Night, one can be stopped by an opened bridge, letting ship pass. Its released heavy wings, as of a wounded dark bird, have stayed in my dreams forever. Often, a golden griffon covered in snow or a stony lion holds a bridge for you to cross a river or a canal.
“I can't throw a bridge between present and past, and therefore I can't make time move”, wrote Eva Hoffman, the Polish American writer and academic, relating her experience of displacement and nostalgia. When I read these words for the first time, I felt a real sense of connection: somehow they just rung true.
I often witness how an expat may feel stuck on one side of the world – standing on this “foreign” side of the river (or sometimes ocean), unable to cross back.
Knowing that on the other side there is the old world, lost forever in its familiar shape, makes the whole situation even more painful.
As in Brodsky’s poem, parting on a bridge is even more dramatic than on a plain ground. The fact that we leave across that border everything we knew or loved makes the separation somehow worse. We all know that bridges have a nasty habit of burning.
Brodsky beautifully uses the bridge metaphor for separation and the ineluctable passing of time.
But we can also build bridges. Humans developed this art from a very early age on. Our ability to cross chasms has expanded our world. There is no emigration without crossing a metaphorical bridge. We all have our own both mental and physical bridges.
Many creation myths include a symbolic bridge, for example the Shinto bridge in the Japanese tradition, or the Bifrost rainbow bridge in the Norse cosmogony. The role of these archetypal bridges was to connect human and divine worlds. They symbolise a pathway to paradise, a transition or movement towards a better place. A decision to leave home has often been driven by a desire for a better life, a better place, across a symbolic bridge.
Generically, the symbol of the Bridge is an archetypal representation. An archetype is a universal, primal idea, ‘a first model,’ a sub strata of the psyche that cannot be grasped in its entirety, so we perceive that phenomena through representations or symbols. The archetypal bridge suggests a transition, a progression from one state to another.
Dreaming about bridges
In many dreams told by my clients, bridges seem to appear when they are in the middle of a strong transition of some kind.
Many emigrants will be familiar with these nightmarish dreams that involve packing belongings, rushing to the train station or airport, not finding a taxi, missing the boat, and crossing a bridge.
If the bridge stands for a change, there are usually obstacles to this transition – either external or internal.
A Norwegian folktale, ‘The Three Billy Goats Gruff’, tells the story of three goats wishing to travel across a bridge to a bank where there is plenty of grass. The grass is always greener on the other side, isn’t it?
As the three goats make their way across, they are confronted and stopped by the evil troll, whom they must defeat to continue towards the other side. This challenge represents the final test on their path to the green heaven. They pass it through trickery, and make their way to the green hills where they happily gorge themselves with lush grass. The troll still lives under the bridge, but has not bothered anyone again.
Beyond fairy tales, scary trolls are often within us. With they’re ugly mocking faces and they scare us in our dreams, reminding us the imperfectness and finality of our worlds.
The mythical beasts - griffons or sphinxes - inhabiting Saint Petersburg bridges somehow figure as reminders of these inner monsters.
A bridge is a stable, solid element thrown across water; a changeable element underneath it, which accentuates its stability.
The life of a modern nomad is to develop on the move. This unsettled experience of life is exciting but can also produce anxiety. It seems important for my clients to be sure to find me where they had previously left me, whether in my consulting room or online. I do not disappear during our separation between the sessions.
In this way, therapy becomes that bridge we need to cross in order to grow.
Many scary trolls might stand as obstacles, showing their ugly noses whilst we make our way towards the other side of the river. The aim of therapy can be described as defeating these trolls of our past and coming out on the other side, safe and alive.
Sitting on the bridge
Witnessing and facilitating the crossing, I often find myself sitting on top of the bridge, like the sculptures from St Petersburg bridges: sphinx, griffons and winged lions. But the presence of another human, in striking contrast with the other stony figures, hopefully makes this crossing a less lonely and scary experience for my clients.
In the end, psychotherapy is about building the bridge, linking our separate worlds together, and making a meaning from this experience. Confronting our trolls, we will ideally end up dancing on the bridge, ignoring the trolls that are still there, but defeated.