Talking to the moon

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After writing about kindness yesterday, I've been thinking about the ways in which the lack of kindness propels some of us into the arts: not only as way to retreat from pain, or to cope with it, or to attempt to understand it, but also as a means of creating (to quote Anais Nin) "a world in which one can live."

For example, here's a passage by British novelist Catherine Storr from her essay "Why Write? Why Write for Children?" (published in The Thorny Paradise). Storr describes her parents as loving ones who did not mean to be unkind, and yet her own open-hearted nature was viewed with deep suspicion:

"I am a compulsive writer," Storr begins. " I suppose that before I'd learn to write without too much difficulty, I was a compulsive talker. This is borne out by the memory of hearing my parents say, 'Catherine never stops talking.' I think I went on talking too much until the awkwardness of adolesence overcame the habit. But before that I'd discovered writing; and though it didn't immediately cure me of talking too much, it did provide an outlet for the need to communicate.

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"What I needed to communicate was feelings. We were a very buttoned up family as far as the emotions were concerned. I don't remember ever doubting that my parents loved us, but they never said so in so many words. They also weren't at all physically demonstrative; you had to be in considerable distress before you got picked up and hugged. Kissing was something you did before going to bed or saying goodbye for a longer period. This restraint didn't come naturally to me at all, and besides being told I talked too much, I was also frequently told I shouldn't ask for displays of affection. It was recognized in the family that Catherine was sentimental, and that this should be discouraged.

"Until I was ten, these reprehensible feelings had to be repressed, or carefully monitored so that they didn't offend my parents' austere standards. I can still remember attributing one particular enthusiasm to my doll, so that I wouldn't be held responsible for it. It was a marvelous day in the country and I was aching to say so to someone, but I knew if I did I'd be laughed at, so I said, 'Ruthy is feeling sentimental. She says, "How blue the sky! How green the grass!" But even this ruse didn't work. I was laughed at again.

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"What happened when I was ten was that the door suddenly opened. I was lying in bed with the curtains undrawn and I saw a huge white moon looking at me through the branches of the aspen poplar tree which stood about forty feet away in the garden opposite my window. It must have been spring, I think, because the branches were bare. I got out of bed and wrote a poem to the moon with a blunt pencil on a sheet of manuscript music paper, which was all I could find. It was blank verse and until that moment I'd had no idea that I could write anything more ambitious than rhyming couplets. It was a very exciting moment. Probably all the more exciting because it was forbidden to wander out of bed after eight o'clock. Then next morning I read the poem through and was rather impressed by it. It was a great deal better than I'd have expected."

That little girl grew up to become the author of over thirty books for children and adults (as well as a medical doctor and psychologist), writing right up to her death at age 87. Having raised three daughters, Storr was often asked if her childrens' books had been written for them. Well yes, to some degree, she said, but mostly she'd written them for herself:

"William Mayne, when asked for whom he wrote his books, said: For the child I once was. I'm sure this is true of many writers for children, but  I think it is also true that that one writes for the child one still is."

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The Thorny ParadiseThe passage above is from "Why Write? Why Write for Children" by Catherine Storr, published in The Thorny Paradise: Writers on Writing for Children, edited by Edward Blishen (Kestral Books, 1975). The poem in the picture captions is from Poetry magazine (October 2012). All rights reserved by the authors or their estates.


On Kindness

Nattadon 1

Living in these strange and troubling times, there's a mantra that I often repeat to myself (as I've mentioned here before): Be gentle, be gentle, be gentle. Stand your ground, know your truth, but be kind.

"Kindness" is a quality I value very highly although it's given little credence these days, dismissed as soft, simple, and sentimental in a culture that rewards the sharp, the hard, the self-reliant (or merely self-absorbed), lauding those who push to the front of the queue of success, wealth, and celebrity -- too often with little regard for the "losers" and "weakings" thrust out of their way. Thus it was with great interest that I came across the little book On Kindness by two distinguished modern thinkers: historian Barbara Taylor and psychoanalyst Adam Phillips.

"Why do the pleasures of kindness astonish us?" they ask. "And why are stories of kindness often so corny or silly, so trivializing of the things that matter the most to most people?"

Why indeed?

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"The pleasures of kindess were well known in the past," Phillips and Taylor point out. "Kindness was man's 'greatest delight,' the Roman philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius declared, and thinkers and writers have echoed him down through the centuries. But today many people find these pleasures literally incredible, or at least highly suspect. An image of the self has been created that is utterly lacking in natural generosity. Most people appear to believe that deep down they (and other people) are mad, bad and dangerous to know; that as a species -- apparently unlike other species of animal -- we are deeply and fundamentally antagonistic to each other, that our motives are utterly self-seeking and that our sympathies are forms of self-protectiveness."

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On Kindness, say the authors, is an explanation of how this state of affairs has come about. Despite the devaluation (and feminization) of the ideal of kindness in the modern age, "people are leading secretly kind lives all the time, but without a language in which to express this, or cultural support for it. Living according to our sympathies, we imagine, will weaken or overwhelm us; kindness is the saboteur of the successful life.

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"We need to know how we have come to believe that the best lives we can lead seem to involve sacrificing the best things about ourselves; and how we have come to believe that there are greater pleasures than kindness. Kindness -- not sexuality, not violence, not money -- has become our forbidden pleasure. What about our times has made kindness seem so dangerous?"

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That's a question I very much want an answer to -- and this book, alas, did not fully provide it, simply because it's too short to go very deeply into such a complex subject. It makes for a good beginning, however: the chapters on the history and philosophy of kindness are both fascinating and illuminating. (The middle of the book, by contrast, is devoted to Freudian theories of kindness; they are well explicated, but can be skipped over if, like me, you're allergic to Freud.)

Despite these reservations, I recommend On Kindness because it starts a much-needed conversation on the subject. I hope that other writers will continue the conversation, going beyond Taylor & Phillips' classical focus to examine kindness in other societal traditions. We need new conceptual frameworks for re-building kindness as a cultural ideal: genderless, classless, diverse and inclusive. We need to lift the ideal of kindness above the cliche of sentimentality and see it for the brave, vital, necessary force it is. Let's make the Beautiful Resistance a movement rich in kindness.

Are you with me?

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On Kindness by Phillips & TaylorThe passages above are from On Kindness by Adam Phillips & Barbara Taylor (Penguin Books, 2009). The poem in the picture captions is from Poetry magazine (March 2003). All rights reserved by the authors.


An ode to slowness

Between the Fox and the Owl by Donna Howell-Sickles

Fridays are my day for re-visiting posts from the Myth & Moor archves, often ones that touch on themes we've been discussing during the week. This post first appeared in the autumn of 2012, presented today with new art. 

From "Ode to Slowness" by Terry Tempest Williams:

"I want my life to be a celebration of slowness.

"Walking through the sage from our front door, I am gradually drawn into the well-worn paths of deer. They lead me to Round Mountain and the bloodred side canyons below Castle Rock. Sometimes I see them, but often I don't. Deer are quiet creatures, who, when left to their own nature, move slowly. Their large black eyes absorb all shadows, especially the flash of predators. And their ears catch each word spoken. But today they walk ahead with their halting prance, one leg raised, then another, and allow me to follow them. I am learning how to not provoke fear and flight among deer. We move into a pink, sandy wash, their black-tipped tails like eagle feathers. I lose sight of them as they disappear around the bend.

Three Does and a Kid by Donna Howell-Sickles

"On the top of the ridge I can see for miles... Inside this erosional landscape where all colors eventually bleed into the river, it is hard to desire anything but time and space.

"Time and space. In the desert there is space. Space is the twin sister of time. If we have open space then we have open time to breath, to dream, to dare, to play, to pray to move freely, so freely, in a world our minds have forgotten but our bodies remember. Time and space. This partnership is holy. In these redrock canyons, time creates space--an arch, an eye, this blue eye of sky. We remember why we love the desert; it is our tactile response to light, to silence, and to stillness.

"Hand on stone -- patience.

"Hand on water -- music.

"Hand raised to the wind --  Is this the birthplace of inspiration?"

Desert Mule-eared Deer

Yes, I believe it is.

I firmly believe that inspiration is born in the land, born of the land, and borne to us on the sacred winds: in the Utah desert where Williams lives, here on my beloved Dartmoor, in the green spaces of London and Manhattan, and wherever you are too. We all need the land and we all need the wild, in all of its various manifestations -- for creative work, and for the art we make everyday of the lives we live.

That's not to say there aren't other forms of inspiration, or artists who make good use of them. But right now, for me, on this beautiful and ailing planet, this is one of the forms of inspiration we need the most, and that matters the most. I think about this constantly as I work with the tools of myth and fantasy. How can I use them in service to the land? How do I let the land speak through me?

I start by living a little more slowly, a little more attentively -- for my art cannot speak for wild lands or wild neighbors if I'm not listening to what they have to say.

In Wanderlust: A History of Walking, Rebecca Solnit extolls the value of moving through the world more slowly:

"Musing takes place in a kind of meadowlands of the imagination," she writes, "a part of the imagination that has not yet been plowed, developed, or put to any immediately practical use...time spent there is not work time, yet without that time the mind becomes sterile, dull, domesticated. The fight for free space -- for wilderness and public space -- must be accompanied by a fight for free time to spend wandering in that space."

Indeed.

And Then There Were Three by Donna Howell-Sickles

The art today is by Donna Howell-Sickles, who was born and raised on a 900-acre farm in Texas.Watching the Big Bear by Donna Howell-Sickles

While studying for a BFA at Texas Tech University, she came across a postcard of a cowgirl from the 1930s and became fascinated with the history, iconography, and mythology of cowgirls throughout the American West. Her distinctive art is now shown in galleries and museums across the United States and Europe.

Although she's best known for vibrant pictures of cowgirls and their horses, I'm especially drawn to her imagery of additional animals and birds: dogs, deer, bear, crows, owls, and the like. The artist is conscious of their mythological connotations, and often employs such imagery to tell symbolic stories about the inner journeys of the women in her work.

Please visit her website if you'd like to see more; or look for her book: Cowgirl Rising: The Art of Donna Howell-Sickles (from Greenwich Workshop Press, 1997).

It is Written in the Stars by Donna Howell-Sickles

Deer by Donna Howell-SicklesThe passage by Terry Tempest Williams is from an essay in Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert (Pantheon, 2001). The passage by Rebecca Solnit is from Wanderlust: A History of Walking (Viking, 1997). Both books are highly recommended. All rights to the text and art above reserved by the authors and artist.


Cycles, seasons, and daffodils

Wild daffodils

Spring is truly here, at long last. The earliest flowers in our garden have done their work to wake the land from sleep: the primroses and grape hyacinths, the purple aubretia climbing up the stone walls, the columbines that have seeded themselves and run riot on the hillside. The cherry trees have burst into bloom, with the apple and plum trees soon to follow. The woods behind the studio are golden with wild daffodils, which in turn will give way to the smaller pleasures of cranesbill, sicklewort, and bluebells.

Coffee break with hound and daffodils

The movement of the landscape through its seasons reminds me of the energy and vitality to be found in cycles and circles...and as someone who works in the narrative arts, I find that I need that reminder.

Narrative, in its most standard form, tends to run in linear fashion from beginning to middle to end. A story opens "Once upon a time," then moves -- prompted by a crisis or plot twist -- into the narrative journey: questing, testing, trials and tribulations -- and then onward to climax and resolution, ending "happily ever after" (or not, if the tale is a sad or ambiguous one). In the West, our concepts of "time" and "progress" are largely linear too. We circle through days by the hours of the clock, years by the months of the calendar, yet our lives are pushed on a linear track: infant to child to adult to elder, with death as the final chapter. Progress is measured by linear steps, education by grades that ascend year by year, careers by narratives that run along the same railway line: beginning, middle, and end.

But in fact, narratives are cyclical too if we stand back and look through a broader lens. Clever Hans will marry his princess and they will produce three dark sons or three pale daughters or no child at all until a fairy intervenes, and then those children will have their own stories: marrying frogs and turning into swans and climbing glass hills in iron shoes. No ending is truly an ending, merely a pause before the tale goes on.

Coffee and daffodils in the woods

As a folklorist and a student of nature, I know the importance of cycles, seasons, and circular motion -- but I've grown up in a culture that loves straight lines, beginnings and ends, befores and afters, and I keep expecting life to act accordingly, even though it so rarely does. Take health, for example. We envision the healing process as a linear one, steadily building from illness to strength and full function; yet for those of us managing long-term conditions, our various trials don't often lead to the linear "ending-as-resolution" but to the cyclical "ending-as-pause": a time to catch one's breath before the next crisis or plot twist sets the tale back in motion.

Relationships, too, are cyclical. Spousal relationships, family relationships, friendships, work partnerships: they aren't tales of linear progression, they are tales full of cycles, circles, and seasons. The path isn't straight, it loops and bends; the narrative side-tracks and sometimes dead ends. We don't progress in relationships so much as learn, change, and adapt with each season, each twist of the road.

Hound and notebooks

As a writer and a reader, I'm partial to stories with clear beginnings, middles, and ends (not necessarily in that order in the case of fractured narratives) -- but when I'm away from the desk or the printed page (or the cinema or the television screen), I am trying to let go of the habit of measuring my life in a strictly linear way. Healing, learning, and art-making don't follow straight roads but queer twisty paths on which half the time I feel utterly lost...until, like magic, I've arrived somewhere new, some place I could never have imagined.

I want especially to be rid of the tyranny of Before and After. "After such-and-such is accomplished," we say, "then the choirs will sing and life will be good." When my novel is published. When I get that job. When I find that partner. When I lose ten pounds. No, no, no, no. Because even if we reach our goal, the heavenly choirs don't sing -- or if they do sing, you quickly discover it's all that they do. They don't do your laundry, they don't solve all your problems. You are still you, and life is still life: a complex mixture of the bad and the good. And now, of course, the goal posts have moved. The Land of After is no longer a published book, it's five books, a best-seller, a major motion picture. You don't ever get to the Land of After; it's always changing, always shimmering on the far horizon.

I don't want to live after. I want to live now, moving with, not against, life's cycles and seasons, the twists and the turns, the ups and the downs, appreciating it all.

The Hound in spring

Today, I walked among spring's first flowers, chose a few to bring back to the studio -- where they sit on my desk in a pickle jar, glowing as bright as the sun and the moon. At my desk, I work in a linear artform, writing words in a line across a ruled page -- and the flowers remind me that cycles and seasons should be part of the narrative too. Circular patterns. Loops and digressions. Tales that turn and meander down paths that, surprise!, are the paths that were meant all along. Stories that reach resolutions and endings, but ends that turn into another beginning. Again. Again. Tell it again.

Once upon a time...

Wild daffodils on my deskThe poem in the picture captions is from Bitter Angel by Amy Gerstler (North Point Press, 1990); all rights reserved by the author.


The Gift of Wild Time

Howard with accordion and dog

My disappearance from Myth & Moor yesterday was entirely unintended. I got up early, walked with Tilly, then came back to the studio and wrote a post about thoughts I'd had out in the woods. But as I finished, everything stopped. The lights and the internet went out. The cabin's heater made a popping sound. The stereo switched abruptly off, and I sat in the sudden silence, perplexed. Had I blown a fuse? And if so, how? Then Howard appeared at the door with news: The electric company was working on the wires; our road would have no power all day. They'd sent us a notice last week, remember? We'd pinned it to the kitchen bulletin board, then promptly forgotten all about it....

Howard on the accordion

So there we were on a Tuesday morning, each with a long, long list of things we'd planned to do. Urgent things. Important things. Dependent-on-computers kinds of things and they'll-be-mad-at-me-if-I-don't-finish kind of things and the-world-will-stop-if-I-can't kind of things. (None of which, of course, is strictly true.)

At first I was alarmed (deadlines! schedules!) ... and then I was worried (how will anyone reach us?) ... and then I was crabby (this has screwed up all my plans!). But the sky was a shimmering robin's-egg blue. The air smelled sweetly of primroses. Tilly was lounging in a patch of sun watching birds, and bees, and the neighbor's cats, and the wild ponies in the valley below. I finally recognized the day for what it was: a gift of Wild Time.

Wild music

In modern life, unstructured time is increasingly rare and exceedingly precious -- as precious as the wild lands which we are also losing at fearsome rate. How often do we have unstructured time that is not intended for one thing or another; owed to a job, a task, a goal; promised or obligated to someone else? Time that meanders through the day, time that goes wherever it will, the seemingly endless hills of time we rambled in childhood.

Artists and makers especially need periods of Wild Time -- thinking time, daydreaming time, noodling-around-and-free-associating time -- for it fills the well, feeds the muse, and allows new ideas to rise from the inner depths to conscious thought. But how do we schedule Wild Time when by its very nature it opposes all schedules, plans, and rules? Wild Time is Trickster's time, and Trickster doesn't come at call; Trickster comes when he damn well will. He kicks all your careful plans to hell, but Wild Time is the gift he gives. There's no point in railing against his timing; there's no point going against him either. Just take his hand, let him lead the dance.

And remember to tell him thank you.

Wild companions

So thank you, Trickster, for the exasperatingly inconvenient but welcome gift of these slow, sweet things:

- Time to sit out in the sun on the porch of my husband's studio  -- good coffee at hand, good company close by, good Gypsy and Celtic music on his trusty red accordion.

- Time to see the progress he has made building his "Punch & Judy" puppet booth.

I went inside the booth for the first time, and discovered the mysteries of the craft: the precise arrangement of puppets and tools required for running a single-handed show, with characters, costumes, and props all rooted in the old folklore tradition.

Dame Judy...puppeteered by me

Wild dog

There was also:

- Time to roll in the garden with the hound.

- Time to pick flowers for the kitchen window.

Wildflowers & Coyote

- Time to spend an afternoon with our daughter, lingering over cups of tea and walking the green slope of O'er Hill, hours made especially precious by the fact that she's leaving us soon.

Oe'r Hill on a wild day

Thank you, Trickster, for disconnection from the world (abrupt and unplanned as it was), and re-connection with the here and now.

Thank you for Wild Dreams. For Wild Love. For Wild Time.

Wild love


Tunes for a Monday Morning

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Above: "Harder to Hear" from Romantica, a country, roots, and gospel band from Minneapolis, fronted by Irish singer-songwriter Ben Kyle.

Below: "Something to Believe In" by King Creosote (Kenny Anderson), a singer-songwriter from Fife, Scotland.

Above: "Seven Notes" by Nancy Kerr, a London-born singer-songwriter and fiddle player now based in Sheffield. 

Below: "Trespassers" by State Broadcasters, an alt folk band from Glasgow, Scotland.

Today's music is dedicated to the the struggling, the despairing, the frightened, the endangered, the different, the immigrants and refugees and Others everywhere. With love.

Rune Guneriussen

The imagery above is from Norwegian installation artist and photographer Rune Guneriussen.


The stories that take root

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Fridays are my day for re-visiting posts from the Myth & Moor archives. This one comes from a quiet morning at the cusp of spring two years ago.

Today, a misty moorland hillside and a passage taken from "Testimony Against Gertrude Stein" by Jeanette Winterson:

"We mostly understand ourselves through an endless series of stories told to ourselves by ourselves and others. The so-called facts of our individual words  are highly colored and arbitrary, facts that fit whatever fiction we have chosen to believe in. It is necessary to have a story, an alibi that gets us through the day, but what happens when the story becomes scripture? When we can no longer recognize anything outside our own reality?

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"We have to be careful not to live in a state of constant self-censorship, where whatever conflicts with our world view is dismissed or diluted until it ceases to be a bother. Struggling against the limitations we place on our minds is our own imaginative capacity, a recognition of an inner life often at odds with the internal figurings we spend so much energy supporting.

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"When we let ourselves respond to poetry, to music, to pictures, we are clearing out a space where new stories can root, in effect we are clearing a space for new stories about ourselves."

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The passage just quoted nails, for me, precisely why we need art in our lives and not just the familiar, repetitive stories of mass entertainment, enjoyable as they may be. Entertainment amuses, distracts, and consoles us, and that has its use and it has its value, but it's not the same use or value of art. Art enlarges us. Transforms us. Heals what is broken inside us. Deepens our understanding of ourselves, each other, and the world around us.

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"Art is central to all our lives, not just the better-off and educated, " Winterson once said in an interview. "I know that from my own story, and from the evidence of every child ever born -- they all want to hear and to tell stories, to sing, to make music, to act out little dramas, to paint pictures, to make sculptures. This is born in and we breed it out. And then, when we have bred it out, we say that art is elitist, and at the same time we either fetishize art -- the high prices, the jargon, the inaccessibility -- or we ignore it. The truth is, artist or not, we are all born on the creative continuum, and that is a heritage and a birthright of all of our lives."

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Art Objects by Jeanette Winterson


The things that unite us

Alexandra Dvornikova

It's Day 3 of my cold, and though it seems ridiculous that something as simple as a cold is keeping me out of the studio (especially since I regularly keep working despite more serious health issues), this one seems to have me in its tight grip for another day.

Alexandra Dvornikova

Here's a thought I'd like to leave you with today, from Kathryn Miles (author of a lovely book about dogs and nature, Adventures with Ari):

In an interview on Terrain.org, Miles is asked about her belief that environmental writers are charged with inspiring "an ethic of care" in their readers. What, the interviewer wonders, might an ethic of care look like?

"An ethic of care," Miles responds, "is based on ideas of interdependence, and the belief that the most vulnerable among us deserve the most consideration. Writers are uniquely suited to raise awareness about both: we can show what unites us, and we can remind people about narratives that have been forgotten or might otherwise become overlooked. There’s that poignant moment in Mary Oliver’s [poem] "Wild Geese," where she says, 'Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.' That’s what writing from an ethic of care looks like. And it broadens this behest even further: tell me about what you love and what you hate; tell me what frightens you and what you’re willing to fight for. Then, if you’re willing to listen, I’ll tell you about those things in my life. And maybe then we both will understand."

I'm thinking about what an ethic of care might look like in relation to fiction, fantasy, and Mythic Arts. And about how questions like this become more urgent during dark political times.

Your thoughts...?

Alexandra Dvornikova

Speaking of "urgent" art and literature, I stumbled across a lovely book blog the other day that I'd like to recommend to you, if you don't know it already: Books Can Save a Life by Valorie Grace Hallinan.

Alexandra Dvornikova

The magical art today is by Alexandra Dvornikova, a young Russian artist, designer, and printmaker. Dvornikova trained at the Saint Petersburg Stieglitz State Academy of Art and Design, and is now studying art-therapy, with a focus on autism. She lives with her husband, a red cat, and two jackdaws in St. Petersburg.

She says: "I think the most inspiring things for me are these: Forest, music, animals, wilderness, moss and lichens, mushrooms, Russian fairy tales that I’ve heard when i was a child, masks, rituals, night dreams, childhood experience, folklore, medieval art, archetypes, psychiatry, human’s brain, carnivorous plants, venomous or dangerous things, lonelyness, mori girls, vintage dresses. Also I inspired by Simona Kossak’s story, the woman who lived more than 30 years in a wooden hut in the Bialowieza Forest, without electricity or access to running water. A lynx slept in her bed, and a tamed boar lived under the same roof with her. She was able talk to wild animals."

Please go here to see more of her work, and here to read an interview with the artist.

Alexandra Dvornikova

Ritual


Welcoming the reader in

Quilt by Karen Meisner

It's Day 2 of my cold, and though it's only a cold (not the medical condition I often wrestle with, don't worry), it's got me too fuzzy-headed to read, or write, or do much of anything at all that requires linear thought. So since I can't manage much of a post today, I'd like to give you a reading recommendation instead: "What Writers Really Do When They Write," by George Saunders, whose generosity of spirit never fails to warm my heart.

"We often think," says Saunders, "that the empathetic function in fiction is accomplished via the writer’s relation to his characters, but it’s also accomplished via the writer’s relation to his reader. You make a rarefied place (rarefied in language, in form; perfected in many inarticulable beauties -- the way two scenes abut; a certain formal device that self-escalates; the perfect place at which a chapter cuts off); and then welcome the reader in. She can’t believe that you believe in her that much; that you are so confident that the subtle nuances of the place will speak to her; she is flattered. And they do speak to her. This mode of revision, then, is ultimately about imagining that your reader is as humane, bright, witty, experienced and well intentioned as you, and that, to communicate intimately with her, you have to maintain the state, through revision, of generously imagining her. You revise your reader up, in your imagination, with every pass. You keep saying to yourself: 'No, she’s smarter than that. Don’t dishonour her with that lazy prose or that easy notion.'

"And in revising your reader up, you revise yourself up too."

At the window

If you'd like a little further reading this morning, here's Maria Bustillos' take on what it's like to study literature and writing under Saunders: "The Chekhov-Saunders Humanity Kit."