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March 2014

Tunes for a Monday Morning

We start today with one of my favorite young folk groups, The Staves, a trio made up of three sisters (Emily, Jessica, and Camilla Staveley-Taylor) from Watford in Hertfordshire, England. Their debut album is Dead & Born & Grown.

Above, a live performance of  "Eagle Song," filmed on the coast of Cornwall for the French music site La Blogothèque. Below, a live performance of "Motherlode," filmed at the Crypt Studio in Crouch Hill, London. More of their music can be found in this previous post.

Next:

"Horses," a gorgeous song by Dala (Sheila Carabine and Amanda Walther) from Ontario, Canada. The video is an excerpt from Dala's Girls From the North Country concert DVD. The song comes from their third album, Everyone is Someone.

Dartmoor pony & newborn foal.A wild Dartmoor pony and her two-day-old foal on the Chagford Commons. (We last saw this pony pregnant here.)

Let the wild rumpus begin.The foal has a romp, followed by Mama...and Tilly joining in, at a safe distance.

Nursing the foal.Nursing the foal.

Mother & childMother and child.

And one last song today:

"All The Wild Horses" (audio only) by the American singer-songwriter Ray LaMontagne, who lives in western Maine. The song comes from his first album, Trouble (2004). His fifth album, Supernova, is due out in May.


This Dog's Life

Queen of the Rock

I've been reading Ann Patchett's This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, a collection of articles she's written over the years for various magazines -- and my favorite piece (unsurprisingly) is "This Dog's Life": the story of Rose, Patchett's first dog, found as a puppy abandoned in a parking lot.

"At home, the puppy, Rose, played with balls, struggled with the stairs, and slept behind my knees while I watched in adoration," writes Patchett. "It’s not that I was unhappy in what I now think of as 'the dogless years,' but I suspected things could be better. What I never could have imagined was how much better they would be. I had entered into my first relationship of mutual, unconditional love....

Queen of the Hill

"While I think I would have enjoyed the company of many different dogs, I believe that the depth of my feeling for Rose in particular comes from the fact that she is, in matters of intelligence, loyalty and affection, an extraordinary animal. In the evenings, I drive Rose across town to a large open field where people come together to let their dogs off their leashes and play. As she bounds through the grass with the Great Danes and the Bernese Mountain Dogs, I believe that there was never a dog so popular and well adjusted as mine (and yet realize at the same time that this is the height of my own particular brand of insanity).

Queen of the Bench

"The other dog owners want to talk about identifying her lineage, perhaps in hopes that one of her cousins might be located. It is not enough for Rose to be a good dog. She must be a particular breed of dog. She has been, depending on how one holds her in the light, a small Jack Russell, a large Chihuahua, a Rat Terrier, a Fox Terrier and a Corgi with legs. At present, she is a Portuguese Podengo, a dog that to the best of my knowledge was previously unknown in Tennessee. It is the picture she most closely resembles in our International Encyclopedia of Dogs. We now say things like 'Where is the Podengo?' and 'Has the Podengo been outside yet?' to give her a sense of heritage. In truth, she is a Parking Lot Dog, dropped off in a snowstorm to meet her fate.

Queen of the Jungle

"I watch the other dog owners in the park, married people and single people and people with children. The relationship each one has with his or her dog is very personal and distinct. But what I see again and again is that people are proud of their pets, proud of the way that they run, proud of how they nose around with the other dogs, proud that they are brave enough to go into the water or smart enough to stay out of it. People seem able to love their dogs with an unabashed acceptance that they rarely demonstrate with family or friends. The dogs do not disappoint them, or if they do, the owners manage to forget about it quickly. I want to learn to love like this, the way we love our dogs, with pride and enthusiasm and a complete amnesia for faults. In short, to love others the way our dogs love us."

Oh yes, that's it exactly.

Queen of the Borders and Boundaries

You can read the whole piece online here. And I recommend the collection as a whole; Patchett's writing is simply delicious.

Queen of Earth and Sky


Myth, nature, and memory: Aleah Sato and Gina Litherland

In Bloom by Gina Litherland


Path of Needles by Gina LitherlandBirth Day

by Aleah Sato

The story is sketchy at best.
Owls gathered and the bark shed itself from the oak
As tears pooled into torrents of lodestars.
Tornadoes collided and the princes fell from their towers
Holding the gold of dragons and peasants.
I heard the bells rang thrice and the priests,
Against their rosaries, called, “Lord, bring us.”
I needed no milk. I took to scarabs, those chocolate clocks.
I rode the Cyclops, my brave heart, and called canyons
With the beating thrill of thunder.
The Goose Girl by Gina LitherlandThe tails of foxes bent into ?s.
The skunks danced and raided –
         My good kin.
The subtle mercy – I cared less for it –
Demanded fiction in the burning of skin.
“Kill her,” someone whispered.
Nails bent. A witch walked on water.
Even now, I court Medusa’s daughter –
The maker, the ender.
Someone released the Necromancer.
A writer flew from the hand of a muse.

Poems spoke my purpose.
Poems re-created the real of another’s imaginings –
Murmur of Pearls by Gina LitherlandThat was the key to my survival
And to grow my own vine to magic –
      Likewise, to misery.

                              Barn Owl feather

The poem above comes from Aleah Sato's terrific Jane
Crow Journal
, reprinted here with her kind permission. It seemed the perfect piece to end a week in which we've been discussing the mythic power of fantasy and the creative process.

The art today is by the extraordinary Gina Litherland, Wolf Alice by Gina Litherlandwhose work Midori Snyder introduced me too some years ago. (They both hail from Wisconsin.)

"I have always been interested in the interplay between myth, the natural world, and the domain of dreams and memory," writes Litherland. "As a child, I spent many hours exploring natural wooded areas and empty lots inhabited by multitudes of insects and wildlife. This, along with a fervent interest in reading, particularly fairy tales, laid the foundation for my current investigations as an artist. Much of my work is inspired by folklore, myth, and literature reflected in my own personal preoccupations, specifically themes of desire, femaleness, the natural world, the human/animal boundary, children's games, ritual, intuition, and memory. The painting techniques that I use, traditional indirect oil painting techniques similar to those used by fifteenth century Sienese painters, combined with textural effects created by using various tools other than the paint brush, allow me to create a detailed, layered, and complex surface of images recreating the experience of looking at the forest floor with its rich blanket of diverse matter in various stages of decay. Suddenly, an object emerges and comes sharply into focus."

Please visit Litherland's website to see more of her gorgeous artwork. Two of her exhibition catalogs, Gina Litherland: Recent Paintings (2007) and The Murmur of Pearls (2009), are available from the Corbett vs. Dempsey online bookshop.

Little Red Cap by Gina LitherlandArt above: In Bloom, The Path of Needles, The Goose Girl, Mumur of Pearls, Wolf Alice,  and Little Redcap.


Symbol, allegory, and dream: the art of Florence Susan Harrison

 Florence Harrison

"Fantasy, our subject and my preoccupation, comes from and appeals to the unconcious. It draws all its images from that dark wonderland, through the mysterious catalyst of the creative imagination. Nobody has ever described this process better than the great librarian, Lillian H. Smith, in her book The Unreluctant Years. 'Creative imagination,' she said, 'is more than mere invention. It is that power that creates, out of abstractions, life. It goes to the heart of the unseen, and puts that which is so mysteriously hidden from ordinary mortals into the clear light of their understanding, or at least of their partial understanding. It is more true, perhaps, of writers of fantasy than of any other writers except poets that they struggle with the inexpressible. According to their varying capacities, they are able to evoke ideas and clothe them in symbol, allegory, and dream.' "  - Susan Cooper (Dreams and Wishes)

''A Birthday'' and an illustration for Christina Rosetti's Goblin Market by Florence Harrison

Florence Harrison

An illustration for William Morris' The Defence of Guenevere by Florence Harrison

Florence Harrison

"I always felt and still feel that fairy tales have an emotional truth that is so deep that there are few things that really rival them."  - Alice Hoffman

Florence Harrison

"Fantasy is not antirational, but pararational; not realistic but surrealistic, a heightening of reality. In Freud's terminology, it employs primary not secondary process thinking. It employs archetypes which, as Jung warned us, are dangerous things. Fantasy is nearer to poetry, to mysticism, and to insanity than naturalistic fiction is. It is a wilderness, and those who go there should not feel too safe.” - Ursula K. Le Guin (The Language of the Night)

Florence Harrison

The beautiful artwork in this post is by the Golden Age illustrator Florence Harrison (1878-1955).

Illustrations for Poems of Christina Rossetti by Florence HarrisonFlorence Susan Harrison was born in Brisbane, Australia, but spent much of her childhood at sea (her father was a sea caption) and at a great-aunt's school in England. It's not known where (or if) Harrison formally studied art, but she established a very successful career as an illustrator for the Blackie and Son publishing house (Glasgow and London) from 1905 onward. She is known to have lived in Belgium and London, continually working and publishing throughout the disruptive years of World Wars I and II. (Like so many women of the World War I generation, she never married.) A deep friendship with the Irish Catholic writer Enid Maud Dinnis, whose tales she illustrated, was a formative influence on her life and work; and Harrison stopped publishing artwork altogether after Dinnis' death.

Cover illustration for Tennyson's Guinevere by Florence HarrisonIn art catalogs and across the Internet today, Harrison's illustrations are often erroneously attributed to an earlier artist: the Victorian painter Emma Florence Harrison (born in Gloucestershire, England in 1858), whose work was exhibited at the Royal Academy in the late 19th century. I have no idea what Emma Harrison's art was like, as the illustrations widely credited to her now are actually Florence Harrison's. (The confusion stems from Emma Harrison's middle name.) My hope is that a biography of Florence Susan Harrison will be published one day so that we can learn more about this remarkable woman.

To see other works by women artists from the Pre-Raphaelite, Art Nouveau and Golden Age years, I recommend Women Illustrators of the Golden Age by Mary Carolyn Waldrep.

An illustration for Tennyson's Guinevere by Florence Harison


The rituals of approach

Nattadon 1

In yesterday's post, Susan Cooper touched lightly on the thorny subject of procrastination...and I'm going to go out on a limb here to suggest procrastination is not always bad.

The form of procrastination that Copper describes can, unless it gets out of hand,  be a useful part of the working process, a circling of the water before one plunges in. To push the water metaphor a little further, some of us are divers and some of us inch into a cold pool of water bit by bit -- not because we don't intend to swim, but because that's how we're psychologically built to best handle transitions. The initial shock of a cold plunge invigorates some swimmers, but is uncomfortable, almost painful, to others; and we learn by trial and error which approach works best for us, physically and temperamentally.

Nattadon 2

For me, the slow circling of my writing desk in the morning isn't one of avoidance (though it can be, on a bad day, if I'm not careful), it's simply part of my transition from the everyday world into the cold, clear pool of my imagination. Here's how the work day starts for me, after an early walk up Nattadon Hill with Tilly:

I do a quick tidy of the studio (I like a calm, ordered environment), put music on the stereo (something without words: classical, medieval, music for the Celtic harp or Native American flute), settle Tilly on the sofa with her morning treat (a piece of carrot), pluck a book from the shelves and read a few pages (essays, folklore, poetry), pour a cup of coffee from my thermos (if I haven't already finished it off outdoors), write this blog (as a writing warm-up), turn the Internet off (using the Freedom program) and then finally get down to work: generally, like Susan Cooper, by reading over previous pages and notes from the day before, and trying my damnedest to resist editing those pages instead of pushing on into new material. All through this process, I must be wary of the other kind of procrastination, the kind that really is avoidance or distraction: getting overly absorbed in the reading, for example, or hooked by the lures of Internet. That's where discipline comes in: the commitment and professionalism required to keep my transition-into-work process on track.

Anne AndersonI could, of course, simply come into the studio, sit myself down and get right to it -- but I've learned, over all these years, that this is just not the best method for me; I write better, and faster, if I honor the process of transition that suits my creative temperament. My family knows not to disturb me during this process -- even though, to the outside eye, I might not appear to be actually working yet. While I'm not such a fragile flower that I can't get back into my work if an interruption does occur, and of course life is unpredictable, as a general rule I try to sweep unnecessary obstacles from my working day by making my schedule and habits as conducive to the work as possible. Ideally, I want to be challenged by the writing itself, not by the journey it takes to get down to it.

Nattadon 3

I'm not advocating this working method for everyone, of course; I'm advocating that we all find out our own best way of working, and implement it to whatever extent our lives make possible. I'm an inch-into-the-water kind of girl; you might be a diver, or something else altogether. But take heart fellow-inchers: ours, too, is a perfectly valid approach, provided we are clear  about the good and bad -- or perhaps, I should say "useful" and "not useful" -- forms of procrastination. For me, for example, reading a book or journal is useful because the quiet intimacy of this kind of reading serves me in my state of transition, easing me into the quiet Lake of Words I seek to enter -- whereas reading on the Internet, with its mass choir of voices and its speedy, amped-up rhythms, spins me away from my inner Lake of Words and off into other directions. The myriad attractions on the 'Net are tempting -- oh, so tempting! -- but I've learned to limit my time online, especially in the morning, during the "ritual of approach" into my writing day.

Nattadon 4

The useful notion of a "ritual of approach" is borrowed from the Irish poet/philosopher John O'Donohue, who discusses the mythic roots of the term in his wise book Beauty: The Invisible Embrace. "Many of the ancient cultures practiced careful rituals of approach," he notes. "An encounter of depth and spirit was preceded by careful preparation. When we approach with reverence, great things decide to approach us. Our real life comes to the surface and its light awakens the concealed beauty in things. When we walk on the earth with reverence, beauty will decide to trust us. The rushed heart and arrogant mind lack the gentleness and patience to enter that embrace."

This is not to imply that the "divers" among us are "rushed and arrogant";  if they are working well, then their rituals of approach are swift, rather than rushed, and they are blessed to have a creative rhythm in tune with our fast-moving times. Inchers often (not always) move at a slower pace, and while that can be at odds with our production-focused world, neither method is inherently "better" than the other. Divers and inchers, we seek the same goal: immersion into the Lake of Story, whose cold, sweet waters sustain us all.

Nattadon 5

But let's speak of the bad side of procrastination for a moment -- for the very same tasks that can be used to inch our way into our work (clearing the desk, clearing the decks, reading, blogging, etc.) can also be used to avoid our work, blocking the "ritual of approach" altogether; and it takes self-knowledge and rigorous self-honesty to know the difference.

If procrastination of the bad sort has become a problem for you...well, you're not alone. Many writers I've worked with over the years, including highly successful ones, have struggled with this; and some are struggling still. The most useful text I know on the subject is Hillary Rettig's very practical book The Seven Secrets of the Prolific: The Definitive Guide to Overcoming Procrastination, Perfectionism, and Writers' Block. Rettig takes readers step by step through the kinds of fears and toxic belief systems that usually lie at the heart of chronic procrastination, especially targeting the "perfectionist thinking" that seems to derail so many creative folks. 

Nattadon 6

"Perfectionism," write Rettig, "is a toxic brew of anti-productive habits, attitudes and ideas. It is not the same as having high standards, and there is no such thing as 'good perfectionism.' "

These habits, as Rettig defines them, include: "Defining success narrowly and unrealistically; punishing oneself harshly for perceived failures. Grandiosity; or the deluded idea that things that are difficult for other people should be easy for you. Shortsightedness, as manifested in a 'now or never' or 'do or die' attitude. Over-identification with the work. Overemphasis on product (vs. process), and on external rewards."

Nattadon 7

"Grandiosity," says Rettig, "is a problem for writers because our media and culture are permeated with grandiose myths and misconceptions about writing, which writers who are under-mentored or isolated fall prey to. Red Smith’s famous bon mot about how, to write, you need only 'sit down at a typewriter and open a vein,' and Gene Fowler’s similarly sanguinary advice to 'sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until the drops of blood form on your forehead,' are nothing but macho grandiose posturing, as is William Faulkner’s overwrought encomium to monomaniacal selfishness, from his Paris Review interview: 'The writer’s only responsibility is to his art. He will be completely ruthless if he is a good one. He has a dream. It anguishes him so much that he can’t get rid of it. He has no pece until then. Everything goes by the board: honor, pride, decency, security, happiness, all, to get the book written. If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is worth any number of old ladies.'

Nattadon 8

"Many of the famous quotes about writing are grandiose," Rettig continues. "I’m not saying that all of these writers were posturing -- perhaps that’s how they truly perceived themselves and their creativity. What I do know is that, for most writers, a strategy based on pain and deprivation is not a route to productivity. In fact, it is more likely a route to a block. I actually find quotes about how awful writing and the writing life are to be not just perfectionist, but self-indulgent. No one’s forcing these writers to write, after all; and there are obviously far worse ways to spend one’s time, not to mention earn one’s living. All worthwhile endeavors require hard, and occasionally tedious, work; and, if anything, we writers have it easy, with unparalleled freedom to work where and how we wish -- in contrast to, say, potters who need a wheel and kiln, or Shakespearean actors who need a stage and ensemble. Non-perfectionist and non-grandiose writers recognize all this. Flaubert famously said 'Writing is a dog’s life, but the only life worth living,' and special kudos go to Jane Yolen for her book Take Joy: A Writer’s Guide to Loving the Craft, which begins with a celebration of the inherent joyfulness of writing. She also responds to Smith’s and Fowler’s sanguinary comments with the good-natured ridicule they deserve: 'By God, that’s a messy way of working.' "

Nattadon 9

I'll let Jane have the final words today, for she is certainly one of the most prolific writers I know, as well as a Master in the fine and worthy art of living a creative life. In this quote, she offers writing advice that is as practical and down-to-earth as it is wise:

"Exercise the writing muscle every day, even if it is only a letter, notes, a title list, a character sketch, a journal entry. Writers are like dancers, like athletes. Without that exercise, the muscles seize up."

Succinct and true. And now it's time for me to head on out into the Lake of Story myself....

Nattadon 10Photos above: dawn breaks on Nattadon Hill. (As always, you can click on the pictures to see larger versions.) The illustration is by Anne Anderson (1874-1930).

Related posts: Morning, Rituals of Beginning: Part I, Part II, Part III; and On Beginnings. I also recommend Elizabeth Huergo's lovely short post on perfectionism in the classroom.


Casting spells

The Alchemist by Edmund Dulac

From "Worlds Apart," a talk by Susan Cooper at Oxford University (1992):

"Writing is one of the loneliest professions in the world because it has to be practiced in this very separate private world, in here. Not in the mind; in the imagination. Elves and Fairies from The Tempest by Edmund DulacAnd I think it is possible that the writing of fantasy is the loneliest job of the lot, since you have to go further inside. You have to make so close a connection with the the subconscious that the unbiddable door will open and images fly out, like birds. It's not unlike writing poetry.

"It makes you superstitious. Most writers indulge in small private rituals to start themselves writing each day, and I find that when I'm working on a fantasy I'm even more ludicrously twitchy than usual. The very first half hour at the desk has nothing much to do with fantasy or even ritual: it's what J.B. Priestley used to call 'sharpening pencils' -- the business of doing absolutely everything you can think of to put off the moment of starting to work. You make another cup of coffee. You find a telephone call that must be made, a letter that must be answered. You do sharpen pencils. You look at the plant on the windowsill and decide that this is just the time to water it, or fertilize it, or prune it. Maybe it's even time to repot it. You hunt for the houseplant book, and look this up, and it says severely that this kind of plant enjoys being pot-bound and should never be repotted. So you turn to the bowl of paperclips on your desk, and find that safety pins and pennies and buttons have found their way in, so of course you really ought to sort out the paperclips....

The Nightingale by Edmund Dulac

"Finally guilt drives you to the manuscript -- and that's when the real ritual begins. (I should go back to the first person, because in this respect everyone is different.) I have to start by reading. I read a lot of what I've already written, maybe two or three chapters, even though I already know it all by heart. I read the notes I made to myself the day before when I stopped writing -- those were the end-of-the-day ritual, to help with the starting of the next. During this process I've picked up one of the toys scattered around my study, and my fingers are half-consciously playing with it: a smooth sea-washed pebble from an island beach, a chunky ceramic owl from Sweden, a little stone wombat from Australia. I read the last chapter again. I wander to a bookshelf and read a page of something vaguely related to my fantasy: Eliot's Quartets, maybe, or de la Mare's notes to Come Hither. I have even been known to blow bubbles, from a little tube that sits on my desk, and to sit staring at the colors that swirl over their brief surfaces. This the moment someone else usually choses to come into the room, and I can become very irritable if they don't appreciate that they are observing a writer seriously at work.

The Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Andersen illustrated by Edmund Dulac

"What I'm doing, of course, is taking myself out of the world I'm in, and trying to find my way back into the world apart. Once I've managed that, I am inside the book that I'm writing, and am seeing it, so vividly that I do not see what I am actually staring at: the wall, or the typewriter, or the tree outside the window. I suppose it is a variety of trance state, though that's a perilous word. It makes one think of poor Coleridge, An illustration from The Tempest by Edmund Dulacwaking from  an opium-induced sleep with two hundred glowing lines of Kubla Khan in his head, being interrupted by a person from Porlock when he'd written down only ten of them, and finding, when the person had gone, that he'd forgotten all the rest. Trance is fragile.

"The world of the imagination is not fragile, not once you've reached it, but because it is set apart, you can never be sure of reaching it. It seems very curious to be standing here in the university which tried to teach me reason, and confessing to uncertainty and superstition of a kind which would have appalled my tutor. Reason, however, is singularly unhelpful to a novelist except in a few specialized situations, like the matter of chosing a publisher, or arguing points of English grammar with a copy editor. The imagination is not reasonable -- or tangible, or visible, or obedient. It's an island out in the ocean, which often seems to retreat as you sail toward it. Sometimes it vanishes altogether, mirage-like, and nothing can be done to bring it back into reach. This produces a bad day during which you write nothing of value and have to wait until tomorrow and start again.

Prospero and Miranda by Edmund Dulac

"We cast spells to find our way into the unconscious mind, and the imagination that lives there, because we know it's the only way to get into a place where magic is made."

Cinderella by Edmund DulacThe art above is by the great Golden Age illustrator and designer Edmund Dulac (1882-1953). Born in Toulouse, France, he moved to London in 1904, and became a naturalized British citizen in 1912.


Tunes for a Monday Morning

In the video above, folksinger and music scholar Fay Hield explains The Full English, an ambitious undertaking by the English Folk Dance and Song Society to create the world's largest digital archive of early 20th century English folk arts manuscripts -- including the folk song collections of Harry Albino, Lucy Broadwood, Clive Carey, Percy Grainger, Maud Karpeles, Frank Kidson, Thomas Fairman Ordish, Cecil Sharp, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Alfred Williams.

As part of the project, Hield gathered some of the finest folk musicians in England (including Nancy Kerr, Martin Simpson, and Seth Lakeman) to produce a terrific CD based on material from the EFDSS archive, which is also called The Full English. I adore good collaborations like this. (Now if only someone would put Seth Lakeman, Johnny Flynn, Chris Thile, and Aoife O'Donovan in a recording studio together.... Ah, a girl can but dream.)

Below is the Full English band's performance of "Arthur O'Bradley" at the British Folk Awards, presented at the Royal Albert Hall in London last month. The band walked off with two awards that night: for Best Group and Best Album of 2013.

Above: "Stand by Your Guns"from The Full English CD (audio only), with Seth Lakeman on lead vocals this time. For updates on the Full English project and the various events surrounding it, visit the Full English blog.

And to end with today, a faery ballad: "Sir Orefeo" performed by Fay Hield with her regular band, The Hurricane Party, at The Greystones in Sheffield a couple of years ago. That's Bellowhead's Jon Boden, Hield's partner, on guitar and backup vocals. (Boden was the brilliant fellow behind the "Folk Song a Day" project in 2010.)


At the edge of the woods

On days that I feel overwhelmed by the number and size of the tasks ahead of me, I remember these words from St. Francis of Assisi:

"Start by doing what's necessary; then do what's possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible."

This seems to me to apply equally to creative work and the demands of daily life.

Bovey Tracy


Daily myth

Ponies 1

Animal encounters often come in clusters -- one month there are deer bounding constantly through the woods, another month brings several badger sightings in a row or the frog population exploding in the pond or hedgehogs appearing under every hedge and bush. In naturalist terms, this is easily explained by the seasonal cycles of animal life -- but in folkloric terms, the meeting of animals has deep mythic significance, for in traditional stories and sacred texts the world over animals are both themselves and more-than-themselves: creatures who negotiate the Mysteries, the elders and the teachers of humankind, messengers from the gods, the fates, the faeries, the nonhuman realms and the lands of the dead, speaking in the language of symbolism, metaphor, riddle, taradiddle, and dream.

Ponies 2

For Tilly and me (and indeed for many in Chagford), the month of March has been marked by encounters with wild ponies...for this is the season they come down to graze and give birth on the village Commons. We often see them sunning on the Commons, or climbing the slope of Nattadon Hill, walking the path in a single file as they come and go from the open moor.

Ponies 3

Tilly is fascinated by them, though knows she musn't bark or get underfoot. They're gentle with her and allow her to pass close...though this will change when the foals are born.

Ponies 4

Looking down on the valley from my studio windows, I can watch the herd as it drifts across the land -- stopping now in this field and now in that one, disappearing for days and then back again. As they roam across the moor and the lanes and fields nearby, Dartmoor's famous, much-loved ponies are iconic creatures of flux and flow, of duality and liminality -- not entirely wild, not entirely tamed.  They are spirits of edges, borders, interstices, and the faery paths betwixt and between. They are modern and archaic, common and uncanny, gentle and fierce. They are only ponies. They are so much more.

Ponies 5

In mythic symbolism world-wide, both horses and ponies represent the following things:

Physical strength, inner strength, vitality, appetite for life, the driving force that carries you forward, the driving force that overcomes obstacles, passion, movement, flow, self-expression, and that which makes you thrive. They are also symbols of vital life forces held in perfect, exquisite balance: love and devotion paired with freedom and mobility; the wild and instinctive supported by the disciplined and domestic; strength balanced with vulnerability, mastery with modesty, power with compassion.

Tilly

Movement. Flow. Vitality. That's just what I need -- what many of us need -- as winter slowly turns to spring. If winter was the time for staying still and dreaming deep, spring is when the sap rises and pushes us back up to the sun again; a time to open to new ideas, new possibilities, new creative directions. "May what I do flow from me like a river," said Rilke, "no forcing and no holding back, the way it is with children." The way it is with wild ponies too, as they flow across the Devon landscape.

Tilly and the ponies

And here's the other gift the ponies bring, and it's one I value equally:

In an age when Beauty is so often defined by the tall, the slim, and the ethereal, the ponies show me that there is also Beauty to be found in what is small, shaggy, sturdy, and built for endurance. Like me. And like so many of us. We are ourselves and more-than-ourselves; ordinary and extraordinary. It's good to be reminded.

Ponies 6

Ponies 7Photographs above: Dartmoor ponies on the village Commons


When the magic is working

Dartmoor ponies on the Commons

From "Seeing Around the Corners" by Susan Cooper (1976):

"But of course, the whole process is a mystery, in all the arts. Creativity, in literature, painting, music. Or in performance: those rare lovely moments in the theater when an actor has the whole audience in his hands suddenly like that. You may have all the technique in the world, but you can't strike that spark without some mysterious extra blessing -- and none of us knows what that blessing really is. Not even the writers, who talk the most, can explain it at all.

A gentle encounter

"Who knows where the ideas come from?" she continues. "Who knows what happens in that shadowy part of the mind, something between Plato's cave and Masterlinck's Hall of the Night, where the creative imagination lies? Who knows even where the words come from, the right rhythm and meaning and music all at once?

Tilly and the ponies

Brown pony

"Those of us who make books out of the words and ideas have less of an answer than anyone. All we know is that marvelous feeling that comes, sometimes, like a break of sunshine in a cloud-grey sky, when through all the research and concentration and slog -- suddenly you are writing, fluently and fast, with every sense at high pitch and yet in a state almost like a trance.

White pony

"Suddenly, for a time, the door is open, the magic is working; a channel exists between the page and the shadowy cave in the mind.

"But none of us will ever know why or how."

Light brown pony

Like Cooper, I'm fascinated by the various ways one finds this state of trance, or magic, or flow, or grace (call it what you will). Discovering our personal methods for reaching it best (with the least amount of struggle, the fewest obstacles put in our own way) is surely one of the most useful skills we learn over a lifetime in the arts.

Curiosity

Right now, my husband is in Portugal teaching theater students to work with masks -- which requires finding that same state of trance in order to let the "mysterious blessing" come through to bring the masks fully to life. In mythic terms, he is the psychopomp, leading them from one world into the next -- from time-bound daily reality into the timeless flow of performance art -- but the goal, when their classroom days are done, is to have the skill to cross over on their own, using their own best methods of travel.

Commedia masks

The students are at the start of their creative lives, and I remember well what those years felt like -- when you think you know what art requires, and then the realization comes that you must go deeper and deeper still (if you're serious at all) into the unknowable, uncomfortable, vulnerable place where the root of creativity lies...which is to say, you must go deeper and deeper into yourself, which can be daunting indeed. Even now, after all these years, I still have days of sharp (or anxious, or befuddled) resistance to this act of deep surrendering...but the joy of age is that I know my own process now, the daily habits, practices, and mindset that will carry me past each block and obstacle and back into the work.

Every day I breathe deep, open up the heart again, and let the Mystery in.

Pony mysteriesPhotographs above: Wild ponies grazing on the village Commons, and Commedia dell'Arte masks.