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October 2014

Guest Post: Days of the Dead

Dionicio Remembered by Stu Jenks

Today's Guest Post concerns the annual "Día de los Muertos" festivities in Tucson, Arizona. Started by a single artist in 1990, Tucson's All Souls Procession has grown into a weekend-long event with close to 100,000 participants, including numerous art instalation and altars and a pyrotechnic Finale.   - T.W.


Dancing skeletons
Tucson's All Souls Procession
photographs and text by Stu Jenks

Many in Western culture today seem to believe that we will never die. If we eat right, exercise and think good thoughts, we’ll live forever, and if not that, we’ll all die in our sleep, having been perfectly healthy the night before at the ripe old age of 107.

But we all know that’s not true.

Death is many things: The end of long suffering and illness; a sudden death due to accident, violence or overdose; a child dying far too soon; a peaceful transition from one life to the next; a quiet entering into the void; a life everlasting; or simply a great big dirt nap.

Any, all, or none of the above.

But one thing is not mysterious.

We will all die, every single one of us, and after we have died, friends, family, and loved ones will remember us, and most will miss that we are no longer around.

Annie Gordon by Stu Jenks

Leon's Mom by Stu Jenks

Tucson’s All Souls’ Procession Weekend is a remembrance of those who have died and the mysteries that surround them.

The weekend begins with an afternoon for children, and finishes with Sunday’s All Souls’ Procession and Finale -- when the Urn of full of prayers gathered from the crowd is spectacularly set alight -- leaving people stunned and awake, crying and smiling, somber and laughing, fearful and full of faith.

Prayers Received by Stu Jenks

Fire-swinger by Stu Jenks

Prayer Collector by Stu Jenks

Prayers for the Urn by Stu Jenks

Every one I know who has participated in a Tucson All Souls’ Procession Weekend, as a walker, watcher, or performer, has a story of being unexpectedly moved, shaken, or awed.

"I saw ghosts rising from that vacant lot. I swear I did," said one acrobat, pointing across the street toward where an old city graveyard once sat.

"I really miss my daddy, so I’m making this," said a five year old girl working on a mini-shrine of twigs and grass in Armory Park for her deceased father.

"I felt my mother’s presence beside me the whole way," said one middle-aged woman, waiting to watch the Finale.

Watching, Remembering by Stu Jenks

Honoring the Dead by Stu Jenks

All Souls Piper by Stu Jenks

"I was brought to tears by the sounds of the bagpipes," said a man in a kilt as we ascended from beneath the Fourth Avenue underpass.

"Every time I saw Lois’s face projected on that big wall, I burst into tears,” said a woman, who stood on the roof of a warehouse along the route.

These stories are at the same time both personal and universal.

Two Poi by Stu Jenks

Green Prayer Urn by Stu Jenks

Passel of Women and Urn by Stu Jenks

Lighting the Urn by Stu Jenks

The Urn Ignites by Stu Jenks

Prayers Burning by Stu Jenks

"What makes All Souls’ so amazing to me," said a long time walker of the Sunday Procession, "is we are all having this very personal experience while walking with thousands of other people, who are also having a very personal experience while walking with thousands of other people. It’s really hard to put into words."

Yes, it is.

Cross and Candle by Stu JenksImages and text copyright by Stu Jenks; used with his permission.  The photo titles are in the picture captions -- which can be viewed by running your cursor over the images.

A book of All Souls images by Stu and other Tucson photographers ecan be purchased here, with proceeds benefiting the Procession.


"Into the Woods" series, 39: At the Death of the Year

Twilight by Brian Froud

In Celtic lore, October 31st is Samhain (All Hallow's Eve, or Halloween): the night when Arawn, lord of the Dead, rides the hills with his ghostly white hounds, and the Faery Court rides forth in stately procession across the land. In ancient times, hearth fires were smothered while bonfires blazed upon the hills, surrounded by circular trenches to protect all mortals from the faery host and the wandering spirits of the dead. In later centuries, Halloween turned into a night of revels for witches and gouls, eventually tamed into the modern holiday of costumes, tricks and treats.

Trolls by Brian Froud

Although the prospect of traffic between the living and the dead has often been feared, some cultures celebrated those special times when doors to the Underworld stood open. In Egypt, Osiris (god of the Netherworld, death, and resurrection) was drowned in the Nile by his brother Seth on the 17th of Athyr (November); each year on this night dead spirits were permitted to return to their homes, guided by the lamps of living relatives and honored by feasts. In Mexico, a similar tradition was born from a mix of indigenous folk beliefs and medieval Spanish Catholism, resulting in los Dias de Muertos (the Days of the Dead) -- a holiday Death by Brian Froudstill widely observed across Mexico and parts of the American South-West. The holiday varies from region to region but generally take place over the days of October 31st, November 1st, and November 2nd, celebrated with graveyard gatherings and Carnival-like processions in the streets. Within the house, an ofrenda or offering is painstakingly assembled on a lavishly decorated altar. Food, drink, clothes, tequila, cigarettes, chocolates and children's toys are set out for departed loved ones, surrounded by candles, flowers, palm leaves, tissue paper banners, and the smoke of copal incense. Golden paths of marigold petals are strewn from the altar to the street (sometimes all the way to the cemetary) to help the confused souls of the dead find their way back home.

According to Fredy Mendez, a Totonac man from Veracruz: "Between 31 October and 2 November, past generations were careful always to leave the front door open, so that the souls of the deceased could enter. My grandmother was constantly worried, and forever checking that the door had not been shut. Younger people are less concerned, but there is one rule we must obey: while the festival lasts, we treat all living beings with kindness. This includes dogs, cats, even flies or mosquitoes. If you should see a fly on the rim of a cup, don't frighten it away -- it is a dead relative who has returned. The dead come to eat tamales and to drink hot chocolate. What they take is vapor, or steam, from the food. They don't digest it physically: they extract the goodness from what we provide. This is an ancient belief. Each year we receive our relatives with joy. We sit near the altar to keep them company, just as we would if they were alive. At midday on 2 November the dead depart. Those who have been well received go laden with bananas, tamales, mole and good things. Those who have been poorly received go empty handed and grieving to the grave. Some people here have even seen them, and heard their lamentations."

(In tomorrow's post, we'll look at the Day of the Dead festivities in Tucson, Arizona.)

The Elfin Maid by Brian Froud

In Greek mythology, Persephone regularly crosses the border between the living and the dead, dwelling half the year with her mother (the goddess Demeter) in the upper world, and half the year with her husband (Hades) in the realm of the dead below. In another Greek story, Orpheus follows his dead wife deep into Hades' realm, where he bargains for her life in return for a demonstration of his musical skills. Hades agrees to release the lovely Eurydice back to Orpheus, provided he leads his wife from the Underworld without looking back. During the journey, he cannot hear his wife's footsteps and so he breaks the taboo. Eurydice vanishes and the pathway to Land of the Dead is closed. A similar tale is told of Izanagi in Japanese lore, who attempts to reclaim his beloved Izanami from the Land of Shadows. He may take her back if he promises not to try to see Izanami's face -- but he breaks the taboo, and is horrified to discover a rotting corpse.

When we look at earlier Sumarian myth, we find the goddess Inana is more successful in bringing her lover, Dumuzi, back from the Underworld; in Babylonian myth, this role falls to Ishtar, rescuing her lover Tammuz: "If thou opens not the gate," she says to the seven gatekeepers of the world below, "I will smash the door, I will shatter the bolt, I will smash the doorpost, I will move the doors, I will raise up the dead, eating the living, so that the dead will outnumber the living." During the three days of Ishtar's descent, all sexual activity stops on earth. The third day of the drama is the Day of Joy, the time of ascent, resurrection and procreation, when the year begins anew.

The Rune of Journeys by Brian Froud

Coyote, Hermes, Loki, Uncle Tompa and other Trickster figures from the mythic tradition have a special, uncanny ability to travel between mortal and immortal realms. In his brilliant book Trickster Makes This World: Michief, Myth, & ArtLewis Hyde explains that Trickster is the lord of in-between:

"He is the spirit of the doorway leading out, and the crossroads at the edge of town. He is the spirit of the road at dusk, the one that runs from one town to another and belongs to neither. Travellers used to mark such roads with cairns, each adding a stone to the pile in passing. The name Hermes once meant 'he of The Rune of Stewardship by Brian Froudthe stone heap,' which tells us that the cairn is more than a trail marker -- it is an altar to the forces that govern these spaces of heightened uncertainty. The road that Trickster travels is a spirit road as well as a road in fact. He is the adept who can move between heaven and earth, and between the living and the dead."

Trickster is one of the few who passes easily through the borderlands. The rest of us must confront the guardians who rise to bar the way: the gods, faeries, and supernatural spirits whose role is to help or hinder our passage over boundaries and through gates, thresholds, and liminal states of mind. In folk tales, guardians can be propitiated, appeased, outwitted, even slain -- but often at a price which is somewhat higher than one really wants to pay.

On Samhain, we cross from the old year to the new -- and that moment of crossing, as the clock strikes the midnight hour, is a time of powerful enchantment. For a blink of an eye we stand poised between two years, two tales, two worlds; between the living and the dead, the mortal and the fey. We must remember to give food to Hecate, wine to Janus, and flowers, songs, smoke, and dreams to the gate-keepers along the way. Shamans, mythic artists, and fantasy writers: they all cast paths of spells, stories, and marigold petals for us to follow, keeping us safe until the sun rises and the world begins anew.

Leaf Mask by Brian FroudThe art above is by Brian Froud, from The Land of Froud, Good Faeries/Bad Faeries, The Runes of Efland (with Ari Berk) and Trolls (with Wendy Froud). His latest book is Faeries' Tales, written and co-illustrated by Wendy Froud.


In praise of teachers, wherever we find them

8

From "What It is I Think I'm Doing Anyhow" by Toni Cade Bambara (1939-1995):

"As a mother, teacher, writer, community worker, neighbor, I'm concerned about accurate information, verifiable facts, sound analyses, responsible research, principled study, and people's assessment of the meaning of their lives. I'm interested in usable truths. Which means rising above my training, thinking better than I've been taught, developing a listening habit, making the self available to intelligence, engaging in demystification, and seeking out teachers at every turn. In many respects, my writings are notebooks I'm submitting to those teachers for examination.

"There have been a host of teachers. Once I thought anyone with enthusiasm about information was a good teacher. Then, anyone with an analysis of this country...who could help me decide how to put my wrath and my skills to the service of folks who sustain me. Later, anyone who could throw open the path and lead me back to the ancient wisdoms was a teacher. In more recent times, any true dialectition (material/spiritual) who could increase my understanding of all, I say all, the forces afoot in the universe was a teacher. I'm entering my forties now, with more simplistic criteria -- anyone with a greater capacity for love than I is a valuable teacher. And when I look back on the body of book reviews I've produced in the past fifteen years, for all their socioideolitero brilliant somethingorother, the underlying standard always seems to be -- Does this here author genuinely love his/her community?"

''Writing notebook

The light at the edge

There is...the pride of thinking oneself without teachers.
The teachers are everywhere. What is wanted is a learner.
In ignorance is hope. If we had known the difficulty, we would not have learned even so little.
Rely on ignorance. It is ignorance that teachers will come to.
They are waiting, as they always have, beyond the edge of the light.

- Wendell Berry ("Healing")

The path ahead

"If you have no faith in yourself, then have faith in the things you call truth. You know what must be done. You may not have courage or trust or understanding or the will to do it, but you know what must be done. You can't turn back. There is no answer behind you. You fear what you cannot name. So look at it and find a name for it. Turn your face forward and learn."

- Patricia A. McKillip (The Riddle-Master of Hed)

Following our guidesBambara's essay can be found in Black Women Writers on Their Work 14. Berry's poem/essay can be found in his collection What Are People For?. The Riddle-Master of Hed is the first book in Pat McKillip's gorgeous Riddle-Master Trilogy, highly recommended. Images above: Lower Nattadon Hill on a misty autumn morning.


Mysteries and miracles

Rainbow through the studio window

Over the last couple of weeks here we've been talking about slowing down, paying attention, being fully present wherever we live, within the lives that we live and the work that we do. Yet sometimes ... too often ... life knocks us off-center and we struggle to regain our sense of hózhó (as the Navajo call it): of balance and "walking in beauty." How do we re-center ourselves in the art-making process (or, indeed, in the life-making process) when this happens?

Rainbow Fairy by Willy PogányWendell Berry proffers this insight in his essay collection Standing by Words: "What can turn us...back into the sphere of our being, the great dance that joins us to our home, to each other and to other creatures, to the dead and unborn? I think it is love. I am perforce aware how baldly and embarrassingly that word now lies on the page -- for we have learned at once to overuse it, abuse it,  and hold it in suspicion. But I do not mean any kind of abstract love (adolescent, romantic, or 'religious'), which is probably a contradiction in terms, but particular love for particular things, places, creatures, and people, requiring stands, acts, showing its successes and failures in practical or tangible effects. And it implies a responsibility just as particular, not grim or merely dutiful, but rising out of generosity. I think that this sort of love defines the effective range of human intelligence, the range within its works can be dependably beneficent. Only the action that is moved by love for the good at hand has the hope of being responsible and generous. Desire for the future produces words that cannot be stood by. But love makes language exact, because one loves only what one knows."

Rainbow over Meldon Hill

For Berry, it all comes back to place. "I stand for what I stand on," he says: the local landscape, the local community: human, animal, and vegetable alike. ''I see that the life of this place is always emerging beyond expectation or prediction or typicality," he writes, "that it is unique, given to the world minute by minute, only once, never to be repeated. And this is when I see that this life is a miracle, absolutely worth having, absolutely worth saving. We are alive within mystery, by miracle."

And that, for me, is precisely where art, inspiration, balance and beauty can be found: within mystery, by miracle: the everyday miracles of the place we call home. The leaves turning gold. A partner's sweet smile. The good scent of coffee on a cold autumn morning. A rainbow outside the studio window, there for one minute and gone in the next.

"The grace that is the health of teachers can only be held in common," says Berry (in his poem "Healing"):

    The love and the work of friends and lovers belongs to the task, and are its health.
    Rest and rejoicing belong to the task, and are its grace.
    Let tomorrow come tomorrow. Not by your will is the house carried through the night.

Studio copy The second Berry quote comes from Life As Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition, and the last lines come from "Healing" in What Are People For?. Photographs above: Last week's rainbow over Meldon Hill. Illustration: "Rainbow Fairy" by Willy Pogány (1882-1955).


A reminder

Hedgespoken

The Hedgespoken crowdfunding campaign (created by Rima Staines & Tom Hirons) is still underway at Indiegogo. They're close to the half-way point but have reached the "slow middle" -- so if you can help with a donation or by spreading the word, please do. I'm very much hoping that the Mythic Arts community can get this Mythic-Art-on-Wheels project fully funded and on the road.

For more information on the project, see my previous Hedgespoken post, read Tom & Rima's description of what the Hedgespoken truck will be used for (a traveling home for them, but also so much more), and visit the Hedgespoken blog for regular updates (and other cool stuff).

Bluebell Honeymoon by Rima Staines

Rima's painting desk in the old truck


Tunes for a Monday Morning

This week, old and new folk music from Wales...

Above, "Cerdd y Gog Lwydlas" by Cass Meurig and Nial Cain, traditional folk musicians based in North Wales. The song comes from the first of their two albums, Deuawd and Oes i Oes. (Cass Meurig has also recorded with the bands Fernill and Pigyn Clust.)

Below, "Fi Wela" by Fernhill, one of the best known Welsh folk bands, filmed in concert in Brussels in 2010. The band's current line-up is Julie Murphy (vocals), Ceri Rhys Matthews (guitar and flute), Tomos Williams (trumpet), and Christine Cooper (fiddle and vocals). Their seventh album, Amser, was released earlier this year.

Valley of Nant Gwynant, Wales, from National Geographic

Above, "Breuddwyd y Wrach/Nyth y Gog" performed by Alaw, a trio composed of Oliver Wilson-Dickson (fiddle), Dylan Fowler (guitar), and Jamie Smith (accordion). Alaw has released a gorgeous CD of music they call "lovingly crafted arrangements of Welsh folk," titled Melody (2013).

Smith and Wilson-Dickson are also members of Jamie Smith's Mabon, playing original tunes by Smith that are deeply rooted in the Welsh and "interCeltic" tradition. Below is a pub performance of "The Hustler" by Smith, filmed for the BBC television programme Horo Gheallaidh during Celtic Connections 2011 in Glasgow, Scotland. (You can watch the rollicking end of Mabon's Celtic Connections set here.) The band has recorded four CDs, the latest of which is Windblown (2012).

Pentre Ifan dolmen
Photos above: The Valley of Nant Gwynant, North Wales (from
National Geographic) and  the Pentre Ifan neolithic dolmen in Nevern, Pembrokeshire, Wales (from Wikicommons).


Telling the story

Toshiyuki Enoki 1

Toshiyuki Enoki

I see her walking
on a path through a pathless forest
or a maze, a labyrinth.
As she walks, she spins
and the fine threads fall behind her
following her way,
telling
where she is going,
telling
where she has gone.
Telling the story.
The line, the thread of voice,
the sentences saying the way.


- Ursula K. Le Guin

(from "The Writer On, and At, Her Work)

 

Toshiyuki Enoki 3

The gorgeous Mythic Art in this post is by Toshiyuki Enoki. Born in Tokyo in 1961, he was trained in traditional Japanese painting, lacquer painting, and western painting techniques. You can see more of his work here.

Toshiyuki Enoki 4

Toshiyuki Enoki 5You can read the full poem, "The Writer On, and At, Her Work," in The Writer on Her Work, Vol. II  edited by Janet Sternberg (where it was first published), and in Le Guin's  collection  The Wave in the Mind.


On the magic of cities

The Crystler Building

In response to a post last week, Raquel Somatra wrote:

"I lived on a mountain in North Carolina for six months with no car. The nearest grocery store was 1.5 miles away. Down the mountain, over several hills, through a dark tunnel, passed the old hotel that still has a sign that says 'now with color TV!'... People always think it must have been such a horrific time, to walk to the store once or twice a week and carry home groceries. But I loved it.....There is something about motion and pilgrimage that magically and deeply connects us to ourselves, to our insides, and to the earth. I think I got to know that landscape more in six months than locals who had lived their whole lives there. I knew where you could find pairs of bunnies in the spring, where the robins liked to feast along the ends of the roads, where wild roses grew, that tiny, wild pansies grew everywhere, fairy flowers hidden in the grasses. What else is there than connection to the land, ourselves, and each other? We must do this slowly -- I agree with Rebecca [Solnit]. Our minds move as slow as our feet, there can be no other way.

"P.S. I was thrilled to find that here in Brooklyn, I make a similar journey with groceries. There aren't mountains and pansies, but there are wondrous sights and people, a train, and much, much walking."

The post below comes out of thoughts prompted by Raquel's comment, and I want to begin by acknowledging that debt.

 Trees of New York

Despite the bucolic nature of this blog, written as it is from the English countryside, I think the words of the various writers quoted in these pages -- attesting to the importance of "land" and "place" -- are useful reminders to all of us, no matter where we live, that our aim should be to fully live wherever it is we find ourselves. As Mary Oliver tell us in beautiful poems that repeatedly enjoin us to pay attention, living a creative life is not just about the novels or paintings we produce (let alone manage to publish or sell), it's about living in a state of openness and attention -- beginning  with the ground on which we stand: its flora, folklore, mythology, history, its weather patterns and daily rhythms, and the lives of those with whom we share it, human and nonhuman alike.  This is as true, I believe, for city, town, and suburb dwellers as it is for me here, in rural Devon.

The High Line in winter

The "Urban Fantasy" field, back when it began in the 1980s and '90s -- when the term referred to works by writers like Charles de Lint, Emma Bull, Francesca Lia Block and Neil Gaiman, not paranormal romance and detective stories --  had at its heart a metaphorical search for wonder and natural (rather than supernatural) magic in city settings. These writers were asserting that one needn't travel to imaginary lands, the medieval past, or even to the countryside to find a magical (dare I say "spiritual"?) connection to place: it was available to all...yes, even at the heart of the beast: the big, noisy, crowded, diverse, dangerous, exciting modern city. (And remember that these writers began working in the '80s, when urban decline rendered many cities far less appealing than they are today.) Charles' Newford, Emma's Minneapolis, Francesca's Los Angeles, and Neil's London are cities in which the mythopoeic history of the land has re-asserted itself. The human protagonists of their books are those who hunger, in one way or another, to find that connection...and then to use it in concert with the unique gifts that cities alone can offer.

The High Line, NYC, 2012

As Raquel says in her post script above, a city traversed on foot can be just as creatively inspiring as a woodland path or shoreline trail, at least for those open to its rhythms; for those who are paying attention. The following passage on urban walking comes from Rebecca Solnit's Wanderlust: A History of Walking, which devotes several chapters to the subject. To me, as a former New Yorker, this description of "city magic" rings absolutely true:

"There is a subtle state most urban walkers know, a sort of basking in solitude -- a dark solitude punctuated with encounters as the night sky is punctuated with stars -- one is altogether outside society, so solitude has a sensible geographical explanation, and there is a kind of communion with the nonhuman. In the city, one is alone because the world is made up of strangers, and to be a stranger surrounded by strangers, to walk along silently bearing one's secrets and imagining those of the people one passes, is among the starkest of luxuries. This uncharted identity with its illimitable possibilities is one of the distinctive qualities of urban living, a liberatory state for those who come to emancipate themselves from family and community expectation, to experiment with subculture and identity. It is an observer's state, cool, withdrawn, with senses sharpened, a good state for anybody who needs to reflect or create. In small doses, melancholy, alienation, and introspection are among life's most refined pleasures.

The newspaper carrier

"Not long ago I heard the singer and poet Patti Smith answer a radio interviewer's questions about what she did to prepare for her performances onstage with, 'I would roam the streets for a few hours.' With that brief comment, she summoned up her own outlaw romanticism and the way such walking might toughen and sharpen the sensibility, wrap one in an isolation out of which might come songs fierce enough, words sharp enough, to break that musing silence. Probably roaming the streets didn't work so well in a lot of American cities, where the hotel was moated by a parking lot surrounded by six-lane roads without sidewalks, but she spoke as a New Yorker.

The Flat Iron Building NYC

"Speaking as a Londoner, Virginia Woolf described anonymity as a fine and desirable thing, in her 1930 essay 'Street Haunting.' Daughter of the great alpinist Leslie Stephen, she had once declared to a friend, 'How could I think mountains and climbing romantic? Wasn't I brought up with alpenstocks in my nursery and a raised map of the Alps, showing every peak my father had climbed? Of course, London and the marshes are the places I like best.' Woolf wrote of the confining oppression of one's own identity, of the way the objects in one's home 'enforce the memories of our experience.' And so she set out to buy a pencil in a city where safety and propriety were no longer considerations for a no-longer-young woman on a winter evening [as they had been previously], and in recounting -- or inventing -- her journey, wrote one of the great essays on urban walking."

You can read Woolf's brilliant essay here.

The trees of Riverside

The photographs above were taken in New York, the city where I came of age as young writer/editor, and that I still think of as my urban home. (I highly recommend Patti Smith's book Just Kids, a wonderful memoir of her own youth in New York.) Related posts: Encountering Ghosts and Threshold Time