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July 2015

From the archives: Going outward and beyond

By the stream

Cold water on a hot summer day

I sit by the banks of a cold, clear stream, my toes in the water, my nose in a book, my thoughts far away. Tilly barks, just once, to let me know we have visitors....

Visitors approach

Friendly Dartmoor ponies

I am reading Rebecca Solnit's memoir, The Faraway Nearby, and this passage has arrested my attention:

"I was asked to talk to a roomful of undergraduates in a university in a beautiful coastal valley," she writes. "I talked about place, about the way we often talk about love of place, but seldom how places love us back, of what they give us. They give us continuity, something to return to, and offer familiarity that allows some portion of our lives to remain collected and coherent. They give us an expansive scale in which our troubles are set into context, in which the largeness of the world is a balm to loss, trouble, and ugliness. And distant places give us refuge in territories where our own histories aren't so deeply entrenched and we can imagine other stories, other selves, or just drink up quiet and respite.

A pony encounter

"The bigness of the world is redemption. Despair compresses you into a small space, and a depression is literally a hollow in the ground. To dig deeper into the self, to go underground, is sometimes necessary, but so is the other route of getting out of yourself, into the larger world, into the openness in which you need not clutch your story and your troubles so tightly to your chest.

Tilly takes the pony's measure

Farewell, farewell

"Being able to travel in both ways matters, and sometimes the way back into the heart of the question begins by going outward and beyond. This is the expansiveness that comes literally in a landscape or that tugs you out of yourself in a story."

Tilly pads down the streamside path

"I told the students," Solnit continues, "that they were at an age when they might begin to choose the places that would sustain them the rest of their lives, that places were much more reliable than human beings, and often much longer-lasting, and I asked each of them where they felt at home. They answered, each of them, down the rows, for an hour, the immigrants who had never stayed anywhere long or left a familiar world behind, the teenagers who'd left the home they'd spent their whole lives in for the first time, the ones who loved or missed familiar landscapes and the ones who had not yet noticed them.

"I found books and places before I found friends and mentors, and they gave me a lot, if not quite what a human being would. As a child, I spun outward in trouble, for in that inside-out world [of my family], everywhere but home was safe. Happily, the oaks were there, the hills, the creeks, the groves, the birds, the old dairy and horse ranches, the rock outcroppings, the open space inviting me to leap out of the personal into the embrace of the nonhuman world."

Pausing at the wood's edge

In The Faraway Nearby, Solnit talks about writing, art, fairy tales, the natural world, surviving cancer, her difficult relationship with her mother, and many other things that are deeply personal to me too, and perhaps to some of you as well. I highly recommend it....alongside her other fine books: Wanderlust, Hope in the Dark, A Field Guide to Getting Lost, etc..

"We think we tell stories," she writes shrewdly, "but stories often tell us, tell us to love or hate, to see or be seen. Often, too often, stories saddle us, ride us, whip us onward, tell us what to do, and we do it without questioning. The task of learning to be free requires learning to hear them, to question them, to pause and hear silence, to name them, and then become a storyteller."

Which is exactly what Solnit has accomplished here, in this deeply moving and beautifully crafted memoir.

Dreaming among the trees, 2013

As for me, I've become a storyteller too, re-telling my life, re-making my world, and rooting here on the far side of the Atlantic in this place of green grass, gold water, and wild ponies. Stories are powerful things, my dears. So tell yours wisely. Make it beautiful. Make it good.

Dreaming among the trees, 2015

Three books by Rebecca Solnit, all highly recommendedWords: The quote by Rebecca Solnit above is from The Faraway Nearby (Viking, 2013), which I highly recommend. All rights reserved by the author. Pictures:  All the photographs above were taken by me when the post was first published, July 2013 -- except the last one of Tilly, taken yesterday in the exact same spot as the next-to-last picture.


In the quiet of the woods

Silence 1

Although I am not yet strong enough to manage long walks with Tilly, we're going out to the woods on rainless days nonetheless, where I choose a spot to sit while she rambles in the undergrowth nearby. Sometimes I read, sometimes I write, and sometimes I do nothing at all but absorb the quiet, attentive to the woods, as the woods absorbs me in turn.

Silence 2

Tilly explores the terrain and then comes and sits close, ears cocked and alert, her nose twitching with every scent...and I love to watch her, to try to see as she sees and to hear as she hears. To remember that I am an animal too, made of water and wind and the dust of stars.

Silence 3

The life of a freelance writer and editor is measured in hours of productivity, and it takes some effort to slough off guilt when time spent silent among the trees results in no tangible accomplishment: no pages written or manuscript read or email answered or paycheck earned. And yet I'm convinced that it's on such moments that every other part of my creative life rests. The land is muse, teacher, and mentor; it is doctor, pastor, and therapist. It is the place where I return to myself when the jangle of life, the demands of work, and the ceaseless clamour of the Internet lead me astray. In the quiet of the greenwood it all fades away. I can hear my own softer voice once again.

Silence 4

But now I am justifying time spent outdoors by emphasizing the manner in which it supports my productivity back in the studio -- and while this is true, it is not the only truth. Quiet moments are worth much more than this. I will not measure their value in output, in books and paintings made and sold. I will not hang a price tag on my love for the natural world. I am not a consumer of the forest, obtaining my money's worth from the trees and grasses, the fungi and moss; I am just a woman sitting in the green arms of the Mother who made me. Just sitting. Just absorbing. Just being, for these precious moments, alive and present.

Silence 5

I am not dismissing the importance of productivity for those of us working in the arts, or of enagagement with the media and marketplace which places our work in the hands of others, for I believe that art is important, even sacred, and is capable of no less than changing the world.

But then, so is this: these quiet hours in the dappled light of the greenwood, with my good dog beside me. It changes my world. It changes me. And that's all the value it needs.

Silence 6

Silence 7

"I pin my hopes," said the Quaker writer Rufus Jones, "to quiet processes and small circles, in which vital and transforming events take place."

I pin my own hopes to the rustle of leaves, the murmur of water, the grace note of the birdsong overhead; to the ordinary, daily domestic act of rising in the morning and walking the dog. And to art, of course, but also to this. To the quiet of the woods.

Silence 8

Silence 9


Little gloves for the foxes and the fey

Summer pathway

Foxgloves on the path

This has been a good year for the foxgloves, which started their bloom early in June and are still brightening the woods and hills....

Foxglove spires

Folklorists are divided on where the common name for Digitalis purpurea comes from. In some areas of the British Isles the name seems be a corruption of "folksglove," associating the flowers with the fairy folk, while in others the plant is also known as "fox fingers," its blossoms used as gloves by the foxes to keep dew off their paws. Another theory suggests that the name comes from the Anglo-Saxon word foxes-gleow, a "gleow" being a ring of bells. This is connected to Norse legends in which foxes wear the bell-shaped foxglove blossoms around their necks; the ringing of bells was a spell of protection against hunters and hounds.

The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady by Edith Holden

Foxgloves give us digitalin, a glysoside used to treat heart disease, and this powerful plant has been used for heart tonics since Celtic and Roman times. Botanist Bobby J. Ward gives us this account of early foxglove use in his excellent book A Contemplation Upon Flowers:

"An old Welsh legend claims to be the first to proscribe it, because the knowledge of its properties came to the Foxglove Fairy by Cicely Mary Barkermeddygon, the Welsh physicians, in a magical way. The legend is loosely based on the early 13th century historical figure Rhiwallon, the physician to Prince Rhys the Hoarse, of South Wales. Young Rhiwallon was walking beside a lake one evening when from the mist rose a golden boat. A beautiful maiden was rowing the boat with golden oars. She glided softly away in the mist before he could speak to her. Rhiwallon returned every evening looking for the maiden; when he did not find her, he asked advice from a wise man. He told Rhiwallon to offer her cheese. Rhiwallon did as he was told, the maiden appeared and took his offering. She came ashore, became his wife, and bore him three sons.

"After the sons grew and the youngest became a man, Rhiwallon's wife rowed into the lake one day and returned with a magic box hinged with jewels. She told Rhiwallon he must strike her three times so that she could return to the mist forever. He refused to hit her, but the next morning as he finished breakfast and prepared to go to work, Rhiwallon tapped his wife affectionately on the shoulder three times. Instantly a cloud of mist enveloped her and she disappeared. Left behind was the bejeweled magic box. When the three sons opened it, they found a list of all the medicinal herbs, including foxglove, with full directions for their use and healing properties. With this knowledge the sons became the most famous of physicians."

Foxgloves in summer

Girl With Foxglove by Samuel McLoy (1831-1904)

Among the fairies

Foxglove by Christie Newman

Foxgloves shedding blossoms

Foxglove is a plant beloved by the fairies, and its appearance in the wild indicates their presence. Likewise, fairies can be attracted to a dometic garden by planting foxgloves. Dew collected from the blossoms is used in spells for communicating with fairies, though gloves must be worn when handling the plant as digitalis can be toxic. In the Scottish borders, foxgloves leaves were strewn about babies' cradles for protection from  Foxglovebewitchement, while in Shropshire they were put in children's shoes for the same reason (and also as a cure for Scarlet Fever). Picking foxglove flowers is said to be unlucky. Here in Devon and Cornwall, this is because it robs the fairies, elves, and piskies of a plant they particularly delight in; in the north of England, foxglove flowers in the house are said to allow the Devil entrance.

In Roman times, foxglove was a flower sacred to the goddess Flora, who touched Hera on her breasts and belly with foxglove in order to impregnate her with the god Mars. The plant has been associated with midwifery and women's magic ever since -- as well as with "white witches" (practitioners of benign and healing magic) who live in the wild with vixen familiars, the latter pictured with enchanted foxglove bells around their necks.  In medieval gardens, the plant was believed to be sacred to the Virgin Mary. In the earliest recordings of the Language of Flowers, foxgloves symbolized riddles, conundrums, and secrets, but by the Victorian era they had devolved into the more negative symbol of insincerity.

A lovely old legend told here in the West Country explains why foxgloves bob and sway even when there is no wind: this is the plant bowing to the fairy folk as they pass by. The spires of foxgloves growing on our hill mark it out a place beloved by fairies, a land filled with riddles, secrets, and stories. I walk its paths, listen to the tales, and then do my best to bring them back to you.

P1210991

Foxgloves by Kelly Louise Judd

Rosie the Fox by Richard Bowler

(For the folklore of foxes, go here.)

Tilly and the foxglovesArt above: Pages from The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady by Edith Holden (1871-1920), "Foxglove Fairy" by Cicely Mary Barker (1875-1973), "Girl With Foxgloves" by Samuel McLoy (1831-1904), "Foxglove" by botanical artist Christie Newman,  a page from Flora Londinensis by English apothocary & botanist William Curtis (1746-1799), "Foxgloves" by Kelly Louise Judd, and "Rosie" by wildlife photographer Richard Bowler; all rights to the contemporary pieces are reserved by the artists.


The gift of stillness

Dunes, north Devon

In A Book of Silence, Sara Maitland explores the cultural history of silence and retreat while seeking to create more room for silence within her own life. It's a fascinating book, leading through myth, religion, philosophy, sociology, natural history and literature to a place of stillness at the center of them all. "In Silence there is eloquence," wrote the great Persian poet Jalāl ad-DīnRumi. "Stop weaving and see how the pattern improves."

Dog, waves, sand, north Devon

Early on in her quest for silence, Maitland arranged to spend forty days alone at Allt Dearg, a remote cottage on An t-Eilean Sgitheanach, Scotland's Isle of Skye, noting the changes in her psyche and imagination as the weeks went by and her silence and solitude deepened.

Describing the last days of her time on the island, she says: "Part of me had already moved on from Allt Dearg, and another part of me never wanted to leave. The weather became appalling so that I could not go out for a final walk or round off the time with any satisfying sense of closure. I had to clean the house and then drive a long way. I had felt quite depressed for about forty-eight hours...

Dog at play, north Devon

"...and then, the very final evening, I suddenly was seized with an overwhelming moment of jouissance. I wrote:

" 'They say it is not over till the fat lady sings. Well, she is singing now. She is singing in a wild fierce wind -- and I am in here, just. Now I am full of joy and thankfulness and a sort of solemn and bubbling hilarity. And gratitude. Exultant -- that is what I feel -- and excited, and that now, here, right at the very edge of the end, I have been given back my joy.'

Light, north Devon

"For several hours I enjoyed an extraordinary rhythmical sequence of emotions -- great waves of delight, gratitude, and peace; a realization of how much I had done in the last six weeks, how far I had traveled; a powerful surge of hope and possibility for myself and my future; and above all a sense of privilege. But also a nakedness or openness that needed to be honored somehow.

Beast on the prowl, north Devon

"I experienced a fierce joyful ... joyful what? ... neither pride nor triumph felt like the right word. Near the end of Ursula Le Guin's The Farthest Shore (the third part of The Earthsea Trilogy), Arren, the young prince-hero, who has with an intrepid courage born of love rescued the magician Sparrowhawk, and by implication the whole of society, from destruction, wakes along on the western shore of the island of Selidor. 'He smiled then, a smile both somber and joyous, knowing for the first time in his life, and alone, and unpraised and at the end of the world, victory.'

"That was what I felt like, alone on An t-Eilean Sgitheanach, The Winged Isle. I felt an enormous  victorious YES to the world and to myself. For a short while I was absorbed in joy. I was dancing my joy, dancing, and flowing with energy. At one point I grabbed my jacket, plunged out into the wind and the storm. It was physically impossible to stay out for more than about a minute because the wind and rain were so strong and I came back in soaked even from that brief moment; but I came back in energized and laughing and exulting as well. I was both excited and contented. This is a rare and precious pairing. I knew, and wrote in my journal, that this would not last, but it did not matter. It was NOW. At the moment that now, and the enormous wind, felt like enough. Felt more than enough.

Stillness, north Devon

"And once again," she concludes, "I am not alone. Repeatedly, in every historical period, from every imaginable terrain, in innumerable different languages and forms, people who go freely into silence come out with slightly garbled messages of intense jouissance, of some kind of encounter with nature, their self, their God, or some indescribable source of power."

Gazing out to sea, north Devon

Dune grass, north Devon

It was interesting reading Maitland's fine book during the weeks that I was confined to bed. I was not alone -- I had Tilly snuggled at my side, and my gentle husband nearby -- but the quiet and stillness of recovering from an illness can be another form of retreat from the rapid rhythms of the noisy modern world. There were long hours when the only sounds were Tilly's snores, the rustle of a book's turning page, rain or bird song outside the window glass. Like a spiritual retreat or pilgrimage, illness takes us deep inside ourselves, shaking away all other concerns except those of the body, those of the soul. Afterwards, I always return to life changed. The world is restored to me piece by piece, with each step noted and celebrated: the first hour out of bed; the first morning outdoors, tucked up in a blanket on the garden bench; the first slow climb to my studio on the hill; the first shaky walk in the woods with Tilly. There's a joy in all this that we rarely speak about, as if to admit that there's any pleasure or value in illness might be to dismiss its overwhelming difficulties. We'd all prefer, of course, to plan our times of retreat, not to have them forced upon us by physical collapse, not to have them come at the most disruptive of times, not to have them overshadowed by pain and fear. But there is a gift in the journey of illness: the gift of long hours of quiet and stillness. A gift that's increasingly precious and rare in our fast-paced society.

And, if we are prepared to except them, there are these further gifts as well: jouissance, wonder, and fresh gratitude for our fragile bodies, our fleeting lives, and the exquisite beauty of the world we return to.

SilencePhotographs: Tilly on the Devon coast, and at the window. This post is dedicated to my friend Amanda Peters.


Tunes for a Monday Morning: Ballad Lands

"Sam Lee is one of Britain's finest singers and the most cogent force of his generation in British folk music," wrote Ed Vulliamy in 2012, "an heir to the great revival during the 1950s and 60s led by Martin Carthy and the Watersons, and Fairport Convention in their wake. Lee brings contemporary folk music back to whence much of it came: Roma, Gypsies and Scottish and Irish Travellers, who have passed these songs from generation to generation, over centuries. He scours Britain for those whom many avoid or despise -- travellers in camps or housed -- to learn their lore and songs. And a first collection makes up his debut album: Ground of Its Own, nominated for a Mercury award."
A second album, The Fade in Time by Sam Lee & Friends, has just been released.

In the video above, Lee records one of the songs for the album, "Lovely Molly," with the help of the Roundhouse Choir.

In "Ballad Lands," the video below, Lee discusses the album and explores the roots of the Traveller song "Jonny O' the Brine."

Via Ed Vulliamy, here is Sam Lee's description of how he first came upon Traveller music while embarked upon a self-directed study of folk music at Cecil Sharp House, home of the English Folk Song and Dance Society:

" 'I discovered Jeannie Robertson, the great Scottish Traveller ballad singer, Harry Cox and the Copper Family -- and I wondered, who are these people? I bought their CDs and was blown away. I thought, I have to learn all these songs. There was this difference between songs the Gypsies sang and songs you learned at Cecil Sharp House,' he says. 'I love the songbooks, Irish Tinkerbut I decided I'd rather throw flames on what tradition is left out there. The Gypsies are our Native Americans: they practice a kind of shamanism mixed with Christianity and the old beliefs.

"The glory of folk music is 'this latency -- the power within to express these things, like the power within everything, trees, plants, the inanimate.' Lee's love of song was inseparable from his love of nature and he felt this in the travellers' songs: 'I'm a tree-climber,' he says, 'and this music is for me like being up in the branches, knowing you are connected by its roots, deep into the earth.' "

"Lee's muse appears to be a kind of paganism: 'It's about respect, really, for these gods, whatever and wherever they are, and the land. When you're close to the land, respect it. Know that whatever you do, every plant you pick, will have consequences. I know that even walking through a wood has an impact, which makes me lightfooted.' Pantheism? Paganism? I ask. 'I'm hesitant to put names to it,' he replies. 'Just look for this sense of sanctity in the land and find it in song.' "

Scottish Travellers & Traveller Piper

Lee often collaborates with contemporary artists drawn from multiple disciplines (dance, performance art, film, etc.), creating unusual pieces like the new video for "Blackbird," above (and his wonderfully wacky video for "The Ballad of John Collins," 2012).

"The Gainsborough Packet," below, is another collaboration: a short film by the Newcastle artist Matt Stokes, with music written by Jon Boden (of Bellowhead and the Folk Song a Day site). Stokes' film is based on an early 19th century letter (preserved in the Tyne & Wear Museums archives) by Newcastle working class hero John Bodikin, relating his colorful life story to his friend Pybus. Sam Lee plays Burdikin in the film, investing the role with sweet mischievousness.

The vintage photographs above, of an Irish Tinker, Scottish Travellers, and a Traveller piper, are from George Crawford's Paleotools blog. For information on Traveller/Romany/Gypsy folklore, try this old article of mine in The Journal of Mythic Arts archives. There are book recommendations at the end.


Happy Birthday Tilly!

Little bunny

Howard & Tilly, Sept 2009

It's hard to believe that the little scrap of fur we brought home from a farm in Tiverton is six years old today, and utterly impossible to imagine our household without her intelligent, joyous, and goofy presence.

In honor of the occasion, here are links to some of my favorite poems about dogs...and I'd love to know yours.

Tilly at 10 weeks old"What the Dog Perhaps Hears" by Lisel Mueller

"Over and Over Tune" by Ionna Carlson

"Dog Music" by Paul Zimmer

"Dog Dreaming" by W.S. Merwin

"Dharma" by Billy Collins

"A Dog on His Master" by Billy Collins

"Walking the Dog" by Harold Nemerov

"The Dogs at Live Oak Beach, Santa Cruz" by Alice Ostriker

"If Feeling Isn't In It" by John Brehm

"Mongrel Heart" by David Baker

...and selections from Mary Oliver's "Dog Songs."

Howard and Tilly, July 2015

Tilly, summer 2015


Call-it-what-you-will

Nattadon 1

The words in Wednesday's post on the nature of the soul from John O'Donohue and Mary Oliver reminded me of this passage from A Hidden Wholeness by the Quaker writer Parker J. Palmer:

"Philosophers haggle about what to call this core of our humanity, but I'm no stickler for precision. Thomas Merton called it true self. Buddhists call it original nature or big self. Hasidic Jews call it the spark of the divine. Humanists call it identity and integrity. In popular parlance, people often call it soul.

Nattadon 2

"...What we name it matters little to me," Palmer continues, "since the origins, nature, and destiny of call-it-what-you-will are forever hidden from us, and no one can credibly claim to know its true name. But that we name it matters a great deal. For 'it' is the objective, ontological reality of selfhood that keeps us from reducing ourselves, or each other, to biological mechanisms, psychological projections, sociological constructs, or raw material to be manufactured into whatever society needs -- diminishments of our humanity that constantly threaten the quality of our lives.

" 'Nobody knows what the soul is,' says poet Mary Oliver; 'it comes and goes / like the wind over the water.' But just as we can name the function of the wind, so we can name some of the functions of the soul without presuming to penetrate its mystery:

* The soul wants to keep us rooted in the ground of our own being, resisting the tendency of other faculties, like the intellect and ego, to uproot us from who we are.

* The soul wants to keep us connected to the community in which we find life, for it understands that relationships are necessary if we are to thrive.

* The soul wants to tell us the truth about ourselves, our world, and the relation between the two, whether that truth is easy or hard to hear.

* The soul wants to give us life and wants us to pass that gift along, to become life-givers in a world that deals too much in death."

Nattadon 3

Exchange the words "the soul" for "the Muse" and that's a perfect description of how I feel about  art-making. I want to paint pictures and write fiction and essays grounded in my deepest self, in the land, and in community. I want to tell stories that are authentic and true, even when that truth is hard to speak, and even harder to hear. I want my work to be life-giving in a world that does, indeed, deal too much with death; and to help to restore the ancient, mythic, necessary balance between the dark and the light.

I suppose what I mean is I want to make art that has soul, or luminosity, or call-it-what-you-will.

Nattadon 4

''You have the need and the right to spend part of your life caring for your soul," writes Jungian psychologist Jean Shinoda Bolen. "It is not easy. You have to resist the demands of the work-oriented, often defensive, element in your psyche that measures life only in terms of output -- how much you produce -- not in terms of the quality of your life experiences. To be a soulful person means to go against all the pervasive, prove-yourself values of our culture and instead treasure what is unique and internal and valuable in yourself and your own personal evolution.''

Nattadon 5

Nattadon 6

The photographs here are of Nattadon Hill on an early morning in June, before I fell ill. I can now take short walks in the woods with Tilly, but don't yet have the strength for our ritual morning climb to the very top of the hill -- and every time I turn back from that path she looks puzzled, impatient to return to our usual routines. I am also often impatient these days, waiting for normal life to resume...and then I must remind myself that this, too, is normal life: resting, healing, rebuilding my strength, like I've done so many times before. The ritual of our morning climb is echoed by the ritual of returning to health, over and over: the hard climb up; the joy of arrival; the heady momentum of coming back down, Tilly bounding through tall green tunnels of bracken. Normal life is the climb and the descent, productivity and quiet moments of stillness, the light of the sun and the dark of the moon. As Crow in my novel The Wood Wife would say, "It is all dammas." All part of the great Mystery.

''It's important to be heroic, ambitious, productive, efficient, creative, and progressive," says Thomas Moore in The Care of the Soul, "but these qualities don't necessarily nurture soul. The soul has different concerns, of equal value: downtime for reflection, conversation, and reverie; beauty that is captivating and pleasuring; relatedness to the environs and to people; and any animal’s rhythm of rest and activity.''

The soul has different concerns, and so does the Muse. My job as an artist, gazing up at the hill that I can't yet climb, is to value it all.

Nattadon 7

Nattadon 8

Nattadon 9


From the archives: Rituals of Approach

Catherine Chaloux

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 Catherine Chaulouxswim, 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.

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 Catherine Chaulouxalready 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.

I 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.

Catherine Chauloux

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.

Catherine Chaloux

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."

Catherine Chauloux

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.

Les_ecrivaines

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.

"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."

Catherine Chauloux

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."

''The Swiss Halberd'' by Catherine Chauloux"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 peace until then. Say It With Words by Catherine ChaulouxEverything 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.'

"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.' "

Catherine Chauloux

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," she says, "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."

Catherine Chauloux

The art today is by Catherine Chauloux, from the Nantes region of France -- a self-taught painter inspired by the Italian Renaissance and Flemish masters, Orientalism, and imagery of the fantastic. To see more of her whimsical, wonderful work, please visit Catherine's website.

The titles of the paintings are in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.)

Catherine Chauloux

The text for this post was first published on Myth & Moor on March 26, 2014.  Related posts: Rituals of Beginning: Part I, Part II, Part III; and On Beginnings. And I recommend Elizabeth Huergo's post on perfectionism in the classroom.


Summer morning: hawks over Nattadon Hill

Blue sky above Nattadon Hill

Two hawks

"Your soul knows the geography of your destiny. Your soul alone has the map of your future, therefore you can trust this indirect, oblique side of yourself. If you do, it will take you where you need to go, but more important it will teach you a kindness of rhythm in your journey."  - John O'Donohue (Anam Cara)

A "kindness of rhythm." Yes. That's precisely what I strive for, in life and in art.

Paying attention

But what, exactly, do we mean by "the soul" in relation to creating one's art, or one's life? There are many definitions and opinions, of course, but I like Mary Oliver's best:

"This is the first, wildest, and wisest thing I know, that the soul exists, and that it is built entirely out of attentiveness."

Illustration by Honore AppletonIllustration by Honor Appleton (1879-1951). The Mary Oliver quote above comes from "Low Tide," published in Amicus Journal, Winter 2001. The poem in the picture captions is from New & Selected Poems by Mary Oliver, 1992; all rights reserved by the author.


From the archives: Casting Spells

The Alchemist by Edmund Dulac

The text below comes from "Worlds Apart," a talk by Susan Cooper at Oxford University (1992). I am re-posting it today in honor of the lovely students in the Children's Book Writing & Illustrating MA/MFA program at Hollins University in Virginia.

"Writing," says Susan Cooper, "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.