"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.
"...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."
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.
''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.''
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.