The gift blocked up

Oak

From The Gifts of Reading by Robert Macfarlane:

"Great art 'offers us images by which to imagine our lives' notes Lewis Hyde in his classic 1983 book, The Gift, '[and] once the imagination has been awakened it is procreative: through it we can give more than we were given, say more than we have to say.' This is a beautiful double-proposition: that art enlarges our repetoire for being, and that it further enables a giving onwards of that enriched utterance, that broadened perception.

"I was given a copy of Hyde's The Gift -- and I don't have that copy any longer, because I gave it to someone else, urging them to read it. Gifts give on, says Hyde, this is their logic. They are generous acts that incite generosity. He contrasts two types of 'property': the commodity and the gift. The commodity is the acquired and then hoarded, or resold. But the gift is kept moving, given onwards in a new form. Whereas the commodity circulates according to the market economy (in which relations are largely impersonal and conducted with the aim of profiting the self), the gift circulates according to the gift economy (in which relations are largely personal and conducted with the aim of profiting the other). In the market economy, value accrues to the individual by means of hoarding or 'saving.' In the gift economy, value accrues between individuals by means of giving and receiving. This, for Hyde, is why gifts possess 'erotic life,' as property: when we give a gift, it is an erotic act in the sense of eros as meaning 'attraction,' 'union,' a 'mutual involvement'....

White pony

"I am particularly moved by his deep interest in what he calls 'the gift that, when it comes, speaks commandingly to the soul and irresistibly moves us.' The outcome of a gift is uncertain at the time of giving, but the fact that it has been given charges it with great potential to act upon the recipient for the good. Because the gratitude we feel, and because the gift is by definition given freely, without obligation, we are encouraged to meet it with openess and excitement. Unlike commodities, gifts -- in Hyde's account and my experience -- possess an exceptional power to transform, to heal and to inspire."

Sheep

Sheep

Lewis Hyde's The Gift was a seminal book for me when I first encountered it as a young writer, forming the way that I think about art: as a passing of gifts through the world, through time, and through the generations. I write and paint to make a living of course, to put food on the table and keep a roof overhead, but for me the first and most important impulse in the art-making process is, as Pablo Neruda once said, " to give something resiny, earthlike and fragrant in exchange for the gift of human brotherhood" ... to which I would add the gifts of sisterhood, and of a deeply cherished relationship with nature and the more-than-human world.

In a previous post on gift exchange I noted:

"Making art is a form of gift-giving, made wondrous by the way that some of our creations move outward far beyond our ken, gifting recipients we do not know, will never meet, and sometimes could never imagine. And I, in turn, have received great gifts from writers, painters, musicians, dramatists and others who will never know of my existence either, and yet their words, images, or ideas, coming to me at the right time, have literally saved me.

"The paradox inherent in making art, of course, is that it's an act involving both giving and receiving. Like breathing, it requires both, the inhalation and the exhalation. We receive the gift of inspiration (inhale), give it shape and form and pass it on (exhale)."

Sheep

Path

And yet somehow over the last few months, I seem to have lost the knack of breathing: the natural and mostly unconscious cycle of in and out that sustains my life. I was working...writing...but the work didn't flow. My regular morning posts for Myth & Moor slowed down to a trickle, then stopped altogether. My inbox filled with unanswered mail as my ability to communicate -- the very thing I've built my life and career upon -- seemed to vanish altogether. I can point to particular reasons why: Exhaustion. Medical problems, both time-consuming and worrying. Too many demands upon my time and attention, and too few spoons to distribute among them. The weariness of spirit caused by the constant assault of the daily news since the Brexit vote and the American election. It was all of those things and none of those things. I hadn't gone to ground intentionally; I kept trying to speak, and found myself dumb -- which is not a comfortable situation for a professional writer, a creature with language at her core. As novelist and poet May Sarton once wrote:

"The gift turned inward, unable to be given, becomes a heavy burden, even sometimes a kind of poison. It is as though the flow of life were backed up."

Cow on the hill

What has changed, then, since the silent summer months, allowing me to return to work and resume this blog?

This, too, is mysterious. Perhaps it's simply the turn of the season: the air growing crisp, the leaves turning gold, the reminder that nothing in nature stands entirely still. Perhaps it's just the need to breathe out after holding my breath for too damn long. Perhaps it was a visit by two old friend, writers themselves, pulling me back to the literary world. Perhaps it's the way that the things that serve to frighten us into paralysis -- whether medical issues or other life challenges -- eventually grow familiar, become the things you simply cope with, learn to fold into your days because you must...and life goes on...and the birds still sing...and the hound still wants her afternoon walk...and you find yourself speaking, once again, hesitantly at first, and then just a little louder...re-finding the words...re-finding yourself...until one day your fluency in your life's language returns.

Cow on the hill

Braising on oak leaves

"The earth offers gift after gift," writes Kathleen Dean Moore, "life and the living of it, light and the return of it, the growing things, the roaring things, fire and nightmares, falling water and the wisdom of friends, forgiveness. My god, the forgiveness, time, and the scouring tides. How does one accept gifts as great as these and hold them in the mind?"

By noticing them. By honoring them. By holding them close when the world goes dark, and passing them on when the light comes back.

Climbing the hill

The door of my studio stands open. Myth & Moor is back on schedule again. Autumn is here. I am moving forward, and I suddenly have so much to say.

Reaching the top

Moore  Hyde  & Macfarlane

Credits: The passages quoted above are from The Gifts of Reading by Robert Macfarlane (Penguin Books, 2016); The Gift by Lewis Hyde (Vintage, 1983); and Wild Comfort by Kathleen Dean Moore (Shambhala, 2010). The May Sarton quote is from her novel Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing (W.W. Norton, 1975). All rights reserved by the authors. Three related posts: Gift Exchange (and the making of art), Doing It for Love, Knowing the World as a Gift.


Doing it for love

Love is Enough

From "Doing It for Love," an essay by novelist, poet, and memoirist Erica Jong:

"Despite all the cynical things writers have said about writing for money, the truth is we write for love. That is why it is so easy to exploit us. That is also why we pretend to be hard-boiled, saying things like: 'No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money' (Samuel Johnson). Not true. No one except a blockhead ever wrote except for love.

"There are plenty of easier ways to make money. Almost anything is less labor-intensive and better paid than writing. Almost anything is safer. Reveal yourself on the page repeatedly, and you are likely to be rewarded with exile, prison or neglect. Ask Dante or Oscar Wilde or Emily Dickinson. Scheme and betray, and you are likely be be reward with with wealth, publicity and homage. Tell the truth and you are likely to be a pariah within your family, a semi-criminal to authorities and damned with faint praise by your peers. So why do we do it? Because saying what you think is the only freedom. 'Liberty,' said Camus, 'is the right not to lie.'

"In society in which everything is for sale, in which deals and auctions make the biggest news, doing it for love is the only remaining liberty. Do it for love and you cannot be censored. Do it for love and you cannot be stopped. Do it for love and the rich will envy no one more than you. In a world of tuxedos the naked man is king. In a world of bookkeepers with spreadsheets, the one who gives it away without counting the cost is God."

Love is Enough

When I first read these words by Erica Jong, I was feeling a bit cynical myself. " 'Do it for love, not money,'  " I grumbled to Tilly. (I admit it, I talk to my dog.) "Well, that's easy for her to say when her very first novel was a best-seller. She's not fretting about electricity bills or putting food on the table."  But in fact, Jong's essay is not about the business of earning a living through art; it's about the deep, complex, mysterious feelings that cause us to make art at all. And when I ponder her words from this different perspective, I couldn't agree with her more.

We do it for love, of one kind or another. Love of the work, of the practice of our craft. Love of the painstaking process of bringing interior visions out into the world. Love of the various tools we use: ink, paper, paint, clay, fiddler's bow, photographer's light, the finely trained bodies of dancers and actors. Love of the solitary trance of creation, or the buzzy give-and-take of collaboration. Love of the first idea, of the rendering process, and then of the final product...followed by a reader's, viewer's, or listener's engagement. Love of completion, success, and achievement; and the harder love of set-back, failure, rejection, and all the things they teach.

Doing our work, with commitment and focus, is what makes us writers, painters, performers -- not the size of the pay check our art-making earns. Most of the writers I've edited over the years (and these include well-known authors with multiple books, devoted readers, and prestigious awards) don't make enough to life on by writing alone. I wish they did. In a better world they would. They are writing for love.

Tulip and Willow

And yes, most writers write with the intention of being published and read -- which usually means putting on our business hats and venturing out into the marketplace. This is the part of the art-making process that separates "real" artists from amateurs -- or so, in a hyper-capitalist, transactional culture we are led to believe. When I meet someone new and they learn I'm a writer, often the very first thing I am asked is: Have you published anything? Followed by: What name do you write under? Would I have heard of you? And sometimes, baldly: Does it pay?

No, I say gently, you probably won't have heard of me...unless fairy tales and myth-oriented fantasy happens to be your cup of tea. This generally ends the conversation. My querent's suspicions are now confirmed: I am not a "real" writer after all. Or else I'm just not a very good one, since I'm neither rich nor famous. I could protest that I've published many books and essays, won awards, been translated into ten languages. But I don't say any of this of course. A list of achievements isn't what matters. It isn't what makes me a writer.

I am a writer because I love words, and the process of shaping words into stories. I am an artist because I love line, color, and the process of pictures growing under my fingers. I am a writer, artist, and anthologist because I took the time, over many years, to learn the technical skills these crafts require; and because I work at them seriously and persistently. If you do too, then you are qualified to call yourself a "real" artist too.

The money I earn through creative work matters each month when bills are due; I won't pretend that it doesn't. And it buys me the time to make more art. But it doesn't measure the worth of my work -- and it is not the measure of yours. I've made art, in one form or another, for as long as I can remember: good art, bad art, successes and failures. Art that paid the rent, and art that cost me money. I do it out of love, and out of need. I do it because it is who I am. I do it because it's what I do best, and I'm not well suited for anything else. I do it because the tales I hold inside me want to be passed on.

Pomegranate

"I never remember a time when I didn't write," says Jong. "Notebooks, stories, journals, poems -- the act of writing always made me feel centered and whole. It still does. It is my meditation, my medicine, my prayer, my solace. I was lucky enough to learn early (with my first two books of poetry and my first novel) that if you are relentlessly honest about what you feel and fear, you can become a mouthpiece for something more than your own feelings."

I know this to be true.

"People are remarkably similar at the heart-level -- where it counts," she adds. "Writers are born to voice what we all feel. That is the gift. And we keep it alive by giving it away."

Indeed.

Honeysuckle

The artwork today is by William Morris (1834-1896), a man who has long been a hero of mine not only for his vision (rooted in nature and myth), and the astonishing range of creative endeavors he mastered, but because Morris firmly believed art belongs to everyone, rich and poor alike. As a leading figure in Britain's early Socialist movement, his writing and art was entwined (like the intricate vinework in his designs) with his tireless social activism. He left the world a better, kinder, more beautiful place. May we all do the same.

Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris

Willow design by William Morris

''Sweetbriar'' pattern by William Morris

Pictures: The "Love is Enough" book cover design by William Morris, with gold stamping on a forest green cloth (via The Victorian Web). The "Love is Enough" pattern by Morris reproduced on cloth. Morris' "Tulip & Willow," "Pomegranate," and "Honeysuckle" designs in progress. A photograph of Ned (Edward Burne-Jones) and Topsy (William Morris), best friends since their university days. Morris' ''Willow" design; and the "Sweetbriar" design, with quote.

Words: The passage by Erica Jong is from "Doing It for Love," an essay published in The Writing Life, edited by Marie Arana (Public Affairs, 2003). All rights reserved by the author.


On Becoming a Public Storytelling

Bumblehill Studio

I think it's high time for me to officially announce that I now have a Patreon Page. I still feel a little shy about it all...so if you'd be kind enough to have a look, I'd be grateful. And if you can help in any way to spread the word, I'd be more grateful still. Here's the link: www.patreon.com/terriwindling.

Bunny friendsIt took some arm-twisting by friends to get me to do this, but now that I understand how how Patreon works, this gentle form of crowd-funding art & artists appeals to me, resting as it does on something I deeply believe in: the power of community.  

I have spent three decades in the commercial publishing world -- which has genuine value (as well as certain limitations), so I am certainly not proposing that we all stop publishing in traditional ways. But I very much like the thought that each creative community (especially the strong and passionate community we have here in the Mythic Arts field) can have a direct hand in making sure that the art that we love gets made.

"The words community, communion, and communicate all derive from common," writes Scott Russell Sanders, "and the two syllables of common grow from separate roots, the first meaning 'together' or 'next to,' the second having to do with barter or exchange. Embodied in that word is a sense of our shared life as one of giving and receiving -- music, touch, ideas, recipes, stories, medicine, tools, the whole range of artifacts and talents."

Lace and paper (ollage detail)

"Many people shy away from community out of a fear that it may become suffocating, confining, even vicious," Sanders adds; "and of course it may, if it grows rigid or exclusive. A healthy community is dynamic, stirred up the energies of those who already belong, open to new members and fresh influences, kept in motion by the constant bartering of gifts. It is fashionable just now to speak of this open quality as 'tolerance,' but that word sounds too grudging to me -- as though, to avoid strife, we must grit our teeth and ignore whatever is strange to us. The community I desire is not grudging; it is exuberant, joyful, grounded in affection, pleasure, and mutual aid...Taking part in the common life means dwelling in a web of relationships , the many threads tugging at you while also holding you upright."

By setting up a Patreon page, I see myself as joining a long, historic line of public storytellers, setting up my busking pitch at the edge of the Commons, and putting my hat out for any coins you care to throw. Yes, it makes me feel shy, and vulnerable -- but it also places me in that "web of relationship" that Sanders speaks of.

I am trusting it will hold me upright. And I am trusting I won't disappoint you.

Tree Caps (collage detail)

"I have inherited a belief in community," writes Terry Tempest Williams, "the promise that a gathering of the spirit can both create and change culture."

I believe in that promise too.

Fairy Tales

"I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the community," said George Bernard Shaw, "and as long as I live it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can."

And so will I.

Briar Rose

I want to note that funds I am raising through Patreon are to support the writing of novels & essays, and painting projects, not to monetize this blog. Myth & Moor is a strictly nonprofit endeavor, offered in the spirit of Gift Exchange for all who create, study, and love Mythic Arts.

The passage above by Scott Russell Sanders is from "The Common Life," an essay in  Writing from the Center (Indiana University Press, 1997); all rights reserved by the author. For those who would like to know more about the history and practice of Gift Exchange, I recommend Lewis Hyde's brilliant book The Gift: Creativity & the Artist in the Modern World (Vintage, 1983).


Earth's gifts

Autumn bench

I started writing a post this morning about my adventures during my week away from Chagford, and it seems to be turning into an essay on me, so it's going to be a few more days before its done. It's coming, I promise.

Pomona by Arthur RackhamI've returned home to a garden (or "yard," as we Americans say) that has turned decisively to autumn, dressed in rusty reds and golden yellows, the air smelling of wood smoke and apples. When the weather permits, I've been working outdoors, soaking in the sun before the winter is upon us. The Hound is glad to have me back, and is sticking even closer to my side than usual...as if I might slip away again if she lets me out of her sight.

One of the books I have on the go
at the moment is Wild Comfort: The Solace of Nature, an essay collection by naturalist, educator, and philosopher Kathleen Dean Moore. I started reading Wild Comfort half a year ago, and for some reason, I didn't stick with it then -- I can't imagine why, because this time I can't put it down. Books are like that sometimes. They open to you when they're ready, and not before.

Wild Comfort by Kathleen Dean Moore

"The earth offers gift after gift," writes Moore, "life and the living of it, light and the return of it, the growing things, the roaring things, fire and nightmares, falling water and the wisdom of friends, forgiveness. My god, the forgiveness, time, and the scouring tides. How does one accept gifts as great as these and hold them in the mind?

Autumn in the garden

Crooked fence

"Failing to notice a gift dishonors it, and deflects the love of the giver. That's what's wrong with living a careless life, storing up sorrow, waking up regretful, walking unaware. But to turn the gift in your hand, to say, this is wonderful and beautiful, this is a great gift -- this honors the gift and the giver of it. Maybe this is what [my friend] Hank has been trying to make me understand: Notice the gift. Be astonished at it. Be glad for it, care about it. Keep it in mind. This is the greatest gift a person can give in return.

Contemplative Tilly

" 'This is your work,' my friend told me, 'which is a work of substance and prayer and mad attentiveness, which is the real deal, which is why we are here.' "

Meldon Hill

Autumn leaves

Apple harvestThe passage by Kathleen Dean Moore above is from "Burning Garbage on an Incoming Tide," published in Wild Comfort: The Solace of Nature (Trumpeter Books/Shambhala, 2010). The poem in the picture captions is from Poetry magazine (January, 1985). All rights reserved by the authors. The illustration is "Pomona," the Roman goddess of fruit and nut trees, by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939). 


On moving forward through difficult times, part five: Why Culture Matters

The hound in the wood

I'm popping into the studio on a Saturday to recommend a superb article by Frank Cottrell Boyce on "the generosity of art," a discussion ranging from the Opening Ceremony of the 2012 Olympics to the value of gift exchange, reading Heidi, and the poetry of Philip Larkin.

If you read nothing else this week, please do read this. It's an important piece. And so inspiring.

Woodland speedwell


The genius of the community

Bluebell gate

Bluebells in a Devon wood

In his fine book of conversations with writer & naturalist Barry Lopez, who has long been one of my guiding lights, William E. Tydeman quotes these words from a talk Lopez gave at Rice University in Houston, Texas in 2004:

"I have been puzzled and troubled all my life by the idea of individual genius. In my experience those who are most comfortable with this characterization are often the people who are least aware of how their work has benefited from the support of others. In my view they are always ready to accept full credit for the quality of an individual vision but are vaguely contemptuous of the idea  that something they've made is not fully their own, that it is partly due to the way people support them and also to something unknown moving through them.

Tilly in the bluebell wood

Devonian faerieland

"We say Bach is a genius," Lopez continues. "But when Yo-Yo Ma finds two different interpretations of the Sixth Cello Suite, what is Ma? I don't mean to be academic here or to play games with concepts of originality or interpretation. I'm saying something much simpler, or, you might say, more naive. It is my view that individual genius is a gift, that the gifted personality is a manifestation of a kind of genius that belongs, finally, to the community. The genius is in us.

Woodland path

"In ensemble art, the theater, dance, the music of the quartet, the trio, the orchestra, it is easy to see that one person is not responsible. It's harder with painting, photography, or writing. Why pursue this distinction? Because in a celebrity-driven culture like ours, claims to originality and genius seem curiously misplaced. Historically, humanity has more often benefited from the genius of the community than from the genius of the individual. And people with no faith in their own wisdom in hard times have perished waiting for a genuis to appear and lead them.

Opening to the Otherworld

"I believe in the singular vision of the individual artist," Lopez makes clear. "If I am honest, I would have to say I accept the artist's occasional disregard for community, the neglect of spouse, of children and parents, that this obsession sometimes entails. But there is a line here. What does the community gain by your work and what does it lose?

Woodland edge

Conversations with Barry Lopez

"The line I draw for myself is, I know, subjective and probably inconsistent. What is more on my mind these days about this though...is this. If humanity is [ecologically] imperiled, shouldn't our investment in the work of artists include more than it does? Shouldn't we be underwriting collaboration and cooperation? If, as the poet Robert Duncan has said, 'The drama of our time is the coming of all men into one fate,' shouldn't we be thinking more about a wisdom revealed in the mounting of one communal voice...?

Window to the Otherworld

Window to the Otherworld

Conversations with Barry Lopez by William E Tydeman

"In some strange way," Lopez concludes, "I think we are at a cultural crossroads today where the primacy of the individual is concerned. If we are endangered as a culture, do we need to ask ourselves what price society pays for our vigorous support of individual visions? I don't know. I do not really worry about what other people are doing. In my own life, however, I am suspicious of this idea, the primacy of the individual, despite my Enlightenment upbringing. So, I am trying to explore the disquieting dimensions of my own ego."

Writing notebookThe passage quoted above is from the introduction to Conversations with Barry Lopez: Walking the Path of Imagination by William E. Tydeman (University of Oklahoma Press, 2013), which I highly recommend. The poem in the picture captions is from David Whyte's What to Remember When Waking (Sounds True, 2010). All rights reserved by the authors. Related posts: On the Care & Feeding of Daemons & Muses, Gift Exchange, and Knowing the World as a Gift.


From the archives: Gracious Acceptance

White Tower by William Bailey

To continue yesterday's discussion on gift-exchange....

The other side of the coin from the art of gift-giving is the less heralded art of gift-receiving -- and to live a balanced, creatively fecund life we must learn to practice both with equal skill. But as Alexander McCall Smith points out (in Love Over Scotland), the act that he calls gracious acceptance is "an art which most never bother to cultivate. We think that we have to learn how to give, but we forget about accepting things, which can be much harder than giving."

"Until we can receive with an open heart," notes psychologist Brené Brown astutely, "we're never really giving with an open heart. When we attach judgment to receiving help, we knowingly or unknowingly attach judgment to giving help."

"Human life runs its course in the metamorphosis between receiving and giving," the German Romantic poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once wrote; and art-making, too, thrives in the space where giving and receiving dance in partnership. We take in the gifts of inspiration, shape them to our purposes, and then pass those gifts along through our stories, paintings, and other creative works.

Ceremony by William Bailey

To be skilled in the art of "gracious acceptance" is to be wide-open and receptive to the gifts the muses bring, and this skill, it seems to me, is helped or hindered by one's perception of the emotion of gratitude. There are those for whom gratitude is an uncomfortable, weakening, even shameful feeling; while others of us experience gratitude in a warm and positive manner, perceiving its ties as chords of connection, not heavy chains of obligation.

The narrator of Elizabeth Berg's novel Open House is clearly in the latter camp: "I made cranberry sauce," she tells us, "and when it was done put it into a dark blue bowl for the beautiful contrast. I was thinking, doing this, about the old ways of gratitude: Indians thanking the deer they'd slain, grace before supper, kneeling before bed. I was thinking that gratitude is too much absent in our lives now, and we need it back, even if it only takes the form of acknowledging the blue of a bowl against the red of cranberries."

D5108798x

Mary Oliver, too, is a writer who seems to follow Meister Erkhart's dictum that "if the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough" -- for every poem she writes is a hymn of gratitude for the commonplace marvels of daily living. Take her 1992 poem "Morning," for example:

Salt shining behind its glass cylinder.
Milk in a blue bowl. The yellow linoleum.
The cat stretching her black body from the pillow.
The way she makes her curvaceous response to the small, kind gesture.
Then laps the bowl clean.
Then wants to go out into the world
where she leaps lightly and for no apparent reason across the lawn,
then sits, perfectly still, in the grass.
I watch her a little while, thinking:
what more could I do with wild words?
I stand in the cold kitchen, bowing down to her.
I stand in the cold kitchen, everything wonderful around me.

Still life by William Bailey

Art-making, like gift giving, requires two separate actions: giving and receiving, both of them equally important. We breathe in the world and push it out again: inhaling, exhaling; the cycle kept in motion; never resting for too long on one side and not the other. The perpetual giver, like the perpetual receiver, is an artist (and a person) out of balance, in danger of draining the creative well dry. It's hard work, and it's humbling work, to master both roles equally, including whichever one we find the hardest -- but that's precisely the task that art (and life) demands of us.

"The reality of all life is interdependence," notes cultural anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson. "We need to compose our lives in such a way that we both give and receive, learning to do both with grace, seeing both as parts of a single pattern rather than as antithetical alternatives."

"When we give cheerfully and accept gratefully," says Maya Angelou, "everyone is blessed."

Still Life by William Bailey

The quietly beautiful still life paintings here today are by the American artist William Bailey. Born in Iowa in 1930, educated at the University of Kansas, Bailey is now Professor Emeritus of Art at Yale University.

Still Life by William Bailey"Morning" by Mary Oliver is from New and Selected Poems (Beacon Press, 1992), which is highly recommended. All rights reserved by the author.


Gift exchange (and the making of art)

Nattadon 1

I've been thinking a lot about gifts lately, in all the various meanings of the word -- prompted, of course, by the season of holiday gift-giving that has just passed. Here in "Austerity Britain," where work and money are increasingly scarce for those in freelance and arts professions (which are precarious even at the best of times), a truly frightening number of people are struggling just to put food on the table and keep the lights on overhead. And then comes Christmas, with its lovely old traditions but overwhelming modern expectations; with its roots planted in the good soil of family, community, folklore, and sacred stories, but its leaves unfurled in the toxic air of commercialism and over-consumption.

Some of us cherish the holiday; some of us simply cope with it and then sigh with relief when it's all over; some of us re-shape it into something more nurturing and reflective of our own ideals; some of us turn our backs on it altogether; and some of us weren't raised with Christmas at all, but simply watch while the rest of the Western world goes crazy for a few weeks every year. At Bumblehill, we celebrate Winter Solstice and Yule rather than Christmas, and focus on feasting and doing things together as a family. Our gift-giving is the simple (but loving) act of distributing little packages of home-made kiffles: each cookie filled with the talk and laughter we share in the long day it takes to make them all.

I love the act of gift-giving (at any time of year), but not the commercial pressure to shop and spend, especially in these lean financial times when life is hard, even desperate, for so many. I also prefer to view gift-exchange as a daily part of life, not something confined to holidays. We gift each other with meals prepared, with gardens tended, with the chores that keep a household running, with kindness, patience, care, attention...a constant giving-and-receiving that starts at home and extends into the world through friendship, community, and activism.

Nattadon 2

Making art is a form of gift-giving, made wondrous by the way that some of our creations move outward far beyond our ken, gifting recipients we do not know, will never meet, and sometimes could never imagine. And I, in turn, have received great gifts from writers, painters, musicians, dramatists and others who will never know of my existence either, and yet their words, images, or ideas, coming to me at the right time, have literally saved me.

The paradox inherent in making art, of course, is that it's an act involving both giving and receiving. Like breathing, it requires both, the inhalation and the exhalation. We receive the gift of inspiration (inhale), give it shape and form and pass it on (exhale).

Nattadon 3

Nattadon 4

 The word "gift" itself is commonly used to describe artistic talent: she's a gifted cellist, he's a gifted poet. But where does that "gift" of inspiration comes from? In semi-secular modernity, we tend to be politely vague about such things -- but in her book Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert has an unusual answer to the question:

"I should explain," she says, "at this point that I've spent my entire life in devotion to creativity, and along the way I've developed a set of beliefs about how it works -- and how to work with it -- that is entirely and unapologetically based upon magical thinking. And when I refer to magic here, I mean it literally. Like, in the Hogwarts sense. I am referring to the supernatural, the mystical, the inexplicable, the surreal, the divine, the transcendent, the otherworldly. Because the truth is, I believe that creativity is a force of enchantment -- not entirely human in its origins....

"I believe that our planet is inhabited not only by animals and plants and bacteria and viruses, but also by ideas. Ideas are a dis-embodied, energetic life-form. They are completely separate from us, but capable of interacting with us -- albeit strangely. Ideas have no material body, but they do have consciousness, and they most certainly have will. Ideas are driven by a single impulse: to be made manifest. And the only way an idea can be made manifest in our world is through collaboration with a human partner. It is only through a human's efforts that an idea can be escorted out of the ether and into the material world."

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Rationalists will scoff at Gilbert's words, but there's enough mysticism in my own beliefs that her concept of creativity doesn't seem so very far-fetched to me; indeed, my only quibble with the paragraph above is that I'm not entirely convinced that those ideas necessarily require a human partner. (Perhaps animals and others with whom we share the planet have art forms of their own that we don't yet perceive.)

A little later in the book, Gilbert writes about creative work in terms that even the rationalists among us might recognize: "Most of my writing life, to be perfectly honest, is not freaky, old-time, voodoo-style Big Magic. Most of my writing life consists of nothing more than unglamorous, disciplined labor. I sit at my desk, and I work like a farmer, and that's how it gets done. Most of it is not fairy dust in the least.

"But sometimes it is fairy dust. Sometimes, when I'm in the midst of writing, I feel like I'm suddenly walking on one of those moving sidewalks you find in an airport terminal; I still have a long slog to my gate, and my baggage is still heavy, but I can feel myself being gently propelled by some exterior force. Something is carrying me along -- something powerful and generous -- and that something is decidedly not me....

"I only rarely experience this feeling, but it's the most magnificent sensation imaginable when it arrives. I don't think there is a more perfect happiness to be found in life than this state, except perhaps falling in love. In ancient Greek, the word for the highest degree of human happiness is eudaimonia, which basically means 'well-daemoned' -- that is, nicely taken care of by some external divine creative spirit guide."

(We've discussed the Greco-Roman idea of "creative daemons" in a previous post. Go here if you'd like to know more.)

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C.S. Lewis, writing from a Christian perspective, also noted the mystical quality of creative inspiration:

"In the Author’s mind there bubbles up every now and then the material for a story. For me it invariably begins with mental pictures. This ferment leads to nothing unless it is accompanied with the longing for a Form: verse or prose, short story, novel, play or what not.  When these two things click you have the Author’s impulse complete. It is now a thing inside him pawing to get out. He longs to see that bubbling stuff pouring  into that Form as  the housewife longs to see the new jam pouring into the clean jam jar. This nags him all day long and gets in the way of his work and his sleep and his meals. It’s like being in love."

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"The artist's gift refines the materials of perception or intuition that have been bestowed upon him," says Lewis Hyde in his masterful book on the subject, The Gift: Creativity & the Artist in the Modern World. "To put it another way, if the artist is gifted, the gift increases in its passage through the self. The artist makes something higher than what he has been given, and this, the finished work, is the third gift, the one offered to the world."

Madeleine L'Engle was of a similar mind. In Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith & Art she wrote: "'We, and I think I'm speaking for many writers, don't know what it is that sometimes comes to make our books alive. All we can do is write dutifully and day after day, every day, giving our work the very best of what we are capable. I don't think that we can consciously put the magic in; it doesn't work that way. When the magic comes, it's a gift.''

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“If," L'Engle added, "the work comes to the artist and says, 'Here I am, serve me,' then the job of the artist, great or small, is to serve. The amount of the artist's talent is not what it is about. Jean Rhys said to an interviewer in the Paris Review, 'Listen to me. All of writing is a huge lake. There are great rivers that feed the lake, like Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. And there are mere trickles, like Jean Rhys. All that matters is feeding the lake. I don't matter. The lake matters. You must keep feeding the lake.' "

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"One of the things we continue to learn from Native Peoples," says Terry Tempest Williams, "is that stories are our medicine bundles. I feel that way about our essays, our poems, our fictions. That it is the artist who carries the burden of the storyteller. Terrence Des Pres speaks of a prose witness that relies on the imagination to respond to the world as we see it, feel it, and dare to ask the questions that will not let us sleep. Imagination. Attention to details. Making the connections. Art -- right words to station the mind and hold the heart ready."

The gift of paying attention, of witnessing others' lives and passing the "medicine" of their stories, our stories, from generation to generation is the particular gift required of us as artists. Not only of us, but especially of us; in whatever artform we chose to work in.

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Jane Yolen puts it most succinctly. "Touch magic," she says, "and pass it on."

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Recommended reading and viewing

The Wire Fence

In several posts over the last couple of weeks we discussed the history of the Enclosures here in Britain (in which millions of acres of Common land were transferred into private hands for the profit of the few), and how this affected folkloric traditions dependent on the Commons and communal ways of living.

The selling off of the UK's public lands, resources, and services continues to this day, of course. I recommend "Pete," a short video by Matt Hopkins that has just been posted on the Aeon Magazine site, looking at the loss of communal spaces and affordable housing in London -- and how this effects young people, including those making attempting to make their living in the arts. Which is never easy at the best of times....

Real England by Paul Kingsnorth, one of the founders of The Dark Mountain Project, is well worth a read on the subject of modern Enclosures too.


The Common Life

Steve, Rima, long-haired Howard, misty Miriam, and sweet Tilly

From "The Common Life," an essay in Scott Russell Sanders' excellent collection Writing from the Center:

"The words community, communion, and communicate all derive from common, and the two syllables of common grow from separate roots, the first meaning 'together' or 'next to,' the second having to do with barter or exchange. Embodied in that word is a sense of our shared life as one of giving and receiving -- music, Howard and Rimatouch, ideas, recipes, stories, medicine, tools, the whole range of artifacts and talents. After twenty-five years with [my wife] Ruth, that is how I have come to understand marriage, as a constant exchange of labor and love. We do not calculate who gives how much; if we had to, the marriage would be in trouble. Looking outward from this community of two, I see my life embedded in ever-larger exchanges -- those of family and friendship, neighborhood and city, countryside and county -- and on every scale there is giving and receiving, calling and answering.

"Many people shy away from community out of a fear that it may become suffocating, confining, even vicious;
and of course it may, if it grows rigid or exclusive.  A healthy community is dynamic, stirred up the energies of those who already belong, open to new members and fresh influences, kept in motion by the constant battering of gifts. It is fashionable just now to speak of this open quality as 'tolerance,' but that word sounds too grudging to me -- as though, to avoid strife, we must grit our teeth and ignore whatever is strange to us. The community I desire is not grudging; it is exuberant, joyful, grounded in affection, pleasure, and mutual aid. Such a community arises not from duty or money but from the free interchange of people who share a place, share work and food, sorrows and hopes. Taking part in the common life means dwelling in a web of relationships , the many threads tugging at you while also holding you upright."

Jason, Thomas, Steve, Rima, and Howard

"It just may be that the most radical act we can commit is to stay home," says Terry Tempest Williams. "What does that mean to finally commit to a place, to a people, to a community? It doesn't mean it's easy, but it does mean you can live with patience, because you're not going to go away. It also means commitment to bear witness, and engaging in 'casserole diplomacy' by sharing food among neighbors, by playing with the children and mending feuds and caring for the sick. These kinds of commitment are real. They are tangible. They are not esoteric or idealistic, but rooted  in the bedrock existence of where we choose to maintain our lives.

"That way we begin to know the predictability of a place. We anticipate a species long before we see them. We can chart the changes, because we have a memory of cycles and seasons; we gain a capacity for both pleasure and pain, and we find the stregnth within ourselves and each other to hold these lines. That's my definition of family. And that's my definition of love."

Community bonfire, Spring Equinox, 2011

The pictures here, which hold the essence of "community" for me, come from a 2011 post about a neighborhood bonfire on the eve of the Spring Equinox...back when Howard's hair was long, and Rima Staines still had her dreadlocks, and when our beloved friend, folklorist & artist Thomas Hine, was still alive. It feels so long ago now. And it feels like yesterday.

Here's what I wrote about these pictures at the time:

"Music and a bonfire on a Devon hillside to celebrate the spring equinox (Monday, March 21st) in traditional fashion. Musicians: Howard (guitar, accordion, shakers), Steve Dooley (drums), Rima Staines (accordion, clarinet, flute), Tom Hirons (clarinet, guitar), Jason of England (drum), Thomas Hine (fiddle) and Damien Hackney (not pictured, fiddle). Bonfire hosts: Jason and Ruth Olley. Dogs: Tilly, Macha, Warlock, Ash, and Pigsy. Friends, neighbors, parents, grandparents, and children. Food cooked on the fire, painted eggs, and laughter. And a whole lot warmer than it was last time. Spring is finally here."

"It was one of those March days when the sun shines hot and the wind blows cold:  when it is summer in the light, and winter in the shade." -  Charles Dickens


The Visitors by Rima Staines


Words: The passage above by Scott Russell Sanders comes from Writing from the Center (Indiana University Press, 1995). The passage by Terry Tempest Williams comes from an interview by Derrick Jensen in Listening to the Land: Conversations about Nature, Culture, and Ethos (Chelsea Green, 2004). All rights reserved by the authors. Picture: "The Visitors," a watercolor painting by Rima Staines.