Guest Post: Tenderness, the Breaker of Curses

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My apologies for missing this week's "Monday Tunes" post. I had computer problems yesterday, and spent the day sorting it out -- but all is well now and I'm back online again.

Today's Guest Post is by my friend Briana Saussy, based in San Antonio, Texas. Bri is a writer, teacher, counselor and community-maker deeply rooted in the myth & fairy tale tradition. One of the many ways she spreads magic in the world is through her wonderful Lunar Letters, sent out on the full moon each month. I love Bri's writing, and these missives are invariably wise, insightful, and enchanting.

Like many around the world, I am still in a state of shock from the American election result -- a horror compounded by the fall-out from the EU Referendum result here in the UK. Speaking to my husband after the election, he reminded me that fearfulness of the future can make us draw in and close ourselves off when what we need to do is the opposite: open our hearts, step out into the world, carry the light forward when the world is dark around us. Briana's latest Lunar Letter is helpful in this regard, so I asked her permission to share it here. Her subject this month is "Tenderness, the Breaker of Curses."

Circe Invidiosa by John William Waterhouse"To be cursed," writes Briana, "is to be dried up, devoid of moisture and suppleness, brittle and lacking the essential ingredient of life: fresh, circulating water. The most harmful afflictions of body, mind, spirit, and soul are those that seek to take away, ignore, and otherwise exploit our ability to be tender towards ourselves and towards one another. The remedy for this affliction may take many different forms, but always includes blessing what is tender within you.

"In many different cultures, the evil eye is understood primarily as a 'drying' condition, one in which your money dries up, your health dries up, your fertility and verve for life also dry up. In opposition, to be blessed is to be moist, supple, full of flowing water, clean, bathed, and tender like new shoots of grass, tender like fresh green wood sprouting forth from a tree, tender like the water filled skin of a newborn baby nestled up safely in your arms.  Losing one’s tenderness, therefore, is tantamount to losing one’s life.

"The loss of tenderness and thus of life is not difficult to achieve. Let yourself be taken over by anger, envy, jealousy, hatred, and fear, and you will know how easy it is to do. You can observe for yourself the negative consequences of being taken over by these emotions, how they cause a withering and a contraction in your life and relationships. But even so, we may come to doubt the need for tenderness. Why be tender in a world and in a time that seems so often to only reward the tougher-than-nails? How does one cultivate tenderness in the face of violence, bloodshed, and injustice? What is tenderness other than one more vulnerability, easily overcome by those who are 'stronger'? How do we stay tender in times such as these and how do we bless our tender places?

Hylas and the Nymphs by John William Waterhouse

"We bless our tender places by calling in the waters. We call in the waters so that we might cry good and salty tears, make nourishing soup, wash the dust off our clothes, and irrigate the seeds we have planted. So that we may drink of the waters and bathe in them, washing ourselves clean, literally renewing ourselves. We call in the waters from within, reaching deep and accessing the sacred well that may be blocked or polluted, but is simply waiting to be set free, waiting to be cleansed so that it can run, rush, and spring forth from the solid ground of your very life.  

Mermaid by John William Waterhouse"Tenderness -- and the circulating life waters corresponding to it -- points to the deepest parts of our resilient nature. Resilience is a power, and it is what makes for much needed hardiness of life and soul. 

"Sometimes it seems that there is no water to call in, no source of nourishment, of life-celebrating and life-protecting magic. But finding the water, finding the sources of life and nourishment, is not an easy task. Especially not when you look around and all you see is hard, sun-baked rock, packed gravel, and too much asphalt.

"I have lived most of my life in desert regions, and so I know from firsthand experience the water that is there, hundreds of feet under the ground and flowing in madly rushing rivers or collected in fathomless lakes. You don’t see it, but it is there. When the territory around looks most inhospitable to tenderness, then you know that you are in exactly the right spot to fill yourself up with all that gives life, all that keeps you supple, all that keeps you tender. You may have to dig for it, you might have to learn to collect it drop by drop from precious rainfalls, you may end up going on a pilgrimage to find it; but it is there, waiting to be called upon.

The Charmer by John William Waterhouse"To bless tenderness is also to protect it. In desert areas that are hot, arid, and dry, the culture is one of toughness, and even the plants with their prickles and thorns seem to just be waiting for their chance to chew you up and spit you out. If you neglected to look closely, you would be forgiven for thinking that toughness and hardness is all that matters. But soulful seekers do look closer, and what we find are that the plants with the best boundaries are the same that have the most tender, water-filled skins. They give us the blessing way. Find the water, find the sources of life, and when you do, keep them safe; build a good boundary around them. Don’t just let anyone access your tenderness, choose actively and with discernment who and when and where receives the privilege of your softness.

"To bless our tender places is to ask for and gladly accept help. In many cultures there are Gods and Holy Helpers who bring the waters of life, bring the rains, bring the thunderclouds that roll in with their big noise, making the hairs on the back of your neck stand up and reminding you that you are very much alive, creating with every breath you take, holding an infinite cosmos within your very body. We are not islands meant to do it all on our own. We have two-legged and four-legged, winged, clawed, fanged, and finned relatives who are here and ready and willing to help point us in all the right directions; so we look to them and we listen.

Ariadne by John William Waterhouse

"Finally, tenderness is meant to be shared. Like water, it requires a solid vessel, the boundary of the cacti, to keep it stored up safely; but once we are filled up with it we cannot help but overflow. The overflow happens in many ways -- through tears and laughter and deep kisses and long touches, through creative work and vibrant dance, and the sweet sound of the saxophone or drums under the stars. These are all medicines, results from the blessing and safe keeping of your tenderness, that literally spill forth and out into the world much like water, nourishing much like water, and restoring so many that are on the brink of death back into life.

"Tenderness is no small thing. It is, in truth, a source of the greatest strength. It is not the weak spot or the pain point to be covered up, but rather a sign post, the tracks in the snow, that carry you forward to your own headwaters, no matter where it leads. So remember that anytime the flow feels blocked, anytime your skin feels shrunken and life feels too dry, relationships too brittle, and your broken places too yawning and jagged; remember when you feel raw and exposed, vulnerable, or too tender, remember what lessons tenderness has to teach you about your own hardiness, your own deeply resilient nature. It may be time to bless your most tender places and call forth the waters once more."

Miranda by John William Waterhouse

If you'd like to sign up for Briana's Lunar Letters, you can do so here. I also recommend her Daily Blessings, charmingly illustrated by Cassandra Oswald.

For more about the myths and folklore of water, see my previous post "Water, wild and sacred." And for a beautiful piece on creating art during troubled times, see "Time and Silence, Color and Light" by Edith Hope Bishop.

The paintings today are by John William Waterhouse (1849-1917), an English artist in the "Second Wave" of the Pre-Raphaelite movement.

Destiny by John William Waterhouse


The dragons in our lives, and in the world

The Reluctant Dragon illustrated by Inga Moore

I'm still under the weather, but popping in just long enough to post the following words by Rainer Maria Rilke. I was feeling in need of them today, and perhaps you are too....

In Letters to a Young Poet, he writes: "How should we be able to forget those ancient myths that are at the beginning of all peoples, the myths about dragons that at the last moment turn into princesses; perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love."

The illustration is by Inga Moore, from "The Reluctant Dragon" by Kenneth Grahame.

The Reluctant Dragon illustrated by Inga Moore


Sunrise on Nattadon Hill

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From an interview with Terry Tempest Williams in Guernica magazine:

"Finding beauty in a broken world is creating beauty in the world we find. For me, we find this beauty through relationships, with people in place with other species. Integrity is the word that comes to mind. Integrity and presence.

"A friend of mine said to me not long ago, 'Terry you are married to sorrow.' I looked at him and said, 'No, I am not married to sorrow, I just choose not to look away.' To not avert our eyes to suffering is to trust the power of presence. Joy emerges through suffering. Suffering is a component of joy. Whether we are sitting with a loved one dying or witnessing dolphins side-by-side watching the oil burning in the Gulf of Mexico, to be present with the world is to be alive. I think of Rilke once again, 'Beauty is the beginning of terror.' We can breathe our way toward courage.

Nattadon sunrise 2

Nattadon sunrise 3

"When we were working in the village of Rugerero with Rwandan women who had lost everything from war, I saw a light in their eyes return when their children began picking up paintbrushes and painting the walls of their homes. Joy entered in. Creativity ignited a spark. In that moment, I saw that art is not peripheral, beauty is not optional, but a strategy for survival.

"In Rwanda, USAID was saying, 'How can you dare to paint a village when people are hungry?' But beauty feeds a different kind of hunger. And when there’s so much ugliness in the world that we’ve created, I think it’s essential, that whether it’s pausing in a garden with a trowel in hand, or walking up to Delicate Arch in Arches National Park, or picking up a paintbrush with children, our soul seizes beauty and is sustained.

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Nattadon sunrise 5

"Finding beauty in a broken world is acknowledging that beauty leads us to our deepest and highest selves. It inspires us. We have an innate desire for grace. It’s not that all our definitions of beauty are the same, but when you see a particular heron in the bend in the river, day after day, something in your soul stirs. We remember what it means to be human."

Nattadon sunrise 6

Nattadon Sunrise 7The quote above comes from a TTW interview by Devon Fredericksen in Guernica magazine (August, 2013). The quotes in the picture captions are from the same interview, as well as an interview by Lorraine Berry on the Talking Writing blog (June, 2013). All rights reserved by the authors.


Floating on the pulse of the Earth

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After a week's disconnection from the Internet and the news headlines, it was disheartening to return home again and find the world in worse shape then ever. The UK government's xenophobic pronouncements are truly frightening, the American election is even worse...while climate change roars on and refugees prepare for another hard winter, homeless and unwanted. I'd come back to Chagford feeling calm and restored by a week of solitude in nature, yet the tide of dreadful news threatened to sweep me back into a state of despondency.  The following passage by Kathleen Dean Moore steadied me, however, reminding me that hope and despair, happiness and sorrow, are cyclical things, like nature itself. There will be good news, there will be bad news, and we carry on: fighting the good fight and finding ways to make beauty, even out of the darkest of materials.

"I don't know what despair is," writes Moore," if it's something or nothing, a kind of filling up or an emptying out. I don't know what sorrow does to the world, what it adds or takes away. What I think I do know now is that sorrow is part of the Earth's great cycles, flowing into night like cool air sinking down a river course. To feel sorrow is to float on the pulse of the Earth, the surge from living to dying, from coming into being to ceasing to exist.

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"Maybe this is why the Earth has the power over time to wash sorrow into a deeper pool, cold and shadowed. And maybe this is why, even though sorrow never disappears, it can make a deeper connection to the currents of life and so connect, somehow, to sources of wonder and solace. I don't know.

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"And I don't know what gladness is or where it comes from, this splitting open of the self. It takes me surprise. Not an awareness of beauty and mystery, but beauty and mystery themselves, flooding into my mind suddenly without boundaries. Can this be gladness, to be lifted by that flood?"

Yes. Yes it can.

P1340915The passage is above is from the introduction to Wild Comfort: The Solace of Nature, essays by Kathleen Dean Moore (Trumpeter/Shambhala, 2010); all rights reserved by the author.


Darkness and light

Paige Bradley

Re-posted from 2014, with additional text and art...

From Linda Hogan's painful, honest, beautiful memoir, The Woman Who Watches Over the World:

"To open our eyes, to see with our inner fire and light, is what saves us. Even if it makes us vulnerable. Opening the eyes is the job of storytellers, witnesses, and the keepers of accounts. The stories we know and tell are reservoirs of light and fire that brighten and illuminate the darkness of human night, the unseen. They throw down a certain slant of light across the floor each morning, and they throw down also its shadow."

Rune Guneriussen

Rune Guneriussen

"As time has passed, things in me have been burned away and I see my life more clearly, more cleanly, than I had ever seen it before. And in that vision of my past, my history, my body, I also saw that there was something inside me that had survived and not merely survived but had done so whole and nearly intact. The hurt child raises itself and doesn't just walk but swims and flies. This child sees that life may never be easy but may be beautiful...

"Fire, like pain, like love, is a power we do not know. Yet from the ashes of each, something will grow. No one knows if it will be something beautiful and strong. But in our lives it is sometimes the broken vessel, as writer Andre Dubus calls it, that spills the light."

Bruce Munro

Bruce Munro

''How is one to live a moral and compassionate existence," asks Barry Lopez, "when one is fully aware of the blood, the horror inherent in life, when one finds darkness not only in one’s culture but within oneself? If there is a stage at which an individual life becomes truly adult, it must be when one grasps the irony in its unfolding and accepts responsibility for a life lived in the midst of such paradox. One must live in the middle of contradiction, because if all contradiction were eliminated at once life would collapse.

''There are simply no answers to some of the great pressing questions. You continue to live them out, making your life a worthy expression of leaning into the light.''

Bruce Munro

Bruce MunroWords: The passages above are from The Woman Who Watches Over the World: A Native Memoir by Linda Hogan (WW Norton, 2001) and Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez (Scribner's, 1986); all rights reserved by the authors.
Art: "Expansion, New York City" by Paige Bradley
(U.S.) and light installations by Rune Guneriussen (Norway) and Bruce Munro (U.K.).
A related post: "The beauty of brokeness." And I recommend "The Jagged, Gilded Script of Scars' by Alice Driver.


Remembering who we are

Woodland gate

From Beauty by the late Irish poet and philosopher John O'Donohue, whose books I return to again and again:

"The earth is our origin and destination. The ancient rhythms of the earth have insinuated themselves into the rhythms of the human heart. The earth is not outside us; it is within: the clay from where the tree of the body grows. When we emerge from our offices, rooms and houses, we enter our natural element. We are children of the earth: people to whom the outdoors is home. Nothing can separate us from the vigour and vibrancy of this inheritance. In contrast to our frenetic, saturated lives, the earth offers a calming stillness. Movement and growth in nature takes time. The patience of nature enjoys the ease of trust and hope. There is something in our clay nature that needs to continually experience this ancient, outer ease of the world. It helps us remember who we are and why we are here."

Woodland edge

"Our times are driven by the inestimable energies of the mechanical mind; its achievements derive from its singular focus, linear direction and force. When it dominates, the habit of gentleness dies out. We become blind: nature is rifled, politics eschews vision and becomes the obsessive servant of economics, and religion opts for the mathematics of system and forgets its mystical flame."

Hawthorne berries

"Yet constant struggle leaves us tired and empty. Our struggle for reform needs to be tempered and balanced with a capacity for celebration. When we lose sight of beauty our struggle becomes tired and functional. When we expect and engage the Beautiful, a new fluency is set free within us and between us. The heart becomes rekindled and our lives brighten with unexpected courage."

Animal GuideThe passages above are from Beauty: The Invisible Embrace by John O'Donohue (HarperCollins, 2004). The quotes in the picture captions are from "The Practice of Beauty" by James Hillman (The Sphinx, 4, 1992); The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard (Penguin, 1990); On Beauty & Being Just by Elaine Scarry (Princeton University Press, 1999); and Rumi: The Book of Love: Poems of Ecstasy & Longing, translated by Coleman Barks (arperCollins, 2003). All rights reserved by the authors.


Recommended Reading:

Reading by Frederick Leighton

In a lovely new piece on becoming a novelist, Ramona Ausubel writes:

"We are not ever just writers -- we are also sons and daughters of good parents and disappointing parents and we are partners who need to pick up a quart of milk on the way home and parents who crawl into bed with the little ones late at night to admire them when they are still, even though we know we don’t have any tiredness to spare. We are students and teachers. We are readers, taking in the universes created by other minds. Our stories and poems and essays are written in and amongst and because of these moments."

So true. As it this:

"People will tell you that you need a thick skin to be a writer, what with all that disappointment and rejection, but I think part of what makes a good writer is the ability to be porous, to be able to feel all the intricate and complicated notes, the particular music of each moment. No writer should turn the volume down on her own emotional register. That’s her instrument. We have to feel everything."

Go here for the full article. It's beautifully written, funny, and wise.


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