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

Nattadon sunrise 1

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.

Nattadon sunrise 4

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


On moving forward through difficult times, part four: Why Stories Matter

Woodland hound

"Stories teach us how to be human," writes Scott Russell Sanders (in one of my all-time favorite essays, The Power of Stories). "As I understand it, becoming fully human means learning to savor the world, to share in community, to see through the eyes of other people, to take reponsibility for our actions, to educate our desires, to dwell knowingly in time and place, to cope with suffering and death.

"We are creatures of instinct, but not solely of instinct. More than any other animal we must learn to behave. In this perennial effort, as Ursula K. Le Guin says, 'Story is our nearest and dearest way of understanding our lives and finding our way forward.' Skill is knowing how to do something; wisdom is knowing when and why to do it. While stories may display skills aplenty, in technique or character or plot, what the best of them offer is wisdom. They hold a living reservoir of human possibilities, telling us what has worked before, what has failed, what meaning and purpose and joy might be found.

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Woodland hound 3

"At the heart of many tales is a test, a puzzle, a riddle, a problem to solve; and that, surely, is the condition of our lives, both in detail -- as we decide how to act in the present moment -- and in general, as we seek to understand what it all means. Like so many characters, we are lost in a dark wood, a labyrinth, a swamp, and we need a trail of stories to show us the way back to our true home."

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So please, creative people, keep telling those stories, in whatever medium you work in. Keep listening to the stories of others. Keep building those trails leading out of the dark woods.

And for those passing through the dark right now, stay safe. Stay open-hearted. Stay strong.

PathScott Russell Sander's "The Power of Stories" was first published in The Georgie Review (Springm 1997), and can also be found in his essay collection The Force of Spirit (Beacon Press, 2000). The poem in the picture captions comes from The Antigonish Review (#126, 2001). All rights reserved by the authors.


On moving forward through difficult times, part three: Telling Our Stories

Briar Rose (collage) by T Windling

This post is from the archives, but seems pertinent this week:

“I believe in all human societies there is a desire to love and be loved, to experience the full fierceness of human emotion, and to make a measure of the sacred part of one's life. Wherever I've traveled -- Kenya, Chile, Australia, Japan -- I've found the most dependable way to preserve these possibilities is to be reminded of them in stories. Stories do not give instruction, they do not explain how to love a companion or how to find God. They offer, instead, patterns of sound and association, of event and image. Suspended as listeners and readers in these patterns, we might reimagine our lives."   - Barry Lopez (About This Life)

"I come from a long line of tellers: mesemondok, old Hungarian women who tell while sitting on wooden chairs with their plastic pocketbooks on their laps, their knees apart, their skirts touching the ground...and cuentistas, old Latina women who stand, robust of breast, hips wide, and cry out the story ranchera style. Both clans storytell in the plain voice of women who have lived blood and babies, bread and bones. For them, story is a medicine which strengthens and arights the individual and the community."   - Clarissa Pinkola Estés (Women Who Run With the Wolves)

Donkeyskin (collage) by T Windling

"Make up a story.

"Narrative is radical, creating us at the very moment it is being created. We will not blame you if your reach exceeds your grasp; if love so ignites your words they go down in flames and nothing is left but their scald. Or if, with the reticence of a surgeon's hands, your words suture only the places where blood might flow. We know you can never do it properly -- once and for all. Passion is never enough; neither is skill. But try. For our sake and yours forget your name in the street; tell us what the world has been to you in the dark places and in the light. Don't tell us what to believe, what to fear. Show us belief's wide skirt and the stitch that unravels fear's caul."

- Toni Morrison (Nobel Prize acceptance speech, 1993)

In the Meadow (collage) by T WindlingThe poems tucked into the picture captions are "Caraboose" © 1999 by Delia Sherman (read the full poem here), "Donkeyskin" © by Midori Snyder © 2001, and "Once Upon a Time,' She Said" by Jane Yolen, all rights reserved. My collages above are: "Briar Rose," "Donkeyskin," and "In the Meadow."   Recommended reading: "Susan Sontag on Storytelling" by Maria Popova. (Brain Pickings)