Today we grieve. Tomorrow we fight. Art & activism matter more than ever. So does community. Stay strong.
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."
"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.
"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.
"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."
The 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.
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.
"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.
"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.
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."
"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."
''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.''
Words: 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.
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."
"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."
"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."
The 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.
"It is Story that heals us, that shapeshifts us, that saves us.'' - Sylvia V. Linsteadt
And, sometimes, a good dog.
"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.
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.
"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.
"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."
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.
Scott 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.