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


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Guest Post: The Youth of Odysseus

by Stuart Hill

OK, I suspect a lot of you may think I’m just the loudmouthed, opinionated contrarian who only sticks his pennyworth into Myth & Moor discussions when he has something to condemn or attack. And I think it’s fair to say that, to a certain extent, that’s true.... But I’m not only that. I’m also an enthusiast, an artist, a writer, a drinker of beer and eater of chocolate; and when Terri was kind enough to ask me to be a guest contributor, I leapt at the chance. Now’s your opportunity to have a go back at me, because not only do I want to talk about one of the earliest, and some say greatest, literary heroes of all, namely Odysseus, but I’m also going to link it to the making of one of my paintings, depicting the hero as a young man.

Pencil drawing by Stuart HuillAs you can see, I’ve decided to show the process of the picture’s creation from the earliest faint pencil drawing to the finished image. I’m afraid I’m responsible for the photos, so as a result they’re not very good. But apart from that caveat, please feel free to say what you think: good, bad or indifferent. Believe it or not, even as a loudmouthed, opinionated contrarian I lack confidence in my work (though quite a lot of people have been kind enough to pay actual real money for my pictures), and I always like to get a consensus of views before I determine how good or bad they actually are.

The idea for the picture came about when I heard of a painting competition in which artists were invited to submit a piece inspired by poetry. The poem could be published or unpublished, and could even be written by the artists themselves. Well, one of my favourite pieces of all time is ‘Ulysses’ (unfortunately the Romanized version of the Greek name) by Tennyson, telling of the old age of the hero. But after making a few sketches I decided that it’d be interesting to travel to the other end of the chronological spectrum and consider the youth of Odysseus.

Painting in progress by Stuart Hill

Of course, the root of my interest in this mythical hero is ‘The Odyssey’, the epic poem composed by Homer, though the story and the character is probably much older than the poem and the ‘Epic Cycle’ it comes from. The Homeric form of the tale, some believe, is the genesis of the modern novel, which eventually evolved into the narrative works we read today. In the ancient poem, not only do we have the great themes of love, death, loyalty and tragedy to consider, but the entire package is encapsulated within a metaphorical journey where all these themes are subjected to the forensic scrutiny of the poet; and this is perfectly mirrored by the physical journey through the Painting in progress by Stuart HillMediterranean made by Odysseus and his crew. The characters are fully rounded, and display the fragilities and strengths of humanity. I’ve tried to capture something of this in my picture, in my rather ham-fisted way.

But here we’re discussing the power of the image, rather than the word, to tell a story. I love the concept of ‘narrative art’, from the caves of Lascaux telling the tale of the hunt (perhaps) to the modern graphic novel. But in this picture my aim was to tell a simple, single-imaged tale of the strength, and also the vulnerability, of Odysseus as a young man. He stands almost framed by a new moon that symbolises his youth, and stares ahead to the horizon that, for him, is physically defined by the meeting of sky and sea beyond the scope of the picture. The flying seagull suggests journeys beyond the horizon and the limits of his sight -- and this can also be applied to the span of his life. Odysseus has no idea what lays ahead, but he is destined to live a life of warfare, loss and tragedy. He will fight the Trojans in a siege that will last for a decade, and then he will have to endure a journey home that will take just as long.

Painting in progress by Stuart HillThe themes and action in 'The Odyssey' could be seen as the products of an oppressively militaristic patriarchal society where women were woefully undervalued and suppressed, and yet the power of the female is demonstrated again and again throughout the story. At first glance the tale really does seem to be a male-dominated narrative, but Odysseus has a powerful female patron in the form of the mighty Goddess Athena. Even so, he will have to fight monsters who kill and literally eat his crew, outwit Calypso (the powerful sorceress who turns his men into swine), and be rescued from shipwreck by the young Princess Nausicaa, before he can reach his home shores of Ithaca and his wife Penelope, who has remained steadfastly loyal to him. If 'The Odyssey' is the tale of a man’s heroic struggle to return home, it is also most definitely the story of female power: both negative, in the form of sorceresses, harpies, and sirens, and positive, in the depiction of patron goddesses, unfailingly honourable wives, and empathetic, nurturing young women. In fact, in the nineteenth century, some scholars believed that the composer of the poem was a woman, and Samuel Butler the essayist and novelist, wrote a book in 1897 called The Authoress of the Odyssey in which this theory is discussed at some length.

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In my picture, the young Odysseus is still something of an unwritten page. He wears the panoply of the hoplite soldier of Classical Greece, yet he represents the Heroic past of Mycenae as it was perceived by Homer, a poet from the later Archaic period. The real Odysseus, if he existed at all, might have been something of a murderous thug who would have been rightly condemned by the tenets of our society. But he would also have had a time of youthful uncertainties in which he would have looked ahead with the sight of both eye and mind as he tried to see what his journey, and also his life, had in store for him.

Greek vessel depicting Odysseus and the swineherdOdysseus has long been a favourite subject for visual artists, and I hope that my picture has the right to stand amongst the many fine depictions that have come down through the centuries.The genius of Homer has made for us an entire dramatis personae of characters, and long may they be reinterpreted by each and every society that encounters them anew.


The Youth of Odysseus

I hear whispers…

I hear whispers
mixed in a muffle of hush,
steeped in the song
The OdysseyOf this sea’s driving wind.

I grasp at words
But not meaning;
I’ve yet to live the language
That translates mere noise
To understanding.

I guess at journeys
In the cadence of the sound;
I guess at battles in the rhythms
Of the speech.
But I ears see losses
And long absence
From those who give colour
To a tapestry The Fates
Have yet to weave.

I hear whispers
But I cannot grasp the words

I hear whispers…


Odysseus in Yoouth by Stuart Hill                                                                                                                                                  'The Youth of Odysseus' by Stuart Hill

About the author of this Guest Post:

Stuart Hill is the author of the Icemark Chronicles series and other works of historical fantasy, translated into 18 languages. His first novel, The Cry of the Icemark, won the inaugural Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and his most recent novel, Prince of the Icemark, was shortlisted for the prestigious Red House Children's Book Award. Born in Leicester in the English Midlands (where he still lives), Stuart left school early but eventually went back to study English, Classics, and Ancient History at Newcastle University. He's worked as a teacher and archaeologist, and now divides his time between writing, painting, and bookselling. His influences include H. Rider Haggard, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Margaret Abbey -- his former grade school teacher who is also a writer of historical novels.

''The true artist plays mad with his soul, labors at the very lip of the volcano, but remembers and clings to his purpose, which is as strong as the dream. He is not someone possessed, like Cassandra, but a passionate, easily tempted explorer who fully intends to get home again, like Odysseus.'' - John Gardner

ToolsThe text, poem, and artwork above is by Stuart Hill; all rights reserved. The poem in the picture captions is from C.P. Cavafy's Collected Poems, translated from the Greek by Edmund Keeley & Philip Sherrard (Princeton University Press, 1992).


Christopher LeithSuch Stuff As Dreams
Are Made On: A Tribute to Christopher Leith

by Howard Gayton
with Terri Windling

Last week, I heard the sad news that Christopher Leith, a master of puppet theatre in Britain, had died from the complications of motor neurone disease, which he developed in 2013. In addition to his many other accomplishments, Christopher was the Artistic Director at the Little Angel theatre in London, where I worked regularly in the 1990s and developed many of my own ideas about the art of puppetry due to his mentorship, and so I want to share some thoughts on the life and art of this puppet master. I'm primarily a dramatist, however, not an essayist, so in order to give readers a proper idea of Chris' remarkable work, I asked my wife, who is an essayist, to help me put this piece together.

Christopher's deep obsession with puppets went right back to his childhood. "The family didn't approve," he told Chandra Masoliver in a recent interview; "my stepfather said I was 'playing with dolls.' Retrospectively, I think I was creating a world I could control, but as I reached my teens, puppeteering changed from being a need to being a vocation." He studied theatre design at Wimbledon School of Arts in London, acting at Dartington College of Arts in Devon, and apprenticed in puppet design and manipulation under John & Lyndie Wright of London's Little Angel Theatre.

Nzua puppet by Christopher LeithIn addition to his long association with the Little Angel, Chris' work with puppets was so extensive that I can only touch on a few highlights here. He played many different roles in his work: he designed and carved puppets; he wrote, directed, and performed in numerous puppet productions; he taught and mentored younger puppeteers; and he worked in film (with Jim Henson, Lotte Reiniger, Disney Studios, and others), although theatre remained his first love. He was Resident Puppeteer for the National Theatre, and worked with many other companies, large and small, including the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Royal Opera House, English National Opera, the London Palladium and Polka Theatre. His puppets, sculptures and drawings have been exhibited at the National Theatre, the British Museum, the V&A Museum and other venues. Chris also loved music: he trained in Gregorian chant with Dr. Mary Berry, and performed regularly with the Schola Gregoriana. To learn more, go here (and scroll down the page) for a time-line of his career.

Chris Leith

Chris came into my life when I was a young puppeteer & director -- discouraged by the difficult dynamics of one of my earliest jobs in the field and considering giving up puppetry altogether. He brought me into the Little Angel team and re-ignited my love for the form. "There is a spirit in every object that has magic in it," Christopher Howard Gayton at the Little Angel Theatreliked to say. "A puppet is like a little nest where the spirits can come down, enjoy being and dance there. Puppets have no free will, a puppet comes to life when it is picked up and it dies when it is put down again...like an empty shell. Puppets exist in a state which is both alive and dead at the same moment…that’s why puppetry is the most beguiling of all the theatre arts; and the best puppeteers are the ones who let the audience dream in the strongest way."

In paying my tribute to this kind and gentle man, I'd like to describe the very first exercise he taught me, for it has stuck with me over all these years and proven to be instrumental in my personal approach to puppetry. The exercise is ridiculously simple on the surface, but has great depths of meaning and philosophy beneath:

We begin by sitting in stillness. I ask you, the student, to simply sit and look at your puppet. (Chris often used an old doll-like puppet; when I teach, I use an old bit of cloth.)

Puppets for 3 Stages of LazarusDon't touch the puppet, not yet. Centre yourself by concentrating on your breath, and then make a connection with the puppet through your eyes alone. Now use your imagination to make an energetic connection to the puppet through your lower energy centre, just below your navel -- what the Taoists call the Dan Tien. And then, when you're ready, when the moment feels right, move your hand gently to rest on the puppet. “The first moment of connection is special,” I remember Chris saying. “It is when you are giving the puppet life.”

After touching the puppet, allow the rise and fall of your breathing to transfer into it. This is what moves the puppet into motion, the sacred connection between puppet and puppeteer. “Each time you make that contact with the puppet,” Chris would remind us, “you are giving life.”

And there it is, at the heart of this simple, powerful exercise: the Creation Myth.

In the beginning, the Gods took a handful of moist clay and crafted a human form. They breathed life into it through its nostrils and gave it consciousness....

Art doesn't get much more profound than this: the creation of life. The creation of the world.

3 Stages for Lazarus, Christopher Leith

"Now," Chris would say at the end of the exercise, "center yourselves once again, and when it feels right, slowly withdraw your hand from the puppet...." For of course, the puppets we infuse with our breath and consciousness become inert again when the story is done. You’ve brought the puppet to life, allowed it to explore its world, but now that life has to be taken back. If the giving of life is a powerfully mythic moment, the ending of it is perhaps even more so. The circle has completed itself.

The power of Chris' exercise was brought home to me a couple of years ago when I used it to teach a small group of puppeteers I was working with for the first time. One of the puppeteers had suffered a miscarriage not long before, and the symbolic gesture of giving life to her puppet...and then withdrawing it...moved her deeply. I was reminded, once again, that working with puppets is not a frivolous thing, for puppets (like masks) touch our consciousness on a deep archetypal level.

Puppets by Christopher Leith (2nd photograph by Manuel Vasquez)

A willing "suspension of disbelief" is an integral part of all forms of theatre, but this is multiplied ten-fold with puppetry. Whether you are using a beautifully crafted puppet, a rough knock-about one, or simply a piece of cloth or lump of wood, the audience will see it as a real-life character if it's manipulated by a skilled puppeteer: a character conveying all the triumphs and tragedies inherent in the human condition. The Christopher Leith, 3 Stages for Lazarus rehearsal, 2015audience laughs at a puppet's foolishness, and is brought to tears by its struggles. Through the carefully crafted illusion that brings puppets to life, children are transported to a magical, mythical realm...and adults are turned into children again, submersed in the Otherworld of make believe.

Although Chris began showing symptoms of motor neurone diesease in 2013, he continued to work with puppets in whatever ways his failing strength allowed: he could no longer carve, or manipulate the puppets, but he still directed, taught, championed the art form wherever and whenever he could, and served as Patron of The Curious School of Puppetry. Guy Dartnell has been organising the effort to archive and document Chris' work. (There's a Facebook page for updates on this.) And Chris' final production, 3 Stages for Lazarus, is scheduled to debut at the Suspense Festival at the Little Angel next week.

Go here to read about the production in an article by Chandra Masoliver. And go here to see a fascinating interview filmed earlier this year by Guy Dartnell. Chris discusses puppetry, carving, his final projects, and living with motor neurone disease, interspersed with clips  from his 'Beowulf' (1971), and a glimpse of his puppetry workshop.

In the short video below (filmed four months ago), Christopher's last puppet is brought to life:

"The back of Lazarus was the last piece of carving I ever did," Chris said. "To see it coming to life in this way is magical; it’s beautiful. I started working on Lazarus in 2010, well before any signs of motor neurone disease. I heard the words ‘fixed and cannot move’ in a song; that’s how puppets are -- and are not. Lazarus is about the fragility of life."

Star Maiden puppet by Christopher Leith
Prospero:


Our revels now are ended. These our actors,

As I foretold you, were all spirits, and

Are melted into air, into thin air:

And like the baseless fabric of this vision, 

The cloud-capp'd tow'rs, the gorgeous palaces,

The solemn temples, the great globe itself,

Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,

And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,

Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff

As dreams are made on; and our little life

Is rounded with a sleep.

The Tempest Act 4, scene 1, 148–158

Chris, wherever you are now, in the circle of life and death, thank you. You'll never be forgotten.

Christopher Leith

About the author of this Guest Post: Howard Gayton is a puppeteer, a dramatist (specializing in mask theatre), and a tutor at the Curious School of Puppetry.

Picture credits: Identification of the photographs can be found in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) The third photo is of Howard at the Little Angel in the 1990s; all the rest are of Christopher and his puppets, and come primarily from the 3 Stages for Lazarus Facebook page, set up by Guy Dartnell to honor Chris' work, and the V&A Museum Collections site.  All rights to the quotes, photographs & videos above reserved by their creators , the V&A, and the Christopher Leith estate.


Guest Post: Days of the Dead

Dionicio Remembered by Stu Jenks

Today's Guest Post concerns the annual "Día de los Muertos" festivities in Tucson, Arizona. Started by a single artist in 1990, Tucson's All Souls Procession has grown into a weekend-long event with close to 100,000 participants, including numerous art instalation and altars and a pyrotechnic Finale.   - T.W.


Dancing skeletons
Tucson's All Souls Procession
photographs and text by Stu Jenks

Many in Western culture today seem to believe that we will never die. If we eat right, exercise and think good thoughts, we’ll live forever, and if not that, we’ll all die in our sleep, having been perfectly healthy the night before at the ripe old age of 107.

But we all know that’s not true.

Death is many things: The end of long suffering and illness; a sudden death due to accident, violence or overdose; a child dying far too soon; a peaceful transition from one life to the next; a quiet entering into the void; a life everlasting; or simply a great big dirt nap.

Any, all, or none of the above.

But one thing is not mysterious.

We will all die, every single one of us, and after we have died, friends, family, and loved ones will remember us, and most will miss that we are no longer around.

Annie Gordon by Stu Jenks

Leon's Mom by Stu Jenks

Tucson’s All Souls’ Procession Weekend is a remembrance of those who have died and the mysteries that surround them.

The weekend begins with an afternoon for children, and finishes with Sunday’s All Souls’ Procession and Finale -- when the Urn of full of prayers gathered from the crowd is spectacularly set alight -- leaving people stunned and awake, crying and smiling, somber and laughing, fearful and full of faith.

Prayers Received by Stu Jenks

Fire-swinger by Stu Jenks

Prayer Collector by Stu Jenks

Prayers for the Urn by Stu Jenks

Every one I know who has participated in a Tucson All Souls’ Procession Weekend, as a walker, watcher, or performer, has a story of being unexpectedly moved, shaken, or awed.

"I saw ghosts rising from that vacant lot. I swear I did," said one acrobat, pointing across the street toward where an old city graveyard once sat.

"I really miss my daddy, so I’m making this," said a five year old girl working on a mini-shrine of twigs and grass in Armory Park for her deceased father.

"I felt my mother’s presence beside me the whole way," said one middle-aged woman, waiting to watch the Finale.

Watching, Remembering by Stu Jenks

Honoring the Dead by Stu Jenks

All Souls Piper by Stu Jenks

"I was brought to tears by the sounds of the bagpipes," said a man in a kilt as we ascended from beneath the Fourth Avenue underpass.

"Every time I saw Lois’s face projected on that big wall, I burst into tears,” said a woman, who stood on the roof of a warehouse along the route.

These stories are at the same time both personal and universal.

Two Poi by Stu Jenks

Green Prayer Urn by Stu Jenks

Passel of Women and Urn by Stu Jenks

Lighting the Urn by Stu Jenks

The Urn Ignites by Stu Jenks

Prayers Burning by Stu Jenks

"What makes All Souls’ so amazing to me," said a long time walker of the Sunday Procession, "is we are all having this very personal experience while walking with thousands of other people, who are also having a very personal experience while walking with thousands of other people. It’s really hard to put into words."

Yes, it is.

Cross and Candle by Stu JenksImages and text copyright by Stu Jenks; used with his permission.  The photo titles are in the picture captions -- which can be viewed by running your cursor over the images.

A book of All Souls images by Stu and other Tucson photographers ecan be purchased here, with proceeds benefiting the Procession.


Guest Post: Mythic Theatre in Devon

Parzival at Sharpham House

Parzival
 Parzival
 
at Sharpham House

reviewed by Howard Gayton


On arrival at Sharpham, the marshals help you to park and find your way to the "holding field," with its beautiful views across the River Dart. As the audience sits admiring the landscape, a faint sound of drumming comes from the woods below; not awful ‘"let’s bang on a djembe" drumming, but rhythmical, pulsing, and fun. There is something interesting and enticing happening down there in the trees. Immediately you know that real care and thought has gone into this promenade performance: you will be in safe hands during a journey both physical and metaphysical into the forest and on the quest for the Grail.

For promenade performance to succeed, it needs a skillful guide. In this show, the task falls to the artful storyteller, Martin Shaw. Throughout the evening, he entertains, guides, informs, and cajoles the audience -- throwing in funny, throw-away contemporary references every now and then, while also drawing pertinent parallels between the world of myth (in which the audience finds itself) and our own times, our own lives.

The flow of the show -- both physically, in the movement from the forest to the court and then to the castle, and in the narrative -- is superbly handled. This is achieved by a combination of well-executed elements: the stunning grounds of Sharpham used in perfect combination with the narrative; the masked ushers and the ever-present story-teller guiding us on; musicians and drummers keeping us connected to the play as we move through the trees; and skillful stage management moving actors and props unobtrusively from scene to scene.

Sharpham House, Dartington

Sharpham itself provides magnificent spaces for the performance, with just the right addition of scenography and lighting where needed. These are never intrusive; and, as with all the elements of this production, handled with great sensitivity to both the story and the land.

Each scene is played out in a different part of the estate by a wonderful ensemble cast who are clearly enjoying themselves. The acting is good: physical, funny, moving, and committed. Lines are delivered well, and are audible. (Too many outdoor productions suffer from inaudible dialogue.) There are lovely touches of characterization and well delivered humour. My own speciality is mask theatre, so I feel justified in singling out one particularly fine actor in this regard. Mask work is woefully bad in many productions, but Helen Aldrich inhabited her mask brilliantly, with the right physicality to support it. This adds yet another layer of myth and magic to an already magical show.

Parzival

As well as the show's professional cast there is also a company of community members who play the masked guides. Dressed in black with blue sashes, they subtly move the audience forward and create temporary performance areas. They also play in some scenes themselves -- which they do with gusto and, as with the main cast, a good sense of ensemble.

The production's music is just right: from the incredible drumming that greets the audience in the first forest glade to the incidental music -- subtle, humorous, and evocative by turns -- played on a variety of strange looking instruments.

It is a precious thing to find theatre that entertains and transports; that, for a few hours, brings you into a mythical world. Theatre strives to make the intangible mystery of the human condition tangible, if only for a brief moment. Parzival achieves this ... and then, as with all good theatre, the ephemeral nature of the form asserts itself. The glimpse of the "intangible made tangible" slips once again beyond our grasp ... like the Grail of the story.

Directed by Matthew (Harry) Burton, Parzival shows the powerful nature of what theatre can and should be, when all of its elements -- story, performance, use of space, lighting, music and production -- work seamlessly together. It's running at Sharpham House until Sunday, July 20th. If you like theatre, if you like myth, and particularly if you like the combination of the two, then hurry to get one of the last tickets for this inspiring, thought-provoking show.



For those of you too far away to see the play, I recommend seeking out Martin Shaw's excellent books, and the West Country School of Myth.  - T.W.


Deep in the Forest, a guest post by Valerianna Claff

What would it be like to live and work at the heart of a forest? I put this question to artist and educator Valerianna Claff, whose RavenWood Forest Studio nestles among the hemlocks of western Massachusetts....

Early morning sun in the forest

"Early morning sun finds its way through the trees in long, angled rays," writes Valerianna, describing a typical day at RavenWood. "Dew rises from the glistening mosses becoming a gentle mist, a hermit thrush sings far off in the forest. I sit in a chair outside the back door, watching the majesty of the morning, taking note of the inch or two of unfurling the ferns have managed since yesterday. Sipping coffee, I mostly look and listen – a kind of morning meditation – letting my mind wander and feeling the shape of twinleaf and foamflower in my body. I feel the gentle movement of the long, lacelike hemlock boughs, blown by a slight movement of air. The towering trunks bring me to the awareness of my spine and I watch as a red eft meanders through the woodland garden. I rise and pinch a bit of new spring hemlock needles, put it in my mouth, tasting yellow-greenness and a slight hint of citrus. Under the Grandmother tree, I bend and pick a partridge berry – not very tasty – but offering some red to my morning nutrition. Kicking off my clogs, I find a place on the mosses, and go through my Qigong routine. Swatting at mosquitoes, I wish I might become evolved enough to let them be. Pasha brushes past my leg, damp from his morning wander, full of purrs and stories, a wild glint in his green-gold eyes.

Red Eft

Green Man

PashaPasha

"It has been ten years since I came to this forest, and I think I am beginning to know something of the nature here. I am not so far from civilization, only a mile from the center of town, but such a tiny town with nothing more than a library (about the size of my downstairs), a general store, church, fire station, post office and a few bed-and-breakfasts. Not one stoplight or gas station or pub. Livestock and wildlife outnumber people, and the lack of human-made sounds is noticeable. Unlike my years in the city, when I hear a lawnmower here, it seems to bring me some comfort, as if to say, no, you are not completely alone in the wilderness. A twenty-minute drive brings me to Northampton, a small city with a big heart. From there, the road leads to small towns and cities, famous educational institutions, museums and the house of Emily Dickenson, which seems always to be waving at me from across the valley.

"When I arrived here, I had a plan of a small retreat center with drum circles and large seasonal gatherings and guest teachers and performances. Wandering the land in that first autumn, my plans fell off me, floating to the earth to mingle with oak leaves. As I began to feel the spirit of this forest, I understood that this was not a place of grand views and loud, expansive expression, but a quiet, inward land, asking for listening and rooting and reflecting beside still pools and moss covered ledges. On the first misty walk my mother took with me here, she said she was expecting King Arthur to ride over the hill, as the land seemed to be whispering stories as we walked.

Forest stories

"As the steward of a deep and inward forest, I am called to sit and listen and trust in stillness. Again and again, as the twenty-first century woman that I am becomes uncomfortable with stillness, I am asked to wait, to listen longer, remain still, root deeper.

"The seasonal gatherings to celebrate Equinoxes and Solstices do happen, but they are small, intimate gatherings around a small fire where songs and stories are shared and owls and coyotes offer their calls to the circle. Small groups of seekers come to do their inner work, learning from the stillness and remembering something about dreaming and how to let their bodies be held by the earth and to find ways of communicating and knowing beyond words and intellect.

Forest dreaming

"The forest has taught me – as any wild place would – to embrace the long, dark days of winter as a time to nourish the soul with fire and stories and deep, deep dreaming. I understand something of a dark underworld journey, and the enormous gifts of seeing it through to the end. A few years ago, after the loss of a loved one, I found myself on such a journey… it seemed to never end. I had to ignore impulses to go out and manifest and DO as a stronger voice continued to tell me to wait. One cold February morning, I awoke with a clear knowing of how to move outward again. I understood that I needed to bring my teaching more fully to the forest, to integrate all the parts of me, to share my relationship with the wild and to invite others to know stillness. I needed a grant to build a studio. I looked up a grant I had heard about that offers assistance to forest-based businesses encouraging forest owners to keep their land forested. The grant had not given out money in several years, but that year they were offering grants and the application was due in a month. I applied, got the grant, and RavenWood Forest, Studio of Mythic & Environmental Arts was built.

The studio

"A precious gift I have received from this forest is the gift of remembering. Finding a place just far enough away from the bustle, where the wild feels bigger than the human world, I remember myself as a soul being, quite removed from the definitions, boxes and labels that culture puts on me. When the owl comes to spend the day on her sunny perch outside my window, or a bear lumbers by, or I find a luna moth resting in a shady spot under a leaf, or I walk out to a garden filled with hundreds of dragon flies, darting this way and that, I am entranced and fully present with what is left of the wild within me.

Owl on her perchOwl on her perch

A bear comes out of trees, seeking ants to eatA bear comes out of the trees, seeking ants to eat

"But there are shadows here, too. One cannot spend years peering into the dark, still pools without being brought to one’s knees. Living alone here, I sometimes need to seek refuge in a town to walk around and look in shops and NOT be down under the towering trees. I need to go to the ridge top and be loud and expansive. My job as an adjunct art professor helps with getting me out, and, as teaching does, keeps my world full of young folk and forces me out of dreaming and into intellectual conversation. This is good for me. The long commute and the less than fair pay isn’t so good, but I stay connected.

"So it might seem that I have become a bit like the witch in the woods, like the character from my favorite childhood film, “The Three Lives of Thomasina”. She lives in an idyllic cottage in the forest, knows the language of birds and foxes, grows her own food and is the wise woman healer that the children bring their injured animals to. This is the romantic version, in truth, I can’t quite get enough light for a vegetable garden to grow well, there is a big mortgage to pay, I live very close to the financial edge, and my sensitivities to chemicals and mold have me flattened more than active these days.

"Being flattened however, isn’t always a negative thing, I am called to stillness again, and there is good medicine in that. As a storyteller in image, words and song, whose inspiration is the mystery of the forest, quiet dreaming is essential to my creative work. This past year, as I grieve the loss of my mother, and am healing the roots of my illness, I find myself painting images that tell the stories of the deep forest. I’m beginning to get at the essence of this place - a dark and mysterious woodland – with gentle wildflowers growing from the leaf mold, and root-tangled caverns under fallen trees that might well lead to the underworld. The stories that find me here are fierce as well as gentle. I live amongst large predators who might eat my beloved cat friend or even me, where the tiny Woolly Adelgid threatens to kill all my trees, and the well has run dry once or twice, leaving the herbs in the garden to wilt. I sometimes fantasize about life in a gypsy caravan, traveling from town to town, telling stories and singing with my drum, but I am more like a tree than a songbird, and its good to know who I am, lest I follow someone else’s dream and find myself utterly lost without my tribe of trees.

Late Winter Forest"Late Winter Forest,” watercolor, 11” x 15”, V. Claff, 2013

Strange Light"Strange Light,” watercolor, 22" x 30", V. Claff, 2013

Forest Mystery"Forest Mystery,” watercolor, 22" x 30”, V. Claff, 2013

"I spread my mother’s ashes in the moss garden on the last day of May, as she asked me to do. I think about the blessing of this – of how humans of old stayed where their ancestor’s bones decayed and became part of the soil, and how their very DNA became a part of that land. I wonder how living on land where one’s ancestors have been buried for centuries might be – would it be easier to speak with stones? Will the mosses begin to whisper their secrets to me, now that my mother’s spirit mingles with the ground here?

Winter Mists "Winter Mists,” watercolor, 11” x 15”, V. Claff, 2013

"The path beneath my feet is soft and spongy. I think about the generations of trees that have fallen to earth and become this ground, the tree-ancestors of the forest. Bones of the Eastern Woodland Indians and the first European settlers, long gone to dust, mingle here. The bear who didn’t put on enough fat before an unusually long winter is curled beneath the roots of an enormous pine tree, her body nourishing its roots as she dreams her forever dream. As I walk, I hear the call of a raven, shattering the quiet and filling the vast space between us. I sit on a boulder I call the whispering stone, my quiet cat beside me, listening as the raven’s call fades and the sound of black wings thrums past overhead."

Forest drum

Valerianna Claff

Three Seed Stones"Three Seed Stones," ink on paper, V. Claff

To see more of Valerianna's beautiful work and learn more about the RavenWood Forest Studio of Mythic & Environmental Arts, please visit the RavenWood website and blog.