First day back in the studio

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Over the last few days, I've been asking friends how they feel about New Year's celebrations, and from my small sampling (mostly of writers and artists) this is what I've learned:

The vast majority answered with the equivalent of a shrug: The New Year's holiday? They could take or leave it. A smaller (but emphatic) group detest it for a variety of reasons: the social pressure to be happy on New Year's eve, the guilt-tripping nature of New Year resolutions, the arbitrary designation of the year's end in the Gregorian calendar, or simply the bad timing of yet another celebration on the heels of Christmas. I found just a small minority who genuinely love New Year's Eve and Day, and I am one of them. In fact, it's my favorite holiday (despite spending it in bed with flu again this year), and so I've been thinking about the reasons why -- especially since I generally mark the changing of the seasons by the pagan, not the Christian, calendar.

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I grew up with the Pennsylvania Dutch traditions of my mother's large extended family: nominally Christian, but rich in folklore, folk ways, and homely forms of folk magic. One of those traditions was my mother's practice of taking down the Christmas tree on New Year's day, cleaning the house from top to bottom, and then opening the kitchen door (with a great flourish) to sweep the old year out and welcome in the new: my mother, my great-aunt Clara, and I each taking turns with the broom. Christmas was a hard time for my mother and always ended in tears, but she would rally by New Year's day, relishing the act of making order out of chaos: a woman's ritual, shared only with me and not my brothers. (Boys doing housework? Unthinkable in that time and place.)

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At some point in the midst of all that cleaning, my mother and I would sit down at the kitchen table, eat the last of the kiffles (a traditional cookie made only at Christmas; it is bad luck to eat them past New Year's Day), and talk about plans for the year ahead. These were not New Year's resolutions, exactly; no lists were made, nothing was written down. It was more like a verbal conjuring, a vision of what we'd do differently and better, spoken at the right folkloric time when words held the power of an incantation: the pause between the old year and the new when anything seemed possible.

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My mother was a great believer in new beginnings, in a way that was both painful and brave. We moved around a lot when I was young, in search of work for my stepfather, whose alcoholism and violent temper ensured that employment never lasted long. In each new place my mother would mentally sweep her troubles out the kitchen door and make a brand new start: each house, each job, each new school for my brothers and me would be different and better, she insisted. We would finally settle down.

Since the new house was usually worse than the last, she would set herself to transforming it, ingeniously making small amounts of money go a long, long way: she'd paint our rooms in surprising colors (dictated by the paint choices in the bargain bins); make new curtains in cheap, cheery fabrics edged with bright Ric Rac and Pom Pom trim; scour yard sales for pretty new dishes and lamps (constantly broken in my stepfather's rages).  For a while she'd be happy and fiercely optimistic...until the usual troubles caught up with us. There would be fights, and tears, and everything would shatter. My mother would collapse, her husband disappear to the bar. Then she'd pick herself up, we'd move again, and she'd start afresh with quiet courage.

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As a kid I moved even more often than my mother, bouncing between her, my grandparents and other relatives, with a couple of  stints in foster care -- and so I needed my mother's lesson in embracing change rather more than most. Many people from peripatetic childhoods react with a deep dislike of change. My own reaction is a mix of opposites. My childhood has left me with a soul-deep need for home, place, and community -- yet I also love stepping into the unknown and using the act of relocation as a catalyst for transformation and renewal. In this I am my mother's daughter. I like transitions, beginnings, the changing of the seasons, the turning of the calendar's pages. As I wrote in a previous New Year post:

I have a great affection for those moments in time that allow us to push the "re-set" buttons in our minds and make a fresh start: the start of a new year, the start of a new week, the start of a new morning or fresh endeavor. As L. M. Montgomery (author of Anne of Green Gables) once wrote, "Isn't it nice to think that tomorrow is a new day with no mistakes in it yet?"

The American abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher advised: "Every man should be born again on the first day of January. Start with a fresh page." Some people, of course, find a blank page terrifying...but that's something I've never quite understood. I love the feeling of potential inherent in an untouched notebook, a fresh white canvas, even a new computer folder waiting to be filled. It's the same sense of freedom to be found at the start of a journey, when all lies ahead and limits haven't yet been reached.

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My mother died from cancer sixteen years ago, at roughly the age that I am now, and she never managed to turn those new beginnings into the calm, stable life she craved. The determined optimism she practiced wasn't always entirely admirable. Optimism can also be blind or foolish, and prevent the solving of problems through the refusal to accept reality. A fresh start can only tranform a life if it is followed by the hard and clear-eyed work of making substantive change: leaving the violent husband, for example, rather than putting fresh paint on walls that will soon be bloodied once again.

But there were reasons my mother couldn't make those harder changes, so I'm not going to sit in judgement of her now. I'm just going to love her for who she was. Acknowledge her quiet bravery. And appreciate the gifts that she's passed on: kiffles and a broom on New Year's Day. And a love of new beginnings.

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 Yesterday I swept the house. Today I am the sweeping the studio. I'm thinking about what I'll do differently, and better.

The world is full of possibilities.

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Pictures: The photographs today are from Queen's Wood, an ancient woodland in London's Muswell Hill: 52 acres of oak and hornbeam trees, abutting Highgate Wood. The pictures were taken during the Christmas holiday, which we spent with our daughter in the city. I recommend "The History and Archaeology of Queen's Wood" by Michael Hacker if you'd like to know more about this beautiful place: a tranquil, magical piece of wild preserved within a bustling cityscape. (Tilly loved it.) The last photo was taken by Howard.

Words: The poem in the picture caption is from Tell Me by Kim Addonizio (BOA Editions, 2000); all rights reserved by the author.


The best-laid schemes o' Mice an' Men....

Jack Frost by Arthur Rackham

Branbley Hedge snow mouse by Jill BarklemI had a whole week of posts planned for you, full of recommended reading and mythic art publications -- but then the Winter Lurgy that's been making the rounds of the village turned up at my studio, scattering my work schedule and my best intentions to the cold winter wind.

Now the studio is closed for the holidays, and I'm officially away until January 2nd -- but I might sneak in for a post or two sometime next week, if the Lurgy permits and the creeks don't rise.

Tilly and I wish you good holiday cheer, in whatever form of cheer you like best: riotous celebration, or quiet peace and contentment, or anything in between.

The Dance by Arthur Rackham

For those who find the holiday season hard for any number of reasons, we send love and strength (both human and canine) from the green hills of Devon.

Thank you all for spending another year with us here at Myth & Moor.

Waiting for the new year to begin

The title of this post comes from "To a Mouse" by Robert Burns. The art is "Jack Frost" and "The Dance in Cupid's Alley" by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939), and a charming little Brambley Hedge snow-mouse by Jill Barklem (1951-2017).


Tunes for a Monday Morning

Gathering holly & ivy

'Tis the season...

Above:  "Fairytale Of New York"  (the Pogues/Kirsty MacColl classic) performed by  Katzenjammer and The Trondheim Soloists, from Norway, and Ben Caplan, from Nova Scotia.

Below: "Thaney," performed by Scottish singer Karine Powart at A Christmas Celtic Sojourn in Boston, Massachusetts. Polwart's song tells the story of the legendary Saint Thaney/Teneu/Enoch, whose son, Saint Mungo, is the patron saint of the city of Glasgow.

Above: "January, February (Last Month of the Year)," an American folk carol from Ruth Crawford Seeger's songbook, American Folk Songs for Christmas (1953) -- performed here by Amy Helm (lead vocals), Byron Isaacs, Daniel Littleton, Elizabeth Mitchell, Simi Stone, and Ruthy Ungar.

Below: "The Wexford Carol," a traditional Irish song dating back to the 12th century, performed by American bluegrass singer Alison Krauss and American cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

Above : "River," by Joni Mitchell, performed by American folk & roots musician Anaïs Mitchell and  Swiss classical/folk/experimental musician Olivia Pedroli. The winter holidays can be a hard time for many people, for many different reasons. This one is for all who struggle to get through this time of year.

Below, in response to Joni 's melancholy tune: Rick Kemp's "Somewhere Along the Road," performed acapella by Steeleye Span -- a folk-rock band formed in 1969 and still making wonderful music together. This video warms my heart because it reminds me of winter gatherings around the table with my own circle of friends: toasting the seasons as as the years go by...growing older, greyer, slower, yes, but maybe a little wiser too. And still making art rooted in the folk tradition after all these years. 

And one last song for the road:

"The Parting Glass," a traditional Scottish song performed acapella by two fine young bands: Kadia and Said the Maiden, filmed beside a Wassail bonfire at the Slindon Estate in West Sussex. Go here if you'd like to learn more about the folkways of Wassailing.

Tilly the Black-nosed Reindeer


On Thanksgiving Day: elemental gratitude

Nattadon waterfall

Prayer for the Great Family
by Gary Snyder (after a Mohawk prayer)

Gratitude to Mother Earth, sailing through night and day —
and to her soil: rich, rare, and sweet
in our minds so be it

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Gratitude to Plants, the sun-facing light changing leaf
and fine-root hairs; standing still through wind
and rain; their dance is in the flowing spiral grain
in our minds so be it

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Gratitude to Air, bearing the soaring Swift and the silent
Owl at dawn. Breath of our song
clear spirit breeze
in our minds so be it

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Gratitude to Wild Beings, our brothers teaching secrets,
freedoms, and ways; who share with us their milk;
self-complete, brave, and aware
in our minds so be it

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Gratitude to Water: clouds, lakes, rivers, glaciers;
holding or releasing; streaming through all
our bodies salty seas
in our minds so be it

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Gratitude to the Sun: blinding pulsing light through
trunks of trees, through mists, warming caves where
bears and snakes sleep — he who wakes us –
in our minds so be it

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Gratitude to the Great Sky
who holds billions of stars — and goes yet beyond that –
beyond all powers, and thoughts
and yet is within us –
Grandfather Space.
The Mind is his Wife,
so be it
.

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To which I add:

Gratitude for the things that will help us get through the long winter ahead: warmth and light, friendship and art, good talk, good music, good books, good dreams, good single malt whiskey (hey, whatever it takes). Gratitude for the storms that shake us, and the sweet calm after.

Gratitude for it all.

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The poem above is from Turtle Island by Gary Snyder (New Directions, 1974); it first appeared on Myth & Moor in the winter of 2014. The poem in the picture captions is from Orpheus by Don Paterson (Faber, 2006). All rights reserved by the authors. The photograph of me and Tilly was taken by Ellen Kushner. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.


The 4th of July

I cannot celebrate America's Independence Day when the country of my birth is in such a serious crisis. Instead, I celebrate and stand with all the good people who Resist, in their myriad ways, and refuse to be divided neighbor from neighbor. Stand strong, everyone. You have my respect, my gratitude, and my love.

The video above is from Nahko Bear, an American musician & earth activist of Apache, Mohawk, Puerto Rican, & Filipino heritage. (For more of his music, go here, here, and here.)


Tunes for a Monday Morning

MayDay in Chagford

Happy Beltane and May Day!

The music this morning is from Lisa Knapp, a British folk musician who has long been interested in the traditional songs of the season. Her extraordinary new album, Till April is Dead: A Garland of May, is highly recommended -- as is her previous five-track release, Hunt the Hare: A Branch of May.

Above:  Knapp's video for "Till April is Dead," the title song of her new album. As music reviewer Thomas Blake describes it: "Sayings from French, German, Spanish, Gaelic and English folklore become entwined (in both sound and meaning) over simple plucked strings before Knapp sings a lighter than air rendition of Hal-An-Tow, a song made famous by the Watersons and the Albion Band. The song’s inherent strangeness -- the coupling of nonsense words with quasi-religious and mythological imagery -- is only thrown into sharper focus by its new setting."

Below: A beautiful version of the English folk song "The Blacksmith" (audio only), from a previous Knapp album, Wild and Undaunted.

Above: The spooky, folkloric video for Knapp's song "Black Horse." This one comes from Hidden Seam, and features vocals by James Yorkston.

Below: "Enter Ariel" by Clara Sanabras -- with Lisa Knapp, Chorus of Dissent Britten Sinfonia, London Voices, and the Ceyda Tanc Youth Dance. The song comes from Hum About the Ears, a thoroughly gorgeous folk opera by Sanabras based on Shakespeare's The Tempest. To learn more about it, please go here.

And to end with:

Lisa Knapp's rendition of "Don't You Go Rushing," a traditional May song collected by Cecil Sharp in Somerset in 1907. 

The photographs above come from previous May Day celebrations here in Chagford. That's Howard dancing the Obby Oss, and Jason of England dancing the Jack-in-the-Green. The piper is Andy Letcher. For more May Day photos, go here.

And to learn more about the folklore of May Day, go here. Up the May!

The Obby Oss & the Jack-in-Green dance down the High Street  in Chagford


Candle trolls and seasonal tales

Candle Trolls by Wendy Froud

Happy Halloween, everyone!

To get the day started off right, I recommend "Samhain, Death and The Cailleach," a wise and lovely post by my friend & neighbor Suzi Crockford.

If you're in the mood for spooky folklore, you'll find some in these previous posts: The Wild Hunt, Following the Hare, and The Dark Forest ... plus in the two pieces I posted last week: At the Death of the Year and Death in Folk & Fairy Tales.

For music to play by the Samhain fire, try these two terrific podcasts from Tamsin Rosewell's Folk Show on Radio Warwickshire: "Phantasmagoria: folk songs of ghosts, spirits, and hauntings" and "The Old Stories: magic, ritual, and pre-Christian belief."

And for a taste of the living folklore tradition here in the West Country, visit Beltane Border Morris's FB page for videos of the Samhain procession, Obby Oss, and lots of earthy Border Morris dancing in Boscastle, Cornwall.

Troll Witch & Faery Godmother With Goblin Child by Wendy Froud

The photographs above and below are of sculptures made by another friend & neighbor, Wendy Froud. "I feel that my work is a sign post to the half forgotten world that we all carry inside of us," she says. "When people look at my work, I want them to think , 'Oh, now I remember.' If they do that, then I know that my artwork has been successful."

Faery Family by Wendy Froud

Tilly and WendyWendy on a "writing day" in my studio (we sometimes work together), while Tilly looks on.


A Dartmoor Beltane

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Since one of the underlying themes of Myth & Moor pertains to folklore in art and life, the folkloric celebration of winter's end here in Chagford seems right on topic. Last year, we held a public May Day Procession, and a  grand green time was had by all  -- but we haven't yet got enough volunteer organizers to run a public event every year, so the next one is scheduled for 2017. (If you're local, mark your calendars.)

In order to keep the thread of the ritual aspect of May Day unbroken during this inbetween year, a few of us gathered in a quieter way to call the Jack and the Obby Oss in from the wild -- marking the end of winter with pipe and drum, poetry and prayers, with mischief, mead, and merriment. Here is a taste of the day: a story in pictures, folklore come to life.

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The Obby Oss emerges from the trees, to be welcomed and smudged, or blessed, by the smoke of white sage......and then the whole gathering is smudged as the Oss enters our circle.

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The piper plays, a drumbeat sounds, and three women in green (representing the goddess of spring in her triple aspect: crone, maiden, and mother) lead a simple Beltane ceremony, addressing the human and more-than-human communities that share the land. I won't go into the ceremony itself, for mythic things are also private things in this and many other sacred traditions -- but it involves gratitude for life, re-balancing oneself with the rhythms of the natural world, music, and laughter. Always laughter -- for as the Hopi in Arizona say, no ceremony can properly begin until somebody has laughed. Joy and ribaldry are a part of life too.

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The ceremony is simply, short, and includes everyone in the gathering, from the youngest, strapped to her mother's back, to the oldest of a family in which three generations are present.  Then the Piper breaks the circle...

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...leading the way over a stream...and through a gate...

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...and up the slope of a field full of sheep. Lambs frolic on the hill, or chase their mothers bleating for drinks of milk, reminders of spring's fertility, new life, and new beginnings.

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The Obby Oss leaps and frolics too,  jaws a-clacking and bells a-jingling. The sheep and lambs give him wide berth. Sometimes he's a frightening creature, and sometimes comical and rather endearing.

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We crest the hill and turn on to a village street, the pipes leading the way. The street is quiet and only a few come to their doors to watch the Oss dance by, spreading the "luck of the May" from house to house with every jingling step. At the outskirts of the village is an old stone barn. The Horned Man stops, opens the door, and the raggle-taggle parade goes through...and out another door into a field, where the Beltane fire stands ready.

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But first, before the evening festivities begin, the ceremony must be properly closed off: with prayers,  the ritual passing of the mead, and the formal thanking of the Oss. He disappears into the trees and won't be seen again until next year.

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And then the Beltane "need fire" is lit.

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Now the merry-making begins! Shared food is spread over tables decorated with jars of flowers from the woods. Beer, wine, and homemade mead flow freely (May Eve is a drunken affair by long tradition), while friends and neighbors catch up on village news, children play on an outdoor trampoline, dogs chase balls through the grass and stormclouds threaten but never break.

Howard returns from the Otherworld where he'd been transformed into the spirit of the Oss. He is wide-eyed, exhausted and sweat-soaked, his faced still blackened by masking chalk; the transition takes time, and while he's in it, he's a creature of the In-Between.

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The willow frame worn by the Jack in the Green sits empty by the fire, crowned with leaves. Last year a frame like this, worn by our Jack, was entirely covered in greenery, then burned in the fire at the end of the event. This year, the frame acquires its greenery and flowers bit by bit. All are invited to decorate the Jack; all are invited to be the Jack. A bare winter wreath hangs on the frame, and each of us ties scrolls of paper to it with green ribbon and string, containing all the things we wish to leave behind as the old season turns into the new. The wreath will be burned at the tail end of the night, and all our old troubles with it.

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A group of drummers gathers by the fire to play for all who dare to dance the Jack. Howard is one of those drummers but he's also eager to to dance the Jack himself -- so he passes the drum, enters the frame, lifts it up (it's heavy!), and tap-dances his way around the fire like a leafy Fred Astaire.

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Jason removes his horns to have a go. He was the Jack for the public parade last year, strong enough to carry the frame with ease...

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Jason heading around the fire, Pig (he dog) behind him

...but women too are dancing this year. Here's Sarah, dancing with joy...

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And Rowan...

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And Susie...

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And even Susie's daughter. Too small to lift the frame by herself, but fiercely independent, she sits inside the Jack for a spell and then crawls out, satisfied.

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Andy, our piper, takes a turn, and when he's halfway around the fire he brings his wife, Nomi, and their child into the Jack and the three of them dance together.

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Alan Lee takes a turn around the fire...

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....and then his daughter Virginia does as well. One by one, throughout the evening, everyone who wants to dance the Jack takes part, helped into the frame by Sarah and Ruth, spurred on by the drumbeat and our cheers.

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I'm still convalescing from a serious illness, and I know I cannot lift the Jack; I content myself with watching and cheering, though I really want to dance. Howard can tell (he knows me well), so he pulls me up to take a turn. "We'll do it together," he says. "I'll be your strength."  And so I dance too.

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And now the story must end, for although the celebration carried long into the night, I didn't last much past dusk, and those starlight tales are not mine to tell.

Today, the sun is bright and it's warm at last. It finally feels like spring. Did we really drum up this glorious weather? Magic isn't as direct as that. Magic is the warmth that binds friends, neighbors, and the living earth together...and that's the luck of the May.

Beltane revellers, human and canine

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Hawthorn tree in bloom


        Drumming Winter Away
         by Jane Yolen

        Boom, da-boom
         the brrr of the year,
         the burring of skin
         stretched ear to ear.
         The grin of spring,
         the ground of spite,
         the rise of fern,
         the shortened night.

         The well-ruled month,
         the lengthened day,
         less time for sleep
         more time for play.
         The pearling buds,
         the shafts of green,
         the fuzz on trees,
         as twigs all preen.

        The waft of perfume
         in the air,
May blossoms on the hawthorn         the warp and weft
         of spring weave there.
         Boom, da-boom,
         we beat the drum
         for spring to come.
         For spring to come.

 

Beltane 34The photographs here were taken by David Wyatt, Susie Violette, Jason of England, Suzi Crockford (the hawthorn tree) and me. The poem by Jane Yolen is copyright © 2016. All rights reserved.