Dreaming awake

Udo Weigelt's The Legendary Unicorn illustrated by Julia Gukova

"I write fantasy because it's there. I have no other excuse for sitting down for several hours a day indulging my imagination. Daydreaming. Thinking up imaginary people, impossible places. Imagination is the golden-eyed monster that never sleeps. It must be fed; it cannot be ignored. Making it tell the same tale over Brigitte Schar's The Blind Fairy illustrated by Julia Gukovaagain makes it thin and whining; its scales begin to fall off; its fiery breath becomes a trickle of smoke. It is best fed by reality, an odd diet for something nonexistant; there are few details of daily life and its broad range of emotional context that can't transformed into food for the imagination. It must be visited constantly, or else it begins to become restless and emit strange bellows at embarrassing moments; ignoring it only makes it grown larger and noisier. Content, it dreams awake, and spins the fabric of tales. There is really nothing to be done with such imagery except to use it: in writing, in art. Those who fear the imagination condemn it: something childish, they say, something monsterish, misbegotten. Not all of us dream awake. But those who do have no choice."  - Patricia A. McKillip

Russian Symphony by Julia Gukova

Insectia: Symmetry by Julia Gukova

"I'm inspired by dreams and shadows, obsession and desire. By nature, I'm a dream collector and never stop working. I question people about their weirdest dreams and the strangest, most inexplicable experiences they've had. All this information whirls around in my mind, and new dreams emerge that form the seeds of stories and novels."  - Storm Constantine

Brigitte Schar's The Blind Fairy illustrated by Julia Gukova

"To be entranced, to be driven, to be obsessed, to be under the spell of an emerging, not quite fully 'comprehended' narrative -- this is the greatest happiness of the writer's life even as it burns us out and exhausts us, unfitting us for the placid contours of 'normality.' " - Joyce Carol Oates

Brigitte Schar's The Blind Fairy illustrated by Julia Gukova

The dream-like imagery today is by Julia Gukova, a Russian painter and illustrator based in Moscow. She studied at the Krasnopresnenskaya Visual Arts School and Moscow State University of Printing Arts, and has worked as a painter and graphic designer since the late 1980s. Gukova has illustrated over forty books for publishers in Russia and abroad, including Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, The Mole's Daughter, The Blind Fairy, Peter and the Wolf,  and The Legendary Unicorn.

Insectia: Asymmetry by Julia Gukova

Sweet dreams, everyone. See you Monday.

Udo Weigelt's The Legendary Unicorn illustrated by Julia Gukova


Entering the realm of myth

Rainbow over Chagford

These photos are for Pia, who was disappointed that there were no Dartmoor ponies in Tuesday's post. The pictures were taken a few weeks back, before health issues tied me quite so closely the house. (And, oh, how I'm looking forward to resuming my wandering ways. May it be soon.)

The end of the rainbow

On a blustery day in late December, Tilly and I took a chance on a break in the rain and made our way down to the village Commons -- where a rainbow arched over the back edge of the town  (and yes, Chagford really is Brigadoon).

Canine alertness

A herd of ponies spotted

We walked a little further, and Tilly stopped still, sculpted in the clear black lines of her alertness. I wondered what had gotten her attention. Not cows or she'd be quivering, repressing the urge to bark. (Good girl.) Not dogs or she'd be bounding over to them, grinning, her body an arrow of delight. Ponies, then. It was probably ponies. She'd been trained not to disturb to our equine neighbors but she finds them fascinating. (I once watched as a curious foal approached her so close that they could practically touch noses.)

Ponies grazing on the Commons

I walked across the field and, yes, there they were: ten or so in the herd, come down from the moor to graze on the tender grass of the Common. Their coats were thick and shaggy for the winter, and the foals of last spring were now sturdy and well grown.

Dartmoor ponies

Dartmoor ponies

One pony trotted over as we passed among them, and posed quite nicely for the camera in my hands. I thanked her politely, wished her a good winter...and then watched as the scattered herd drew back together, summoned by a stallion's insistent cries. Two stragglers galloped from a nearby field to join the elegant line of ponies moving, single-file, up the slope of Meldon Hill.

I watched until they were specks on the horizon, and then Tilly and I carried on.

Dartmoor ponies

The title for today's post comes from a passage in the Paris Review interview with the Italian author and mythographer Roberto Calasso:

Interviewer: You write in The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, “We enter the mythical when we enter the realm of risk, and myth is the enchantment we generate in ourselves at such moments.” What does this mean?

Calasso: This comes from Plato, from the Phaedo. Socrates says that precisely. Within the realm of myth, you wander into this danger zone, and that is the zone of the unknown. What you can do there is, first of all, utter or sing a carmen, a word that is usually translated as “poem” but primarily means “enchantment.” That is the best weapon at our disposal. 

Interviewer: But when do we enter the realm of myth?

Calasso: We are already there. As Sallustius the Neoplatonist wrote, the world itself is a myth. So no matter what we are doing, we are in the midst of a fable. And fables are by definition what enchant us. The only question is whether we perceive it or not.

Dartmoor ponies

Walking through the damp green Mystery of the world...or remembering walking through it, imagining it from the confines of my bed...I find wisdom and inspiration in Calasso's words.

When do we enter the realm of myth?

We are already there.

BrigadoonRelated posts: "Daily Myth" (ponies in early spring) and "The Capacity for Awe" (ponies in summer).


Writing without roots

Morning coffee

Morning visitors

From "Where is Terabitha?" by Katherine Paterson (Innocence & Experience):

"Flannery O'Connor, whose words about writing have meant a great deal to me, has said that writing is incarnational. By incarnational we mean that somehow the word or the idea has taken on flesh, has become physical, actual, real. We mean that the abstract idea can be percieved by the way of the senses. This immediately makes fiction different from other kinds of stories. The fairy tale begins, 'Once upon a time,' thus clearly signaling its intent to escape the actual and the everyday, but a novel takes its life from the petty details of its geography, history, and culture.

Dartmoor pony and foal

"This is one of the reasons that writers like Flannery O'Connor and Eudora Welty and William Faulkner move us so powerfully. Their roots are planted very deep in a particular soil, and they grow up and reach out from that place with a strength unknown to most writers. It is also the reason why a writer like Pasternak would refuse the Nobel Prize rather than leave Russia. For Russia, despite her terror and oppression, was the soil from which his genius sprang, and he feared that if he left her, he would leave behind his ability to write.

Mother & child

P1110898

A foal's breakfast

"What happens, then, to a writer without roots -- who is not grounded in a particular place? When I was four years old, we left 'home,' and I've never been back since. Indeed, I couldn't go back if I wanted to because the house in which we lived was torn down so that a bus station could be built on the site. Since I was four, I've lived in three different countries and seven states at about thirty different addresses. I was once asked as part of an imaginative exercise to remember in detail the house I had grown up in. I nearly had a mental breakdown on the spot. But the fact that I have no one place to call home does not make me feel that place in fiction is unimportant. On the contrary, it convinces me that I must work harder than any almost any writer I know to create or re-create the world in which a story is set and grows if I want to make a reader believe it."

Wild family

Watching quietlyPhotos above: Morning coffee under the old oak, and three visitors. Some previous posts on the subject of place: Thoughts About Home, More Thoughts About Home and Staying Home. I'm also reminded of Christina Cairn's lovely post, Meditations on Home, at A Mermaid in the Attic (2011).


The capacity for awe

Dartmoor ponies in Nattadon Woods

Dartmoor ponies in Nattadon Woods

From Dani Shapiro's Still Writing: The Pleasures and Perils of a Creative Life:

"Too often, our capacity for awe is buried beneath layers of perfectly reasonable excuses. We feel we must protect ourselves -- from hurt, disappointment, insult, loss, grief -- like warriors girding for battle. A Sabbath prayer I have carried with me for more than half my life begins like this: 'Days pass and the years vanish and we walk sightless among miracles.'

"We cannot afford to walk sightless among miracles. Nor can we protect ourselves from suffering. [As writers] we do work that thrusts us into the pulsing heart of the world, whether or not we're in the mood, whether or not it's difficult or paintful or we'd prefer to avert our eyes. When I think of the wisest people I know, they share one defining trait: curiosity. They turn away from the minutiae of their lives -- and focus on the world around them. They are motivated by a desire to explore the unfamiliar. They enjoy surprise."

Dartmoor ponies in Nattadon Woods

Dartmoor ponies in Nattadon Woods

From Paul Bogard's The End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light:

''Most days I live awed by the world we have still, rather than mourning the worlds we have lost. The bandit mask of a cedar waxwing on a bare branch a few feet away; the clear bright sun of a frozen winter noon; the rise of Orion in the eastern evening sky - every day, every night, I give thanks for another chance to notice. I see beauty everywhere; so much beauty I often speak it aloud. So much beauty I often laugh, and my day is made.

''Still if you wanted to, I think, you could feel sadness without end. I’m not even talking about hungry children or domestic violence or endless wars between supposedly grown men...but ‘you mustn’t be frightened if a sadness rises in front of you, larger than any you even seen,' said Rilke, 'you must realize that something is happening to you, that life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in it hand and will not let you fall.' ''

Dartmoor ponies in Nattadon Woods

Dartmoor ponies in Nattadon Woods

After five years on the flanks of Nattadon Hill, it is deeply familiar, and eternally surprising. Tilly and I never know what we might find: tall spires of foxglove flaming among the trees, badger prints pressed into the mud beside the leat, or a herd of wild ponies resting in the shade at the woodland's edge. Every day there are wonders, large and small. If I stayed inside intent on screen and keyboard, how would I see them? And if I numbed myself against sorrow and despair, how would I feel awe and joy?

Come, says Tilly, it's time to go out again, and she's always right. The world calls us, in all its dark and bright and sun-dappled shade. Full of hardship, yes, but also moments of magic: a quiet, daily, domestic kind of magic. A bright summer day, and a good dog at your side, and wild ponies in the woods.

Dartmoor ponies in Nattadon Woods

Dartmoor ponies in Nattadon Woods


Tunes for a Monday Morning

We start today with one of my favorite young folk groups, The Staves, a trio made up of three sisters (Emily, Jessica, and Camilla Staveley-Taylor) from Watford in Hertfordshire, England. Their debut album is Dead & Born & Grown.

Above, a live performance of  "Eagle Song," filmed on the coast of Cornwall for the French music site La Blogothèque. Below, a live performance of "Motherlode," filmed at the Crypt Studio in Crouch Hill, London. More of their music can be found in this previous post.

Next:

"Horses," a gorgeous song by Dala (Sheila Carabine and Amanda Walther) from Ontario, Canada. The video is an excerpt from Dala's Girls From the North Country concert DVD. The song comes from their third album, Everyone is Someone.

Dartmoor pony & newborn foal.A wild Dartmoor pony and her two-day-old foal on the Chagford Commons. (We last saw this pony pregnant here.)

Let the wild rumpus begin.The foal has a romp, followed by Mama...and Tilly joining in, at a safe distance.

Nursing the foal.Nursing the foal.

Mother & childMother and child.

And one last song today:

"All The Wild Horses" (audio only) by the American singer-songwriter Ray LaMontagne, who lives in western Maine. The song comes from his first album, Trouble (2004). His fifth album, Supernova, is due out in May.


Daily myth

Ponies 1

Animal encounters often come in clusters -- one month there are deer bounding constantly through the woods, another month brings several badger sightings in a row or the frog population exploding in the pond or hedgehogs appearing under every hedge and bush. In naturalist terms, this is easily explained by the seasonal cycles of animal life -- but in folkloric terms, the meeting of animals has deep mythic significance, for in traditional stories and sacred texts the world over animals are both themselves and more-than-themselves: creatures who negotiate the Mysteries, the elders and the teachers of humankind, messengers from the gods, the fates, the faeries, the nonhuman realms and the lands of the dead, speaking in the language of symbolism, metaphor, riddle, taradiddle, and dream.

Ponies 2

For Tilly and me (and indeed for many in Chagford), the month of March has been marked by encounters with wild ponies...for this is the season they come down to graze and give birth on the village Commons. We often see them sunning on the Commons, or climbing the slope of Nattadon Hill, walking the path in a single file as they come and go from the open moor.

Ponies 3

Tilly is fascinated by them, though knows she musn't bark or get underfoot. They're gentle with her and allow her to pass close...though this will change when the foals are born.

Ponies 4

Looking down on the valley from my studio windows, I can watch the herd as it drifts across the land -- stopping now in this field and now in that one, disappearing for days and then back again. As they roam across the moor and the lanes and fields nearby, Dartmoor's famous, much-loved ponies are iconic creatures of flux and flow, of duality and liminality -- not entirely wild, not entirely tamed.  They are spirits of edges, borders, interstices, and the faery paths betwixt and between. They are modern and archaic, common and uncanny, gentle and fierce. They are only ponies. They are so much more.

Ponies 5

In mythic symbolism world-wide, both horses and ponies represent the following things:

Physical strength, inner strength, vitality, appetite for life, the driving force that carries you forward, the driving force that overcomes obstacles, passion, movement, flow, self-expression, and that which makes you thrive. They are also symbols of vital life forces held in perfect, exquisite balance: love and devotion paired with freedom and mobility; the wild and instinctive supported by the disciplined and domestic; strength balanced with vulnerability, mastery with modesty, power with compassion.

Tilly

Movement. Flow. Vitality. That's just what I need -- what many of us need -- as winter slowly turns to spring. If winter was the time for staying still and dreaming deep, spring is when the sap rises and pushes us back up to the sun again; a time to open to new ideas, new possibilities, new creative directions. "May what I do flow from me like a river," said Rilke, "no forcing and no holding back, the way it is with children." The way it is with wild ponies too, as they flow across the Devon landscape.

Tilly and the ponies

And here's the other gift the ponies bring, and it's one I value equally:

In an age when Beauty is so often defined by the tall, the slim, and the ethereal, the ponies show me that there is also Beauty to be found in what is small, shaggy, sturdy, and built for endurance. Like me. And like so many of us. We are ourselves and more-than-ourselves; ordinary and extraordinary. It's good to be reminded.

Ponies 6

Ponies 7Photographs above: Dartmoor ponies on the village Commons


When the magic is working

Dartmoor ponies on the Commons

From "Seeing Around the Corners" by Susan Cooper (1976):

"But of course, the whole process is a mystery, in all the arts. Creativity, in literature, painting, music. Or in performance: those rare lovely moments in the theater when an actor has the whole audience in his hands suddenly like that. You may have all the technique in the world, but you can't strike that spark without some mysterious extra blessing -- and none of us knows what that blessing really is. Not even the writers, who talk the most, can explain it at all.

A gentle encounter

"Who knows where the ideas come from?" she continues. "Who knows what happens in that shadowy part of the mind, something between Plato's cave and Masterlinck's Hall of the Night, where the creative imagination lies? Who knows even where the words come from, the right rhythm and meaning and music all at once?

Tilly and the ponies

Brown pony

"Those of us who make books out of the words and ideas have less of an answer than anyone. All we know is that marvelous feeling that comes, sometimes, like a break of sunshine in a cloud-grey sky, when through all the research and concentration and slog -- suddenly you are writing, fluently and fast, with every sense at high pitch and yet in a state almost like a trance.

White pony

"Suddenly, for a time, the door is open, the magic is working; a channel exists between the page and the shadowy cave in the mind.

"But none of us will ever know why or how."

Light brown pony

Like Cooper, I'm fascinated by the various ways one finds this state of trance, or magic, or flow, or grace (call it what you will). Discovering our personal methods for reaching it best (with the least amount of struggle, the fewest obstacles put in our own way) is surely one of the most useful skills we learn over a lifetime in the arts.

Curiosity

Right now, my husband is in Portugal teaching theater students to work with masks -- which requires finding that same state of trance in order to let the "mysterious blessing" come through to bring the masks fully to life. In mythic terms, he is the psychopomp, leading them from one world into the next -- from time-bound daily reality into the timeless flow of performance art -- but the goal, when their classroom days are done, is to have the skill to cross over on their own, using their own best methods of travel.

Commedia masks

The students are at the start of their creative lives, and I remember well what those years felt like -- when you think you know what art requires, and then the realization comes that you must go deeper and deeper still (if you're serious at all) into the unknowable, uncomfortable, vulnerable place where the root of creativity lies...which is to say, you must go deeper and deeper into yourself, which can be daunting indeed. Even now, after all these years, I still have days of sharp (or anxious, or befuddled) resistance to this act of deep surrendering...but the joy of age is that I know my own process now, the daily habits, practices, and mindset that will carry me past each block and obstacle and back into the work.

Every day I breathe deep, open up the heart again, and let the Mystery in.

Pony mysteriesPhotographs above: Wild ponies grazing on the village Commons, and Commedia dell'Arte masks.


Coffee Break

The watering hole under the oak

Wet dog

This is the spot where Tilly and I often go for a mid-morning coffee break, for it's the perfect place to linger for a stolen moment in a busy work day. Sitting in the old oak's shade, bare feet cooled by gold water in a pebble-bottomed stream, I read or write while Tilly prowls, or splashes, or sits contentedly beside me.

It's also a spot favored by animals that live or graze on Nattadon Hill; we find deer and fox prints in the soil (and sometimes badger too), and once encountered a large hare, who blinked at us and then strolled leisurely away.

Reading the signs

Most often it's the wild ponies who join us, traveling down from the moor to drink and bathe and cool themselves among the leaves...

Ponies meandering down the stream

A pony has a bath, half-hidden by the leaves

...or cows from the lower field, much more standoffish since their calves were born.

The herd tells Tilly not to come too close to the young'uns...

...but the young'uns are inclined to be curious too.

Our foot and paw prints mix with theirs, just two more animals on the hill, drawn to cold water like all the rest....

Adding our prints to the message-board of soil around the stream

And just as food tastes best when eaten outdoors, and coffee transforms into the nectar of the gods, a good book read in an oak tree's shade becomes somehow even better -- as though the oak reads over my shoulder, murmuring its approval and pleasure. I lose myself, bees humming around me, the church bells ringing faintly in the distance and sheep calling from the distant hills...

The murmuring oak, a wise old thing

...but when my cup is empty, I close the book, slip on my shoes, and say, "Come, love. Let's go home."

Homeward bound

Tilly leads the way down the streamside path that winds back to studio, her nose twitching as she reads the latest scent-news carried by the wind.

And I bring it all back to my desk: the wind, the water, the woods, and the wild. Words like fox prints tracked across the page. Dark coffee, bright sun; the bitter and the sweet; the rustle of the ponies and the hare's bold gaze. The simple things that keep us going.

Crossing over the stream again to arrive at the studio gate.

That I'm grateful for.

That aren't simple at all.


Going outward and beyond

The Visitors

Cold water on a hot summer day

I sit by the banks of a cold, clear stream, my toes in the water, my nose in book, my thoughts far away. Tilly barks, just once, to let me know we have visitors....

Two ponies, one white with speckles, one brown

I am reading Rebecca Solnit's new memoir, The Faraway Nearby, and this passage has arrested my attention:

"I was asked to talk to a roomful of undergraduates in a university in a beautiful coastal valley. I talked about place, about the way we often talk about love of place, but seldom how places love us back, of what they give us. They give us continuity, something to return to, and offer familiarity that allows some portion of our lives to remain collected and coherent.

Tilly and the friendly pony

"They give us an expansive scale in whch our troubles are set into context, in which the largeness of the world is a balm to loss, trouble, and ugliness.

The pony ambles on.

"And distant places give us refuge in territories where our own histories aren't so deeply entrenched and we can imagine other stories, other selves, or just drink up quiet and respite.

Tilly takes the pony's measure

"The bigness of the world is redemption.

Farewell, farewell

"Despair compresses you into a small space, and a depression is literally a hollow in the ground. To dig deeper into the self, to go underground, is sometimes necessary, but so is the other route of getting out of yourself, into the larger world, into the openness in which you need not clutch your story and your troubles so tightly to your chest.

Tilly pads down the streamside path

"Being able to travel in both ways matters, and sometimes the way back into the heart of the question begins by going outward and beyond. This is the expansiveness that comes literally in a landscape or that tugs you out of yourself in a story.....

Pausing at the wood's edge

"I told the student that they were at an age when they might begin to choose the places that would sustain them the rest of their lives, that places were much more reliable than human beings, and often much longer-lasting, and I asked each of them where they felt at home. They answered, each of them, down the rows, for an hour, the immigrants who had never stayed anywhere long or left a familiar world behind, the teenagers who'd left the home they'd spent their whole lives in for the first time, the ones who loved or missed familiar landscapes and the ones who had not yet noticed them.

"I found books and places before I found friends and mentors, and they gave me a lot, if not quite what a human being would. As a child, I spun outward in trouble, for in that inside-out world [of my family], everywhere but home was safe. Happily, the oaks were there, the hills, the creeks, the groves, the birds, the old dairy and horse ranches, the rock outcroppings, the open space inviting me to leap out of the personal into the embrace of the nonhuman world."

Dreaming among the trees

In her luminous, collage-like memoir, Solnit talks about writing, art, fairy tales, the natural world, surviving cancer, her difficult relationship with her mother, and many other things that are deeply personal to me too, and perhaps to some of you as well. I highly recommend it....alongside her other fine books: Wanderlust, Hope in the Dark, A Field Guide to Getting Lost, etc..

"We think we tell stories," she writes shrewdly, "but stories often tell us, tell us to love or hate, to see or be seen. Often, too often, stories saddle us, ride us, whip us onward, tell us what to do, and we do it without questioning. The task of learning to be free requires learning to hear them, to question them, to pause and hear silence, to name them, and then become a story-teller."

Which is exactly what Solnit has accomplished here, in her deeply moving and beautifully crafted new book.

As for me, I've become a story-teller too, re-telling my life, re-making my world, and rooting here on the far side of the Atlantic, in this place of green grass, gold water, and wild ponies. Stories are powerful things, my dears. So tell yours wisely. Make it beautiful. Make it good.