Dark Beauty

Andrea KowchThe Watch by Andrea Kowch

Having grown up amidst violence and ugliness, I have long dedicated my life to kindness, compassion and beauty: three old-fashioned ideals that I truly believe keep the globe spinning in its right orbit. William Morris, artist and socialist, considered beauty to be as essential as bread in everyone's life, rich and poor alike. It is one of the truths that I live by. Beauty in this context, of course, is not the shallow glamor peddled by Madison Avenue; it's a quality of harmony, balance and interrelationship: physical, emotional, and spiritual all at once. The Diné (Navajo) called this quality hózhǫ́, embodied in this simple, powerful prayer: With beauty before me may I walk. With beauty behind me may I walk. With beauty below me may I walk. With beauty above me may I walk. With beauty all around me may I walk.

We are living through a time when dark, violent forces have been released, encouraged, and applified, on both sides of the Atlantic: by Trump in America, the Brexiteers here, Le Pen in France and too many others eager to extend its reach. I contend that in the face of such ugliness we need the beacon of light that is beauty more than ever -- and I hold this belief as someone who has not lead a sheltered life, nor is unaware of the true cost of violence on body and soul. It is because of the scars that I carry that I know that beauty, and art, and story, are not luxuries. They are bread. They are water. They sustain us.

Andrea Kowch

And yet, like many of the writers and artists I know, I too have been struggling with how to move forward: not because I question the value of the work that we're doing here in the Mythic Arts/Fantasy Literature field (addressed in this previous post), but because public discussion, on Left and Right alike, has become so dogmatic, so scolding and contentious, and so mired in black-and-white thinking. In such an atmosphere, nuance and complexity sink like stones; and the idea that there are things that still matter in addition to our political crisis is damned in some quarters as trivial, escapist, or the realm of the privileged: labels which I do not accept.

47037752238356cced089bb59f5d9ae5Here on Myth & Moor, I advocate for the creation of lives rich in beauty, nature, art, and reflection -- but this is by no means a rejection of engagement, action, and fighting like hell against facism. Myth speaks in a language of paradox, and so all of us who work with myth are capable of holding seemingly opposite truths in balance: We'll fight and retreat. We'll cry loudly for justice (in our various ways) and we'll have times of soul-healing silence. We'll look ugliness directly in the face, unflinching, and we will walk in beauty.

"Beauty is not all brightness," wrote the late Irish poet/philosopher John O'Donohue. "In the shadowlands of pain and despair we find slow, dark beauty. The primeval conversation between darkness and beauty is not audible to the human ear and the threshold where they engage each other is not visible to the eye. Yet at the deepest core they seem to be at work with each other. The guiding intuition of our exploration suggests that beauty is never one-dimensional or one-sided. This is why even in awful circumstances we can still meet beauty. A simple instance of this is fire. Though it may be causing huge destruction, in itself, as dance and color of flame, fire can be beautiful. In human confusion and brokeness there is often a slow beauty present and at work.

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The Travelers by Andrea Kowch

"The beauty that emerges from woundedness," O'Donohue noted, "is a beauty infused with feeling: a beauty different from the beauty of landscape and the cold beauty of perfect form. This is a beauty that has suffered its way through the ache of desolation until the words or music emerged to equal the hunger and desperation at its heart....The luminous beauty of great art so often issues from the deepest, darkest wounding. We always seem to visualize a wound as a sore, a tear on the skin's surface.  The protective outer layer is broken and the sensitive interior is invaded and torn. Perhaps there is another way to imagine a wound. It is the place where the sealed surface that keeps the interior hidden is broken. A wound is also, therefore, a breakage that lets in light and a sore place where much of the hidden pain of a body surfaces."

Light Keepers by Andrea Kowch

"Where woundedness can be refined into beauty," he adds, "a wonderful transfiguration takes place. For instance, compassion is one of the most beautiful presences a person can bring to the world and most compassion is born from one's own woundedness. When you have felt deep emotional pain and hurt, you are able to imagine what the pain of another is like; their suffering touches you. This is the most decisive and vital threshold in human experience and behavior. The greatest evil and destruction arises when people are unable to feel compassion. The beauty of compassion continues to shelter and save our world. If that beauty were quenched, there would be nothing between us and the end-darkness which would pour in torrents over us."

So please, fellow artists and art lovers, keep seeking out, spreading, and making beauty. Don't stop. We all need you. I need you.

Andrea Kowch

The art today is by Andrea Kowch, an award-winning American painter based in Michigan. Kowch finds inspiration in the emotions and experiences of daily life in the rural Midwest -- resulting, she says, in "narrative, allegorical imagery that illustrates the parallels between human experience and the mysteries of the natural world. The lonely, desolate American landscape encompassing the paintings’ subjects serves as an exploration of nature’s sacredness and a reflection of the human soul, symbolizing all things powerful, fragile, and eternal. Real yet dreamlike scenarios transform personal ideas into universal metaphors for the human condition, all retaining a sense of vagueness to encourage dialogue between art and viewer.”

Andrea Kowch

Andrea KowchThe passage above is from Beauty: The Invisible Embrace by John O'Donohue (HarperCollins, 2004), all rights reserved by the author's estate. All rights to the art reserved by Andrea Kowch. A related post from 2014: "The Beauty of Brokeness."


The lessons of autumn

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Oak leaves

From The Solace of Open Spaces by Gretel Ehrlich:

"All through autumn we hear a double voice: one says everything is ripe; the other says everything is dying. The paradox is exquisite. We feel what the Japanese call 'aware' -- an almost untranslatable word meaning something like 'beauty tinged with sadness.' "

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"Autumn teaches us that fruition is also death; that ripeness is a form of decay. The willows, having stood for so long near water, begin to rust. Leaves are verbs that conjugate the seasons."

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"The truest art I would strive for in any work would be to give the page the same qualities as earth: weather would land on it harshly, light would elucidate the most difficult truths; wind would sweep away obtuse padding. Finally, the lessons of impermanence taught me this: loss constitutes an odd kind of fullness; despair empties out into an unquenchable appetite for life."

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Oak 5The poem in the picture captions is Gary Snyder's paean for the American continent (called "Turtle Island" by some indiginous tribes). The poem is sent out from this English hillside, with love, to all who live in the troubled land of my birth. It comes from Snyder's Pulitzer-Prize-winning collection Turtle Island (New Directions, 1974). The text above is from Gretel Ehrlich's fine book The Solace of Open Space (Viking, 1985). All rights to the text and poetry in this post are reserved by the authors.


Creating a tolerable world

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Anaïs Nin was born to Cuban parents in France, raised in Europe, Cuba and the U.S., and then settled in Paris after her marriage, establishing herself in its lively arts community of the '20s & '30s. By the summer of '39, however, facism was rising, war was approaching, and the French government was urging foreign nationals to get out of the country while they still could. Nin followed her American husband to New York, heart-broken at losing the city she loved, worried sick about friends and family she was leaving behind. Fourteen years later, emerging from the world-wide trauma of the war years, she wrote the following words in her diary:

"Why one writes is a question I can answer easily, having so often asked it of myself. I believe one writes because one has to create a world in which one can live. I could not live in any of the worlds offered to me -- the world of my parents, the world of war, the world of politics. I had to create a world of my own, like a climate, a country, an atmosphere in which I could breathe, reign, and recreate myself when destroyed by living. That, I believe, is the reason for every work of art.

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"The artist knows the world is a subjective creation," Nin continued, "that there is a choice to be made, a selection of elements. It is a materialization, an incarnation of his inner world. Then he hopes to attract others into it, he hopes to impose this particular vision and share it with others. When the second stage is not reached, the brave artist continues nevertheless. The few moments of communion with the world are worth the pain, for it is a world for others, a gift for others, in the end. When you make a world tolerable for yourself, you make the world tolerable for others."

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It has been one week since the U.S. election, and the country has taken a fearsome turn for those of us who value civility, decency, diversity, and the norms of democracy. I keep hearing the same question from friends and colleagues in the Mythic Arts field: How can I simply return to my work? Making art can seem like a frivolous pursuit compared to the urgent news of the day; to the need for action and activism, as opposed to the quiet withdrawal from the world upon which creative work often depends.

I have two thoughts about this. First, that art is not frivolous. As Jeannette Winterson states so eloquently:

"Naked I came into the world, but brush strokes cover me, language raises me, music rhythms me. Art is my rod and my staff, my resting place and shield, and not mine only, for art leaves nobody out. Even those from whom art has been stolen away by tyranny, by poverty, begin to make it again. If the arts did not exist, at every moment, someone would begin to create them, in song, out of dust and mud, and although the artifacts might be destroyed, the energy that creates them is not destroyed. If, in the comfortable West, we have chosen to treat such energies with scepticism and contempt, then so much the worse for us."

Or as Ursula Le Guin said in her National Book Award acceptance speech in 2014:

"Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need writers who can remember freedom -- poets, visionaries -- realists of a larger reality."

And how right she was.

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My second thought is that, yes, we are in a period of cultural crisis -- and in such times, each of us must decide where our energy and resources can best be employed. For some, this may mean postponing personal projects in order to throw oneself fully into activism as a matter of urgency. The brilliant young writer Laurie Penny, for example, tweeted this last week:

"I'd planned to scale back the full-time political writing to do more fiction. That nice life plan is now in the bin. That's okay. Game on."

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For others, full-time activism is not a practical option, nor is it the best deployment of our time and our gifts. I'll use myself as an example here. I was politically active in my younger years, but in late middle-age I'm contrained by health issues, by family responsibilities, and by the paucity of "spoons" I have to distribute among competing priorities each day. Within these constraints, the best use of my time is to focus on the things I'm designed by my nature to do: to write, to paint, to create "beauty in a broken world" (to use Terry Tempest William's evocative phrase), and perhaps lift the spirits of those who are on the Front Lines, doing the hard physical work I can no longer do.

I do not think this task is a lesser one. My job is to tell stories, in words and in paint -- and stories, well-told, are not trivial things. Stories teach. Challenge. Console. Refresh. They examine the world, and re-imagine the world. They remind us of what courage looks like, and hope. They explain us to each other. They explain us to ourselves. They feed us. Heal us. Confound us, and shake us out of despair or complacency. They light the path through the dark of the forest, bring us home on a path of breadcrumbs and stones. Telling stories is meaningful work, even now. Especially now. Game on.

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I don't mean to say it's a binary choice: going out into the world in the form of activism or turning inward to create works of art. We can do both, of course, and many of the artists I admire most throughout history have blended the two. How do we do this? With "sacred rage," Terry Tempest Williams advises, and an open and active heart:

"I don’t think there is anything as powerful as an active heart," she says. "And the activists I know possess this powerful beating heart of change. They do not fear the wisdom of emotion, but embody it. They know how to listen. They are polite when they need to be and unyielding when necessary. They remain open, even as they push boundaries and inhabit the margins, understanding eventually, the margins will move toward the center. They are tenacious, informed, patient, and impatient, at once. They do not shy away from what is difficult. They refuse to accept the unacceptable. The most effective activists I know are in love with the world. A good activist builds community.

"I used to ask the question, 'Am I an activist or a writer?' I don’t ask that anymore. I am simply a human being engaged."

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May we all be "human beings engaged" with the world around us, in one way or another. Loudly or softly, on the streets or at the desk...whichever way suits each of us best. We need it all right now. We need the urgent political conversations...but also the quiet discussions of books and art, folklore and myth, for they serve to keep our hearts open, receptive and responsive. To remind us of what we're fighting for. And to honor what's soft, and deep, and nuanced at a time when the dominant discourse is too often hard, and shallow, and simplistic.

"All kinds of activism will be needed in the coming months and years," says Laurie Penny. "Including the quiet, gentle activism of quiet, gentle people."

Myth & Moor is a safe haven for the quiet and gentle....

Art by Charles Robinson

But if you're noisy and kind, you are welcome here too.

Nattadon 8The passage by Anaïs Nin is from The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Volume 5, 1947-1955 (Harcourt, 1975). The passage by Jeanette Winterson is from Art Objects (Vintage, 1966). The two quotes by Laurie Penny are from her Twitter page. The quote by Terry Tempest Williams is from an interview by Devon Fredericksen (Guenerica, August 2013). The poem in the picture captions is from What to Remember When Waking by David Whyte (Sounds True, 2010). All rights reserved by the authors. The drawing is by Charles Robinson (1870-1937).


On a windy day in autumn

Writing in the woods

I'm feeling low in spirit today, while the wind rattles my cabin studio and moans through the oak and ash trees of the woodland right behind it. Here is what I'm thinking about as I walk the hills and trails with Tilly, or nest among the trees with notebook and pen:

"Fiction is a kind of compassion-generating machine that saves us from sloth," says George Saunders. "Is life kind or cruel? Yes, Literature answers. Are people good or bad? You bet, says Literature. But unlike other systems of knowing, Literature declines to eradicate one truth in favor of another; rather, it teaches us to abide with the fact that, in their own way, all things are true, and helps us, in the face of this terrifying knowledge, continually push ourselves in the direction of Open the Hell Up."


On loss and transfiguration

Kenneth Grahame's Wind in the Willows, illustrated by Inga Moore

"The classic makers of children's literature," writes Alison Lurie, "are not usually men and women who had consistently happy childhoods -- or even consistently unhappy ones. Rather they are those whose early happiness ended suddenly and often disastrously. Characteristically, they lost one or both parents early. They were abruptly shunted from one home to another, like Louisa May Alcott, Kenneth Grahame, and Mark Twain -- or even, like Frances Hodgson Burnett, E. Nesbit, and J.R.R. Tolkien, from one country to another. L. Frank Baum and Lewis Carroll were sent away to harsh and bullying schools; Rudyard Kipling was taken from India to England by his affectionate but ill-advised parents and left in the care of stupid and brutal strangers. Cheated of their full share of childhood, these men and women later re-created, and transfigured, their lost worlds. "

Kenneth Grahame's Wind in the Willows, illustrated by Inga Moore

Kenneth Grahame's Wind in the Willows, illustrated by Inga Moore

J.M Barrie falls into this catagory, the happiness of his early childhood vanishing into darkness and gloom when an elder brother, the family favorite, died in a skating accident, after which Barrie's mother retreated permanently to her bed. C.S. Lewis was ten when he lost his mother to cancer (and just four when his beloved dog, Jacksie, was killed by a car -- a loss that so effected him that he insisted upon being called Jack for the rest of his life). George MacDonald lost his mother to tuberculosis at the age of eight. Enid Blyton's happy childhood in Kent ended Inga Mooreabruptly when her beloved father left the family for another woman, leaving Enid behind with a mother who disapproved of her interest in nature, literature, and art.

The sudden loss of a happier childhood world doesn't turn everyone into a children's book writer, of course, but it's interesting to note how many fine writers' backgrounds are marked by such loss; and Lurie may be correct that the desire to re-create the lost world lies at the heart of a particular form of creative inspiration. Or perhaps I'm just struck by Lurie's idea because it maps onto my own childhood, which was, from a child's point of view, safe and stable for the first six years when I lived in my grandmother's household (with my teenage mother and her sisters), and then plunged into darkness upon my mother's marriage to a brutal man, a stranger to me until the day of the wedding. Loss of home at a tender age can indeed send an unhappy child inward, seeking lands in imagination uncorrupted by the treacherous adult world.

Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden, illustrated by Inga Moore

In Friday's post, and yesterday's, we've been talking about concepts of home, place, connection to the landscape, and the way these things impact creative work. Today I'd like to come at the subject from a slightly different direction, with the idea that loss of home can be as powerful a creative spur as the finding of the heart's home, or the love of a long-established one.

Loss can come about in so many different ways, and needn't be dramatic to cause lasting trauma. I'm thinking, for example, of a loss all too common today in our over-populated world: the loss of treasured chilhood landscapes to the unchecked sprawl of cities and suburbs, of beloved old houses and places we can never return to, buried under shopping malls and parking lots. 

Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden, illustrated by Inga Moore

The Secret Garden by Inga Moore

In her essay collection Language and Longing, Carolyn Servid writes poignantly of her husband's childhood in an isolated valley in the mountains of Colorado. Lightly populated by old ranching families, artists, and hermits, the valley was a sanctuary for humans and animals alike...until the development of the nearby Iga Mooretown of Aspen into a ski resort and playground for the wealthy began to raise property prices on Aspen's periphery. When the dirt road into the valley was paved, change was not long behind: land speculation, housing developments, a golf course. The valley as generations had known and loved it was gone.

Servid writes that her husband "had witnessed this gradual transformation during summers home from college. He witnessed more changes every time he visited after marriage and various jobs took him out of the valley. He chronicled those changes to me before he ever drove me up the Crystal River Road to the Redstone house. The landscape stunned me the first time I saw it, and I watched it bring a deep smile of recognition to Dorik's eyes, but I knew his memories were of a wholeness that was no longer there. I realized he held a kind of perspective and knowledge that has been lost over and over again in the settlement of the continent, over and over again in the civilzation of the world."

Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden, illustrated by Inga Moore

A little later, he learns that a neighbor's ranch has been sold off to a developer. "I watched his face tighten," Servid writes, "and knew that a deepening ache was filling him. Places and people he loved were both caught in the wake of rampant development that grew like a cancer. The impact was like a diagnosis of the disease itself, as though one of the most fundamental aspects of his life was being eaten away. I wondered then about the grief that comes to us when we lose the places we love. This grief doesn't have much standing among the range of emotions that our society values. We have yet to fully acknowledge and accept just how much our hearts are entwined with the places that shape us, tolerate us, hold us, provide for us. We have yet to openly testify and accede to the necessity of such places and love of them in our daily lives. We have yet to fully understand that our links as people living together in communties will never be more than transient and vulnerable without rootedness in the place itself."

Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden, illustrated by Inga Moore

Just as Servid wonders "about the grief that comes to us when we lose the places we love," I wonder about the ways such a loss impacts us as writers and artists. Grief is a powerful thing, and especially so when it rumbles away, unexpressed, in the depth of our souls, the quiet but constant base note of our lives. Grief for landscapes paved over, ways of life that are gone, for whole species that are rapidly vanishing around us. Grief can indeed be a spur to art, leading us to "re-create or transfigure" our cherished lost worlds, or it can do the reverse: deaden and silence and paralyze us.

Your thoughts?

Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden, illustrated by Inga Moore

The beautiful art today is by Inga Moore, who was born in Sussex, raised in Australia (from the age of eight), and returned to England when she reached adulthood. Joanna Carey, in her lovely portrait of the artist, writes:

Inga Moore"An imaginative, somewhat subversive child, she drew constantly, illustrating not just her own stories but also her schoolbooks, her homework, tests and exam papers. 'If you'd only stop all this silly drawing,' said the Latin teacher, 'you might one day amount to something.' She did stop -- 'for a long time' -- and is still resentful about that teacher's attitude. She regrets not going to art school, and endured 'one boring job after another' before eventually getting back to the drawing board. Supporting herself making maps for a groundwater company, she embarked on a series of landscapes and happily rediscovered her passion for drawing."

Moore worked as an illustrator in London until the economic downturn caused her to lose her home there -- a fortunate loss, as it turns out. She relocated to the Gloucester countryside, discovered this corner of England to be her heart's home, and produced the remarkable illustrations for The Wind in the Willows and The Secret Garden for which she is now justly famed. The pictures above are from those two volumes; the picture below is from The Reluctant Dragon.

Kenneth Grahame's The Reluctant Dragon, illustrated by Inga MooreThe passage by Alison Lurie is from Don't Tell the Grown-ups: Subversive Children's Literature (Little, Brown Publishers, 1990). The passage by Carolyn Servid is from Of Language and Longing: Finding a Home at the Water's Edge (Milkweed Editions, 2000). The quote by Joanna Carey is from "Inga Moore, illustrator of The Wind in the Willows" ( The Guardian, Feburary 6, 2010). All rights to the text and art above reserved by their creators.


Re-kindling the fire within

The Two Fridas by Frida Kahlo

Frida Khalo painting in bed(Information on the pictures here can be found in the picture captions; run your cursor over the images to see them.)

In her beautiful Guest Post two Fridays ago, Nomi McLeod discussed the ways "The Handless Maiden" fairy tale spoke to her at a difficult time of life, and how the art she created based on the tale Tree of Hope, Remain Strong by Frida Khaloboth documented her journey through the dark of the woods and helped her to comprehend it. This is a subject that particularly interests me: the means by which writers, painters, and other artists respond to trauma, crisis, and grief, alchemizing hard experience into story, image, and other creative works.

There are so many different ways this occurs. Sometimes the transformation from life experience to art is immediate and direct: an outpouring of creative energy in the middle of the crisis as it unfolds. Frida Khalo's self-portraits are one example of this, sometimes painted from the confines of her sickbed; another is the "savage creative storm" that caused Rilke to write Sonnets to Orpheus upon hearing the news of a family friend's death. I had a similar experience once myself, after learning that my stepfather had died: working night and day for almost two weeks, I produced, unplanned and almost without conscious thought, my "Surviving Childhood" series of drawings. (These are very large charcoal drawings made on rolls of butcher's paper, and unsuitable for reproducing here.) The Cancer Journals by Audre Lorde is another example of work produced in the eye of the storm; as is the art created by Henri Matisse after an operation left him bed- and chair-bound; Angelo Merendino's "The Battle We Didn't Choose," a photographic response to his wife's diagnosis with breast cancer; Hannah Laycock's "Perceiving Identity" series about living with multiple sclerosis; the final essays of Oliver Sacks, written in the last months of his terminal illness; and the work of Mohammed Al-Amari and other Syrian artists documenting the ongoing refugee crisis....to name just a few.

Henri Matisse working from bed

The Sorrows of the King by Henri Matisse

It is rare, however, that a serious illness or other crisis allows the time, space, and temper of mind required for art-making, and so the second category is a larger one: art in response to a crisis that has ended, but that still feels somehow unresolved. Through this kind of work, we return to the dark parts of our lives and transform our muddles of emotion and reaction into something more ordered, more comprehensible, more universal...perhaps even beautiful, if painfully so. Nomi's "Handless Maiden" falls in this category, as does the unflinching work of German artist Käthe Kollwitz in response to World War I, or the devastating "Hiroshima Panels" of Japanese artists Iri & Toshi Maruki. More recent example include Beckie Kravetz's powerful "Witness" sculpture installation; Meg Zivahl-Fox's "Nettles and Deliverance" collages (using fairy tale imagery in response to childhood trauma); Richard Johnson's heart-breaking "Weapon of Choice," a photographic series on verbal abuse and bullying (in response to his own childhood experiences); and CELL, a puppetry project exploring Motor Neurone Disease. (Two of the puppeteers behind the project lost family members to MND.)

Kathe Kollwitz

Kathe Kollwitz

Rescue, from the Hiroshima panels of Iri & Toshi Maruki

There are many fine examples in literature too, especially in the genre of personal essay and memoir, including If This is a Man by Primo Levi, The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Dideon, One Hundred Names for Love by Diane Ackerman, Slow Motion by Dani Shapiro, Paula by Isabel Allende, Hillbilly Gothic by Adrienne Martini, Eating the Underworld by Doris Brett, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou, Early Spring by Tove DitlevsenWhy Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Wintersen, I Want to Be Left Behind by Brenda Peterson, Refuge by Terry Tempest Williams, The Woman Who Watches Over the World by Linda Hogan, The Color of Water by James M. McBride, This Boy's Life by Tobias Wolff, Running With Scissors by Augusten Burroughs, and numerous others. When we turn to the field of poetry, there are almost too many examples to list, but I'll mention two that have touched me deeply: Jane Kenyon's poems on her battle with depression (found in Constance and Otherwise), and Jane Yolen's The Radiation Sonnets, written during her husband's treatment for cancer, and after his death. I also recommend "Finding Poetry in Illness," a moving article by Jennifer Nix.

Memoirs

Personal experience is often used in the creation of fiction too, of course, although here the alchemical magic is so strong that we're not always aware (nor should we be aware) of the ways in which strands of the author's own life may be woven with other material to create the tapestry of a novel or story. One interesting example is Jeanette Winterson's Oranges are Not the Only Fruit, in which the main character shares the author's name and some of the details of her life -- and yet this is a work of fiction, not memoir, with autobiographical elements skillfully juggled and altered in the service of art. Dorothy Allison's Bastard Out of Carolina is another excellent book of this type, as is Heinz Insu Fenkl's gorgeous Memories of my Ghost Brother: published as a novel in one edition and as a "magical realist memoir" in another, but actually falling into the interstices between those two literary forms. A fourth example is Jo Walton's wonderful fantasy novel Among Others -- which, she is clear to note, is not straight autobiography with magical trimmings but a "mythologization" of her Welsh childhood and family dynamics, written (to use Rilke's phrase) in a "savage create storm" of 36 writing days.

From Witness by Beckie Kravetz

Although powerful work can be born of hard life experience, there are also times when calamity silences us: when shock, or grief, or sheer emotional exhaustion serves to snuff out one's creativity altogether. For those of us used to moving through life by breathing in the world and breathing out art, this silence is an unsettling, even terrifying thing. It is not quite the same thing as depression; it's more like finding the inner room where we go to create is now shuttered and bolted against us. It's like trying to speak without language. It's like living without breathing. It's not living at all.

From ''The Battle We Didn't Choose'' by Angelo & Jennifer Merendino

Perhaps the alchemical process of creativity has not stopped altogether at such times; perhaps it's still moving, but moving so slowly it does not appear to be moving at all. Our creative daemon has gone underground: not hibernating but germinating, like a seed buried deep in the frozen earth, gathering strength and preparing to break through the soil when the proper time comes. Meanwhile, the winter drags on and we move through our days unaware of things stirring below. Winter is bleak, and endless, and we worry: What if this time the spring doesn't come?

Stray by Jeanie Tomanek

I think of trauma as cold, and sharp, with edges that hurt when you bump up against it. It's the sliver of glass from the Snow Queen tale and the kiss that turns Kay's heart to ice, making him numb to love, to passion, to everything that he once held dear. And yet, even numbness has its use. In a crisis, sometimes we just have to keep moving, putting one foot in front of another, weighted with burdens too heavy to carry but which we must not put down. At such times, it can feel like a mercy to leave the weight and heat of emotion behind us. There are decisions to make and things to be done and miles to cross before we can sleep; there's no time for emotion, no room for it in the basket of boulders we carry.

The Angel of Moving Safely Through the Darkness by Terri WindlingThe problem here is that inspiration arises from an inner fire that feeds on all the stuff our lives: both the dark and the bright, our emotions included. Take emotion away and the fire diminishes. It sputters. It goes out altogether. Numb, like Kay, we may think we are fine, we may think we are coping magnificently... but we sit down to work and the fire just isn't there. And that's hardly surprising.

What is a surprise (or so it was to me) is that the end of a crisis and the thawing of the heart are two things that don't always happen in tandem. A long illness has ended, or a painful problem resolved, or grief has finally loosened its grip and we've emerged from the deep dark forest at last, ready to live Happily Every After...or at least to enjoy a hard-won period of calm and creative renewal. Instead, we just sit there, frozen and numb, not even moving forward now, creativity gone (and our sense of self with it), smiling tightly when dear friends say: At last it's all over! We're glad that you're back!

But in fact, we're not back, at least not fully. Spring is here, but our souls are still clenched underground. We must call them back up to the light.

Life Vs Death by Nomi McLeod

In an earlier series of posts, we looked at illness as a mythic/metaphoric journey to the Underworld and back -- and I'd like to propose that the journey through crisis or grief might be viewed in a similar manner. The process unfolds Cradle by Nomi McLeodin mythic time, or wild time, not on clock time, on schedule, on human demand. It's a journey as perilous as it is profound and it needs to be acknowledged. It needs to be honored. We cannot return from the mythic Underworld as precisely the person we were when we started, and we do not return as the same artist either. Coaxing the soul back up to the sun involves learning just who it is we've become, and what fairy tale gifts we have brought from below. This post-crisis process cannot be rushed; it needs quiet reflection, solitude, time. And yet time, in our pressured and fast-paced world, is precisely what we rarely have.

For those of us working professionally in the arts, the strictures of the marketplace require that work be produced in a regular manner. We spend years mastering the discipline required to create works of art Bunny Maiden with Scars by Terri Windlingto schedule and deadline -- and when that discipline fails us, when the fire's been dampened and the work just will not come, what on earth does one do?

I wish I had an easy answer to that question...or even a difficult one. But every artist is different, every journey is different, and each of us must discover our personal way of re-kindling the fire (though in a perfect world, a charitable foundation aimed at giving working artists the time and resources to do so would not go amiss). What does help, I think, is to recognize the process occurring; to be patient (both with yourself and with others' reactions); and to accept, without shame, the problems that arise when deep healing processes conflict with careers run on clock-time, not soul-time. It also helps to know that other creative artists have gone into the dark before us, and returned, and then burned brighter than ever -- often using the Underworld's painful gifts to enable their very best work.

The Tree of Doors by Meg Zivahl-Fox

One book I keep returning to lately is "An Unreal House Filled With Real Storms" by Elizabeth Knox: a slim volume containing an essay composed for the 2014 Inaugural Margaret Mahy Memorial Lecture. (You can listen to it online here, or obtain the print edition from Victoria University Press.) In this powerful piece, Elizabeth weaves the story of her mother's final illness and several other hard life experiences into reflections on writing, on the nature of genre, and on the work of her friend Margaret Mahy. The essay has been a touchstone for me not because it gives me concrete answers or instructions to follow in times of hardship, but because it shows how another writer, and one I respect, has grappled with such issues too.  I've re-read my copy so many times now -- usually on coffee breaks in the woods -- that it's worn, leaf-strewn, coffee-stained, and dog-eared at favorite passages...such as this one, in which Elizabeth relates a conversation with her husband, Fergus:

"A few weeks back I was trying to explain to Fergus how I see things differently now. How my world view has changed. It had been heroic, by which I mean that everything, obligingly, had a shapeliness -- everything fell into story -- and revealed itself that way, becoming beautiful, and habitable for heroes. Then I got sad; sad for such a sustainable period of time that my world view became an abject one.

"The context of the conversation was this: what the hell could I say in my Inaugural Margaret Mahy Memorial Lecture, with the tectonic plates of my world view still in motion? What could I say when, as I saw it, it was my job to be inspiring? How was I ever to find inspiration in my discouraged soul?

"In trying to communicate this to Fergus, I began thinking about what I learned from my mother -- and not from her death. What she tried, from my infancy, to consciously impart: the vital goodness of kindness and civility in life."

Kindness and civility, yes. Potent magic for the thawing of hearts.

The Inaugural Margaret Mahy Memorial Lecture by Elizabeth Knox, published by Victoria University Press

Crumbs by Jeanie Tomanek

Everyone goes through the deep dark woods at some point in life; artists are not unique in this. But the impact of the journey on the work we do, and even on our ability to do it, makes the questions we ask in trauma's wake somewhat different than in other professions. After a searing experience, how do we re-open ourselves to inspiration? How can we bear such vulnerability? And yet, if we stay protectively closed, how will we bear the alternative: living our lives with our fires banked and the door to art locked against us?

With these thoughts in mind, I came across the following passage by M.C. Richards, from her book Centering: In Pottery, Poetry, and the Person. She's talking about love, but her words seem to me to apply to creativity as well. (For some of us -- and Richards is one, I think -- they are two sides of the same coin.)

Crossing an Iced-Over Stream by Gina LitherlandShe asks: "How are we to love [and how are we to create] when we are stiff and numb and distinterested? How are we to transform ourselves into limber and soft organisms lying open the world at the quick? By what process and what agency do we perform the Great Work, transforming lowly materials into gold? Love, like its counterpoint, Death, is a yielding at the center...figured forth in intelligent cooperation, sensitive congeniality, physical warmth. At the center the love must live.

"One gives up all one has for this. This is the love that resides in the self, the self-love, out of which all love pours. The fountain, the source. At the center. One gives up all the treasured sorrow and self-mistrust, all the precious loathing and suspicion, all the secret triumphs of withdrawal. One bends in the wind. There are many disciplines that strengthen one's athleticism for love [and creativity]. It takes all one's strength. And yet it takes all one's weakness too. Sometimes it is only by having one's so-called strengths pulverized that one is weak enough, strong enough, to yield. It takes the power of nature in one which is neither strength nor weakness but closer perhaps to virtu, person, personalized energy. Do not speak about strength and weakness, manliness and womanliness, aggressiveness and submissiveness. Look at this flower. Look at this child. Look at this rock with lichen growing on it. Listen to this gull scream as he drops through the air to gobble the bread I throw and clumsily rights himself in the wind. Bear ye another's burdens, the Lord said, and he was talking law.

"Love is not a doctrine, Peace is not an international agreement. Love and Peace are beings who live as possibilities in us."

After the Deluge by Gina Litherland

During periods when I've been unable to cross through the doorway into the room of creation, I've taken courage in knowing that others have also stood at that threshold and found a way in. Their entrance might not be one I can use, but I've learned I am capable of finding my own.

If you've been on that journey, if you are on it now, then this is the thing that I want most to tell you: You have my compassion, and you have my respect. The winter does end. Hearts thaw. Seeds grow. A spark hits dry tinder, and the fire roars.

Coyote Woman by Terri WindlingArt credits: (from top to bottom) "The Two Fridas" & "Tree of Hope, Remain Strong" by Frida Kahlo (1907-1954), and a photograph of Kahlo painting while recovering from one of her many operations. "The Sorrow of the King" by Henri Matisse (1869-1954) , and a photograph of Matisse at work even though confined to bed."Hunger: Mother & Sleeping Children" and "Survivors: Widows & Orphans" by Käthe Kollwitz' (1867-1945). "Rescue," one of the Hiroshima panels of Iri & Toshi Maruki. Recommended works of memoir, poetry, & fiction. Figures from "Witness," a sculptural installation by Beckie Kravetz. A photograph  by Angelo Merendino from The Battle We Didn't Choose project. "Stray" by Jeanie Tomanek. "The Angel of Moving Safely Through the Darkness" from my Angel series of paintings. "Life Vs. Death" and "Cradle" by Nomi McLeod. "Bunny maiden with scars," from one of my hospital sketchbooks. "The Tree of Doors" from Nettles and Deliverance by Meg Zivahl-Fox. The Victoria University Press edition of the Inaugural Margaret Mahy Memorial Lecture by Elizabeth Knox. "Crumbs" by Jeanie Tomanek. "Crossing an Iced-Over Stream" and "After the Deluge" by Gina Litherland. "Coyote Woman" from my Desert Spirits series. Text credits: The passage by Elizabeth Knox is from An Unreal House Filled With Real Storms (Victoria University Press, 2014). The passage by M.C. Richards (1916-1999) is from Centering in Pottery, Poetry, and the Person (Wesleyan, 1989). All rights by Elizabeth Knox and the estate of M.C. Richards. All rights to the words and pictures above reserved by the authors and artists or their estates.


The Handless Maiden: an art project by Nomi McLeod

Severed by Nomi McLeod

The Handless Maiden is a powerful fairy tale known by a number of names in cultures around the world: The Girl With No Hands, The Girl With Silver Hands, and The Armless Maiden, among others. In this Guest Post, mythic artist Nomi MacLeod discusses the genesis of the extraordinary work you see here. If you're unfamiliar with the Handless Maiden story, you can read the Brothers Grimm version online on the SurLaLune Fairy Tales site.   - Terri


Wound by Nomi McLeodThe Handless Maiden

by Nomi McLeod

I first encountered the Handless Maiden when I was 29, and
pregnant for the second time.

It still strikes me as odd that I was
an adult before I encountered the tale; I sat thinking, 'How is it that I've never heard this before?' The imagery reminded me at once of Shakespeare's Lavinia from Titus Andronicus -- raped, mutilated
and left (seemingly) utterly powerless: she can neither
speak nor write, lacking both
tongue and hands. 

The particular version I sat
listening to was delivered by storyteller Martin Shaw. After hearing his rendition, I sought out written versions of 'The Handless Maiden' and discovered many variants. Some of them spoke to me even more clearly, some less so.

Like Lavinia, who finds a way to spell out the names of her attackers, the Maiden of the story gradually regains her power. Her hands grow back -- gradually, in Martin Shaw's re-telling, and by a sudden miracle in other versions.

Heartwomb by Nomi McLeod

What for me was particularly poignant was that the Maiden's hands, and therefore her autonomy and power, are restored after she becomes a mother.

As I first sat listening to the story, I was almost 20 weeks pregnant. This was the exact gestation at which my first baby, a little girl, had died in my womb. To say her death and stillbirth left me wounded does Foetus (print) by Nomi McLeodlittle to convey my grief, nor the psychic disturbance the events caused me. The loss of my unborn child made me starkly aware of how little control a woman has over the processes of gestation and birth. For me, the imagery of the handless mother resonated perfectly with my experience of pregnancy after the loss of my first baby. As well as being an awe-inspiring, often beautiful experience, pregnancy has a darker side, one often not spoken about. Whether or not a woman has lost a baby, during pregnancy she is highly likely to experience times of fear about this possibility, and anxiety about birth, her body, her change in status, her relationship to a partner and/or the world at large.

After my second pregnancy resulted in the birth of a healthy daughter, I was overjoyed. Yet all I experienced remained unresolved. To explore my feelings, I made a puppet of the Maiden and her baby, which you can see here on Clive Hicks-Jenkins' Puppet Challenge blog.

The image of the Maiden, mutilated, handless (read: powerless) with her child, spoke deeply to that part of my mind which responds to symbols and magic.

Her Hand (sculpture) by Nomi McLeod

I found I could not stop with just the one puppet. I began to make more images from the story, using mediums I rarely use (oils, printing, sculpture), and even materials I had not considered before, such as prints on birch bark...

The Maiden in the Wood

...as I explored the symbolic nature of the Maiden's wanderings in the forest.

She Entered the Forest, and the Forest Entered Her, by Nomi McLeod

My image-making culminated in a representation of the moment when the young mother's hands miraculously grow back. In the version of the story which spoke most strongly to me, she has been exiled to the woods with her newborn child. Breastfeeding, and thirsty, she attempts to stoop to a river and drink. Her baby slips from her handless grasp and falls into the water. Forgetting her mutilation in her panic and despair, she plunges her stumps into the water. Her hands grow back and she saves her child.

Re-growth by Nomi McLeod


I could not save my first baby. But through the mothering of my second, and the making of art, I find that, slowly, slowly, my hands are growing back.

The Flower of Life

About the artist/author of this Guest Post: Nomi McLeod is a multi-media artist and aerialist who lives here in Devon, on the other side of our village, with her partner (musician and author Andy Letcher) and their child. "I work a lot with self portraiture," she writes, "imagining, dreaming and reflecting on my life and my place in it. The natural world, mortality and the connection between these two are a constant source of inspiration." To see more of her beautiful work, please visit her Air and Parchment blog -- or, if you're anywhere near Bristol, UK, you can also see it in the "When Death Comes" exhibition, which runs through Sunday. Please note that all rights to the text and art above are reserved by the artist.

About the fairy tale: For more information on The Handless Maiden (and its variants), see my previous post, "The Armless Maiden and Forest Sanctuary,"  and Midori Snyder's very fine essay,  "The Armless Maiden and the Hero's Journey."


Stones in My Pocket:
On Grief, Change, and Myths of Death & Rebirth

A winter day in Devon


Winter

The earth now lies through nights drenched
in the still dark benediction of the rain
and dusky houses and branches stand out bleak
each day in mist, in white, and in the rustling wet.
All, all is rich and restful, with heavy
and secret and rich growth finding its way
through warm soil to every leaf and shoot
and binding everything – near, far – mysteriously
with moisture, fruitfulness, and great desire
- till one clear afternoon suddenly we see
the glistening grass, the tenderly rising grain
and know that life is served by rest.
How could I ever have thought of summer
as richer than this season’s mystery?

- N.P. Van Wyk Louw


Van Wyk Louw's poem "Winter" has become a touchstone for me during the dark part of the year, for it reminds me not to measure my days by action and accomplishment only; it reminds me that life is also "served by rest," and that winter is the natural time for retreat, hibernation, and introspection. I seem to need a lot of rest these days -- obstensively because I am healing from an illness, but my spirit is in need of rest and healing too: of time in the dark, in the underworld of the psyche. It is winter. It is not yet time to bloom.

One year ago I was in Arizona closing down the Endicott West Arts Retreat, which was my last and longest home in the desert, and the final home of my American life. The closing of E-West was anticipated, planned for, and accomplished in the best possible way -- and yet I mourned its lost, and I've continued to mourn with each new season of the passing year. In folk wisdom it is said that the sharpest phase of grief must be weathered for a full year and a day, and I find this prescript strangely accurate, as though loss must be carried through all four seasons before its weight begins to lighten and life goes on.

 winter day in the desert

I didn't, however, expect to be quite so rattled that E-West had come to its end. "It's just a life change," I tell myself firmly, exasperated by the strength and persistence of the feeling. "You wanted to move to Devon full-time. For heaven's sake, no one has died."  

But, in fact, someone has died: the person I used to be in Arizona. My desert self. My younger self, who seems so different than the woman I am now, for she was physically stronger and thus quicker, bolder, In Arizona, 1990smore intrepid in adventure than I am today...if also less wise, less tempered, less steady: the gifts of age and experience. That young woman is inside of me, of course, but I am not her; I will never be her again; and packing up my last home in the desert brought me face to face with this "little death."

For many months I have carried the weight of loss like stones in the lining of my pocket -- stones rubbed smooth by handling -- finding comfort in their feel, their rattling sound, their familiarity. But eventually we must empty out our pockets, for life is full of these "little deaths" and if grief is left to accumulate, then the garment of our soul becomes threadbare, misshapen, and our spirit just as heavy as the stones. Death, as myth constantly reminds us, is not an end point but a station one passes through as life turns on the Great Wheel of renewal: each self (representing the stages of our lives) dies so that the next one can be born; death and birth, endlessly repeated. We can't move forward (with our lives, our art) without these endings, these little deaths, these acts of letting go, which create the space for new ideas and fresh momentum.

Saint Francis holding stones

In the mythological calendar, the passage from winter into spring is the perfect time for giving stones back to the earth. The Corn King/Year King/Winter King has died, and will be re-born with the greening of the hills: a virile young consort for the Goddess, his seed ensuring the land's fecundity...until he, too, withers with the dying of the year and emerges again next spring.

This ancient theme of an agricultural king who dies and regenerates each year is reflected in the traditional British folksong of John Barleycorn:

          
There was three men come out of the West

Their fortunes for to try
And these three men made a solemn vow
John Barleycorn must die.
They ploughed, they sowed, they harrowed him in
Throwing clods all on his head
And these three men made a solemn vow
John Barleycorn was dead.

They've left him in the ground for a very long time
Till the rains from heaven did fall
Then little Sir John's sprung up his head
And so amazed them all
They've left him in the ground till the Midsummer
Till he's grown both pale and wan
Then little Sir John's grown a long, long beard
And so become a man . . .

(Read the full lyrics and hear the song here. )


Mythic scholars have linked John Barleycorn to Beowa (the Anglo-Saxon god of barley, grain, and agricultural), and to Byggvir (the Norse god of barley, grain, and the art of milling),  for similar stories of sacrifical death and resurrection are associated with all three figures.

Persephone by Virginia Lee

Persephone by Virginia Lee

One of the best known stories of death and re-birth is the Greek myth of Persephone, who was the daughter of Demeter, goddess of grain, fertility, and patroness of marriage. (Demeter's name derives from "spelt mother," spelt being an early form of wheat.) When Persephone is abducted to the Underworld by Hades (god of the dead), her mother's grief causes the seasons to stop, love-making to cease, and all living things to fail to grow...until Zeus intervenes and Persephone is returned, but only for six months of each year. The girl has eaten pomegranate seeds in Hell, binding her to Hades in the autumn and winter. Each spring, she returns to her mother, and the greening of the earth begins anew. 

The veneration of Demeter, Persephone, and the cosmic cycle of death and re-birth was at the core of the Eleusinion Mysteries, whose initiatory rites took place each year just as the crops were sown. Beginning in an old cemetery in Athens, the participants walked in procession all the way to Eleusis, stopping at certain places along the route to shout obscenities. (This was in honor of Iambe, an old woman who's earthy stories had made Demeter laugh during her season of sorrow.) In Eleusis, the initiates fasted for a day (as Demeter did during her period of grief), then broke their fast with a special medicinal brew of barley water and mint. Little is known about the final rituals as the participants (sometimes several thousands of them) gathered together in the sect's great hall, for it was strictly forbidden for such sacred things to be spoken of in public.

Demeter Mourning Persephone by  Evelyn De Morgan

Demeter, often pictured wearing a wreath of wheat or corn, has much in common with Selu, the Corn Mother of the Cherokee Nation, also associated with agriculture, fertility, and the sanctity of marriage. When her grandsons break a strict taboo and spy on Selu's mysteries, she tells them she will have to leave them and die -- but that even in death she will look after them, provided they restore the harmony they have broken by performing certain rituals. "Clear a circle of land in front of the house," she says. "Take my body and drag it seven time around the circle. Then you must keep watch all night and see what happens."

The boys follow their grandmother's instructions, and from the places where Selu's blood speckles the ground comes the very first crop of corn, a sacred food which is still an important staple of the People today. In some versions of the story, however, the lazy boys clear only a small piece of land, and drag Selu's body only twice around the circle, which is why corn doesn't grow everywhere and we must work hard to cultivate it.

Selu sculpture by Raymond Moose on the Cherokee Reservation in North Carolina

Many carnival celebrations around the world are rooted in older pagan rites honoring the passage from winter to spring:  anarchic, riotous affairs in which laughter and satire are given a social outlet and a sacred context. Alan Weisman described carnaval as it's still practiced in the villages of northern Spain:

"In Laza, the event is known by its Galician name, entroido: introduction, entry. Elsewhere in Spain and Europe where it is still observed, and in Latin America, where it has been transplanted, it is called carnaval. Centuries ago, when Christianity superimposed its holy calendar on the cycles of nature, the formerly pagan celebration became a brief, sanctioned burst of scheduled excess before 40 somber days of Lenten abstinence and repentance. (One theory holds that the word carnaval derives from 'carne va'—'there goes the meat.') Lent concludes with Easter, the celebration of Christ's Resurrection, coinciding handily with the spring equinox -- resurrection of the pagan sun god."

This, notes Alan, is the  one time of year when authority figures are ignored, or mocked, and the people reign. "Power is concentrated in the masks thundering by, borne by the sons of the village itself, lashing the crowd ever harder. Priest and politician alike must hide or be pummeled with insult and ridicule; the world is turned upside-down and shaken until the established order cracks loose. Anything is possible, everything is allowed: Humans transform themselves into animals; males become females; peons strut like kings. Social station is scorned, decorum is debunked, blasphemy goes unblamed. In neighboring villages, normally sober citizens drench each other with buckets of water; in Laza, they sling rags soaked in mud until everyone is reduced to muck. Bags appear containing ashes, flour, and -- most prized of all -- fertilizer crawling with red and black ants. A frenzy erupts; the air fills with stinging, fragrant grime, coating everyone with the earth's sheer essence. Men and women throw each other to the ground and roll in the street. With any luck, the heavens will be shocked and the new season jarred awake. Then, once again, day can steal hours back from the night, vegetation will arouse from hibernation, spring will heave aside winter, and what was dead can live again."

(To read Alan's full article, go here.)

Spanish Carnaval

Photograph by David Bacon

Re-enactment of the mythic cycle of death and re-birth can still be found in many sacred traditions, from the ritual practices of Siberian shamans to the Easter pageants of Christianity. In the Border region of southern Arizona, where Mexican American, Native American and European American cultures all come together, the Easter ceremonies of the Yaqui (Yoeme) tribe contain a fascinating mix of religious traditions (similar to those of the Mayo and other tribes of northern Mexico).

Private spiritual rituals practiced in the months between Christmas and Easter, most intensively during the weeks of Lent, culminate in a public drama enacting an unusual version of Christ's Passion, blending ancient Yaqui mystical  beliefs with 17th-century Spanish Catholicism. The "three Marys" (figures of the Blessed Virgin) are Yaqui Deer Dancerguarded in an open-sided church by hymn-singing women, matachins (a dance society of men and boys), pahkola dancers (a kind of holy clown), and the deer dancer -- an enchanted figure from the old Yaqui "religion of the woods." Opposing them are the forces of Judas: faceless fariseos, dressed in black, and chapayekas wearing elaborate masks, strings of rattles, and painted wooden swords.

These dark figures march and dance around the church for many days and nights...and eventually, on the last day before Easter, they attack. The church bells ring, the deer dancer leaps, the faithful pelt the dark forces with flowers. The watching crowds throw flowers and confetti, shouting "Gloria! Gloria! Gloria!" The dark ones fall back, regroup, march...and then attack once more. Again they're driven back. On the third attack they are overcome by the forces of good: by songs, prayers, armloads of flowers. They strip off weapons, black scarves and masks (subsequently burned on a huge bonfire), and relatives drag the exhausted men back into the safety of the church -- a ritual resurrection, dedicating new lives to the forces of good.

The deer and pahkola dancers have been incorporated into this ritual, yet come from the tribe's pre-Christian past. They are, in one sense, shamanic figures, able to cross over the borders between the human world of the Baptised Ones, the modern Yaqui, to the flower world of the ancestors, a magical people called the Surem.

The Seven Ravens by Lisbeth Zwerger

When we look at traditional folktales, it's striking how many address the subject of loss. A sizeable number of tales begin with the loss of a parent, a sibling, a fortune, a home, or an identity -- and rarely does that which is missing return, intact and unchanged, at the end of the story. Instead, loss is the catalyst that leads to transformation. 

The older versions of fairy tales were unflinching in their portrayal of calamity: kings abruptly beggared, queens dying young, children orphaned, cursed, and disowned. In The Handless Maiden, the heroine's hands are cut off at the wrist by her own father. The subsequent story of her journey through the world, rendered nearly helpless by her loss and yet still possessed of kindness and courage, speaks to everyone who has ever felt the wound of a loved one's betrayal. In The Seven Ravens, retold by the Brothers Grimm, seven princes lose their humanity due to their The Handless Maiden by Jeanie Tomanekfather's carelessness. Salvation comes from their young sister, who bravely suffers a loss of her own: she must cut off her little finger to make the key to unlock their prison. Beauty gives up her home and future to save her father from a beast; Cinderella is transformed by the loss of her mother from a coddled daughter to a kitchen drudge, until the simple loss of a shoe transforms her again and she becomes a princess. Sleeping Beauty loses one hundred years of life; her parents lose a precious daughter as the vines grow high and her bedchamber is shrouded in roses and silence.

These were tales, in their older forms, meant for adult audiences, not the nursery; and in some of them, the depiction of grief and loss is sharp and brutal. This is particularly true of the literary fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen, which were beloved by adult readers across Europe in Andersen's lifetime. Here, unlike Disneyfied fairy tales today, we're never assured of a happy ending; here, the Little Mermaid is forgotten by her prince, the Brave Tin Soldier melts in the stove, and the Little Matchgirl dies alone, frozen by the breath of winter.

Though children also experience grief (and sometimes love the saddest of tales), the subject of loss as a literary theme becomes more and more resonant as we age -- as the passing years bring with them the inevitable loss of friends and family members; of homes and jobs; of innocence; of wild lands lost to development and memories lost to the ravages of time; of the many things we cling to, mourn in passing, and learn to live without.

The Little Mermaid by Sulamith Wulfing.

"To live in this world," advised poet Mary Oliver, "you must learn to do three things: to love what is mortal; to hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends on it; and, when the time comes to let it go, to let it go."

Like myth, the great fantasy tales of our day have much to tell us about "loving what is mortal" and then letting it go. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, for example, and Ursula Le Guin's early "Earthsea" books, revolve around the adventures of young heroes -- but loss, change, and the impact of life's "little deaths" are also major themes. (In "Earthsea," the aging of the heroes is beautifully explored as the series progresses.)

Ellen Kushner -- who entered the fantasy field, like me, as a young writer/editor in the 1980s -- has pointed out that our generation of fantasists is now middle-aged or beyond. "Our concerns are different now," she muses. "If we stick to writing fantasy, what are we going to do? Traditionally, there's been the coming-of-age novel, and the quest novel, which is the finding of self. We're past the early stages of that. Does fantasy demand that you stay in your adolescence forever? I don't think so. Tolkien's books are not juvenile. The Lord of the Rings is about losing things you've loved, which is a very middle-aged concern. Frodo's quest is a middle-aged man's quest, to lose something and to give something up, which, as you age, is what you start to realize is going to happen to you. Part of the rest of your life is learning to give things up."

The Scribe by Alan Lee

Learning to give things up.... 

I'm thinking now of my last night at Endicott West, saying goodbye to a place that had held so much of my life and so many of my dreams. I'd wanted to let it go lovingly, gracefully, and I was surprised by just how hard that was. The ghost of my younger self stood beside me, growing thinner, paler, more insubstantial with every moment that passed.

My partners and I lit one last blaze in the campfire circle beneath the stars, and thanked the spirits in the old tribal way: with sage, cedar, and the desert tobacco that I'd grown and cured on that beautiful land. Then we popped the cork on a bottle of champagne and reminisced about the days of building the Retreat, acknowledging all the blessing we'd received there, all the blessing we'd carry on from it. This is what I wanted to take back home to Devon: this good fellowship and these good memories, not the stony weight of loss and grief for a phase of life that had reached its natural end. But of course we don't control these things. Grief comes when it will, and takes the time it takes, and there's no short-cut to moving through it. Grief must be honored. It's the heart's clear measure of the value of what we've loved, and what we've lost.

Endicott West fire circle at dawn.

Mesquite kindling, reading to be lit

"In my own worst seasons," wrote our former E-West neighbor Barbara Kingsolver (in her essay collection High Tide in Tucson), "I've come back from the colorless world of despair by forcing myself to look hard, for a long time, at a single glorious thing: a flame of red geranium outside my bedroom window. And then another: my daughter in a yellow dress. And another: the perfect outline of a full, dark sphere behind the crescent moon. Until I learned to be in love with my life again. Like a stroke victim retraining new parts of the brain to grasp lost skills, I have taught myself joy, over and over again.''

Stones

Well, I've not been in "despair" exactly, I've just been feeling a little bit...off. Blame it on poor health. Blame it on the weather, which is wet and cold, unlike the winters of the desert. Blame it on exhaustion; I've been carrying these stones for a full year and a day, and it's time to put them down.

Here in Devon, it's been a long grey winter...but every now and then the sun breaks through. I put on muddy boots, whistle for the dog, and we squelch our way through hills that glimmer "in the rustling wet" (to quote Van Wyk Louw's poem) like the saturated colors of a watercolor painting.  These colors remind me that grief will pass. Winter will pass. The months, the seasons, the Great Wheel will turn. I have re-learned joy many times before, and I am simply doing it one more time. The land that is now my home lifts and sustains me.

And spring is coming.

Woodland snow.

The first wild daffodil shoots in the woods.Image credits and descriptions are in the picture captions. Run your cursor over the pictures to see them. This essay is dedicated to Ellen & Delia.


The things we lose

Among the stones

From A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit:

"It is the nature of things to be lost and not otherwise. Think of how little has been salvaged from the compost of time of the hundreds of billions of dreams dreamt since the language to describe them emerged, how few names, how few wishes, how few languages even, how we don't know what tongues the people who erected the standing stones of Britain and Ireland spoke or what the stones meant, don't know much of the language of the Gabrielanos of Los Angeles or the Miwoks of Marin, don't know how or why they drew the giant pictures on the desert floor in Nazca, Peru, don't know much even about Shakespeare or Li Po.

Still life in green, violet, and rust

"It is as though we make the exception the rule, believe that we should have rather than that we will generally lose. We should be able to find our way back again by the objects we dropped, like Hansel and Gretel in the forest, the objects reeling us back in time, undoing each loss, a road back from lost eyeglasses to lost toys and baby teeth.  Instead, most of the objects form the secret constellations of our irrecoverable past, returning only in dreams where nothing but the dreamer is lost. They must all still exist somewhere: pocket knives and plastic horses don't exactly compost, but who knows where they go in the great drifts of objects sifting through our world?

Breadcrumbs in the forest

Red Clay

Old in autumn

"Once I found a locket with a crescent moon and a star spelled out in rhinestones on one face, unreadably intricate initials on another, and two ancient photographs inside, and someone must have missed it terribly but no one claimed it, and I have it still. Another time, traveling down a river in one of the last great wildernesses, a roadless place the size of Portugal, I lost a sock early in the trip and a pair of sunglasses later, and I think of them littering the wilderness so clear of such clutter, there still or found by someone who must have wondered about them as I did the woman with the locket.

"On that trip I leaned over the side of the raft and stared straight down for hours at the floor of the river whose name almost no one knows that flows into another little-known river, stared at thousands of stones sliding by, gray, pink, black, gold, under the clearest water in the whole world, floating for miles and days on water I drank straight out of the river. Material objects witness everything and say nothing. Animals say more. And they are disappearing.

"That things should be lost to our knowledge is one thing, in which we don't know where we are or they are; that things should be lost from the earth is another."

Field guides to the terrain of the heart

The Animal Guide

S
The secret constellations of loss

From Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place by Terry Tempest Williams:

“The eyes of the future are looking back at us and they are praying for us to see beyond our own time. They are kneeling with hands clasped that we might act with restraint, that we might leave room for the life that is destined to come. To protect what is wild is to protect what is gentle. Perhaps the wilderness we fear is the pause between our own heartbeats, the silent space that says we live only by grace. Wilderness lives by this same grace. Wild mercy is in our hands.”

An offering for Wild Mercy