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September 2013

Tunes for a Monday Morning

We're in Spain today,  with three groups who interpret Ibérica's oldest musical traditions in wonderful ways...

Above, "María Ramo de Palma / La Zorra" and "El Vapor" by Coetus, from Barcelona, filmed last year for the Concert Privats series. This Spanish percussion orchestra specializes in instruments that are "little or not known at all, which over time have been used to accompany songs, ballads, processions, festivals and dances in the Iberian Peninsula (tambourines, rods, jars, mortars, pans, drums, kettledrums, rustic drums, etc.), creating a proprietary and innovative language inspired by traditional rhythms and dialogues with the voice."

Below, "La cantiga del fuego," a Sephardic song performed by Ana Alcaide and her band in Huesca (in the north-east of the country). Alcaide is a musican, composer, and music historian from Madrid, now based in Toledo. FolkWorld describes her work as "a fusion between the Nordic sonorities of the nyckelharpa (Swedish keyed fiddle), the Sephardic (Spanish-Jewish) music, and the traditional sounds from several places around the Mediterranean Sea." For more information, there's a good interview with Alcaide here.

And third, on a somewhat different note:

"Nueva vida" by Ojos de Brujo, from Barcelona, whose thoroughly addictive music combines flamenco and gyspy jazz with hiphop. The last time they appeared on this blog was back in 2010, and that's way too long.

Undine by Arthur Rackham

by Mary BarnardDrawing by Alan Lee

At supper time an ondine’s narrow feet
made dark tracks on the hearth.
Like the heart of a yellow fruit was the fire’s heat,
but they rubbed together quite blue with the cold.
The sandy hem of her skirt dripped on the floor.
She sat there with a silvered cedar knot
for a low stool; and I sat opposite,
my lips and eyelids hot
in the heat of the fire. Piling on dry bark,
seeing that no steam went up from her dark dress,
I felt uneasiness
as though firm sand had shifted under my feet
in the wash of a wave.

I brought her soup from the stove and she would not eat,
but sat there crying her cold tears,
her blue lips quivering with cold and grief.
She blamed me for a thief,
saying that I had burned a piece of wood
the tide washed up. And I said, No,
the tide had washed it out again; and even so,
a piece of sodden wood was not so rare
as polished agate stones or ambergris.

She stood and wrung her hair
so that the water made a sudden splash
on the round rug by the door. I saw her go
across the little footbridge to the beach.
After, I threw the knot on the hot coals.
It fell apart and burned with a white flash,
a crackling roar in the chimney and dark smoke.
I beat it out with a poker
in the soft ash.

Now I am frightened on the shore at night,
Drawing by Alan Leeand all the phosphorescent swells that rise
come towards me with the threat of her dark eyes
with a cold firelight in them;
and crooked driftwood writhes
in dry sand when I pass.

Should she return and bring her sisters with her,
the withdrawing tide
would leave a long pool in my bed.
There would be nothing more of me this side
the melting foamline of the latest wave.

Undine by Arthur Rackham

The images above: two paintings for "Undine" by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939), and two drawings by Alan Lee. Barnard's poem, based on ondine/undine folklore, comes from the 1935 issue of Poetry magazine; all rights reserved by the Barnard estate.

Into the Woods, 38: When Stories Take Flight

The Wicked Witch of the Oeuf by Ione Rucquoi

Birds have been creatures of the mythic imagination since the very earliest times. Various birds, from eagles to starlings, serve as messengers to the gods in stories the world over, carrying blessings to humankind and prayers up to the heavens. They lead shamans into the Spirit World and dead souls to the Realm Beyond; they follow heroes on quests, uncover secrets, give warning and shrewd council.

The movements, cries and migratory patterns of birds have been studied as oracles. In Celtic lands, ravens were domesticated as divinatory birds, although eagles, geese and the humble wren also had their prophetic The Seven Ravens by Arthur Rackhampowers. In Norse myth, the two ravens of Odin flew throughout the world each dawn, then perched on the raven-god's shoulder to whisper news into his ears. A dove with the power of human speech sat in the branches of the sacred oak grove at Zeus's oracle at Dodona; a woodpecker was the oracular bird in groves sacred to Mars.

According to various Siberian tribes, the eagle was the very first shaman, sent to humankind by the gods to heal sickness and suffering. Frustrated that human beings could not understand its speech or ways, the bird mated with a human woman, and she soon gave birth to a child from whom all shamans are now descended. In a mystic cloak of bird feathers, the shaman chants, drums and prays him- or herself into a trance. The soul takes flight, soaring into the spirit world beyond our everyday perception. (Great care must be taken in this exercise, lest the wing-borne soul forgets its way back home.)

From Ashes and Snow by Gregory Colbert

Shadow Play by Susan Seddon Boulet

Likewise, the shamans of Finland call upon their eagle ancestors to lead them into the spirit realms and bring them safely back again. Shamans, like eagles, are blessed (or cursed) with the ability to cross between the human world and the realm of the gods, the lands of the living and the lands of the dead. Despite the healing powers this gives them (the "medicine" of their bird ancestry), men and women in shamanic roles were often seen as frightening figures, half-mad by any ordinary measure, poised between co-existent worlds, fully present in none. The Buriats of Siberia traced their lineage back to an eagle and a swan, honoring the ancestral swan-mother with migration ceremonies each autumn and spring. To harm a swan, or even mishandle swan feathers, could cause illness or death; likewise, to harm a woman could bring the wrath of the swans upon men.

The Children of Lir by John Duncan

A swan-maiden was the mother of Cuchulain, hero of Ireland's Ulster cycle, and thus the warrior had a geas (taboo) against killing these sacred birds.  In "The Children of Lir," one of the Three Great Sorrows of Irish mythology, the four children of the lord of the sea are transformed into wild Wild Swans by Milo Winterswans by the magic of a jealous step-mother. Neither Lir himself nor all the great magicians of the Tuatha De Danann can mitigate the power of the curse, and the four are condemned to spend three hundred years on Lake Derryvaragh, three hundred years on the Mull of Cantyre, and a final three hundred years off the stormy coast of Mayo. During this time, the Children of Lir retain the use of human speech, and the swans are famed throughout the land for the beauty of their song. The curse is ended when a princess of the South is wed to Lairgren, king of Connacht in the North. The swan-shapes fall away at last, but now they resume their human shapes as four withered and ancient souls. They soon die, and are buried together in a single grave by the edge of the sea. For many centuries, Irishmen would not harm a swan because of this sad story -- and country folk still say that a dying swan sings a song of eerie beauty, recalling the music of the Children of Lir...and echoing the ancient Greek belief that a swan sings sweetly once in a lifetime (ie: a "swan song"), in the moments before it dies. (More swan tales can be found here and here.)

The Fairies' Tiff with the Birds by Arthur Rackham

The Tuatha De Danaan, the fairy race of old Ireland, were known to appear in the shape of white birds, their necks adorned with gold and silver chains; alternately, they also took human shape, wearing magical Hank by Carson Elliscloaks of feathers. The Celtic islands of immortality had orchards thick with birds and bees, where beautiful fairy women lived in houses thatched with bright bird feathers.

Crows and ravens are also birds omnipresent in myth and folklore. The crow, commonly portrayed as a trickster or thief, was considered an ominous portent -- and yet crows were also sacred to Apollo in Graeco-Roman myth; to Varuna, guardian of the sacred order in Vedic myth; and to Amaterasu Omikami, the sun-goddess of old Japan. The ancestral spirits of the Maratha in India resided in crows; in Egypt a pair of crows symbolized conjugal felicity. In the Aboriginal lore of Australia and the myths of many North American tribes, Raven appears as a dual-natured Trickster and Creator God, credited with bringing fire, light, sexuality, song, dance, and life itself to humankind.

The Seven Ravens by Lisbeth Zwerger

In Celtic lore, the raven belonged to Morrigan, the Irish war goddess -- as well as to Bran the Blessed in the great Welsh epic, The Mabinogion. Tradition has it that Bran's severed head is buried under the Tower of London. A ceremonial Raven Master still keeps watch over the birds of the Tower; an old custom says that if Bran's birds ever leave the Tower, the kingdom will fall.

Raven Girl by Audrey Niffeneger

Woman with Raven by Pablo Picasso

The owl is a bird credited with more malevolence than any other, even though its reputation for wisdom goes back to our earliest myths. In Greece, the owl (sacred to both Athena and Demeter) was revered as a prescient creature -- yet also feared, for its call or sudden appearance could foretell a death. Lilith, Adam's wife before Eve (banished for her lack of submissiveness) was associated with owls and depicted with wings or taloned feet.

Slova Sova by Rima Staines

In the Middle East, evil spirits took the shape of owls to steal children away -- while in Siberia, tamed owls were kept in the house as protectors of children. In Africa, sorcerers in the shape of owls caused mischief in Troll Witch with Owl by Brian Froudthe night. To the Ainu of Japan, the owl was an unlucky creature -- except for the Eagle Owl, revered as a mediator between humans and the gods. In North America, the symbolism of the owl varied among indigenous tribes. The Pueblo peoples considered them baleful; the Navajo believed them to be the restless, dangerous ghosts of the dead. The Pawnee and Menominee, on the other hand, related to them as protective spirits, and Tohono O'Odham medicine singers used their feathers in healing ceremonies. When we turn to Celtic traditions we find that the owl, though sacred, is an ill omen, prophesying death, illness or the loss of a woman's honor. In the Fourth Branch of The Mabinogion, the magician Gwydion takes revenge upon Blodeuwedd (the girl he made out of flowers, who married and then betrayed his son) by turning her into an owl and setting her loose into the world. (I highly recommend two novels inspired by this fascinating myth:Owl Service by Alan Garner and The Island of the Mighty by Evangeline Walton.)

The Decision and The Nightingale by Steven Kenny

The Crane by Steven Kenny

The crane is another bird associated with death in the British Isles. It was one of the shapes assumed by the King of Annwn, the Celtic underworld. To the druids, cranes were portents of treachery, war, evil deeds and evil women...yet the bird enjoyed a better reputation in other lands. It was sacred to Apollo -- a messenger and a honored herald of the spring. The pure white cranes in Chinese lore inhabited the Isles of the Blest, One for Sorrow by Fred Hallrepresenting immortality, prosperity, and happiness. In Japan, the crane was associated with Jorojin, a god of longevity and luck. In the folktales of Russia, Sicily, India and other cultures the crane was the "animal guide" who led the hero on his adventures; and tales about cranes who marry human men can be found throughout the far East.

In Celtic lore, the magpie was a bird associated with fairy revels; with the spread of Christianity, however, this changed to a connection with witches and devils. In Scandinavia, magpies were said to be sorcerers flying to unholy gatherings, and yet the nesting magpie was once considered a sign of luck in those countries. In old Norse myth, Skadi (the daughter of a giant) was priestess of the magpie clan; the black and white markings of the bird represented sexual union, as well as male and female energies kept in perfect balance. In China the magpie was the Bird of Joy, and two magpies symbolized marital bliss; in Rome, magpies were sacred to Bacchus and a symbol of sensual pleasure. In England, the sighting of magpies is still considered an omen in this common folk rhyme: "One for sorrow, two for joy; three for a girl, and four for a boy. Five for silver, six for gold, and seven for a secret that's never been told."

Irish Wren BoysThe wren is another "fairy bird": a portent of fairy encounters, and sometimes a fairy in disguise. The wren was sacred to Celtic druids, and to the Welsh poet-magician Taliesin, thus it was unlucky to kill the wren at any time of year except during the ceremonial "Hunting of the Wren," around the winter solstice. In this curious custom (still practiced in some rural areas of the British Isles and France), "Wren Boys" dress in rag-tag costumes, bang on pots, pans and drums, and walk in procession behind a wren killed and mounted upon a pole decorated with oak leaves and mistletoe. In some areas, Wren Boys also appear on Michaelmas, 12th Night, or St. Stephen's Day carrying a live wren from cottage to cottage (in a small "Wren House" decorated with ribbons), collecting tributes of coins and mugs of beer wherever they stop. The wren is known as the king of the birds, an honorific explained in the following story: All the birds held a parliament and decided that whoever could fly the highest and fastest would be crowned king. The eagle easily outdistanced the others, but the clever wren hid under his wing until the eagle faltered -- then the wren jumped out and flew higher.

Captive's Return by Henry Ryland

The Dove and the Snake (Aesop's Fables) by Heidi Holder

The dove is a bird associated with the Mother Goddesses of many traditions -- symbolizing light, healing powers, and the transition from one state of existence to the next. The dove was sacred to Astarte, Ishtar, Bird of Peace by Sulamith WulfingFreyja, Brighid, and Aphrodite. The bird also represented the external soul, separate from the life of the body -- and thus magicians hid their souls or hearts in the shape of doves. Doves give guidance in fairy tales, where (in contrast with their usual gentle image) they show a marked penchant for bloody retribution. White doves light upon the tree Cinderella has planted upon her mother's grave, transforming rags to riches so she can go to the prince's ball. These are the birds who warn the prince of "blood in the shoe!" when the stepsisters try to fit into the delicate slipper by hacking off their heels and toes. The birds eventually blind the treacherous sisters, pecking out their eyes. Murdered children in several fairy tales reappear as snow-white doves, hovering around the family home until vengeance The Nightingale by H.J. Fordis finally served. Likewise, the white dove in the Scots Border ballad "The Famous Flower of Serving Men" is also a human soul in limbo: a knight cruelly murdered by his mother-in-law. He flies through the forest shedding blood-red tears and telling his story. The woman is eventually burned. (See Delia Sherman's Through a Brazen Mirror and Ellen Kushner's Thomas the Rhymer for literary adaptations of this tale.)

The mysterious song of the nightingale has also inspired several classic tales; most famously: "The Nightingale" by Denmark's Hans Christian Andersen and the tragic story of "The Nightingale and the Rose" by England's Oscar Wilde. (I recommend Kara Dalkey's lyrical novel The Nightingale, based on the former.)

The Goose Girl by Rie Cramer & The Heron Girl by Danielle Barlowe

Geese were holy, protected birds in many ancient societies. In Egypt, the great Nile Goose created the world by laying the cosmic egg from which the sun was hatched. The goose was sacred to Isis, Osiris, Horus, Hera, and Aphrodite. In India, the goose -- a solar symbol -- drew the chariot of Vishnu; the wild Tibetan Goosehead Dakinigoose, a vehicle of Brahma, represented the creative principal, learning and eloquence. In Tibet, gooseheaded women can be found among the dakini,  which are volatile female spirits that aid or hinder one's spiritual journey. In Siberia, the goddess Toman shook feathers from her sleeve each spring. They turned into geese, carefully tended and observed by Siberian shamans. Freyja, the goddess of northern Europe who travels the land in a chariot drawn by cats, is sometimes pictured with only one human foot and one foot of a goose or swan -- an image with shamanic significance in various traditions. Berchta, the fierce German goddess (or witch) associated with the Wild Hunt, is also pictured with a single goose foot as she rides upon the backs of storms. Caesar tells us that geese were sacred in Britain, and thus taboo as food -- a custom still existent in certain Gaelic areas today. Goose-girls, talking geese, and the goose who lays golden eggs are all standard ingredients in the folk tales ("Mother Goose" tales) of Europe. The phrase "silly as a goose" is recent; Ovid called them "wiser than the dog."

Mother Goose Rhymes illustrated by Jessie Wilcox Smith

Storks by Józef Marian Chełmoński

The stork is another Goddess bird -- sacred to Hera and nursing mothers, which may be why it appears in folklore carrying newborn babies to earth. The pelican is symbolic of women's faith, sacrifice, and maternal devotion -- due to the belief that it feeds its young on the blood of its own breast. Kites and gulls are the souls of dead fisherman returned to haunt the shores -- a tradition limited to the men of the sea, not their daughters or wives. "The women don't come back no more," explained one old English fisherman to folklorist Edward Armstrong. "They've seen trouble enough." The lark, the linnet, the robin, the loon...they, too, have engendered tales of their own, winging their way between heaven and earth in sacred stories, folktales, fairy tales, old rhymes and folkways from around the globe.

The Fates by Gretchen Jacobsen

Thumbelina by Lisbeth Zwerger

Guided by Sulamith Wulfing

The following prayer comes from the Highlands of Scotland, recorded (in Gaelic) more than one hundred years ago:

The Great Egg by Fidelma Massey

Power of raven be yours,
Power of eagle be yours,
Power of the Fiann.
Power of storm be yours,
Power of moon be yours,
Power of sun.
Power of sea be yours,
Power of land be yours,
Power of heaven.
Goodness of sea be yours,
Goodness of earth be yours,
Goodness of heaven.
Each day be joyous to you,
No day be grievous to you,
Honor and compassion.
Love of each face be yours,
Death on pillow be yours,
And God be with you.

“I pray to the birds," says Terry Tempest Williams (in her gorgeous book Refuge) "because they remind me of what I love rather than what I fear. And at the end of my prayers, they teach me how to listen.”

From Ashes and Snow by Gregory Colbert

The art above: The lead piece is "The Wicked Witch of the Oeuf" by my friend and neighbor Ione Rucquoi. If you're not familiar with her beautiful (and often hard-hitting) work, do visit her website. After that, from top to bottom: "The Seven Ravens" by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939), a photograph from the "Ashes and Snow" series by Gregory Colbert,  "Shadow Play" by Susan Seddon Boulet (1941-1997), "The Children of Lir" by John Duncan (1866-1945), "The Wild Swans" by Milo Winter (1888-1956); "The Fairies' Tiff with the Birds" by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939), "Hank" by Carson Ellis, "The Seven Ravens" by Lisbeth Zwerger, "Raven Girl" by Audrey Niffenegger, "Woman With Raven" by Pablo Picasso (1881-1973),  "Slova Sova" by Rima Staines, "Troll Witch with Owl" by Brian Froud, "Decision," "The Nightingale," and "The Crane" by Steven Kenny, "One for Sorrow" by Fred Hall (1860-1949), an old photograph of Irish Wren Boys, "Captive's Return" by Henry Ryland (1856-1924), "Aesop's Fables: The Dove and the Snake"  by Heidi Holder, "Bird of Peace" by Sulamith Wulfing (1901-1989), "The Nightingale" by H.J. Ford (1860-1941), "The Goose Girl" by Rie Cramer (1887-1997), "The Heron Girl" by Danielle Barlow, a Tibetan Goosehead Dakini, "Mother Goose" by Jessie Willcox Smith (1863-1935), "Storks Overhead" by Józef Marian Chełmoński (1849-1914), "The Fates" by Gretchen Jacobsen, "Thumbelina" by Lisbeth Zwerger, "Guided" by Sulamith Wulfing (1901-1989), "The Great Egg" by Fidelma Massey, and another photograph from the "Ashes and Snow" series by Gregory Colbert.

For more bird lore, I recommend: Secret Language of Birds by Adele Nozedar, The Language of the Birds edited by David M. Guss, The Healing Wisdom of Birds by Lesley Morrison, The Folklore of Birds by Edward A. Armstrong, and Birds in Legend, Fable and Folklore by E. Ingersoll.

We are story-attentive beings

On an autumn day

“I used to feel guilty about spending morning hours working on a book; about fleeing to the brook in the afternoon. It took several summers of being totally frazzled by September to make me realize that this was a false guilt. I'm much more use to family and friends when I'm not physically and spiritually depleted than when I spend my energies as though they were unlimited. They are not. The time at the typewriter and the time at the brook refresh me and put me into a more workable perspective.”  -  Madeleine L'Engle (The Summer of the Great-Grandmother)


Autumn color

Admit that once you have got up
Little Wildrose by H.J. Fordfrom your chair and opened the door,
once you have walked out into the clean air
toward that edge and taken the path up high
beyond the ordinary, you have become
the privileged and the pilgrim,
the one who will tell the story...

- David Whyte (from "Mameen")

"Do not let writing be a special event; let it be a normal part of your day. It is normal. We are all storytellers and story-attentive beings."  - Brian Doyle's dad

Reading in the woodsIllustration above: "Little Wildrose" by H.J. Ford (1860-1941)

The capacity for astonishment

The village on a clear September day.

A quiet morning. The sky has cleared at last and Tilly is filled with joy. After a week of illness, she's well again and our morning walks through the hills resume.

Crunchings and munchings behind us.

But wait. What's this? Behind her, something is crashing and splashing through the undergrowth, moving up the stream bed in the shadow of the trees.

A friend? A foe? A monster? Tilly stands alert. Will barking be required?

A gentle apparition appears.

Ah, but it's only a shy young calf, as surprised by us as we are by her.

What say you, calf? Shall we be friends?

Tilly throws me a glance over her shoulder, tail wagging briskly. A friend! What fun!

Uh oh...

She trots up the stony bank eagerly... 

Retreat! Retreat!

...and then backs up fast, for the calf is not alone.

There are monsters coming...

A whole herd of cows is climbing upstream, scrambling up the rocks of the waterfall like enormous mountain goats, pushed up the slope by a big black bull. He is moving them from one field to another...and we are in the way.

and they're heading our way!

"Bark, bark, bark!" cries Tilly, excited. Monsters! Monsters! Run quick as you can!

I grab my book, my thermos, my jacket, and follow behind her, laughing as I run.

Run! Run! Run like the wind!

We run the entire length of the field, the cows and the bull bellowing  behind...and flop in the grass by the field's rusty gate, hearts racing and grinning like fools. I settle back against an ancient oak, my book in hand, fresh coffee in my cup. Tilly sits close, ears cocked, alert and on guard. Just in case there are any more monsters.

Whew! That was close! But valor has triumphed.

She's perfectly happy. The cows and the bull had startled her, astonished her, and perhaps even frightened her a little, but it was all part of a good morning's adventure. (She'll be hoping for cows in the waterfall now when we walk this way again.)

I'd like to be more like Tilly myself, when life throws up unexpected things and bulls emerge to block the path ahead. Far better to be astonished than anxious; far better to move in new directions than stand there frozen by dismay. As Mary Oliver says in her exquisite poem titled "When Death Comes":

When it's over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms....

I want to say that I walked through life with rapt attention, like the eager, clear-eyed little creature at my side.

My work here is done.

I'm reminded of these words from graphic designer Milton Glaser on value of astonishment:

"If you can sustain your interest in what you’re doing, you’re an extremely fortunate person. What you see very frequently in people’s professional lives, and perhaps in their emotional life as well, is that they lose interest in the third act. You sort of get tired, and indifferent, and, sometimes, defensive. And you kind of lose your capacity for astonishment -- and that’s a great loss, because the world is a very astonishing place. What I feel fortunate about is that I’m still astonished, that things still amaze me. And I think that that’s the great benefit of being in the arts, where the possibility for learning never disappears, where you basically have to admit you never fully learn it."

The lesson for today: Be astonished.

The reward of art is not fame or success but intoxication.'' - Cyril Connolly

Libraries great and small

Reading is an Adventure by Charles Vess

"Libraries are the best literacy resource we have," says Malorie Blackman (the current Children's Laureate of Great Britain) in a recent article penned for The Guardian. "For children they provide an equaliser that allows everyone access to books, story-telling sessions, homework clubs; expert librarians who give non-partisan assistance and advice regarding books; and warm and safe environments within which to discover and explore the world of literature. Libraries switch children on to a love of reading, with all the ensuing benefits, and can make them lifelong readers. Without them, literacy may increasingly become the province of the lucky few, rather than the birthright of everyone."

From Library Lion by Michelle Knudson

''Library Mouse'' by Daniel Kirk

"Libraries," as Rebecca Solnit describes them, "are sanctuaries from the world and command centers onto it: here in the quiet rooms are the lives of Crazy Horse and Aung San Suu Kyi, the Hundred Years' War and the Opium Wars and the Dirty War, the ideas of Simone Weil and Lao-Tzu, information on building your sailboat or dissolving your marriage, fictional worlds and books to equip the reader to reenter the real world. They are, ideally, places where nothing happens and where everything that has happened is stored up to be remembered and relived, the place where the world is folded up into boxes of paper. Every book is a door that opens onto another world, which might be the magic that all those children's books were alluding to, and a library is a Milky Way of worlds."

Adopt a Library

'A great library doesn't have to be big or beautiful," Vicki Myron points out. "It doesn't have to have the best facilities or the most efficient staff or the most users. A great library provides. It is enmeshed in the life of a community in a way that makes it indispensable. A great library is one nobody notices because it is always there, and always has what people need.''

Reading Matter by Casia Beck, Things I Need to Survive by The Lady of the Books

"Libraries are a force for good," says Libba Bray. "They wear capes. They fight evil. They don’t get upset when you don’t send them a card on their birthdays. (Though they will charge you if you’re late returning a book.) They serve communities. The town without a library is a town without a soul. The library card is a passport to wonders and miracles, glimpses into other lives, religions, experiences, the hopes and dreams and strivings of all human beings, and it is this passport that opens our eyes and hearts to the world beyond our front doors, that is one of our best hopes against tyranny, xenophobia, hopelessness, despair, anarchy, and ignorance. Libraries are the torch of the world, illuminating the path when it feels too dark to see. We mustn’t allow that torch to be extinguished."

Library destroyed by bombing, London 1940

Thinking about libraries, I'm reminded of this lovely passage from Sarah Smith's Chasing Shakespeare: "I shall tell you what I believe. I believe God is a librarian. I believe that literature is is that best part of our souls that we break off and give each other, and God has a special dispensation for it, angels to guard its making and its preservation." 


And yet libraries are now closing at a horrifying rate....and this will only get worse if we don't take immediate action in the UK, the US, and around the world. (Follow the links to organizations fighting the good fight.)

"Libraries are the thin red line between civilization and barbarism," says Neil Gaiman.

A call to arms if I ever heard one.

The Stockbridge Library by Norman Rockwell

The images above: "Reading is an Advemture" by Charles Vess; "From the Library" by Michelle Knudsen; "Library Mouse" by Daniel Kirk; a photograph from  CODE's "Adopt a Library" program;"Reading Matter" by Cassia Beck and"Things I Need to Survive" from The Lady of the Books; a photopgraph of a library bombed in the Blitz, London, 1940; and a poster design for The Stockbridge Library by Norman Rockwell.

Tunes for a Monday Morning

Today: The Proclaimers (those two irresistible Scottish lads) on the road to Vegas for their song "Let's Get Married." This one's for Howard, because it's our wedding anniversary today and this is a song we listened to at least a million times back when we did the scary deed of tying the knot and officially becoming a family.

Does every couple have songs that makes each think of the other? The one that never fails to make me think of my husband is Dougie MacLean's "This Love Will Carry," particularly after the things we've weathered as a family in the last few years. It's not a sweet song, but one about going through the dark of the woods together...for don't we all make that fairy tale journey at some point (or several points) in our lives? When we can do it hand in hand, that's a blessing indeed. In his performance below, MacLean (also from Scotland) is joined by the wonderful Appalachian American singer and musician Kathy Mattea. It is one of the most beautiful songs I know.

And now let me raise a glass to all of you and your loved ones too.

From our anniversary dinner, celebrated over the weekend

Into the Woods, 37: For our Feline Friends

Mark Twain with kitten"Mark Twain

According to one old legend, cats were the only creatures on earth who were not made by God at the time of Creation. When God covered the world with water, and Noah set his ark afloat, the ark became infested with rats eating up the stores of food. Noah prayed for a miracle, and a pair of cats sprang to life from the mouths of the lion and lioness. They set to work, and quickly dispatched all the rats — but for the original two. As their reward, when the boat reached dry land the cats walked at the head of the great procession of Noah's animals. Which is why, the legend concludes, all cats are proud, to this very day.

William Butler Yeats and his catWilliam Butler Yeats

George Bernard Shaw and his catGeorge Bernard Shaw

In the earliest feline images found on cave walls and carved out of stone, wildcats are companions and guardians to the Great Goddess — often flanking a mother goddess figure in the act of giving birth. Such imagery has been found in ancient sites across Europe, Africa, India and the Middle East. In China the lion, Shih, is one of the four principal animal protectors — associated with rain, guardian of the dead and their living descendants. In the New World, evidence of wildcat cults is found across Central and South America, where the jaguar was the familiar of shamans and a powerful totemic animal. Ai apaec of the Mochica people of Peru was a much-revered feline god, pictured in the shape of a wrinkle-faced old man with long fangs and cat whiskers. A hauntingly beautiful wood carving of a kneeling figure with the head of a cat was found just off the Florida coast — remarkably well preserved, the image dates back over three thousand years.

Gustav Klimt with his cat KatzeGustav Klimt and Katze

Colette and her catsColette

We find the first evidence of the wildcat's small cousin, Felis catus, in ancient Egypt — where the beasts were so sacred that any man who killed one was condemned to death. When a house cat died, the entire family shaved its eyebrows as a sign of grief; and mummified cats (along with tiny mummified mice) have been found in Egyptian tombs. In the 1st century BC, the Greek historian Diodorus reported the fate of a hapless Roman who'd caused the death of a cat:

"The populace crowded to the house of the Roman who had committed the 'murder'; and neither the efforts of the magistrates sent by the King to protect him nor the universal fear inspired by the might of Rome could avail to save the man's life, though what he had done was admitted to be accidental. This is not an incident which I report from hearsay, but something I saw myself during my sojourn in Egypt."

Jean Cocteau and his catJean Cocteau

Heni Matisse and his cat MioucheMatisse and Miouche

Mau was the Egyptian word for cat — both an imitation of its speech, and a mother-syllable. Bast, the Cat-mother, was a goddess whose cult began in the delta city of Bubastis and eventually covered all of Egypt with the rise of the XXII Dynasty. Unlike the fierce lion-headed Sekmet from earlier Egyptian myth, Bast embodied the benevolent aspects of cats: fertility, sexuality, love and life-giving heat. Bronzes from the period show the goddess in her feline form (seated and wearing earrings), as well as in human form with the head of a cat, kittens at her feet. The twice-annual Festivals of Bast, as described by Herodotus, were carnivals of music, dancing, wine-drinking, love-making and religious ecstasy — dedicated to Bast in her aspect as Mistress of love and the sensual pleasures.

Picasso and his catPablo Piccsso

Jean Paul Sartre and his catJean Paul Sartre

Numerous legends tell of human beings who transform into the shape of a cat. Although some male wizards, magicians and shamans were gifted with this power, more commonly the shapeshifter was a woman, and a witch. Cats (along with bats, owls and toads) were believed to be witches' companions who aided in spells and carried messages to the Devil. During the tragically widespread witch trials of 16th and 17th century Europe, feline "familiars" were burned, hung, and drowned alongside their mistresses. A witch, it was said, could shape-shift into cat form whenever the moon was full. Good men were advised to lay consecrated salt on their doorstep, lest witches compel them to join in their revels.

Doris Lessing and her catDoris Lessing

Randall Jarrell and his catRandall Jarrell

When we turn from folklore to fairy tales, shape-shifting cats are viewed as less sinister creatures. In "The White Cat," a popular French fairy tale by Madame d'Aulnoy, the three sons of a king are sent upon a series of quests. The youngest son meets a lovely white cat, the queen of an enchanted castle filled with cat-servants and courtiers. She helps the prince with his tasks, and over time he falls in love with her. In the end, she asks him to cut off her head; sadly, the young prince obeys her command. This breaks the spell, and the cat assumes her true shape as a human princess. (For a thoroughly modern rendition of the tale, I recommend Holly Black's YA novel, The White Cat.)

In "Kip the Enchanted Cat," from Russia, a mother cat and her kitten are actually human beings under a fairy's curse. The kitten is raised with a human princess and eventually aids her with several magical tasks, leading to the spell's undoing and a double wedding with two suitable princes. (This tale — about women's friendships — was a particular favorite of mine as a child.)

"The Cat Bride" is a story of animal-transformation in reverse: a house cat becomes the human bride of a good and gentle man who allows the gossip of neighbors to undermine his marital contentment. (I recommend Jane Yolen's lovely retelling in her story collection Dream Weaver.)

Ernest Hemingway and one of his catsErnest Hemingway

W.H. Auden and his catW.H. Auden

"Silvershod"  (from Russia) is the tale of a poor man, a child, her beloved cat Moura, and a mysterious stag who sheds jewels in the snow. The fairy tale ends oddly, for the jewels bring prosperity but the dear little cat vanishes with the stag. In a bittersweet poem inspired by the fairy tale, Ellen Steiber writes:

In the north country
a child wakes in a soft feather bed
and remembers
a red-brown cat
whose nose was cold against her neck.

In the north country
a child sits in a tall, gabled house
and remembers a pale gray stag
with a silver hoof
who gave and took
what was most precious.

William Carlos Williams and kittensWilliam Carlos Williams

William S. Burroughs and GingerWilliam S. Burroughs and Ginger

The best known fairy tale cat of them all, of course, is that clever, bold rascal called "Puss in Boots." The story as we know it now comes from the French version penned by Charles Perrault in the 17th century; in earlier versions -- such as those of Straparola and Basile in Italy -- Puss is just as wily, but hasn't yet taken to wearing his famous boots. In a Scandinavian version, "Lord Peter," our plotting Puss is female, and is really a princess under a troll's evil curse -- but in most tales, Puss is a cat, nothing more, albeit a very magical cat. (The bawdiest and best retelling, in my opinion, is Angela Carter's, in The Bloody Chamber.)

Joyce Carol Oates and her catJoyce Carol Oates

Edward Gorey and his catsEdward Gorey

In additional to Puss in Boots and other memorable rogues from folklore and fairy tales, cats stalk through the pages of books beloved by children and adults alike.Who could forget the grinning Cheshire Cat met by Alice in Wonderland, or poor hungry Simpkin in Beatrix Potter's The Tailor of Gloucester? Or Rudyard Kipling's The Cat Who Walks by Himself, padding his way through the Just So Stories? Or Edward Lear's The Owl and the Pussy Cat, setting to sea in their pea-green boat? Or T.S. Eliot's dashing Growltiger in Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats? Or Mehitabel, friend to Archy the cockroach, in the poems of Don Marquis? Or the wily cats in Nicholas Stuart Gray's classic children's stories: Grimbold's Other World, The Stone Cage and Mainly in Moonlight?

Ray Bradbury and his catRay Bradbury

Peter Matthiesen and his catPeter Matthiessen

In 1817, the American author Washington Irving paid a visit to Scottish author and folklorist Sir Walter Scott. The following comes from Irving's account of that meeting, published in 1835:

"The evening passed delightfully in a quaint-looking apartment, half-study, half-drawing room. Scott read several passages from the old romance of Arthur, with a fine deep sonorous voice, and a gravity of tone that seemed to me to suit the antiquated, black-letter volume. It was a treat to hear such a work, read by such a person, and in such place; and his appearance as he sat reading, in a large armed chair, with his favorite hound Maida at his feet, and surrounded by books and relics, and border trophies, would have formed an admirable and most characteristic picture. While Scott was reading, the sage grimalkin [Scott's cat] had taken his seat in a chair by the fire, and remained with fixed eye and grave demeanor, as if listening to the reader. I observed to Scott that his cat seemed to have a black-letter taste in literature.

"'Ah,' said he, 'these cats are very mysterious kind of folk. There is always more passing in their minds than we are aware of. It comes no doubt from their being so familiar with witches and warlocks.' He went on to tell a little story about a gude man who was returning to his cottage one night, when, in a lonely out-of-the-way place, he met with a funeral coffin covered with a black velvet pall. The worthy man, astonished and half frightened at so strange a pageant, hastened home and told what he had seen to his wife and children. Scarce had he finished, when a great black cat that sat by the fire raised himself up, exclaimed, 'Then I am king of the cats!' and vanished up the chimney. The funeral seen by the gude man was one of the cat dynasty. "'Our grimalkin here,' added Scott, 'sometimes reminds me of the story, by the airs of sovereignty which he assumes; and I am apt to treat him with respect from the idea he may be a great prince incognito, and may some time or other come to the throne.'"

Haruki Murakami and his catHaruki Murakami

Alexander McCall Smith and his catAlexander McCall Smith

"Authors like cats," said Robertson Davies, "because they are such quiet, loveable, wise creatures. And cats like authors for the same reasons."

Marge Piercy and one of her catsMarge Piercy

Holly Black and her hairless catHolly Black and her hairless cat

To end with: two photos of Howard with my beloved cat Oliver at my old place in Arizona, 2008. I'd found Oliver as a starving kitten on the streets of Boston (in the late 1980s), and he was with me for twenty years -- a tough, fiesty, big-hearted fellow. I still miss him.

Howard and Oliver, 2008

Serenading Oliver

A Dog's Life, Part II

Maurice Senkak and MelvinMaurice Sendak and Melvin

Refections on community, literature, and language by Marilynne Robinson (from When I Was a Child I Read Books):

"I would say, for the moment, that community, at least community larger than the immediate family, consists largely of imaginative love for people we do not know or whom we know very slightly. This thesis may be influenced by the fact that I have spent literal years of my life lovingly absorbed in the thoughts and perceptions of -- who knows it better than I? -- people who do not exist. And, just as writers are engrossed in the making of them, readers are profoundly moved and also influenced by the nonexistent, that great clan whose numbers increase prodigiously with every publishing season. I think fiction may be, whatever else, an exercise in the capacity for imaginative love, or sympathy, or identification.

John Cheever and Flora (photograph by Jill Krementz)John Cheever and Flora

Kurt Vonnegut and Pumpkin (photography by Jill Krementz)Kurt Vonnegut and Pumpkin

"I love the writers of my thousand books. It pleases me to think how astonished old Homer, whoever he was, would be to find his epics on the shelf of such an unimaginable being as myself, in the middle of an unrumored continent. I love the large minority of the writers on my shelves who have struggled with words and thoughts and, by my lights, have lost the struggle.

Edward Albee and PoochiEdward Albee and Poochi

E.L. Doctorow and Becky (photo by Jill Krementz)E.L. Doctorow and Becky

"All together they are my community, the creators of the very idea of books, poetry, and extended narratives, and of the amazing human conversation that has taken place across millennia, through weal and woe, over the heads of interest and utility.

Mary Oliver and Percy (photograph by Rachel Giese Brown) Mary Oliver and Percy

John Katz and one of the dogs of Bedlam FarmJohn Katz and one of the dogs of Bedlam Farm

"We live on a little island of the articulable, which we tend to mistake for reality itself. We can and do make small and tedious lives as we sail through the cosmos on our uncannily lovely little planet, and this is surely remarkable. But we do so much else besides.

Ann Patchett with Rose (photograph by Jill Krementz)Ann Patchett and Rose

Amy Tan and her dog (photograph by Jill Krementz)Amy Tan and Bubba Zo

"For example, we make language. A language is a grand collaboration, a collective art form that we begin to master as babes and sucklings, and which we preserve, modify, cull, enlarge as we pass through our lives....

Isabel Allende with her husband and their dog OliveIsabel Allende, her husband, and Olive

Stephen King and his dog Marlowe (photograph by Jill Krementz)Stephen King and Marlowe

"One of the pleasures of writing is that so often I know that there is in fact a word that is perfect for the use that I want to put it to, and when I summon it it comes, though I might not have thought of it for years. And then I think, somewhere someone was the first person to use that word. Then how did it make its way into the language, and how did it retain the specificity that makes it perfect for the present use? Language is profoundly communal, and in the mere fact of speaking, then writing, a wealth of language grows and thrives among us that has enabled thought and knowledge in a degree we could never calculate. As individuals and as a species, we are unthinkable without our communities.

Jonathan Carroll and JackJonathan Carroll and Jack

Neil Gaiman and CabalNeil Gaiman and Cabal

"I remember once, as a child, walking into a library, looking around at the books, and thinking, I could do that. In fact I didn't do it until I was well into my thirties, but the affinity I felt with books as such preserved in me the secret knowledge that I was a writer when any dispassionate appraisal of my life would have dismissed the notion entirely.

Charles de Lint with Johnny Cash (white fur) and friendCharles de Lint with Johnny Cash (white fur) and friend

Alice Hoffman and Houdini (photograph by Richard Howard)Alice Hoffman and Houdini

"So I belong to the community of the written word in several ways. First, books have taught me most of what I know, and they have trained my attention and my imagination. Second, they gave me a sense of the possible, which is the great service -- and too often, when it is ungenerous, the great disservice -- a community performs for its members. Third, they embodied richness and refinement of language in the service of the imagination. Fourth, they gave me and still give me courage.

Kinuko Y. Craft and her dog WolfgangKinuko Y. Craft and Wolfgang

Brian Froud and ElfieBrian Froud and Elfie

Rima Staines and MachaRima Staines and Macha

"Sometimes, when I have spent days in my study dreaming a world while the world itself shines outside my windows, forgetting to call my mother because one of my nonbeings has come up with a thought that interests me, I think, this is a very odd way to spend a life. But I have my library all around me, my cloud of witnesses to the strangeness and brilliance of human experience, who have helped me to my deepest enjoyment of it. Every writer I know, when asked how to become a writer, responds with one word: Read. Excellent advice, for a great many reasons, a few of which I have suggested here."

Taiko Maria Haessler and Buju (in puppyhood)Taiko Maria Haessler and Buju (in puppyhood)

Howard Gayton and TillyHoward Gayton and Tilly

Tomorrow: the cats' turn.

A Dog's Life

Mark Twain and his dogMark Twain

Writing advice from Marilynne Robinson (When I Was Young I Read Books):

"There is a great difference, in fiction and in life, between knowing someone and knowing about someone. When a writer knows about his character he is writing for plot. When he knows his character he is writing to explore, to feel reality on a set of nerves somehow not quite his own.

George Meredith and his dogGeorge Meredith

Charles Dickens and his dog TurkCharles Dickens and Turk

"Words like 'sympathy,' 'empathy,' and 'compassion' are overworked and overcharged -- there is no word for the experience of seeing an embrace at a subway stop or hearing an argument at the next table at a restaurant. Every such instant has its own emotional coloration, which memory retains or heightens, and so the most sidelong unintended moment becomes a part of what we have seen of the world.

Beatrix Potter and her dogsBeatrix Potter

G.K. Chesterton and his dogG.K. Chesterton

"Then, I suppose, these moments, as they have seemed to us, constellate themselves into something a little like a spirit, a little like a human presence in its mystery and its distinctiveness.

Helen Keller and her dog Sir ThomasHelen Keller and Sir Thomas

Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen) and her dogKaren Blixen (Isak Dinesen)

"Two questions I can't really answer about fiction are (1) where it comes from and (2) why we need it. But that we do create it and also crave it is beyond dispute.

Gertrude Stein and her dogsGertrude Stein

Virgina Woolf and her dog PinkaVirginia Woolf and Pinka

Frida Khalo and her dogsFrida Khalo

"There is a tendency, considered highly rational, to reason from a narrow set of interests, say survival and procreation, which are supposed to govern our lives, and then to treat everything that does not fit this model as anomalous clutter, extraneous to what we are and probably best done without. But what we really know about what we are is what we do. There is a tendency to fit a tight and awkward carapace of definition over humankind, and to try to trim the living creature to fit the dead shell.

PG Wodehouse and his dog Ned (photograph by Jill Krementz)P.G. Wodehouse and Ned

Eugene O'Neill and his dog BlemieEugene O'Neill and Blemie

"The advice I give my students is the same advice that I give myself -- forget definition, forget assumption, watch. We inhabit, we are part of, a reality for which explanation is much too poor and small. No physicist would dispute this, though he or she might be less ready than I am to have recourse to the old language and call reality miraculous.

"By my lights, fiction that does not acknowledge this at least tacitly is not true."

Dorothy Parker and her dog MistyDorothy Parker and Misty

Dr. Suess and his dog ClunyTheodor Seuss Geisel (Dr. Seuss) and Cluny

E.B. White and his dog MinnieE.B. White and Minnie

More dogs (and a few cats) tomorrow.