Previous month:
October 2013
Next month:
December 2013

November 2013

Sustainable prose

ThresholdThreshold

From a conversation between Terry Tempest Williams, Jocelyn Bartkevicius, and Mary Hussmann (The Iowa Review):

TTW: I think that we're going to be forced to think about the Other in much more compassionate and meaningful, practical ways. And not out of altruist impulses, but for our own survival....Perhaps it is no longer in our evolutionary interest to think in terms of the survival of the fittest, but rather, the survival of compassion.

JB: And you see that happening more through writing, through being in the land and breaking down that boundary of separateness.

TTW: That's the impulse that I write out of. What would it mean to write sustainable prose?

MH: What is sustainable prose?

TTW: I honestly don't know, I am simply asking the question. If that's where we're moving as a species, if that's what we need to start thinking about -- how to live in sustainable communities, how to create sustainable economies that don't exploit the land and the people but rather extend our compassion and imagination to foster new cooperative solutions, then wouldn't that be an interesting structure to overlay a narrative? We are really talking about the need for new stories in our culture, stories that allow us to reconsider our lives.

ContemplationContemplation

MH: You often write about the importance of story -- certainly for us as individuals, but also for communities. I find that really interesting to think about -- how cultures are shaped by the stories that are told. For example, the American story of expansion and exploitation. Maybe it's time to change the story we are telling.

TTW: Exactly. That is one of the impulses we are seeing in memoir -- the old stories don't work for us anymore and we are desperately trying to find the stories within the truth of our own lives. Maybe that is also the impulse driving creative nonfiction right now...or maybe it is as it's always been. We are simply hungry for good stories, fiction or nonfiction. Story is the umbilical chord between the past, present, and future; it keeps things known. Stories become the conscience of the community, it belongs to everyone. When we think of what it means to be human, it is always answered or explained through story....

One of the things we continue to learn from Native Peoples is that stories are our medicine bundles. I feel that way about our essays, our poems, our fictions. That it is the artist who carries the burden of the storyteller. Terrence Des Pres speaks of a prose witness that relies on the imagination to respond to the world as we see it, feel it, and dare to ask the questions that will not let us sleep. Imagination. Attention to details. Making the connections. Art -- right words to station the mind and hold the heart ready.

PresencePresence


On blogging (and spoons)

Carl Larsson

In an interview on the John Barleycorn site, my friend and neighbor Rima Staines discusses the art of blogging: how she started, and why she started. It's a strange kind of art form, blogging; and the question of why reasonably sane people feel compelled to blog is, for me, an intriguing one. It's got me to pondering why I blog myself...which I've actually done for quite a long time now if you count the years that Midori Snyder and I ran a blog for the Journal of Mythic Arts, although that was a good deal less personal than this one. And like Rima, it took me a while to find a comfortable “blogging voice” when I began Myth & Moor.

The thread of my Rima-stirred thoughts about blogging is all knotted up with a number of other things that I've been pondering lately -- about art, and life, and energy, and “spoons” -- and out of this tangle there's something specific I want to unravel, but I'm going to have to tease it out slowly from the snarl of other threads, so please bear with me.

Carl Larsson

This is also going to be a more personal essay than the others I've posted here, touching on the rather intimate subject of living with chronic illness. And that's a subject I approach gingerly, for an essay about illness can be mistaken for a plea for sympathy ("Oh, poor, poor me!"), or as a means of defining oneself as part of an aggrieved minority ("Us sick people don't get no respect!") rather than what it actually is: a creative/intellectual attempt to understand the process of living with illness while simultaneously living as a creative artist. (I'm thinking in particular of some very misguided reviews Nancy Mairs received for Waist-high in the World, her sharp, insightful essays on life with MS.) So I hereby give notice that I am about to tread further than usual into this murky territory today...and perhaps in speaking of the personal, I can find my way back to more general thoughts about living the Artist's Life; or, at very least, give voice to issues that others dealing with illness might find familiar, or useful.

Painting by Carl LarssonFirst let me define my terms. I'm going to refer to the limited energy one has when dealing with a chronic illness in terms of “spoons” -- so if you haven't yet read Christine Miserandino's very useful "Spoon Theory" essay, it might be helpful to do so. And by the term “blogging,” I'll be referring specifically to the writing of individual, personal blogs (like Rima's blog, or this one) rather than other sorts of blogs: professional, commercial, multi-author, etc..

With Rima's words running through my head, I was walking in the woods with my dog earlier (where I ran, quite unexpectedly, into Brian Froud and his dog, but that's another story...), thinking about the “art of the blog,” and why, after a somewhat trepidatious beginning, I find it so congenial. I'm in a different stage of my life and career than Rima, and thus my answer to the question “Why write a blog?” is bound to be a different one from hers, or any other young artist's. The answer that came to me suddenly as I trudged up the hill through the mud and leaves came from a thoroughly unexpected direction. It has to do with chronic illness and spoons and the thorny issue of communication.

Now, I can't speak for everyone with a serious and/or chronic illness, and my own (which I prefer not to name; the specifics of it aren't important here) has its rhythms and quirks that may be slightly different from other medical conditions, but what many of us with differing health problems share is a constant need to juggle whatever spoons we have to hand on any given day. And for me, the simple act of communication is one that consistently threatens to empty my spoon drawer.

By Carl Larsson

Perhaps it's because I communicate for a living, and therefore the spoons specifically shaped for that job are ones I particularly have to hoard in order to meet the daily demands of my work. All I know is that the simple act of writing a letter to a friend, or answering an email, or (especially) picking up the phone are entirely beyond me when those spoons are used up – and they're precisely the spoons I tend to run out of first, due to the nature of my work.

This is an aspect of my life that constantly frustrates my dear, patient, long-suffering family members (back in the United States) and friends (both in the U.S. and here). I drop out of sight, I don't pick up the phone, emails drop into some kind of cosmic black hole. I'm warm and engaged and present on a good day, and retreat into mumbles and chilly distance on a bad one. Sometime I'm a reliable sister/niece/friend, and a regular part of others' daily lives...and sometimes I disappear for days, weeks, months on end with no warning at all. If I were a hermit by nature, none of this would be a problem, but I'm not -- I'm a person with a wide, deep circle of close relationships; an artist who thrives on connection and community; an outgoing woman whose natural rhythms are often disrupted by the over-riding rhythms of illness.

Carl Larsson

What has all this to do with blogging, you ask? It is this: Writing short pieces for a more-or-less daily blog is, for me, a means of communication, of maintaining vital connections: with friends, with colleagues in the publishing field, with the wider Mythic Arts community. Yes, it takes spoons, but not many of them (now that I'm comfortable enough with the form and technology that I can put up a daily post reasonably quickly) – and when compared to the number of spoons it would take to stay in frequent touch with the many people I know and love, to answer every email and return every call, those couple of spoons become negligible and well worth the cost. Blogging, for me, is my daily missive from the trenches of my creative life to the people, near and far, who make up my world. It's a form of round-robin letter to say: this is what I'm doing, this is what I'm thinking, I haven't disappeared. I may not be entirely well, but I'm still here. And if other people whom I've never personally met are reading these missives too, well then that's fine by me. I assume they're here because they also love books and folklore and mythic arts, and that means they're not really strangers, they are part of my wider community too.

Carl LarssonNow here's where I'd like to see if I can make the leap from personal circumstance to something that might relate to other artists as well, beyond the small subgroup of folks also coping with illness or disability. It's almost always difficult for artists in any field (except, perhaps, for a very privileged few) to balance the time needed for creative work with all the other demands of life. The need to manage ones time and energy may be more extreme and urgent for the chronically ill, yet I know few writers or artists (heck, do I know any?) who don't wrestle with the details of work/life balance. If it's not medical issues taking up ones time, it might be children, or elderly relatives, or a day job, or community obligations, or all of these things at once. The sheer busyness of modern life can feel relentless and overwhelming...and that, in turn, conflicts with art's requirement for time, solitude, and periods of sustained, uninterrupted concentration.

I think that even if illness was suddenly, blessedly removed as a factor in my life, I would still be at this same point in my journey: having reached the years of middle age, and recognizing that time is not infinite, I feel compelled to turn inward and focus my time and attention on truly mastering my craft. The social gregariousness of youth is no Painting by Carl Larssonlonger possible, or desirable; there are only so many hours in the day, after all. And yet, the life- and art-sustaining web of connection begun in ones early years remains important even as one grows older, slower, and more protective of ones time. That, for me, is where blogging comes in. It maintains that web of connection.

Here's what blogging is to me: It's a modern form of the old Victorian custom of being "At Home" to visitors on a certain day of the week; it's an Open House during which friends and colleagues know they are welcome to stop by. I'm “At Home” each morning when I put up at post. Here, in the gossamer world of the 'Net, I throw my studio door open to friends and family and strangers alike. And each Comment posted is a calling card left behind by those who have crossed my doorstep.

But it's important to remember that the flip side of the Victorian "At Home" day is that it also provided boundaries -- for it was widely understood that visitors were not to drop by on other days of the week. Visitors could leave calling cards with the butler, but the Mistress of the house was not instantly available to them. Like every artist (and particularly artists deficient in health and energy), I too need large periods of time when I'm simply not available to others: when I'm working, or resting, or off at the doctor's, or re-charging my creative batteries, or working out thorny plot problems while roaming the countryside with the pup. In these days of speed and instant access, of Facebook and tweets and 8-year-olds with their own mobile phones, it's almost a revolutionary act to say: I'm not in to callers. You can't reach me now. And yet artists need this. We need to unplug. We need to spend time in the world of our imaginations, where the 'Net and mobile phones cannot go.

Carl Larsson

But here's what I find interesting: The very same technology that threatens to force constant communication upon us can also be the thing that allows us to create necessary boundaries. Blogging, for all its intimacy as an art form, is also an excellent boundary maker. Yes, we open up our lives on our blogs...but only this much, not that much, and each blogger decides where that line will be drawn. The blog is a controlled kind of publication. It doesn't provided instant access to its maker, unless the blog's author specifically wants it to. The open, generous space cultivated on a blog need not (indeed, probably should not) be duplicated in the physical world; for in the world, what a working artist truly needs is the equivalent of the butler at the door, politely turning callers away: The mistress is not 'At Home' today. She is working. I will tell her you called.

This, then, is why I write a blog: not for the reasons so many young artists do (as they build their careers and find their audience), but because, as an artist in my middle years, it helps resolve one of life's central conflicts: that both illness and art demand solitude, yet the heart requires communication and connection.

 Carl Larsson

I am also a woman woefully short on spoons and at this point in life I have learned to accept it. (Okay, my husband would say that I am learning to accept it.) Calls will continue to go unanswered. Emails will routinely begin with the words: Please forgive me for taking so long to respond.... Friends will continue to worry when they haven't heard from me for a week, or a month. But these days, at least, they know they can always find me here at Myth & Moor...with fresh coffee brewing, Tilly at my side, and a pen or paintbrush in my hands.

In the physical world, my studio is my work space, not a social space, and a rather fierce butler stands scowling at the door. But here, in my online studio, I am "At Home." And everyone is welcome in.

Carl Larsson studio

This post first appeared on Myth & Moor in 2011, reprinted today by request. The art above is by the Swedish painter Carl Larsson (1854-1919); all rights reserved by the Larsson estate.


The slow, unglamorous work of healing

Rose Petal by Lisbeth Zerger

Home again, but weary. Sometimes I can manage (or even ignore) my health condition, and sometimes it demands attention. Today is one is one of the latter. Myth & Moor will resume tomorrow.

The title of this post is taken from a passage in Alison Luterman's fine poem, "Invisible Work": 

"[I] thought of the invisible work that stitches up the world day and night,
the slow, unglamorous work of healing,
the way worms in the garden
tunnel ceaselessly so the earth can breathe
and bees ransack this world into being,
while owls and poets stalk shadows,
our loneliest labors under the moon."

You can read the full poem here.

The art above is a Lisbeth Zwerger illustration for The Legend of Rosepetal by Clemens Brentano. If  you, too, deal with chronic health issues, I recommend Jennifer Nix's lovely little essay, "Finding Poetry in Illness," on the Poetry Foundation website.


The gifts of travel

Chichester Catheral

Chichester Catheral spires

I'm away from home, and will soon be traveling by train from Sussex (in south-east England) back to Devonshire (in the far south-west)...which puts me in mind of these words by Terry Tempest Williams, discussing the journey from Utah to Spain that resulted in her lovely book Leap:

"As is the case with all travel, one is refeshed by having no responsibilities or obligations. It is a new landscape. We are not residents, we are simply visitors. We were gone almost a month. Everything was sensual....It's the gift of travel, where everything is infused with meaning, compressed, so you begin to see the golden strand that weaves life together. You are in a constant state of awe."

Chichester Cathedral Gargoyle

Chickester Cathedral Gargoyle 3

George Bell House

Chichester signpost

A constant state of awe. That's precisely it: that jewel-toned, sharp-edged focus life takes on when we're set down somewhere new. Another gift of travel, just as valuable, comes from carrying that sense of awe back home; sustaining it as daily life resumes.

I'll be home to fireside and family by this evening, and back in the woods and office/studio tomorrow. More tales to follow.

Autumn colour

Autumn leaves

Autumn TillyThe pictures above: Where I am, and where I'm bound. (The Chichester photographs come from the Cathedral, GBH, and University sites, as I haven't got my camera with me. More information about them can be found in the picture captions. That last three photos are mine, of autumn color in Devon.)