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December 2013

Gracious acceptance

Ceremony by William Bailey

The other side of the coin from "the art of giving" (which we were discussing last week) is, of course, the "art of receiving" -- and to live a balanced, creatively fecund life we must learn to practice both with equal skill. But as Alexander McCall Smith points out (in his novel Love Over Scotland), the act that he calls "gracious acceptance" is "an art which most never bother to cultivate. We think that we have to learn how to give, but we forget about accepting things, which can be much harder than giving."

"Until we can receive with an open heart," notes psychologist Brené Brown astutely, "we're never really giving with an open heart. When we attach judgment to receiving help, we knowingly or unknowingly attach judgment to giving help."

Elizabeth Gilbert, in her acclaimed TED Talk on nurturing creativity, describes how, to the early Romans, an artist's "genius" was a spirit or daemon believed to be attached to that particular artist, and not a personal attribute. The divine spark of inspiration came from the daemon; the artist's job was to be a worthy vessel, to recognize the gift, and to use it well. Lewis Hyde echoes and expands on this idea throughout the text of his brilliant (and daemon aided?)  book, The Gift: "Part of the work cannot be made, it must be received; and we cannot have this gift except, perhaps, by supplication, by courting, by creating within ourselves that 'begging bowl' to which the gift is drawn."

"Human life runs its course in the metamorphosis between receiving and giving," the German Romantic poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once wrote; and art-making, too, thrives in the space where giving and receiving dance in partnership. We take in the gifts of inspiration, shape them to our purposes, and then pass those gifts along through our stories, paintings, and other creative works. 

White Tower by William Bailey

To be skilled in the art of "gracious acceptance" is to be wide-open and receptive to the gifts the muses bring, and this skill, it seems to me, is helped or hindered by one's perception of the emotion of gratitude. There are those for whom gratitude is an uncomfortable, weakening, even shameful feeling; while others of us experience gratitude in a warm and positive manner, perceiving its ties as chords of connection, not heavy chains of obligation.

The narrator of Elizabeth Berg's novel Open House is clearly in the latter camp: "I made cranberry sauce," she tells us, "and when it was done put it into a dark blue bowl for the beautiful contrast. I was thinking, doing this, about the old ways of gratitude: Indians thanking the deer they'd slain, grace before supper, kneeling before bed. I was thinking that gratitude is too much absent in our lives now, and we need it back, even if it only takes the form of acknowledging the blue of a bowl against the red of cranberries."

Still Life by William Bailey

Mary Oliver, too, is a writer who seems to follow Meister Erkhart's dictum that "if the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough" -- for every poem she writes is a hymn of gratitude for the commonplace marvels of daily living. Take her 1992 poem "The Kitchen," for example:

Salt shining behind its glass cylinder.
Milk in a blue bowl. The yellow linoleum.
The cat stretching her black body from the pillow.
The way she makes her curvaceous response to the small, kind gesture.
Then laps the bowl clean.
Then wants to go out into the world
where she leaps lightly and for no apparent reason across the lawn,
then sits, perfectly still, in the grass.
I watch her a little while, thinking:
what more could I do with wild words?
I stand in the cold kitchen, bowing down to her.
I stand in the cold kitchen, everything wonderful around me.

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"The reality of all life is interdependence," notes cultural anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson. "We need to compose our lives in such a way that we both give and receive, learning to do both with grace, seeing both as parts of a single pattern rather than as antithetical alternatives."

"For so many centuries, the exchange of gifts has held us together," adds Barry Lopez (in his luminous memoir, About This Life). "It has made it possible to bridge the abyss where language struggles."

Art-making, like gift giving, requires two separate actions: giving and receiving, both of them equally important. We breathe in the world and push it out again: inhaling, exhaling; the cycle kept in motion; never resting for too long on one side and not the other. The perpetual giver, like the perpetual receiver, is an artist (and a person) out of balance, in danger of draining the creative well dry. It's hard work, and it's humbling work, to master both roles equally, including whichever one we find the hardest -- but that's precisely the task that art (and life) demands of us.

"When we give cheerfully and accept gratefully," says Maya Angelou, "everyone is blessed.”

Still Life by William Bailey

The quietly beautiful still life paintings above are by the American artist William Bailey. Bailey was born in Iowa in 1930, educated at the University of Kansas, and is now Professor Emeritus of Art at Yale University.


Tunes for a Monday Morning

Today's Monday Tunes are dedicated to the great British songwriter and guitarist Richard Thompson:

Above, Thompson performs one of his earliest songs, "Genesis Hall," for the Songwriters Circle in 2010. (That's Suzanne Vega and Loudon Wainright III on the stage with him.) He first recorded the song when he was a member of Fairport Convention back in the 1960s, with vocals sung by the late Sandy Denny. (You can hear the Fairport version here.) As homelessness grows by leaps and bounds under our current government here in the UK, this 44-year-old song seems remarkably contemporary.

Below, Thompson performs his song "Down Where the Drunkards Roll," with backing from Vega and Wainright. Thompson first recorded the song with his ex-wife Linda Thompson on their album I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight (1974). You can hear that version here.

Above, the young Irish singer Luke Murray performs Thompson's "Beeswing" at a session on on the island of Inishbofin (Connemara, Co. Galway) in 2011. For Thompson's version, go here.

Below, the smokey-voiced Aoife O'Donovan, from Boston's Crooked Still, performs an unusually gentle version of Thompson's "1952 Vincent Black Lightning" at the Mercury Lounge in New York City, 2013.  For Thompson's version, go here. (And for a quirky little bluegrass version by the Rumpke Mountain Boys, go here.)

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Above, the American bluegrass singer Alison Krauss performs Thompson's "The Dimming of the Day" for the TransAtlantic Sessions, 2011. It's also been covered by Bonnie Rait, David Gilmour, and many others.

Below, Thompson's own version of the song, backed up by Irish singers Dolores Keane and Mary Black in a recording from 1990. It's simply gorgeous.

Bonus track: I've loved Thompson's poetic and melancholy song "Devonside" since it was first recorded in 1983, and I love it even more now that I live in Devon. Alas, I can't find a good video performance of the song, but if you care to listen to it, you'll find it here.


Gifts are meant to be passed on

Bunny Gifts by T Windling

Today, some thoughts on gifts, the art of giving, and the gift of creativity:

"The artist's gift refines the materials of perception or intuition that have been bestowed upon him; to put it another way, if the artist is gifted, the gift increases in its passage through the self. The artist makes something higher than what he has been given, and this, the finished work, is the third gift, the one offered to the world." - Lewis Hyde (The Gift)

"Creativity is a form of prayer, and the expression of profound gratitude for being alive."
- Ben Okri (A Way of Being Free)

"The artist appeals to that in us which is a gift and not an acquisition -- and, therefore, more permanently enduring. He speaks to our capacity for delight and wonder, to the sense of mystery surrounding our lives; to our sense of pity, and beauty, and pain; to the latent feeling of fellowship with all creation -- to the subtle but invincible conviction of solidarity that knits together the loneliness of innumerable hearts, to the solidarity which binds together all humanity -- the dead to the living and the living to the unborn." - Joseph Conrad (Works of Joseph Conrad, Vol. III)

"Everyone has a gift for something, even if it is the gift of being a good friend.” - Marian Anderson  (Written by Herself: Autobiographies of American Women)

"There are souls in this world who have the gift of finding joy everywhere, and leaving it behind them when they go.” -  Frederick William Faber (Kindness)

Bunny Friends by T Windling

On the subject of "art as gift," I highly recommend Lewis Hyde's excellent book The Gift: Creativity & the Artist in the Modern World, as well as Daniel P. Smith's insightful article about Hyde ("What is  Art For?"), published in the New York Times in 2008. Today's post is dedicated to my brother-of-the-heart William Todd-Jones. Happy birthday, Todd!


Growing native-born

Woodland spirit

"Until we understand what the land is, we are at odds with everything we touch. And to come to that understanding it is necessary, even now, to leave the regions of our conquest -- the cleared fields, the towns and cities, the highways -- and re-enter the woods. For only there can a man encounter the silence and the darkness of his own absence. Only in this silence and darkness can he recover the sense of the world's longevity, of its ability to thrive without him, of his inferiority to it and his dependence on it. Perhaps then, having heard that silence and seen that darkness, he will grow humble before the place and begin to take it in - to learn from it what it is. As its sounds come into his hearing, and its lights and colors come into his vision, and its odors come into his nostrils, then he may come into its presence as he never has before, and he will arrive in his place and will want to remain. His life will grow out of the ground like the other lives of the place, and take its place among them. He will be with them -- neither ignorant of them, nor indifferent to them, nor against them -- and so at last he will grow to be native-born. That is, he must reenter the silence and the darkness, and be born again."  - Wendell Berry (The Art of the Commonplace)

At the edge of the woods


The Gentle Art of Tramping

Footpath

Robert Macfarlane wandered all across the British Isles before writing such fine books as Holloway, The Old Ways, and The Wild Places; and in this passage from the latter, he pays tribute to a kindred spirit, the Scottish writer Stephen Graham:

"Graham, who died in 1975 at the age of ninety, was one of the most famous walkers of his age. He walked across America once, Russia twice and Britain several times, and his 1923 book, The Gentle Art of Tramping, was a hymn to the wilderness of the British Isles. 'One is inclined,' wrote Graham, 'to think of England as a network of motor roads interspersed with public-houses, placarded by petrol advertisements, and broken by smoky industrial towns.' What he tried to prove with The Gentle Art, however, was that wildness was still ubiquitous.

Scottish author Stephen Graham

"Graham devoted his life to escaping what he called 'the curbed ways and the tarred roads,' and he did so by walking, exploring, swimming, climbing, sleeping out, trespassing, and 'vagabonding' -- his verb -- round the world. He came at landscape diagonally, always trying to find new ways to move through them.

Footpath 2

" 'Tramping is straying from the obvious,' he wrote, 'even the crookedest road is sometimes too straight.' In Britain and Ireland, 'straying from the obvious' brought him into contact with landscapes that were, as he put it, 'unnamed -- wild, woody, marshy.' In The Gentle Art, he described how he drew up a 'fairy-tale' map of the glades, fields and forests he reached: its networld of little-known wild places.

'There was an Edwardian innocence about Graham -- an innocence, not a blitheness -- which appealed deeply to me. Anyone who could sincerely observe that  'There are thrills unspeakable in Rutland, more perhaps than on the road to Khiva' was, in my opinion, to be cherished.

"Graham was also one one among a line of pedestrians who saw that wandering and wondering have long gone together; that their kinship as activities extended beyond their half-rhyme. And his book was a hymn to the subversive power of pedestrianism: its ability to make a stale world seem fresh, surprising and wondrous again, to discover astonishment on the terrain of the familiar."

Footpath 3

Footpath 4

''The adventure," Graham insisted, "is the not getting there, it is the on-the-way. It is not the expected; it is the surprise; not the fulfillment of prophecy but the providence of something better than prophesied. You are not choosing what you shall see in the world, but are giving the world an even chance to see you."

Footpath 5

In her beautiful book Wanderlust, the American essayist Rebecca Solnit looks at the history of walking through the lens of philosophy, sociology, environmental science, politics, literature and other arts. "Many people nowadays live in a series of interiors," she observes, "disconnected from each other. On foot everything stays connected, for while walking one occupies the spaces between those interiors in the same way one occupies those interiors. One lives in the whole world rather than in interiors built up against it."

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When I look at the way that Tilly takes in the world, "inside" and "outside" are alike to her, with only the annoyance of human doors between them. Nattadon Hill is home to Tilly . . . and I mean all of the hill, from top to bottom: its Commons, its woods, its tumbling streams, the brown bracken slopes, the green farmers' fields, and our warm little house on the woodland's edge. It's all home to her, both the land that is "ours" and the larger landscape that is not.

Footpath 6

And perhaps I'm not so different from Tilly. The whole hill has become my home ground too. The concept of "home" is complex for me (being the woman that I am, with the history that I have), but the wind and rain and snow of the hill is paring that concept down to essentials:

Home is a house that I share with my loved ones. It's a landscape walked with a good black dog. It's a hill that knows my particular footsteps, and a wood where the trees all know my name. It's as simple and as solid as the earth below...but also fragile, ephemeral, therefore all the more precious. Like life itself.

Footpath 8

Footpath 6My apologies for the late post. It's been that kind of day....