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October 2014

Mysteries and miracles

Sea Fairies by Florence Harrison

Over the last couple of weeks here we've been talking about slowing down, paying attention, being fully present wherever we live, within the lives that we live and the work that we do. Yet sometimes ... too often ... life knocks us off-center and we struggle to regain our sense of hózhó (as the Navajo call it): of balance and "walking in beauty." How do we re-center ourselves in the art-making process (or, indeed, in the life-making process) when this happens?

Rainbow Fairy by Willy PogányWendell Berry proffers this insight in his essay collection Standing by Words:

"What can turn us...back into the sphere of our being, the great dance that joins us to our home, to each other and to other creatures, to the dead and unborn? I think it is love. I am perforce aware how baldly and embarrassingly that word now lies on the page -- for we have learned at once to overuse it, abuse it,  and hold it in suspicion. But I do not mean any kind of abstract love (adolescent, romantic, or 'religious'), which is probably a contradiction in terms, but particular love for particular things, places, creatures, and people, requiring stands, acts, showing its successes and failures in practical or tangible effects. And it implies a responsibility just as particular, not grim or merely dutiful, but rising out of generosity. I think that this sort of love defines the effective range of human intelligence, the range within its works can be dependably beneficent. Only the action that is moved by love for the good at hand has the hope of being responsible and generous. Desire for the future produces words that cannot be stood by. But love makes language exact, because one loves only what one knows."

Rainbow over the rooftops

For Berry, it all comes back to place:

"I stand for what I stand on: the local landscape, the local community: human, animal, and vegetable alike. ''I see that the life of this place is always emerging beyond expectation or prediction or typicality," he writes, "that it is unique, given to the world minute by minute, only once, never to be repeated. And this is when I see that this life is a miracle, absolutely worth having, absolutely worth saving. We are alive within mystery, by miracle."

And that, for me, is precisely where art, inspiration, balance and beauty can be found: within mystery, by miracle: the everyday miracles of the place we call home. The leaves turning gold. A partner's sweet smile. The good scent of coffee on a cold autumn morning. A rainbow outside the studio window, there for one minute and gone in the next.

Studio copy

"The grace that is the health of teachers can only be held in common," says Berry (in his poem "Healing"):

    The love and the work of friends and lovers belongs to the task, and are its health.
    Rest and rejoicing belong to the task, and are its grace.
    Let tomorrow come tomorrow. Not by your will is the house carried through the night.

Illustration by Florence Susan HarrisonThe Wendell Berry quotes are from Standing By Words, Life As Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition, and What Are People For; all rights reserved by the author. The illustrations are by Florence Susan Harrison (top and bottom), and Willy Pogány.


A reminder

Hedgespoken

The Hedgespoken crowdfunding campaign (created by Rima Staines & Tom Hirons) is still underway at Indiegogo. They're close to the half-way point but have reached the "slow middle" -- so if you can help with a donation or by spreading the word, please do. I'm very much hoping that the Mythic Arts community can get this Mythic-Art-on-Wheels project fully funded and on the road.

For more information on the project, see my previous Hedgespoken post, read Tom & Rima's description of what the Hedgespoken truck will be used for (a traveling home for them, but also so much more), and visit the Hedgespoken blog for regular updates (and other cool stuff).

Bluebell Honeymoon by Rima Staines

Rima's painting desk in the old truck


Tunes for a Monday Morning

This week, old and new folk music from Wales...

Above, "Cerdd y Gog Lwydlas" by Cass Meurig and Nial Cain, traditional folk musicians based in North Wales. The song comes from the first of their two albums, Deuawd and Oes i Oes. (Cass Meurig has also recorded with the bands Fernill and Pigyn Clust.)

Below, "Fi Wela" by Fernhill, one of the best known Welsh folk bands, filmed in concert in Brussels in 2010. The band's current line-up is Julie Murphy (vocals), Ceri Rhys Matthews (guitar and flute), Tomos Williams (trumpet), and Christine Cooper (fiddle and vocals). Their seventh album, Amser, was released earlier this year.

Valley of Nant Gwynant, Wales, from National Geographic

Above, "Breuddwyd y Wrach/Nyth y Gog" performed by Alaw, a trio composed of Oliver Wilson-Dickson (fiddle), Dylan Fowler (guitar), and Jamie Smith (accordion). Alaw has released a gorgeous CD of music they call "lovingly crafted arrangements of Welsh folk," titled Melody (2013).

Smith and Wilson-Dickson are also members of Jamie Smith's Mabon, playing original tunes by Smith that are deeply rooted in the Welsh and "interCeltic" tradition. Below is a pub performance of "The Hustler" by Smith, filmed for the BBC television programme Horo Gheallaidh during Celtic Connections 2011 in Glasgow, Scotland. (You can watch the rollicking end of Mabon's Celtic Connections set here.) The band has recorded four CDs, the latest of which is Windblown (2012).

Pentre Ifan dolmen
Photos above: The Valley of Nant Gwynant, North Wales (from
National Geographic) and  the Pentre Ifan neolithic dolmen in Nevern, Pembrokeshire, Wales (from Wikicommons).


Telling the story

Toshiyuki Enoki 1

Toshiyuki Enoki

I see her walking
on a path through a pathless forest
or a maze, a labyrinth.
As she walks, she spins
and the fine threads fall behind her
following her way,
telling
where she is going,
telling
where she has gone.
Telling the story.
The line, the thread of voice,
the sentences saying the way.


- Ursula K. Le Guin

(from "The Writer On, and At, Her Work)

 

Toshiyuki Enoki 3

The gorgeous Mythic Art in this post is by Toshiyuki Enoki. Born in Tokyo in 1961, he was trained in traditional Japanese painting, lacquer painting, and western painting techniques. You can see more of his work here.

Toshiyuki Enoki 4

Toshiyuki Enoki 5You can read the full poem, "The Writer On, and At, Her Work," in The Writer on Her Work, Vol. II  edited by Janet Sternberg (where it was first published), and in Le Guin's  collection  The Wave in the Mind.


On the magic of cities

The Crystler Building

In response to our recent discussions "in praise of slowness," Raquel Somatra wrote:

"I lived on a mountain in North Carolina for six months with no car. The nearest grocery store was 1.5 miles away. Down the mountain, over several hills, through a dark tunnel, passed the old hotel that still has a sign that says 'now with color TV!'... People always think it must have been such a horrific time, to walk to the store once or twice a week and carry home groceries. But I loved it.....There is something about motion and pilgrimage that magically and deeply connects us to ourselves, to our insides, and to the earth. I think I got to know that landscape more in six months than locals who had lived their whole lives there. I knew where you could find pairs of bunnies in the spring, where the robins liked to feast along the ends of the roads, where wild roses grew, that tiny, wild pansies grew everywhere, fairy flowers hidden in the grasses. What else is there than connection to the land, ourselves, and each other? We must do this slowly -- I agree with Rebecca [Solnit]. Our minds move as slow as our feet, there can be no other way.

"P.S. I was thrilled to find that here in Brooklyn, I make a similar journey with groceries. There aren't mountains and pansies, but there are wondrous sights and people, a train, and much, much walking."

The post below comes out of thoughts prompted by Raquel's words, and I want to begin by acknowledging that debt.

Trees of New York

Despite the bucolic nature of this blog, written as it is from the English countryside, I think the words of the various writers quoted in these pages -- attesting to the importance of "land" and "place" -- are useful reminders to all of us, no matter where we live, that our aim should be to fully live wherever it is we find ourselves. As Mary Oliver tell us in beautiful poems that repeatedly enjoin us to pay attention, living a creative life is not just about the novels or paintings we produce (let alone manage to publish or sell), it's about living in a state of openness and attention -- beginning  with the ground on which we stand: its flora, folklore, mythology, history, its weather patterns and daily rhythms, and the lives of those with whom we share it, human and nonhuman alike.  This is as true, I believe, for city, town, and suburb dwellers as it is for me here in rural Devon.

"Urban Fantasy," which emerged as a sub-genre of fantasy fiction in the 1980s and '90s -- when the term referred to works by writers like Charles de Lint, Emma Bull, Megan Lindholm (a.k.a. Robin Hobb), Francesca Lia Block, and Neil Gaiman, not paranormal romance and detective stories --  had at its heart a metaphorical search for wonder and natural (rather than supernatural) magic in city settings. These writers were asserting that one needn't travel to imaginary lands, the medieval past, or even to the countryside to find a magical (dare I say "spiritual"?) connection to place: it was available to all...yes, even at the heart of the beast: the big, noisy, crowded, diverse, dangerous, exciting modern city. (And remember that these writers began working in the '80s, when urban decline rendered many cities far less appealing than they are today.)

The High Line, NYC, 2012

Charles de Lint's Ottowa (Moonheart) and Newford (Dreams Underfoot), Emma Bull's Minneapolis (War for the Oaks), Megan Lindholm's Seattle (Wizard of the Pigeons), Francesca Lia Block's Los Angeles (Weetzie Bat), Neil Gaiman's London (Neverwhere) -- along with more recent creations such as Delia Sherman's Manhattan (Changeling) and Holly Black's Jersey Shore (Tithe) -- are urban spaces in which the mythopoeic history of the land has re-asserted itself. The human protagonists of their books are those who hunger, in one way or another, to find that connection...and then to use it in concert with the unique gifts that cities alone can offer.

The High Line in winter

As Raquel says in her post script above, a city traversed on foot can be just as creatively inspiring as a woodland path or wilderness trail, at least for those open to its rhythms; for those who are paying attention. The following passage on urban walking comes from Rebecca Solnit's Wanderlust: A History of Walking, which devotes several chapters to the subject. To me, as a former New Yorker, this description of "city magic" rings absolutely true:

"There is a subtle state most urban walkers know, a sort of basking in solitude -- a dark solitude punctuated with encounters as the night sky is punctuated with stars -- one is altogether outside society, so solitude has a sensible geographical explanation, and there is a kind of communion with the nonhuman. In the city, one is alone because the world is made up of strangers, and to be a stranger surrounded by strangers, to walk along silently bearing one's secrets and imagining those of the people one passes, is among the starkest of luxuries. This uncharted identity with its illimitable possibilities is one of the distinctive qualities of urban living, a liberatory state for those who come to emancipate themselves from family and community expectation, to experiment with subculture and identity. It is an observer's state, cool, withdrawn, with senses sharpened, a good state for anybody who needs to reflect or create. In small doses, melancholy, alienation, and introspection are among life's most refined pleasures.

The newspaper carrier

"Not long ago I heard the singer and poet Patti Smith answer a radio interviewer's questions about what she did to prepare for her performances onstage with, 'I would roam the streets for a few hours.' With that brief comment, she summoned up her own outlaw romanticism and the way such walking might toughen and sharpen the sensibility, wrap one in an isolation out of which might come songs fierce enough, words sharp enough, to break that musing silence. Probably roaming the streets didn't work so well in a lot of American cities, where the hotel was moated by a parking lot surrounded by six-lane roads without sidewalks, but she spoke as a New Yorker.

The Flat Iron Building NYC

"Speaking as a Londoner, Virginia Woolf described anonymity as a fine and desirable thing, in her 1930 essay 'Street Haunting.' Daughter of the great alpinist Leslie Stephen, she had once declared to a friend, 'How could I think mountains and climbing romantic? Wasn't I brought up with alpenstocks in my nursery and a raised map of the Alps, showing every peak my father had climbed? Of course, London and the marshes are the places I like best.' Woolf wrote of the confining oppression of one's own identity, of the way the objects in one's home 'enforce the memories of our experience.' And so she set out to buy a pencil in a city where safety and propriety were no longer considerations for a no-longer-young woman on a winter evening, and in recounting -- or inventing -- her journey, wrote one of the great essays on urban walking."

You can read Woolf's brilliant essay here.

The trees of Riverside

The passage by Rebecca Solnit is from Wanderlust: A History of Walking (Viking, 2000); all rights reserved by the author. The photographs were taken in New York, the city where I came of age as young writer/editor, and that I still think of as my urban home. I highly recommend Patti Smith's book Just Kids, a wonderful memoir of her own youth in New York; Lauren Elkin's Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London; and Olivia Laing's The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone. For more on the history of the Urban Fantasy genre, see Austin Hackney's survey of the field. For a post on the life and work of Urban Fantasy writer Charles de Lint, go here.

[Editorial changes, 2018: Urban Fantasy novels by Holly Black and Delia Sherman were added to the text above, and the works by Elkin, Laing, and Hackney were added to the reading recommendations.]