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January 2015

Tunes for a Monday Morning

Mary Lambert

This week's music is from the young singer-songwriter and spoken-word artist Mary Lambert, based in Seattle. My friend Ellen Kushner posted Lambert's terrific cover of Rick Springsteen's "Jessie's Girl" recently (packed with memories from our 1980s youth), and it reminded me of just how much I like her work. Music like this is one of the many reasons I am so impressed by the artists and activist of our daughter's generation...and boy does it make me feel old to say that, but nevermind. 

Above: a poetic, impassioned performance of "Body Love, Parts I & II" (2014).

Below: the video for Lambert's "She Keeps Me Warm" (2013),  featuring a very sweet gay romance...and books! (How often do you see people read in music videos, after all?)

Below:

"Same Love," a lovely song and video from Macklemore & Ryan Lewis (2012) which incorporates Lambert's "She Keeps Me Warm."

And last, to end on a lighter note:

The adorable video for Lambert's "Secrets" (2014).


Shaping stories...and being shaped by them

Cinderella by Edmund Dulac

“The store of fairy tales, that blue chamber where stories lie waiting to be rediscovered, holds out the promise of just those creative enchantments, not only for its own characters caught in its own plotlines; it offers magical metamorphoses to the one who opens the door, who passes on what was found there, and to those who hear what the storyteller brings. The faculty of wonder, like curiosity can make things happen; it is time for wishful thinking to have its due.” - Marina Warner (from The Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers)

Snow White by Angela Barrett

“Someone needs to tell those tales. When the battles are fought and won and lost, when the pirates find their treasures and the dragons eat their foes for breakfast with a nice cup of Lapsang souchong, someone needs to tell their bits of overlapping narrative. There's magic in that. It's in the listener, and for each and every ear it will be different, and it will affect them in ways they can never predict. From the mundane to the profound. You may tell a tale that takes up residence in someone's soul, becomes their blood and self and purpose. That tale will move them and drive them and who knows what they might do because of it, because of your words. That is your role, your gift. Your sister may be able to see the future, but you yourself can shape it, boy. Do not forget that... there are many kinds of magic, after all.”  - Erin Morgenstern (from The Night Circus)

Round the Oak Tree by Kelly Louise Judd

“We who make stories know that we tell lies for a living. But they are good lies that say true things, and we owe it to our readers to build them as best we can. Because somewhere out there is someone who needs that story. Someone who will grow up with a different landscape, who without that story will be a different person. And who with that story may have hope, or wisdom, or kindness, or comfort. And that is why we write.” - Neil Gaiman (from The Graveyard Book)

Two illustrations for Thumbelina by Lisbeth Zwerger.jpg

“People think that stories are shaped by people. In fact, it's the other way around.”  - Terry Pratchett (from Witches Abroad)

Little Red Cap by Gina LitherlandArt above: "Cinderella" by Edmund Dulac (1882-1953), "Snow White" by Angela Barrett, "Round the Oak Tree" by Kelly Louise Judd,  two illustrations for "Thumbelina" by Lisbeth Zwerger., and "Little Red Cap" by Gina Litherland. This post was originally published in January, 2013. I like to occasionally re-visit old posts when they chime with current discussions here.


Stories that matter

The Wild Swans by Nadezhda Illarionova

Writing advice from Louise Erdrich:

"Begin with something in your range. Then write it as a secret. I’d be paralyzed if I thought I had to write a great novel, and no matter how good I think a book is on one day, I know now that a time will come when I will look upon it as a failure. The gratification has to come from the effort itself. I try not to look back. I approach the work as though, in truth, I’m nothing and the words are everything. Then I write to save my life. If you are a writer, that will be true. Writing has saved my life."

The Wild Swans by by Nadezhda Illarionova

Writing advice from Grace Paley:

"The best training is to read and write, no matter what. Don’t live with a lover or roommate who doesn’t respect your work. Write what will stop your breath if you don’t write."

The Little Mermaid by Nadezhda Illarionova

Writing advice from Ursula K. Le Guin:

"Socrates said, 'The misuse of language induces evil in the soul.' He wasn't talking about grammar. To misuse language is to use it the way politicians and advertisers do, for profit, without taking responsibility for what the words mean. Language used as a means to get power or make money goes wrong: it lies. Language used as an end in itself, to sing a poem or tell a story, goes right, goes towards the truth.

"A writer is a person who cares what words mean, what they say, how they say it. Writers know words are their way towards truth and freedom, and so they use them with care, with thought, with fear, with delight. By using words well they strengthen their souls. Story-tellers and poets spend their lives learning that skill and art of using words well. And their words make the souls of their readers stronger, brighter, deeper."

Thumbelina by by Nadezhda Illarionova

The art in this post is by the Russian painter and designer Nadezhda Illarionova, based in Moscow. She has illustrated tales from the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, Perrault, and Mother Goose...but these books, alas, are not yet available in English-language editions.

Thumbelina by Nadezhda Illarionova

Looking at Illarionova's wondrous work, I'm reminded of these words by Lynda Barry:

"There are certain children who are told they are too sensitive, and there are certain adults who believe sensitivity is a problem that can be fixed in the way that crooked teeth can be fixed and made straight. And when these two come together you get a fairy tale, a kind of story with hopelessness in it. I believe there is something in these old stories that does what singing does to words. They have transformational capabilities, in the way melody can transform mood. They can't transform your actual situation, but they can transform your experience of it. We don't create a fantasy world to escape reality, we create it to be able to stay. I believe we have always done this, used images to stand and understand what otherwise would be intolerable.”

Donkeyskin by Nadezhda IllarionovaA related post (because it was the first time the Lynda Barry quote appear on this blog): "The Way Things Change."


Entering the realm of myth

Rainbow over Chagford

These photos are for Pia, who was disappointed that there were no Dartmoor ponies in Tuesday's post. The pictures were taken a few weeks back, before health issues tied me quite so closely the house. (And, oh, how I'm looking forward to resuming my wandering ways. May it be soon.)

The end of the rainbow

On a blustery day in late December, Tilly and I took a chance on a break in the rain and made our way down to the village Commons -- where a rainbow arched over the back edge of the town  (and yes, Chagford really is Brigadoon).

Canine alertness

A herd of ponies spotted

We walked a little further, and Tilly stopped still, sculpted in the clear black lines of her alertness. I wondered what had gotten her attention. Not cows or she'd be quivering, repressing the urge to bark. (Good girl.) Not dogs or she'd be bounding over to them, grinning, her body an arrow of delight. Ponies, then. It was probably ponies. She'd been trained not to disturb to our equine neighbors but she finds them fascinating. (I once watched as a curious foal approached her so close that they could practically touch noses.)

Ponies grazing on the Commons

I walked across the field and, yes, there they were: ten or so in the herd, come down from the moor to graze on the tender grass of the Common. Their coats were thick and shaggy for the winter, and the foals of last spring were now sturdy and well grown.

Dartmoor ponies

Dartmoor ponies

One pony trotted over as we passed among them, and posed quite nicely for the camera in my hands. I thanked her politely, wished her a good winter...and then watched as the scattered herd drew back together, summoned by a stallion's insistent cries. Two stragglers galloped from a nearby field to join the elegant line of ponies moving, single-file, up the slope of Meldon Hill.

I watched until they were specks on the horizon, and then Tilly and I carried on.

Dartmoor ponies

The title for today's post comes from a passage in the Paris Review interview with the Italian author and mythographer Roberto Calasso:

Interviewer: You write in The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, “We enter the mythical when we enter the realm of risk, and myth is the enchantment we generate in ourselves at such moments.” What does this mean?

Calasso: This comes from Plato, from the Phaedo. Socrates says that precisely. Within the realm of myth, you wander into this danger zone, and that is the zone of the unknown. What you can do there is, first of all, utter or sing a carmen, a word that is usually translated as “poem” but primarily means “enchantment.” That is the best weapon at our disposal. 

Interviewer: But when do we enter the realm of myth?

Calasso: We are already there. As Sallustius the Neoplatonist wrote, the world itself is a myth. So no matter what we are doing, we are in the midst of a fable. And fables are by definition what enchant us. The only question is whether we perceive it or not.

Dartmoor ponies

Walking through the damp green Mystery of the world...or remembering walking through it, imagining it from the confines of my bed...I find wisdom and inspiration in Calasso's words.

When do we enter the realm of myth?

We are already there.

BrigadoonRelated posts: "Daily Myth" (ponies in early spring) and "The Capacity for Awe" (ponies in summer).


Stories are Medicine: "healing tales" in myth, folklore, and mythic arts

Bedtime Story by Jeanie Tomanek

"Stories are medicine. I have been taken with stories since I heard my first. They have such power; they do not require that we do, be, act, anything -- we need only listen."   - Clarissa Pinkola Estés

Eclipse by Jeanie TomanekThere has long been a mythic link between storytelling and the healing arts -- so much so that in some ancient societies storytellers and healers were one and the same. Stories are valued in many indigenous cultures not only for their entertainment value but also as a means to pass on cultural teachings -- including practices intended to prevent imbalance and illness (both physical and mental), and to help overcome ordeals of disease, calamity, or trauma. In some shamanic traditions, magical tales are told in a ritual manner to facilitate specific acts of healing. In Korea, for example, a well-known fairy tale called "Shimchong, the Blind Man's Daughter," a variant of Beauty and the Beast, plays a role in traditional healing rites related to eyesight. "The 'patient' is supposed to be healed precisely at the climax of the story," explains folklorist Heinz Insu Fenkl, "when Old Man Shim opens his eyes and sees his long-lost daughter."

Self Rising by Jeanie Tomanek

In Women Who Run With the Wolves, psychologist and folklorist Clarissa Pinkola Estés writes of the healing powers of Hispanic "trance-tellers" who enter into a trance state "between worlds" in order to "attract" a story to them. Such stories are said to contain the mythic information the listeners most need to hear. "The trance-teller calls on El Duende," says Estés, "the wind that blows soul into the faces of listeners. A trance-teller learns to be psychically double-jointed through the meditative practice of story, that is, training oneself to undo certain psychic gates and ego apertures in order to let the voice speak, the voice that is older than the stones. When this is done, the story may take any trail....The teller never knows how it will all come out, and that is at least half of the moist magic of the story."

Storytelling also plays an important role in the shamanic practices of Siberia -- where, as in Korea, it is often women who perform the traditional healing rites. "Oral storytelling is the way shamans themselves convey spiritual truths," writes Kira Van Duesen in The Flying Tiger: Women Shamans and Storytellers of the Amur. "[T]hrough the power of words and sounds, stories and songs act directly on the listener to bring about The Return by Jeanie Tomanekhealing and spiritual growth. More important than the content of the tales is the process of telling them -- the way a storyteller chooses the tale, the details added or removed, the tone -- all these make storytelling a spiritual act. Stories and songs are not objects or artifacts but living beings."

In many Native American cultures illness indicates that the patient's life, spirit, or relationships have gone out of balance and harmony; a restoration of spiritual balance is required before a physical illness can be cured. Among the Navajo, health and longevity are attained by "walking in beauty," living in harmony within oneself and with the natural world. If this harmony is lost, it can be restored through elaborate, days-long ceremonies during which some of the most ancient, sacred stories of the tribe are chanted and painted in sand. In the traditional lore of the Tohono O'Odham tribe, disease is caused by improper relationships with the bird and animal worlds. The repetition of certain stories and songs brings these relationships back into harmony and the sufferer back to health.

"A people are as healthy and confident as the stories they tell themselves," writes the Nigerian novelist and poet Ben Okri (in Birds of Heaven: Essays). "Sick storytellers can make nations sick. Without stories we would go mad. Life would lose it’s moorings or orientation. Even in silence we are living our stories."

Caretaker by Jeanie Tomanek

Stories are central to the healing practices of the traditional Gaelic culture of Scotland -- of which the leading characteristics, writes Noragh Jones (in Power of Raven, Wisdom of Serpent: Celtic Women's Spirituality), "are an instinctive ability to gather healing plants from their own locality when they are sick; a heritage of herbal remedies handed on from mother to daughter which have been tried and tested in everyday situations -- part of the informal education of the household; a sense that illness is some kind of imbalance in the individual, and so mind and body and spirit must be treated as a whole; and a conviction that healing is a spiritual resource as well as a physical process." 

Six Seeds by Jeanie TomanekHerbalists and hedge-witches of the British Isles once used stories not only as a means to preserve information about the medicinal properties of plants, but also as a means of communicating with the spirits of the plants themselves. In trance states induced by ritual fasting, prayer, or the use of hallucinogenic mushrooms, they communed with the plants in order to learn the best ways to gather, preserve, and use them. Likewise, the stories told by Siberian shamans weren't always meant for human ears but for the various plant, animal, and supernatural spirits who aided in their rites of healing. The medicine men and women of the various Indian tribes living in the Amazon have long been renown for their deep knowledge of the healing properties of plants, sometimes gained during trances induced by hallucinogenics such as ayahuaska. A relationship must be established between the healer and the plant in question, however. In Plant Spirit Medicine, Eliot Cowan tells the tale of an American  Green Corn Moon by Jeanie Tomanekfriend in the Amazon. The man meets a hunter-shaman who takes him on a long walk through the jungle, pointing out plants and listing the various ways he has used them to heal. The American wants to write this all down, which makes the shaman howl with laughter. No, no, he explains, "that was just to introduce you to some of the plants. If you actually want to use a plant yourself, the spirit of the plant must come to you in dreams. If the spirit tells you how to prepare it and what it will cure, you can use it. Otherwise it won’t work for you."

"There is a plant for everything in the world; all you have to do is find it," an old herb-woman in the Louisiana Bayou told folklorist Ruth Bass in 1920s. And there's a folk story attached to nearly every plant -- as volumes of folklore and herb lore from all around the world can attest. The history of modern medicine is rooted in the history of folk medicine, entwined with myths, folk tales, fairy tales, and the homespun magics of countryside healers.

I recommend two wonderful novels (which happen to be by two of my favorite writers) exploring the connections between folk medicine, myth, spirituality, and the mysteries of Mother Earth: The Limits of Enchantment by Graham Joyce and The Hummingbird’s Daughter by Luis Alberto Urrea. Seed by Jeanie TomanekThe first of these, The Limits of Enchantment, set in the deep green hills of the English countryside in 1966, is a story about a hedgerow healer and midwife, the apprenticeship of her adopted daughter, and their struggle to maintain an ancient way of life in the modern world. The Hummingbird's Daughter, by contrast, is set in the dusty brown hills of northern México in the years before the Mexican Revolution. The novel is based on the real-life story of the author's great-Aunt Teresita, the illegitimate child of a prosperous rancher and a Yaqui Indian girl. Apprenticed to an Indian medicine woman, Teresita demonstrated such miraculous healing powers that her fame spread through northern México, leading to denunciation by the Catholic church and accusations of fomenting an Indian uprising. Both of these novels are coming-of-age stories about young women with remarkable gifts, looking at the ways that indigenous healing traditions are passed through the generations -- and how such gifts are both feared and revered in a world uncomfortable with Mystery.

In a number of Native American traditions, the word "medicine" does not refer to the pills or tonics we take to cure an illness but to anything that has spiritual power, and that helps to keep us "walking in beauty." Words can be strong medicine. Stories can touch our hearts and souls; they can point the way to healing and transformation. Our own lives are stories that we write from day to day; they are journeys through the dark of the fairy tale woods. The tales of previous travellers through the woods are passed down to us in the poetic, symbolic language of folklore and myth; where we step, someone has stepped before, and their stories can help light the way.

Another Night Journey by Jeanie Tomanek

The gorgeous art above is by the American painter Jeanie Tomanek, appearing here with her kind permission. Please visit her website to see more of her work. You can purchase prints through these Etsy shops: Everywoman Art and Easy Beast Designs, and you'll find a lovely interview with the artist here.