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July 2015

Happy Birthday Tilly!

Reading with Tilly  2009

It's hard to believe that the little scrap of fur we brought home from a farm in Tiverton is six years old today, and utterly impossible to imagine our household without her intelligent, joyous, and goofy presence.

In honor of the occasion, here are links to some of my favorite poems about dogs...and I'd love to know yours.

Tilly at 10 weeks old"What the Dog Perhaps Hears" by Lisel Mueller

"Over and Over Tune" by Ionna Carlson

"Dog Music" by Paul Zimmer

"Dog Dreaming" by W.S. Merwin

"Dharma" by Billy Collins

"A Dog on His Master" by Billy Collins

"Walking the Dog" by Harold Nemerov

"The Dogs at Live Oak Beach, Santa Cruz" by Alice Ostriker

"If Feeling Isn't In It" by John Brehm

"Mongrel Heart" by David Baker

...and selections from Mary Oliver's "Dog Songs."

Howard and Tilly  2009

Howard and Tilly 2015


Call-it-what-you-will

Nattadon 1

From A Hidden Wholeness by Quaker writer Parker J. Palmer:

"Philosophers haggle about what to call this core of our humanity, but I'm no stickler for precision. Thomas Merton called it true self. Buddhists call it original nature or big self. Hasidic Jews call it the spark of the divine. Humanists call it identity and integrity. In popular parlance, people often call it soul...

"What we name it matters little to me, since the origins, nature, and destiny of call-it-what-you-will are forever hidden from us, and no one can credibly claim to know its true name. But that we name it matters a great deal. For 'it' is the objective, ontological reality of selfhood that keeps us from reducing ourselves, or each other, to biological mechanisms, psychological projections, sociological constructs, or raw material to be manufactured into whatever society needs -- diminishments of our humanity that constantly threaten the quality of our lives."

Nattadon 2

Nobody knows what the soul is, says poet Mary Oliver,

" 'it comes and goes / like the wind over the water.' But just as we can name the function of the wind, so we can name some of the functions of the soul without presuming to penetrate its mystery:

The soul wants to keep us rooted in the ground of our own being, resisting the tendency of other faculties, like the intellect and ego, to uproot us from who we are.

The soul wants to keep us connected to the community in which we find life, for it understands that relationships are necessary if we are to thrive.

The soul wants to tell us the truth about ourselves, our world, and the relation between the two, whether that truth is easy or hard to hear.

The soul wants to give us life and wants us to pass that gift along, to become life-givers in a world that deals too much in death."

Nattadon 3

Exchange the words "the soul" for "the Muse" and that's a perfect description of how I feel about art-making. I want to paint pictures and write fiction and essays grounded in my deepest self, in the land, and in community. I want to tell stories that are authentic and true, even when that truth is hard to speak, and even harder to hear. I want my work to be life-giving in a world that does, indeed, deal too much with death; and to help to restore the ancient, mythic, necessary balance between the dark and the light.

I suppose what I mean is I want to make art that has soul, or luminosity, or call-it-what-you-will.

Nattadon 4

Jungian psychologist Jean Shinoda Bolen writes:

''You have the need and the right to spend part of your life caring for your soul. It is not easy. You have to resist the demands of the work-oriented, often defensive, element in your psyche that measures life only in terms of output -- how much you produce -- not in terms of the quality of your life experiences. To be a soulful person means to go against all the pervasive, prove-yourself values of our culture and instead treasure what is unique and internal and valuable in yourself and your own personal evolution.''

Nattadon 5

Nattadon 6

The photographs here are of Nattadon Hill on an early morning in June, before I fell ill. I can now take short walks in the woods with Tilly, but don't yet have the strength for our ritual morning climb to the very top of the hill -- and every time I turn back from that path she looks puzzled, impatient to return to our usual routines. I am also often impatient these days, waiting for normal life to resume -- and then I must remind myself that this, too, is normal life: resting, healing, rebuilding my strength, like I've done so many times before. The ritual of our morning climb is echoed by the ritual of returning to health, over and over: the hard climb up; the joy of arrival; the heady momentum of coming back down, Tilly bounding through tall green tunnels of bracken. Normal life is the climb and the descent, productivity and quiet moments of stillness, the light of the sun and the dark of the moon. As Crow in my novel The Wood Wife would say, "It is all dammas." All part of the great Mystery.

Nattadon 7

In The Care of the Soul, Thomas Moore reminds us:

''It's important to be heroic, ambitious, productive, efficient, creative, and progressive, but these qualities don't necessarily nurture soul. The soul has different concerns, of equal value: downtime for reflection, conversation, and reverie; beauty that is captivating and pleasuring; relatedness to the environs and to people; and any animal’s rhythm of rest and activity.''

The soul has different concerns, and so does the Muse. My job as an artist, gazing up at the hill that I can't yet climb, is to value it all.

Nattadon 8

Nattadon 9


Rituals of Approach

Catherine Chaloux

In yesterday's post, Susan Cooper touched lightly on the thorny subject of procrastination...and I'm going to go out on a limb here to suggest procrastination is not always bad.

The form of procrastination that Copper describes can, unless it gets out of hand,  be a useful part of the working process, a circling of the water before one plunges in. To push the water metaphor a little further, some of us are divers and some of us inch into a cold pool of water bit by bit -- not because we don't intend to Catherine Chaulouxswim, but because that's how we're psychologically built to best handle transitions. The initial shock of a cold plunge invigorates some swimmers, but is uncomfortable, almost painful, to others; and we learn by trial and error which approach works best for us, physically and temperamentally.

For me, the slow circling of my writing desk in the morning isn't one of avoidance (though it can be, on a bad day, if I'm not careful), it's simply part of my transition from the everyday world into the cold, clear pool of my imagination. Here's how the work day starts for me, after an early walk up Nattadon Hill with Tilly:

I do a quick tidy of the studio (I like a calm, ordered environment), put music on the stereo (something without words: classical, medieval, music for the Celtic harp or Native American flute), settle Tilly on the sofa with her morning treat (a piece of carrot), pluck a book from the shelves and read a few pages (essays, folklore, poetry), pour a cup of coffee from my thermos (if I haven't Catherine Chaulouxalready finished it off outdoors), write this blog (as a writing warm-up), turn the Internet off (using the Freedom program) and then finally get down to work: generally, like Susan Cooper, by reading over previous pages and notes from the day before, and trying my damnedest to resist editing those pages instead of pushing on into new material. All through this process, I must be wary of the other kind of procrastination, the kind that really is avoidance or distraction: getting overly absorbed in the reading, for example, or hooked by the lures of Internet. That's where discipline comes in: the commitment and professionalism required to keep my transition-into-work process on track.

I could, of course, simply come into the studio, sit myself down and get right to it -- but I've learned, over all these years, that this is just not the best method for me; I write better, and faster, if I honor the process of transition that suits my creative temperament. My family knows not to disturb me during this process -- even though, to the outside eye, I might not appear to be actually working yet. While I'm not such a fragile flower that I can't get back into my work if an interruption does occur, and of course life is unpredictable, as a general rule I try to sweep unnecessary obstacles from my working day by making my schedule and habits as conducive to the work as possible. Ideally, I want to be challenged by the writing itself, not by the journey it takes to get down to it.

Catherine Chauloux

I'm not advocating this working method for everyone, of course; I'm advocating that we all find out our own best way of working, and implement it to whatever extent our lives make possible. I'm an inch-into-the-water kind of girl; you might be a diver, or something else altogether. But take heart fellow-inchers: ours, too, is a perfectly valid approach, provided we are clear  about the good and bad -- or perhaps, I should say "useful" and "not useful" -- forms of procrastination. For me, for example, reading a book or journal is useful because the quiet intimacy of this kind of reading serves me in my state of transition, easing me into the quiet Lake of Words I seek to enter -- whereas reading on the Internet, with its mass choir of voices and its speedy, amped-up rhythms, spins me away from my inner Lake of Words and off into other directions. The myriad attractions on the 'Net are tempting -- oh, so tempting! -- but I've learned to limit my time online, especially in the morning, during the "ritual of approach" into my writing day.

Catherine Chaloux

The useful notion of a "ritual of approach" is borrowed from the Irish poet/philosopher John O'Donohue, who discusses the mythic roots of the term in his wise book Beauty: The Invisible Embrace. "Many of the ancient cultures practiced careful rituals of approach," he notes. "An encounter of depth and spirit was preceded by careful preparation. When we approach with reverence, great things decide to approach us. Our real life comes to the surface and its light awakens the concealed beauty in things. When we walk on the earth with reverence, beauty will decide to trust us. The rushed heart and arrogant mind lack the gentleness and patience to enter that embrace."

Catherine Chauloux

This is not to imply that the "divers" among us are "rushed and arrogant"; if they are working well, then their rituals of approach are swift, rather than rushed, and they are blessed to have a creative rhythm in tune with our fast-moving times. Inchers often (not always) move at a slower pace, and while that can be at odds with our production-focused world, neither method is inherently "better" than the other. Divers and inchers, we seek the same goal: immersion into the Lake of Story, whose cold, sweet waters sustain us all.

Les_ecrivaines

But let's speak of the bad side of procrastination for a moment -- for the very same tasks that can be used to inch our way into our work (clearing the desk, clearing the decks, reading, blogging, etc.) can also be used to avoid our work, blocking the "ritual of approach" altogether; and it takes self-knowledge and rigorous self-honesty to know the difference.

If procrastination of the bad sort has become a problem for you...well, you're not alone. Many writers I've worked with over the years, including highly successful ones, have struggled with this; and some are struggling still. The most useful text I know on the subject is Hillary Rettig's very practical book The Seven Secrets of the Prolific: The Definitive Guide to Overcoming Procrastination, Perfectionism, and Writers' Block. Rettig takes readers step by step through the kinds of fears and toxic belief systems that usually lie at the heart of chronic procrastination, especially targeting the "perfectionist thinking" that seems to derail so many creative folks.

"Perfectionism," write Rettig, "is a toxic brew of anti-productive habits, attitudes and ideas. It is not the same as having high standards, and there is no such thing as 'good perfectionism."

Catherine Chauloux

These habits, as Rettig defines them, include: "Defining success narrowly and unrealistically; punishing oneself harshly for perceived failures. Grandiosity; or the deluded idea that things that are difficult for other people should be easy for you. Shortsightedness, as manifested in a 'now or never' or 'do or die' attitude. Over-identification with the work. Overemphasis on product (vs. process), and on external rewards."

''The Swiss Halberd'' by Catherine Chauloux"Grandiosity," says Rettig, "is a problem for writers because our media and culture are permeated with grandiose myths and misconceptions about writing, which writers who are under-mentored or isolated fall prey to. Red Smith’s famous bon mot about how, to write, you need only 'sit down at a typewriter and open a vein,' and Gene Fowler’s similarly sanguinary advice to 'sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until the drops of blood form on your forehead,' are nothing but macho grandiose posturing, as is William Faulkner’s overwrought encomium to monomaniacal selfishness, from his Paris Review interview:

"'The writer’s only responsibility is to his art. He will be completely ruthless if he is a good one. He has a dream. It anguishes him so much that he can’t get rid of it. He has no peace until then. Say It With Words by Catherine ChaulouxEverything goes by the board: honor, pride, decency, security, happiness, all, to get the book written. If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is worth any number of old ladies.'

"Many of the famous quotes about writing are grandiose," Rettig continues. "I’m not saying that all of these writers were posturing -- perhaps that’s how they truly perceived themselves and their creativity. What I do know is that, for most writers, a strategy based on pain and deprivation is not a route to productivity. In fact, it is more likely a route to a block. I actually find quotes about how awful writing and the writing life are to be not just perfectionist, but self-indulgent. No one’s forcing these writers to write, after all; and there are obviously far worse ways to spend one’s time, not to mention earn one’s living. All worthwhile endeavors require hard, and occasionally tedious, work; and, if anything, we writers have it easy, with unparalleled freedom to work where and how we wish -- in contrast to, say, potters who need a wheel and kiln, or Shakespearean actors who need a stage and ensemble. Non-perfectionist and non-grandiose writers recognize all this. Flaubert famously said 'Writing is a dog’s life, but the only life worth living,' and special kudos go to Jane Yolen for her book Take Joy: A Writer’s Guide to Loving the Craft, which begins with a celebration of the inherent joyfulness of writing. She also responds to Smith’s and Fowler’s sanguinary comments with the good-natured ridicule they deserve: 'By God, that’s a messy way of working.' "

Catherine Chauloux

I'll let Jane have the final words today, for she is certainly one of the most prolific writers I know, as well as a Master in the fine and worthy art of living a creative life. In this quote, she offers writing advice that is as practical and down-to-earth as it is wise:

"Exercise the writing muscle every day," she says, "even if it is only a letter, notes, a title list, a character sketch, a journal entry. Writers are like dancers, like athletes. Without that exercise, the muscles seize up."

Catherine Chauloux

The art today is by Catherine Chauloux, from the Nantes region of France -- a self-taught painter inspired by the Italian Renaissance and Flemish masters, Orientalism, and imagery of the fantastic. To see more of her whimsical, wonderful work, please visit Catherine's website.

The titles of the paintings are in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.)

Catherine Chauloux

The text for this post was first published on Myth & Moor on March 26, 2014.  Related posts: Rituals of Beginning: Part I, Part II, Part III; and On Beginnings. If perfectionism is an issue for you, try my post "On Fear of Judgement" and Elizabeth Huergo's post on perfectionism in the classroom.


Summer morning: hawks over Nattadon Hill

Blue sky above Nattadon Hill

Two hawks

"Your soul knows the geography of your destiny. Your soul alone has the map of your future, therefore you can trust this indirect, oblique side of yourself. If you do, it will take you where you need to go, but more important it will teach you a kindness of rhythm in your journey."  - John O'Donohue (Anam Cara)

A "kindness of rhythm." Yes. That's precisely what I strive for, in life and in art.

Paying attention

But what, exactly, do we mean by "the soul" in relation to creating one's art, or one's life? There are many definitions and opinions, of course, but I like Mary Oliver's best:

"This is the first, wildest, and wisest thing I know, that the soul exists, and that it is built entirely out of attentiveness."

Illustration by Honore AppletonIllustration by Honor Appleton (1879-1951). The Mary Oliver quote above comes from "Low Tide," published in Amicus Journal, Winter 2001. The poem in the picture captions is from New & Selected Poems by Mary Oliver, 1992; all rights reserved by the author.


Casting Spells

The Alchemist by Edmund Dulac

The text below comes from "Worlds Apart," a talk by Susan Cooper at Oxford University (1992). I am re-posting it today in honor of the lovely students in the Children's Book Writing & Illustrating MA/MFA program at Hollins University in Virginia.

"Writing," says Susan Cooper, "is one of the loneliest professions in the world because it has to be practiced in this very separate private world, in here. Not in the mind; in the imagination. Elves and Fairies from The Tempest by Edmund DulacAnd I think it is possible that the writing of fantasy is the loneliest job of the lot, since you have to go further inside. You have to make so close a connection with the the subconscious that the unbiddable door will open and images fly out, like birds. It's not unlike writing poetry.

"It makes you superstitious. Most writers indulge in small private rituals to start themselves writing each day, and I find that when I'm working on a fantasy I'm even more ludicrously twitchy than usual. The very first half hour at the desk has nothing much to do with fantasy or even ritual: it's what J.B. Priestley used to call 'sharpening pencils' -- the business of doing absolutely everything you can think of to put off the moment of starting to work. You make another cup of coffee. You find a telephone call that must be made, a letter that must be answered. You do sharpen pencils. You look at the plant on the windowsill and decide that this is just the time to water it, or fertilize it, or prune it. Maybe it's even time to repot it. You hunt for the houseplant book, and look this up, and it says severely that this kind of plant enjoys being pot-bound and should never be repotted. So you turn to the bowl of paperclips on your desk, and find that safety pins and pennies and buttons have found their way in, so of course you really ought to sort out the paperclips....

The Nightingale by Edmund Dulac

"Finally guilt drives you to the manuscript -- and that's when the real ritual begins. (I should go back to the first person, because in this respect everyone is different.) I have to start by reading. I read a lot of what I've already written, maybe two or three chapters, even though I already know it all by heart. I read the notes I made to myself the day before when I stopped writing -- those were the end-of-the-day ritual, to help with the starting of the next. During this process I've picked up one of the toys scattered around my study, and my fingers are half-consciously playing with it: a smooth sea-washed pebble from an island beach, a chunky ceramic owl from Sweden, a little stone wombat from Australia. I read the last chapter again. I wander to a bookshelf and read a page of something vaguely related to my fantasy: Eliot's Quartets, maybe, or de la Mare's notes to Come Hither. I have even been known to blow bubbles, from a little tube that sits on my desk, and to sit staring at the colors that swirl over their brief surfaces. This the moment someone else usually choses to come into the room, and I can become very irritable if they don't appreciate that they are observing a writer seriously at work.

The Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Andersen illustrated by Edmund Dulac

"What I'm doing, of course, is taking myself out of the world I'm in, and trying to find my way back into the world apart. Once I've managed that, I am inside the book that I'm writing, and am seeing it, so vividly that I do not see what I am actually staring at: the wall, or the typewriter, or the tree outside the window. I suppose it is a variety of trance state, though that's a perilous word. It makes one think of poor Coleridge, An illustration from The Tempest by Edmund Dulacwaking from  an opium-induced sleep with two hundred glowing lines of Kubla Khan in his head, being interrupted by a person from Porlock when he'd written down only ten of them, and finding, when the person had gone, that he'd forgotten all the rest. Trance is fragile.

"The world of the imagination is not fragile, not once you've reached it, but because it is set apart, you can never be sure of reaching it. It seems very curious to be standing here in the university which tried to teach me reason, and confessing to uncertainty and superstition of a kind which would have appalled my tutor. Reason, however, is singularly unhelpful to a novelist except in a few specialized situations, like the matter of chosing a publisher, or arguing points of English grammar with a copy editor. The imagination is not reasonable -- or tangible, or visible, or obedient. It's an island out in the ocean, which often seems to retreat as you sail toward it. Sometimes it vanishes altogether, mirage-like, and nothing can be done to bring it back into reach. This produces a bad day during which you write nothing of value and have to wait until tomorrow and start again.

Prospero and Miranda by Edmund Dulac

"We cast spells to find our way into the unconscious mind, and the imagination that lives there, because we know it's the only way to get into a place where magic is made."

Cinderella by Edmund DulacThe art above is by the great Golden Age illustrator and designer Edmund Dulac (1882-1953). Born in Toulouse, France, he moved to London in 1904, and became a naturalized British citizen in 1912.