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September 2015

The Blessing of Otters

Kickapoo by Rebecca Tobey

One of the mythic borderlands I'm especially drawn to (as evidenced by my writing and art over the decades) is the place where humans and animals meet: as neighbors, as cousins who speak each other's language, as shape-shifters in each other's skins.

"Long ago the trees thought they were people," says Tulalip storyteller Johnny Moses, recounting a traditional Native America tale. "Long ago the mountains thought they were people. Long ago the animals thought they were people. Someday they will say, 'long ago the humans thought they were people.' "

River Shaman by Rebecca TobeyIn "Voyageur," a gorgeous essay by Scott Russell Sanders, the writer and his daughter watch otters during a camping trip in the geographic borderlands between Minnesota and Ontario. What was it that kept him riveted to the spot, watching the animals with such intense fascination? What did the otters mean to him, and what did he want from them?

Not their hides, not their meat, not even a photograph, says Saunders, "although I found them surpassingly beautiful. I wanted their company. I desired their instruction -- as if, by watching them, I might learn to belong somewhere as they so thoroughly belonged here. I yearned to slip out of my skin and into theirs, to feel the world for a spell through their senses, to think otter thoughts, and then to slide back into myself, a bit wiser for the journey.

"In tales of shamans the world over, men and women make just such leaps, into hawks or snakes or bears, and then back into human shape, their vision enlarged, their sympathy deepened. I am a poor sort of shaman. My shape never changes, except, year by year, to wrinkle and sag. I did not become an otter, Messenger of the Gods by Gene & Rebecca Tobeyeven for an instant. But the yearning to leap across the distance, the reaching out in imagination to a fellow creature, seems to me a worthy impulse, perhaps the most encouraging and distinctive one we have. It is the same impulse that moves us to reach out to one another across differences of race or gender, age or class. What I desired from the otters was also what I most wanted from my daughter and from the friends with whom we were canoeing, and it is what I have always desired from neighbors and strangers. I wanted their blessing. I wanted to dwell alongside them with understanding and grace. I wanted them to go about their lives in my presence as though I were kin to them, no matter how much I might differ from them outwardly."

Hawkeye by Rebecca Tobey

Later in essay, Sanders writes about two loons who wake him in the middle of the night, "wailing back and forth like two blues singers demented by love," and the bald eagle who watches their progress down the river from its perch on a dead tree's branch. What did the eagle see, he wonders?

"Not food, surely, and not much of a threat, or it would have flown. Did it see us as fellow creatures? Or merely as drifting shapes, no more consequential than clouds? Exchanging Dancing With the Wind by Gene & Rebecca Tobeystares with this great bird, I dimly recalled a passage from Walden that I would look up after my return to the company of books: 'What distant and different beings in the various mansions of the universe are contemplating the same one at the same moment! Nature and human life are as various as our several constitutions. Who shall say what prospect life offers to another? Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other's eyes for an instant?'

"Neuroscience may one day pull off that miracle," Sanders continues, "giving us access to other eyes, other minds. For the present, however, we must rely on our native sight, on patient observation, on hunches and empathy. By empathy, I do not mean the projecting of human films onto nature's screens, turning grizzly bears into teddy bears, crickets into choristers, grass into lawns; I mean the shaman's leap, a going out of oneself into the inwardness of other beings.

"The longing I heard in the cries of the loons was not just a feathered version of mine, but neither was it wholly alien. It is risky to speak of courting birds as blues singers, of diving otters as children taking turns on a slide. But it is even riskier to pretend we have nothing in common with the rest of Big Horn Sheep Shaman by Gene & Rebecca Tobeynature, as though we alone, the chosen species, were centers of feeling and thought. We cannot speak of that common ground without casting threads of metaphor outward from what we know and what we do not know.

"An eagle is other, but it is also alive, bright with sensation, attuned to the world, and we respond to that vitality wherever we find it, in bird or beetle, in moose or lowly moss. Edward O. Wilson has given this impulse a lovely name, biophilia, which he defines as the urge 'to explore and affiliate with life.' Of course, like the coupled dragonflies that skimmed past our canoes or like osprey hunting fish, we seek other creatures for survival. Yet even if biophilia is an evolutionary gift, like the kangaroo's leap or the peacock's tail, our fascination with living things carries us beyond the requirements of eating and mating. In that excess, that free curiosity, there may be a healing power. The urge to explore has scattered humans across the whole earth -- to the peril of many species, including our own; perhaps the other dimension of biophilia, the desire to affiliate with life, could lead us to honor the entire fabric and repair what has been torn."

Hawk Bear & Deer Dancers by Gene & Rebecca Tobey

In the conclusion of his essay, Sanders points out that the fellowship of all creatures "is more than a handsome metaphor. The appetite for discovering such connections is also entwined in our DNA. Science articulates in formal terms affinities that humans have sensed for ages in direct encounters with wildness. Even while we slight or slaughter members of our own species, and while we push other species toward extinction, we slowly, Keeper of the Trust by Gene & Rebecca Tobeypainstakingly acquire knowledge that could enable us and inspire us to change our ways. Only if that knowledge begins to exert a pressure in us, and we come to feel the fellowship of all beings as potently as we feel hunger and fear, will we have any hope of creating a truly just and tolerant society, one that cherishes the land and our wild companions along with our brothers and sisters.

"In America lately, we have been carrying on two parallel conversations: one about respecting human diversity, the other about preserving natural diversity. Unless we merge those conversations, both will be futile. Our efforts to honor human differences cannot succeed apart from our effort to honor the buzzing, blooming, bewildering variety of life of earth. All life rises from the same source, and so does all fellow feeling, whether the fellow moves on two legs or four, on scaly bellies or feathered wings. If we care only for human needs, we betray the land; if we care only for the earth and its wild offspring, we betray our own kind. The profusion of creatures and cultures is the most remarkable fact about our planet, and the study and stewardship of that profusion seems to me our fundamental task."

Bear sculptures by Gene & Rebecca Tobey

The sculptures pictured here are by the New Mexican artists Gene & Rebecca Tobey, who worked for years in a fertile partnership creating scuptures, paintings, and drawings inspired by nature and the mythic symbolism of the North American continent. (The titles of the pieces can be found in the picture captions.) Gene died of leukemia in 2006, but Rebecca carries on their beautiful work. Please visit the Tobey Studios website to see more of their collaborative art, and the Rebecca Tobey website for her current pieces.

The Gift by Gene & Rebecca TobeyThe text quoted today comes from "Voyageurs," an essay in Writing from the Center by Scott Russell Sanders (Indiana University Press, 1997), highly recommended. All rights reserved by the author. 


On the border

Meldon 1

Over these last months, I've been thinking a lot about edge-lands, borders, and liminal spaces, about myths of thresholds, transitions, and transformations. It's a reverie inspired by a number of different things: reading Kith by Jay Griffiths, Common Ground by Rob Cowen, Common as Air by Lewis Hyde, Meadowland by John Lewis-Stempel, and John Hupton's novel The Ballad of John Clare; re-visiting essays by Barry Lopez, Scott Sanders, Sergio Troncoso, Alan Garner and others; and working on a new story for the "Borderland" series -- all while moving through the amiguous edge-world of illness and disability.

This week's posts will focus on edge-lands and borders: physical, spiritual, and metaphorical. I'm not entirely sure where this journey is going to take us; we won't known until we've arrived. But first we must find our way through the borderlands: passing from highways to holloways and street lamps to starlight...wading through "rivers as red as blood" into Faerie...stepping through wardrobes to Narnia and crossing the hilltops to Shangri-La...although we might find the twilight lands on the borders themselves are the most interesting of all.

Meldon 2

Meldon 3

In his book Common Ground (which I highly recommend), Rob Cowen turns a naturalist's eye to a small patch of woodlands and fields usually dismissed as unremarkable: the neglected scrublands on the border of his Yorkshire town, where the regimented streets of housing peter out and the countryside begins.

"For many years," he tells us, "I had sought out and written about the wilderness encountered in more expected places: the rarefied national park, the desolate moor, the distant mountaintop, the sweeping coast, but I'd forgotten there is something deeper about the blurry space surrounding us where humans and nature meet. One word stayed with me: layers. Even before I'd started the process of investigating it in any depth I was aware that this edge-land was a crossing point where countless histories lay buried. There were its human narratives, the records of our long tangling with the land -- colonisation, hunting, farming, war, industry and urbanisation -- but these were only part of the story. Emeshed in every urban edge is also the continuous narrative of the subsistence of nature, pragmatic and prosaic, the million things that survive and even thrive in the fringes. This little patch of common ground was precisely that: common. And all the richer for it."

Meldon 4

Meldon 5

In his provocative essay "The Trouble With Wilderness," William Cronan argues against wilderness preservation, focusing instead on landscape that is not remote and dramatic, nor pristine and untouched by the human hand. While I disagree with Cronan's essay as a whole, I was struck by the following passage:

"When we visit a wilderness area, " he writes, "we find ourselves surrounded by plants and animals and physical landscapes whose otherness compels our attention. In forcing us to acknowledge that they are not of our making, that they have little need or no need of our continued existence, they recall for us a creation far greater than our own. In the wilderness, we need no reminder that a tree has its own reasons for being, quite apart from us. The same is less true in the gardens we plant and tend ourselves: there it is far easier to forget the otherness of the tree. Indeed, one could almost measure wilderness by the extent to which our recognition of its otherness requires a conscious, willed act on our part. The romantic legacy means that wilderness is more a state of mind than a fact of nature, and the state of mind that today most defines wilderness is wonder. The striking power of the wild is that wonder in the face of it requires no act of will, but forces itself upon us -- as an expression of the nonhuman world experienced through the lens of our cultural history -- as proof that ours is not the only presence in the universe.

Meldon 6

"Wilderness gets us into trouble," Cronan continues, "only if we imagine that this experience of wonder and otherness is limited to the remote corners of the planet, or that it somehow depends on pristine landscapes we ourselves do not inhabit. Nothing could be more misleading. The tree in the garden is in reality no less other, no less worthy of our wonder and respect, than the tree in an ancient forest that has never known an ax or saw -- even though the tree in the forest reflects a more intricate web of ecological relationships....Our challenge is to stop thinking of such things according to a set of bipolar moral scales in which the human and nonhuman, the unnatural and the natural, the fallen and unfallen, serve as our conceptual map for understanding and valuing the world. Instead, we need to embrace the full continuum of a natural landscape that is also cultural, in which the city, the suburb, the pastoral and the wild each has its proper place, which we permit ourselves to celebrate without needlessly denigrating the others. We need to honor the Other within and the Other next door as much as we do the exotic Other that lives far away -- a lesson that applies as much to people as it does to (other) natural things."

Meldon 7

Meldon 8

To return to Rob Cowen's insightful and beautiful book:

"Once upon a time the edges were the place we knew best," he writes. "Times were hard and spare but the margins around homesteads, villages and towns sustained us. People grazed livestock and collected deadfall for fuel. Access and usage became enshrined as rights and recognised in law. Pigs trotted through trees during 'pannage' -- the acorn season from Michaelmas to Martinmas -- certain types of game were hunted for the table and heather and fern were cut for bedding. Mushrooms, fruits, and berries. Mushrooms, fruits and berries would be foraged and gathered for winter; honey taken from wild beehives; chestnuts hoarded, ground and stored as flour. The fringes provided playgrounds for kids and illicit bedrooms for lovers. Whether consciously or not, these spaces kept us in time and rooted to the rhythms of land and nature. Feet cloyed with clay, we oriented ourselves by rain and sun, day and night, seasons, the slow spinning of stars.

Meldon 9

"Humans are creatures of habit," Cowen continues; "we all still go to the edges to get perspective, to be sustained and reborn. Recreation is still re-creation after a fashion, only now it occurs in largely virtual worlds. Clouds, hyper-real TV shows, 3D films, multiplayer games, online stores and social media networks -- these are today's areas of common ground, the terrains where people meet, work, hunt, play, learn, fall in love even. Ours is a world growing yet shrinking, connected yet isolated, all-knowing but without knowledge. It is one of breadth, shallowness and endless swimming through cyberspace. All is speed and surface. Digging down deeper into an overlooked patch of ground, one that (in a global sense at least) few people will ever know about and even fewer visit, felt like the antithesis to all of this. And it felt vitally important. You see, I still believe in the importance of edges. Lying just beyond our doors and fences, the emeshed borders where human and nature collide are microcosms of our world at large, an extraordinary, exquisite world that is growing closer to nature every day. These spaces reassert a vital truth: nature isn't just some remote mountain or protected park. It is all around us. It is us."

Meldon 10

Meldon 11

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Common Ground by Rob CowenWords: The passage by Rob Cowen is from the introduction to Common Ground (Hutchinson/Random House, 2015).  The passage by William Cronan is from "The Trouble With Wilderness" (Environmental History, 1995). The passage in the picture captions is from Common as Air: Revolution, Art & Ownership by Lewis Hyde (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2010) -- run your cursor over the photographs to read it. All rights to these texts are reserved by their authors. Pictures: Our own village, Chagford, still has its public commons, which is widely used and cherished. Meldon Hill, pictured here, and the land just below it are on common ground, with the village beyond nestled in a mix of private and public fields.


Myth & Moor update

Terri Windling and hound, photographed by Howard Gayton

I apologize, dear Readers, for taking so long to participate in the discussions in response to last week's posts. I'm still moving rather s-l-o-w-l-y through this period of physical recovery, and I'm having to strictly limit my online time in order to catch up on all the work that I've missed these last few months. I value the discussions John Battenhere a great deal (as well as the extraordinary poems), and I intend to go back and respond properly to it all just as soon as I can. I am reading the comments as they come in, and I'm grateful to all of you who've been keeping the discussion here going.

Tilly is still doing well in her own recovery, and has bounced joyfully back from her operation last month. Today, however, she's on medication for an unrelated infection, so she's moving a little s-l-o-w-l-y this morning too. But as you can see from the photograph above (taken by my husband), we're managing to get outdoors...and that's the best medicine of all. 

Thank you for all your good wishes and prayers over the last weeks and months.

Howard Gayton & hound


Tunes for a Monday Morning

The beauty of folk music, for me, is that it has one foot in the past and one foot in the present, as each generation takes up its traditions and crafts something fresh, something old and new all at once. This week's tunes are all new releases from contemporary folk musicians here in the UK.

Above, the title track from Stone's Throw, a new album by Rachel Taylor-Beales (based in Cardiff, Wales) containing her deeply folkloric song-cycle, "Lament Of The Selkie."

Drawing by Arthur Rackham"I’d been exploring the character and persona of Selkie," she says, "a shape-shifting seal-woman re-imagined from Orkney folklore, as she struggled to live her life on land away from her natural habitat of the ocean. More and more Selkie’s internal turbulence seemed to echo the real life struggles of people, both in the news headlines and that I met personally. These were the stories of refugees and displaced people, far from home with all the loneliness and chaos, grief and loss that comes with enforced migration. In the legends, in order to marry a Selkie woman her sealskin had to be captured while she was in human form, and kept hidden from her lest she find it and take the opportunity to return to her home in the sea. The woman of the legends, taken out of her natural environment, longing for home, misunderstood by those around her that did not understand her culture or her grief and who knew nothing of her life before she lived on land, became synonymous in my mind with these real time stories of refugees of the last few years. The video was filmed by my artist husband, Bill Taylor-Beales, and features Isla Horton, who achingly portrays a displaced mother separated from home and family."

Below, "Hasp" by Stick in the Wheel (based in London), whose new album, From Here, comes out later this month. “We see [traditional] music as part of our culture," says lead singer Nicola Kearey; "we’re not pretending to be chimney sweeps or 17th century dandies. A lot of people are really disconnected from their past, and this is part of what we’re addressing -- getting people to reconnect with it, and realise there are parallels to be drawn from life 100 or 200 years ago. We make this music because we have to.”

Next:

"Mother You Will Rue Me" (audio only) by Ange Hardy. She wrote the song for Esteesee, an album based on the life and work of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), featuring Hardy and other folk musicians. On this track, she's joined by folk veteran Steve Knightley, from Show of Hands.

Samuel ColeridgeHardy explained the genesis of the song in a guest post for Folk Radio UK: "When he was 8 years old Coleridge ran away from home following an argument with his older brother Frank in which Coleridge lunged at him with a knife. Having written a number of songs about my own childhood flight from home there was no way I could ignore this episode of Coleridge’s life.

"After lunging at Frank with a knife, Coleridge’s Mother returned to the room, and fearing he’d be flogged Coleridge fled and hid at the bottom of a hill by the river Otter, reading prayers from a shilling book, hiding beneath a thorn bush and watching the calves in the field. The town crier was called in to rally the search party, and knowing full well the whole of the town was looking for him, Coleridge ended up sleeping in that field all night. In later years Coleridge confessed to thinking with 'inward and gloomy satisfaction' how miserable it must have made his Mother. That’s where the tone of the song came from.

"This song is Coleridge lamenting from beneath a thorn bush, in the cold and the damp. Coleridge wrote in one of his letters 'I felt the cold in my sleep, and dreamt that I was pulling the blanket over me, & actually pulled over me a dry thorn bush, which lay on the hill.' "

And last: 

We return to the theme of refugees in a video released last week by folk singer and songwriter Martha Tilston (from Cornwall), whose fine albums I hope you all know. The song was inspired by the refugee crisis here in Europe, written to raise money for Médecins Sans Frontières.

Speaking of which, there are two book-related sites raising funds for refugees as well, one set up by the Carnegie Medal winning YA writer Patrick Ness, and one by writer & puppeteer Austin Hackney: Writers 4 Refugees. Please help if you can.


Drawing by Arthur Rackham

The fairy tale illustrations above are by Arthur Rackham.


On illness, 4: Emerging from the Forest

Crumbs by Jeanie Tomanek

For the final post in this series on illness, I'd like to look at illness's aftermath: that tricky transition from the slow, deep work of recuperation back to the bustling workaday world, the final part of the fairy tale journey when we emerge from the forest at last. In mythic terms, the end of shamanic initiation is not the ascent from the Underworld, re-born and carrying new knowledge and skills from the spirit realm; it's the return to the tribe and the use of those skills in the service of community.  

"Contact with the mythic realm, and the knowing that that imparts, changes the very being of the initiate," writes Kat Duff (in The Achemy of Illness); "he or she is never the same again. Perhaps that is why so many sick people come to divide their lives in two: before and after getting sick."

Since You've Been Gone by Jeanie Tomanek

Duff continues: "The final phase of initation -- emergence from the underworld, return, and reintegration into the community -- is a very delicate one, for the incessant activity of the mundane world can be painful, even devastatig to the initiate so sensitized by contact with the mythic realm. Many do not make it. Since I have been getting better in recent months, I have dreamed more than once that I am a bear coming out of hibernation, all groggy and clumsy -- and blinded by the light of day; in the first two dreams I just crawled back into my hole.

Beginnings by Jeanie Tomanek"Newly 'hatched' initiates are often protected for a short while , sometimes rocked or suckled like newborns, to help orient them to their new lives. Similarly, people recovering from serious illnesses need a quiet place, a safe haven, where they can gradually recollect themselves and establish a new center of gravity."

I couldn't agree more, and yet our modern society -- obsessed with youth, speed, perfectionist ideals and relentless productivity -- rarely permits the time and practical support for our slow re-orientation to lives that have been profoundly changed by the enormity of what we've just been through.

"Unfortunately," Duff laments, "few of us get that support, as we are pushed by the demands of contemporary living back into the hustle and bustle as soon as we are able. There are debts to be paid, children to be attended to, and jobs that will not wait forever."

In initiatory rites around the world, the initiates return not only schooled in new spiritual knowledge but also carrying sacred gifts, like the tobacco seeds in Tuesday's story. Duff notes that in traditional society these gifts often took the form of new songs or dances. "I suspect," she says, "that these gifts actually ease and ensure a successful reentry by calling forth the body's memory, which is so much more detailed and accurate than words or ideas, of the mythic realities encountered during initiation. Of course, these gifts are also responsibilities; initiates are often required to perform their songs or dances at later dates, for the continued well-being of the community of life. We too need to carry something of what we've experienced back into the world of the living, to remember the dreams, follow the imperatives, or use the powers we have been given by our sojourns in the underworld. That takes courage, clarity of mind, and the willingness to follow one's truth even if others cannot affirm it, especially in our culture, which does not recognize the initiatory role of illness, in fact actively resists it by encouraging us to 'get back to normal.' "

Forget-me-not by Jeanie Tomanek

"If we do not carry what we have learned back into the world," Duff  continues, "we risk getting sick again, for the energies unused can revert into their destructive forms, in what I consider to be one of the hidden cruelties of illness.  It has happened to many people -- including [the great Lakota Sioux medicine man] Black Elk. When Black Elk first received his great vision at the ripe age of nine, he knew it was meant to be shared, but he could not figure out how to do that, and so he did not; eight years later he got sick again and was tormented with fears until finally an old medicine man told him that he must do what his vision wanted him to do -- enact the horse dance for his people to see -- and helped him to do it.

The Return by Jeanie Tomanek"When initiations are successful, the survivors slowly return to their communities with new eyes to see, new ears to hear, and the courage to act upon those perceptions. [After recovering from a heart attack,] Carl Jung went on to do his most important work, explaining that 'the insight I had had, the vision of the end of all things, gave me the courage to undertake new formulations.' [In The Cancer Journals,] poet Audre Lord spoke of feeling 'another kind of power' growing within her, one that was 'tempered and enduring, grounded in the realities of what I am,' with the determination to 'save my life by using my life in the service of what must be done.' Just as girls are 'grown' into women through their puberty initiation rites, many people who have been seriously ill become what they must become, what they are meant to be, whether that occurs through death or recovery."

The Contract by Jeanie Tomanek

"And so, through processes well described by alchemical formulas and initiation rites," Duff concludes, "we are both diminished and enlarged by the agency of our illnesses, and so opened to the possibility of new life. The losses are many and visible; the harvest grain is smaller than the standing stalks, but so much more useful. So Nietzsche observed: 'I doubt that such pain makes us "better"; but I know it makes us more profound...from such abysses, from such severe sickness, one returns newborn, having shed one's skin.' "

The Rising by Jeanie Tomanek

"Cancer changes people," writes Doris Brett (in Eating the Underworld). "It is one of those marker events that delineates a 'before' and 'after' in our lives. It forces us to define and redefine ourselves. And then, because the experience of cancer is an extended process and not a static event, it forces us to do it again and again.

"And it is right that we are changed. As with any descent into a feared and terrifying country -- whether it the country of illness or the country of a grieving heart -- we have entered the underworld. And we have eaten its fruit. I remember all the mythical stories of those frightening journeys, and with each one the rule is inviolate. Those who ingest the food of the underworld are bound to it in some way. It is not the binding of instruments of torture and the roastings of hell. Instead, it is the binding of that terrible, clear sight that can only be gained in the depths. The knowledge of ourselves, the knowledge of others. We cannot remain unchanged."

Eve Does Take Out by Jeanie Tomanek

"The end point of the cancer survivor's narrative," writes Brett at the close of her luminous book, "is inevitably the 'what I learned from cancer' finale. We expect it in the way we expect swelling music as the movie ends. It is more than expectation, it is a need. And we need what is learned to be good: 'I learned how loved I am,' 'I learned I am a survivor.' It is a way of waving away the dark; a way of reassuring ourselves; a way of saying that even though it was hard and punishing, it was worth it. It meets our deep and often unspoken need to complete the story; the familiar bedtime story that tells us that everything will be alright in the end.

Moon of the Long Nights & Kindling by Jeanie Tomanek

"When I began my dance with cancer," Brett admits, "I imagined that this is what I would emerge with. That when it was ended, what I would hold in my hand was the silver lining. I imagined that I would be changed, but that was the point at which my imagination failed. All I could imagine was a better, brighter me -- the steel that is finer for having been tempered in the fire.

"What I learned is very different from what I expected to learn. I have learned that I am loved. I learned it from old friends who stood by me, and new friends who helped in unexpected and touching ways....But I have also learned from others that where I thought I was loved, I was not. I have been attacked when I was most vulnerable. I was deserted by those I thought would gladly stay with me.

Bye Bye by Jeanie Tomanek"I have learned that things turn out well. And that they don't. I have had moments when I thought I would die from the sheer physical beauty of the world. And moments when it merely seemed to mock what was happening to me. I have had wonderful things happen and terrifying things too.

"My journey through cancer was supposed to be a simple one, along the lines of St. George fighting the dragon. Instead, it led me to revelations about the underside, the flawedness, of all things -- myself, my family, my friends, my world. Recognizing and accepting these has required far more courage than facing cancer. It is what I never expected; fought hardest to avoid -- and yet perhaps it has been the truest gift to come out of all of this.

"In many ways, it is hard to live in the real world with its lack of delineations, in inequities, its ambiguities. How do you keep going in the face of uncertainty? Not just the uncertainty of mortality, but the day-to-day slogging on your dreams, unsure they will ever come to fruition; the investment in relationships, unsure of what they will turn out to be; the tender nurturing of hopes, aware they may be shattered; the knowledge that nothing is purely one thing or another.

"But it is only by emerging from the shimmering world of make-believe that we have a chance at finding our true lives -- our strength, and with it, our authentic capacity to love. Because love must be about seeing the shadow as well as the light, otherwise it is merely the love of a fantasy, an image created to soothe the wounds in our soul. And strength must involve recognizing one's own fear and vulnerability, but standing up anyway."

Blessing by Jeanie Tomanek

Though we are talking here about the end of the journey, the "before" and "after" of a serious illness, for many of us there is no clear "after," but, rather, the ups and downs of a recurring condition, or the slow deterioration of a progressive one, or an illness marked "cured" in a medical file that nonetheless leaves one weakened and vulnerable to others, debilitating in their own right. Each flare up, each descent, is another mythic journey, and it rarely gets any easier with repetition or familiarity. But still we go on. We ascend from the depths. We emerge from the forest. We return to the world with tobacco seeds in our pockets, with a new role to play, with new stories to tell.

This one's mine. And Kat Duff's. And Doris Brett's.

It may be your story too. If so, I wish you well. Be safe. Be strong. Perhaps we'll meet somewhere in the dark woods, and we'll find the path out together.

Answered Prayers by Jeanie Tomanek

Words: The long passages quoted above are from Eating the Underworld by Doris Brett (Random House Australia, 2001), and The Alchemy of Illness by Kat Duff (Pantheon, 1993); all rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: The heart-rendingly beautiful paintings above are by Jeanie Tomanek, an America artist based near Atlanta. The titles can be found in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) To learn more about Jeanie's work, visit her website, her Facebook page, or read my article about her here.

A related post on returning to a creative life after illness or trauma: "Re-kinding the Fire Within."