Tunes for a Monday Morning
Gracious Acceptance

Gift exchange (and the making of art)

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I've been thinking a lot about gifts lately, in all the various meanings of the word -- prompted, of course, by the season of holiday gift-giving that has just passed. Here in "Austerity Britain," where work and money are increasingly scarce for those in freelance and arts professions (which are precarious even at the best of times), a truly frightening number of people are struggling just to put food on the table and keep the lights on overhead. And then comes Christmas, with its lovely old traditions but overwhelming modern expectations; with its roots planted in the good soil of family, community, folklore, and sacred stories, but its leaves unfurled in the toxic air of commercialism and over-consumption.

Some of us cherish the holiday; some of us simply cope with it and then sigh with relief when it's all over; some of us re-shape it into something more nurturing and reflective of our own ideals; some of us turn our backs on it altogether; and some of us weren't raised with Christmas at all, but simply watch while the rest of the Western world goes crazy for a few weeks every year. At Bumblehill, we celebrate Winter Solstice and Yule rather than Christmas, and focus on feasting and doing things together as a family. Our gift-giving is the simple (but loving) act of distributing little packages of home-made kiffles: each cookie filled with the talk and laughter we share in the long day it takes to make them all.

I love the act of gift-giving (at any time of year), but not the commercial pressure to shop and spend, especially in these lean financial times when life is hard, even desperate, for so many. I also prefer to view gift-exchange as a daily part of life, not something confined to holidays. We gift each other with meals prepared, with gardens tended, with the chores that keep a household running, with kindness, patience, care, attention...a constant giving-and-receiving that starts at home and extends into the world through friendship, community, and activism.

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Making art is a form of gift-giving, made wondrous by the way that some of our creations move outward far beyond our ken, gifting recipients we do not know, will never meet, and sometimes could never imagine. And I, in turn, have received great gifts from writers, painters, musicians, dramatists and others who will never know of my existence either, and yet their words, images, or ideas, coming to me at the right time, have literally saved me.

The paradox inherent in making art, of course, is that it's an act involving both giving and receiving. Like breathing, it requires both, the inhalation and the exhalation. We receive the gift of inspiration (inhale), give it shape and form and pass it on (exhale).

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 The word "gift" itself is commonly used to describe artistic talent: she's a gifted cellist, he's a gifted poet. But where does that "gift" of inspiration comes from? In semi-secular modernity, we tend to be politely vague about such things -- but in her book Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert has an unusual answer to the question:

"I should explain," she says, "at this point that I've spent my entire life in devotion to creativity, and along the way I've developed a set of beliefs about how it works -- and how to work with it -- that is entirely and unapologetically based upon magical thinking. And when I refer to magic here, I mean it literally. Like, in the Hogwarts sense. I am referring to the supernatural, the mystical, the inexplicable, the surreal, the divine, the transcendent, the otherworldly. Because the truth is, I believe that creativity is a force of enchantment -- not entirely human in its origins....

"I believe that our planet is inhabited not only by animals and plants and bacteria and viruses, but also by ideas. Ideas are a dis-embodied, energetic life-form. They are completely separate from us, but capable of interacting with us -- albeit strangely. Ideas have no material body, but they do have consciousness, and they most certainly have will. Ideas are driven by a single impulse: to be made manifest. And the only way an idea can be made manifest in our world is through collaboration with a human partner. It is only through a human's efforts that an idea can be escorted out of the ether and into the material world."

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Rationalists will scoff at Gilbert's words, but there's enough mysticism in my own beliefs that her concept of creativity doesn't seem so very far-fetched to me; indeed, my only quibble with the paragraph above is that I'm not entirely convinced that those ideas necessarily require a human partner. (Perhaps animals and others with whom we share the planet have art forms of their own that we don't yet perceive.)

A little later in the book, Gilbert writes about creative work in terms that even the rationalists among us might recognize: "Most of my writing life, to be perfectly honest, is not freaky, old-time, voodoo-style Big Magic. Most of my writing life consists of nothing more than unglamorous, disciplined labor. I sit at my desk, and I work like a farmer, and that's how it gets done. Most of it is not fairy dust in the least.

"But sometimes it is fairy dust. Sometimes, when I'm in the midst of writing, I feel like I'm suddenly walking on one of those moving sidewalks you find in an airport terminal; I still have a long slog to my gate, and my baggage is still heavy, but I can feel myself being gently propelled by some exterior force. Something is carrying me along -- something powerful and generous -- and that something is decidedly not me....

"I only rarely experience this feeling, but it's the most magnificent sensation imaginable when it arrives. I don't think there is a more perfect happiness to be found in life than this state, except perhaps falling in love. In ancient Greek, the word for the highest degree of human happiness is eudaimonia, which basically means 'well-daemoned' -- that is, nicely taken care of by some external divine creative spirit guide."

(We've discussed the Greco-Roman idea of "creative daemons" in a previous post. Go here if you'd like to know more.)

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C.S. Lewis, writing from a Christian perspective, also noted the mystical quality of creative inspiration:

"In the Author’s mind there bubbles up every now and then the material for a story. For me it invariably begins with mental pictures. This ferment leads to nothing unless it is accompanied with the longing for a Form: verse or prose, short story, novel, play or what not.  When these two things click you have the Author’s impulse complete. It is now a thing inside him pawing to get out. He longs to see that bubbling stuff pouring  into that Form as  the housewife longs to see the new jam pouring into the clean jam jar. This nags him all day long and gets in the way of his work and his sleep and his meals. It’s like being in love."

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"The artist's gift refines the materials of perception or intuition that have been bestowed upon him," says Lewis Hyde in his masterful book on the subject, The Gift: Creativity & the Artist in the Modern World. "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."

Madeleine L'Engle was of a similar mind. In Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith & Art she wrote: "'We, and I think I'm speaking for many writers, don't know what it is that sometimes comes to make our books alive. All we can do is write dutifully and day after day, every day, giving our work the very best of what we are capable. I don't think that we can consciously put the magic in; it doesn't work that way. When the magic comes, it's a gift.''

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“If," L'Engle added, "the work comes to the artist and says, 'Here I am, serve me,' then the job of the artist, great or small, is to serve. The amount of the artist's talent is not what it is about. Jean Rhys said to an interviewer in the Paris Review, 'Listen to me. All of writing is a huge lake. There are great rivers that feed the lake, like Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. And there are mere trickles, like Jean Rhys. All that matters is feeding the lake. I don't matter. The lake matters. You must keep feeding the lake.' "

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"One of the things we continue to learn from Native Peoples," says Terry Tempest Williams, "is that stories are our medicine bundles. I feel that way about our essays, our poems, our fictions. That it is the artist who carries the burden of the storyteller. Terrence Des Pres speaks of a prose witness that relies on the imagination to respond to the world as we see it, feel it, and dare to ask the questions that will not let us sleep. Imagination. Attention to details. Making the connections. Art -- right words to station the mind and hold the heart ready."

The gift of paying attention, of witnessing others' lives and passing the "medicine" of their stories, our stories, from generation to generation is the particular gift required of us as artists. Not only of us, but especially of us; in whatever artform we chose to work in.

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Jane Yolen puts it most succinctly. "Touch magic," she says, "and pass it on."

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Comments

Such a generous gift, Terri! Thank you.


“In ancient Greek, the word for the highest degree of human happiness is eudaimonia, which basically means 'well-daemoned'”—Elizabeth Gilbert


Well-Daemoned

At my desk, the drawers of my mind
open and shut, but not at my will.
Those little imps of imagination,
swing on the pulls, and stories
spill out onto the page.

The hard work after is mine,
but that pulsing waterfall
of first ideas, subtle connections,
uncomplicated by worries
of publication or the stages

of happiness, grief, find
their way past the high water wall
of my reluctance. That contagion
of ideas infects me and I hurry
out of the writer’s cage

into the dawn of the tale.


©2016 Jane Yolen all rights reserved

Ah, Jane. How stirring and perfect. Thank you! And Terri, this is another brilliant column with which I heartily concur. A gift from both of you, indeed. Much love, and may 2016 be good to you both.

Thanks, MaryAnn--and as a musician, did you catch the subtle off rhyme scheme? That was fun.

Jane

Thank you Terri. I needed this today. I've always had the notion that ideas exist outside the self. The collective unconcious, the Platonian ideals, these concepts seem quite real to me. There are days I struggle with each word, but then those rare times when I touch that magic arrive and I am unable to write fast enough. I've watched Gilbert's TED talk on creative genius more than once. Daemons make a sort of sense to me. Mine is male. He is a night creature who likes to dance by candlelight. He is tempermental, jealous, and frustrated with my inability to stay focussed, but he is all mine and always has been. And that is a gift of the best and worst kind.

Wonderful, and the hidden quotes were especially good for me today! Thanks.

"Touch magic and pass it on"
brilliantly put Jane and thank you Terri for this post with all these wonderful writers who have put into words what the rest of us can only feel catching a glimpse from the corner of the eye

Lovely :). That moment - time - of inspiration is magical, yes. I always feel taken out of myself then.

And I've realised another reason why I like this blog so much - unlike many others, it is more about 'being' than 'doing'.

Hi Jane

Brilliant and enchanting! I love the way you characterize the process of creativity and inspiration. "Those little imps of imagination" are clever, tricky and so finely skilled. I can feel and relate to this poem's content. I know what it is to feel a certain outer force pushing me to write, to create, to melt down my reluctance. Thank you for putting it into words and for giving it a poetic breath!

Loved this!
Wendy

Hi Terri

What a wonderful and beautiful article you have presented today! I can relate to inspiration/creativity as being a gift from some outer force that endears itself to the human mind and heart. Call it a muse, a ghost, a spirit guide... whatever, it exists in my mind and I have felt it propel me forth in certain instances of the creative process. The photos ,too, are beautiful and show how the landscape is its own map of nature's creative decoration and originality.

Personally, I feel that a mother or mentor often gives us child/student the gift of support, confidence and inspiration. My mother was a storyteller/poet in her right and always instilled in me a love for literature and folklore. But as guardian and teacher, she prayed that I would always seek clarity and be renewed by its
discovery and knowledge. She also taught me to always hope and reawaken to light after a period of darkness or trauma. These were incredible gifts that came from her experience and heart. So here is a poem about her and the blessings she brought me.


Marion's Song

You were born in the damp
light of November
when the sun's wick burns
for less hours, half-snuffed
by cloud or mist.

Yet, something flickered
strong and intense
within your house of bone.
Your rib a harp,
your skull a lamp
where language rose
and radiated
throughout your soul.

The song first became
the need for a child,
then a daughter born
and then breath praying
for her to assume
the roots of a willow
always seeking water,
the wings of a robin,
always returning to Spring.
_______________________________
Again, thank you for these wonderful photos and thoughts!
They have infused my day with inspiration an light!

I love the idea of continuous gifting rather than sectioning it off just for the holidays. That was actually a great struggle for me this holiday season, so it was very refreshing to read your words on it. Thank you, Terri.

"Give humble respect to each of the wise people of the gift, for honour is due them." (from The Book of the O'Connor Don, an Irish text translated by Caitlin Matthews, in her book The Celtic Spirit) How serendipitous that I read the January 5th entry of Ms. Matthews' book, The Celtic Spirit this morning, then read your M&M blog for today.
Thank you for your freely shared gifts Terri, and thank you all aos dana ('artists,' Irish), for your gifts shared here in the comments today too. :)

All of this is so perfect and wonderful. Thank you. It really did feel like a gift received to read it.

Exactly! Thank you!

Exquisite, true, inspiring, such a generous, nourishing gift, Terri. Thank you.

I so agree, Valerianna. Unwrapping them just continued the reception of gifts on a wet Salish early morning.

such a wonderful post about inspiration and gifts.
it is a joy to consider how we receive and express that which comes to us.

Thank you for sharing these wonderful thoughts and ways.

Dear Terri,

You alluded to times when the gifts of other artist have literally saved you. Without a doubt, you and the gifts you share have been this to me in dark times. Thank you.

Thank you for being such a faithful (and generous!) "begging bowl". Thank you for your gifts.

Much peace, love, and light to you and yours.

Those last four lines are a miracle. Thanks.

Jane

all i can say is "WOO HOO"!
oh, and thanks.

Yes. And as far animal creativity; what do the different species discuss when they gather together? what, for example, does a Chatter of Choughs talk about? Or for that matter a parliament of owls or an unkindness of ravens? Perhaps there's more on their collective agendas than just the old perennials of where to find food and mates; I personally think that ravens would be telling the tale of Beowulf, or at least the avian version thereof!

I love your little imps of imagination! A great poem, with a *gorgeous* last line. Thank you, Jane.

Such a kind thing to say, Sooz. Thank you.

Once again you and Jane have stunned me with your poems, your deft use of language and imagery. You both make it seem so easy! (And for me it's not, which is why writing poetry is so rare for me.)

Your mother sounds like a remarkable woman, and this is a truly fine tribute to her.

Caitlin is a wise woman indeed. (She and her husband John are no strangers to Chagford, having worked with various folks here over the years.) Thank you for that beautiful quote, Cathi.

These are good questions...and perhaps we'll find the answers in one of your fine novels one day?

Thank you, everyone, for the gift of your words, all the kindness, poetry, and discussion here.

Howard and I send love to you & Charles from rainy, misty Dartmoor. I hope it's not too, too much longer before we see each other again, dear friend.

That's an intriguing idea, Terri! I like the idea of a novel about ravens...one at least would have to be called Odin, and there'd be two helpers called Huginn and Muninn (what else?!). Now all I have to do is convince my agent and try not to listen to any doubts I may have about anthropomorphism.

'into the dawn of the tale.' Like that. Another good one, Jane.

Dear Terri and Jane

Thank you both so much for your kind and lovely comments regarding this poem. I deeply appreciate them! My mother is a remarkable woman and has been resilient and tenacious through many hard challenges in her life. She was also very loving and supportive. An example I can only hope to follow. And that , is a very hard thing to achieve. Anyway, writing for me is always a challenge and pieces sometimes get tossed before they are even finished. But during the creative process, something of elation happens along with the struggle and I prevail. For each person, the process is unique and different. But I do feel an idea, a source of inspiration is an entity, spirit or force of its own, dis-embodied from the mind.

Again
Thank you both
So much!!

Take care
Wendy

Ah! "past the the high water wall of my reluctance". Thank you so much for all you are and have gifted this world, Jane Yolen. You are wonderful.

Oh Wendy. What a beautiful tribute to your mother. So moving. "Your skull a lamp" was the moment I forgot to breathe. Blessings to you at the new year. Thank you for all your many gifts.

Terri, this post moved me to the best kind of tears. The holidays can be difficult indeed, but your bright wisdom and the art you make when you weave these quotes and images together is, as you said, what quite literally saves me. Thank you. "We should always be ready. We should always be humble." A beautiful prayer for the New Year from Okri. I know we've never met, but I'm grateful for you, your life, your community, and your work. May Creativity bless you this year in whatever shape she takes.

Thank you Terri, Myth & Moor is a wonderful gift. I am always inspired by the words, pictures and music you share with us and your links have introduced me to other artists and writers so your gift becomes even greater. Indeed I followed a link to your world at Bumblehill and I now look forward to visiting and going for walks with you and Tilly, receiving words of wisdom and beautiful thoughts along the way.
I am not a writer but have resolved to leave a comment for the first time today to let you know that your writing is loved and appreciated.
I wish you a happy, healthy and peaceful 2016.

Hi Edith

Your kind words and thoughts are so deeply appreciated!!
Thank you so much and many blessings to you and your family with the forthcoming year!

Take care,
Wendy

My soul soaked this up! It was so needed right now. Thank you for the gift!

How true. The dawn of the tale is indeed mysterious and a wonder. For those of us who had this road given to us, our acceptation makes us more alive, more close to something pure and available, if you have the guts to honor it.

"House of bone, your rip a harp, your scull a lamp"...zoomed directly to my heart. Strange connection. My charming charmed mother who gave me all the tools for the gift, was Marian and born in November.

Late, Late, Late

Late, late late
Said the rabbit
I too followed him
Half awake, dizzy
In the tumble
My mother narrated,
Did she know this gift
Would span me out
To places, wonders,
Crazy and the magic,
The magic, the magic...

Imagination was my perfume,
My silk and velvet, my taste
For apples and words,
My ears given music and
Hidden places of words
Where I found light and
also shadows...my skin
Shivering and spiced
With ancient potions,
The gift swallowed,
In the strange tracks
Of the other mind, inside
Life in it's mumbling,
Stumbling wrong to
Right, to write what
Surrounds something
Stirred, something
From a beautiful woman
Who opened doors
Both small and wide.

Wow Phyllis!

That is indeed quite the coincidence!! But mothers are remarkable and when they give you the gift of not only life but storytelling, hope and inspiration, it is so blessed, magical!!

Thank you for these kind words and for sharing your personal connection.

Take care,
Wendy

She has an entire book on the daimon, which I heartily recommend.

Hi Phyllis

Magical and so beautifully told of this woman who was your guardian mentor and nurturer. I love the opening and how the rabbit leads into this idea of entering the secret dug-out of imagination, the wonderland of ideas, stories and dreams. The language and details enchant and show the reverence you have for the gifts she passed on to you --
inside
Life in it's mumbling,
Stumbling wrong to
Right, to write what
Surrounds something
Stirred, something
From a beautiful woman
Who opened doors
Both small and wide.

I know exactly what you mean about the opening of those doors, they were always waiting to be unlocked. Mothers are the chatelaines and when we're ready, they give us the keys.

Beauiful!
Wendy

I ENJOYED reading all of this so much It is inspiring.

Oh thank you, Wendy. I had no time to see Myth and Moor, or anything else, either. So thank you again, for returning to see more. It poured out so easily after Jane and your poems;
They too opened a door I might have missed.

And the fact that I first read your poem on my own mother's birthday is a nice bit of serendipity. She died in 2001, and I light a candle for her every year on January 6.

Thank you, Edith. And I hope we do meet, one of these days....

Thank you for these kind words, Gilly. Tilly and I wish you a wonderful 2016 too. (She is cuddled up beside me as I write this!)

We're all thinking of our mothers today, how marvellous.

I love this:

"Imagination was my perfume,
My silk and velvet, my taste
For apples and words,
My ears given music and
Hidden places of words
Where I found light and
also shadows..."

My own mother was a gentle but sad and troubled woman, struggling with a mental illness no one understood back then (bipolar disease) and with giving birth to me as an uwed teenage mother...so her gifts to me were both dark and bright. I'm old enough now to understand and have compassion for the dark ones, and to truly value the bright ones.

Very grateful for everyone's words here. Thank you.

Mine is wild, raggedy, shy, barefoot, and androgynous.

The muse, on the otherhand, is for me a decidedly female creature. I painted her some years ago, and still have the painting in my studio -- despite twice being offered good money for it (at times when I really could have used that money) because selling your muse is surely not a good idea!

This is the painting:
http://www.terriwindling.com/photos/animal_tales/muse2.html

Terri

Thank you so much for sharing that experience. Lighting candles is a beautiful gesture, it keeps a spiritual flame burning in memory but also it lights, in my view, the inbetween, the aisle between here and now, past and present, life and death. Bless you and your mother!!


Again, thank you!
Wendy

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