Here in Chagford, surrounded by woodland and moorland, by rain-soaked hills and fields full of flowers and sheep, we tend to live half-a-step removed from the pace and preoccupations of modern life. Time itself moves differently. The lanes to the village are winding and narrow, slowing cars down as they make the approach, or stopping them altogether when sheep, cows or ponies are crowding the road. Village shops are small, service leisurely as neighbors chitchat over the counters (while city folk check their watches impatiently). Internet and mobile phone services don't always work here, and the rest of the world can seem very far away....
But it's not, of course. And when bad news comes relentlessly, as it has this past month, it reaches us here in Brigadoon too. And it has been relentless. The mass shooting of gay citizens in Orlando. The assassination of Labour MP Jo Cox in Yorkshire. The bombing in Turkey. The EU Refendum. The smoldering racism encouraged by self-serving figures like Trump, Farage, and Le Pen. So many people shouting. So few people listening. And the polar ice caps quietly melting away all the while.
I keep "going to ground," and I mean that literally: going out to the woods to find solace and strength, to find calm and clarity. In such times, I believe, we need art more than ever. So I turn to nature, and I turn to stories, for guidance. For insight. For healing.
"A people are as healthy and confident as the stories they tell themselves," says Ben Okri. "Sick storytellers can make nations sick. Without stories we would go mad. Life would lose it’s moorings or orientation....Stories can conquer fear, you know. They can make the heart larger."
"Fiction and poetry are doses, medicines," Jeanette Winterson concurs. "What they heal is the rupture reality makes on the imagination."
Earlier this month, before the world went crazy, I posted these words by Ursula K. Le Guin:
"Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need writers who can remember freedom -- poets, visionaries -- realists of a larger reality.''
I didn't realize those hard times would be quite so soon.
The late, great Lloyd Alexander also spoke about truths best conveyed through magical modes of storytelling. " 'True to life' may not always be true enough," he said. "The difficulty is perhaps in confusing truth with objectivity. By its very nature, art can never be objective. Try as we might, we can't 'tell it like it is.' We can only tell it the way it seems to us. And this, of course, is what we must do -- in realism or in fantasy -- if we hope to create anything of durable value. We have always needed good art to sustain us, to strengthen us, even to console us for being born human. Where better can we learn to see through the eyes of others, to gain compassion, to try to make sense of the world outside ourselves and the world within ourselves?"
"To open our eyes, to see with our inner fire and light, is what saves us," says Chickasaw poet & novelist Linda Hogan. "Even if it makes us vulnerable. Opening the eyes is the job of storytellers, witnesses, and the keepers of accounts. The stories we know and tell are reservoirs of light and fire that brighten and illuminate the darkness of human night, the unseen."
If you, too, are struggling with your creative work during this unsettled time, this is what I advise:
First, do whatever you need to right now to find hózhó (balance), stillness, center ground. Once you've found it, or even a whisper of it, then take a deep breath. Let it out. And begin. No matter what medium you are using to weave new stories, remember that this is good work to be doing. The world needs more light, more beauty, more wonder. More compassion for the Other. More understanding of the darkness.
Together, we'll light a path for those coming after. Breathe deep. And again.
The Ben Okri quote is from his essay collection A Way of Being Free (Phoenix, 1998). The Jeanette Winterson quote is from her memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (Vintage, 2012). The Ursula Le Guin quote is from her National Book Award acceptance speech (November, 2014). The Lloyd Alexander quote is from Innocence & Experience: Essays & Conversations on Children's Literature, edited by Barbara Harrison & Gregory Maguire (Lothrop, Lee & Shepard, 1987). The Linda Hogan quote is from her memoir The Woman Who Watches Over the World (WW Norton, 2001). The poem in the picture captions is from Anam Cara by John O'Donohue (Harper Perennial, 1998). All rights reserved by the authors.