I was feeling a little low in spirit this morning, the headlines continuing to get me down, but then I turned around and saw this. Every studio needs a clown.
This has been a deeply unsettling week, a time of change and transition in our family life, while the horrors of the headlines throw shadows over all, even here on a hillside in Devon.
As artists, when we step through the studio door we must leave the world and its worries behind in order to center ourselves in our work...but what do we do during times like these when trouble clings to our skirt like burrs and each day's news is a song of despair? When the shadows loom large, and the work of words and paint seems small, even trivial, in their presence? How to we free ourselves from the numbing paralysis of cultural despair, and find the spark of vitality, creativity, and hope that will keep us going?
As always, I turn for guidance to those who have walked such paths before -- if not this path precisely, then parallel paths through the dark of the woods. And sometimes what they offer is not a map that leads quickly and easily out, but a deeper understanding of the woodland itself.
"By honoring our despair," writes ecologist Joanna Macy, "and not trying to suppress it or pave over it as some personal pathology, we open a gateway into our full vitality and to our connection with all of life. Beneath what I call our 'pain for the world,' which includes sorrow and outrage and dread, is the instinct for the preservation of life. When we are unafraid of the suffering of our world, and brave enough to sustain the gaze and speak out, there is a redemptive sanity at work.
"The other side of that pain for our world is a love for our world. That love is bigger than you would ever guess from what our consumer society conditions us to want. It's a love so raw, so ancient, so deep that if you get in touch with it, you can just ride it; you can just be there and it doesn't matter. Then nothing can stop you. But to get to that, you have to stop being afraid of hurting. The price of reaching that is tears and outrage, because the tears and the power to keep on going, they come from the same source."
The transformation of despair into hope is alchemical work, creative work. And what all transformations have in common, writes Rebecca Solnit, is that they begin in the imagination.
"To hope is to gamble," she says. "It's to bet on the future, on your desires, on the possibility that an open heart and uncertainty are better than gloom and safety. To hope is dangerous, and yet it is the opposite of fear, for to live is to risk. I say all this to you because hope is not like a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. I say this because hope is an ax you break down doors with in an emergency; because hope should shove you out the door, because it will take everything you have to steer the future away from endless war, from annihilation of the earth's treasures and the grinding down of the poor and marginal. Hope just means another world might be possible, not promised, not guaranteed. Hope calls for action; action is impossible without hope."
Words and paints are small things indeed compared to the shadows that gather around us. But they are what I have, and what I will use. Once again, I choose hope.
And the obligation to act that comes with it.
The Joanna Macy quote above is from "Women Reimagining the World" (in Moonrise, edited by Nina Simons, 2010); the Rebecca Solnit quote is from her book Hope in the Dark (2004). The poem in the picture captions is an excerpt from "What the Light Teaches" by Anne Michaels, published in her collection Poems (Bloomsbury, 2000); I highly recommend reading it in full. All rights reserved by the authors.
Today, I just want to be reminded that the world holds light and beauty as well as darkness...
Above: "Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis" by English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958), performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Andrew Davis, in Gloucester Cathedral in 2012. This is the same cathedral where the piece debuted in 1910, in a performance conducted by Vaughn Williams himself.
Below: "Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten," by the great Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. It's performed here by the Radio Filharmonisch Orkest in Hilversum, the Netherlands. The conductor is James Gaffigan.
Above: "Dream in White on White" by the Pulitzer-Prize-winning American composer John Luther Adams, who is based in Alaska. Most of Adams' work is inspired by nature and this piece is no exception, described as "a sweeping musical landscape in the acoustically perfect tones of Pythagorean diatonic tuning, evoking the treeless, windswept expanses of western Alaska." It's performed here by the Virtuoso String Orchestra, conducted by Joaquin Valdepeñas.
Below: "Further Foundation," by American composer Rachel Grimes, who is based in Kentucky. The piece is on her gorgeous new album, The Clearing (2015), performed here by Grimes on piano, Scott Moore on violin, Christian Frederickson on viola, and John Duncan on Saxophone.
To end a week reflecting on social/environmental/political concerns in the making of art and the writing of fantasy, I'd like to turn to the words of Ursula K. Le Guin, who has been walking this ground for many years, and building masterworks upon it.
From "A Few Words to a Young Writer":
"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."
"To make something well is to give yourself to it, to seek wholeness, to follow spirit. To learn to make something well can take your whole life."
From her National Book Award acceptance speech, November 2014:
''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.''
Go here for a podcast in which Ursula discusses language, writing, and the new, updated edition of Steering the Craft.
"In 1997, I was asked by the Orion Society to lead a conversation at the colloquium in honor of Gary Snyder when he received the John Hay Award for his writing and activism. My assignment was to address the question, Does activism compromise one's art? The question was very American, as Snyder pointed out. In [continental] Europe and Asia, an artist is a public person -- seeing the responsibility to use some of his or her skills on behalf of society. I answered the question by saying, Yes, of course compromise occurs. The work of activism exhausts us and makes us grieve; it takes us from our studios; it makes us scholars, negotiators, combatants, administrators, and business heads when we would prefer to be makers, dreamers, healers, and dancers. And if art is made to serve our activism, it can lose its elemental engagement with the unknown; its freedom to be outrageous, obscure, absurd, and wild; its need to speak the truth as it cannot be spoken in political discourse.
"Asking this question is like asking, Does culture compromise nature? Does love compromise solitude? Does eating compromise prayer? Does the mountain compromise the sky? All of these are relationships of complementarity, correspondence, call-and-response, the mutualistic whole of existence.
"Gathering in Snyder's home place, listening to stories of the Yuba Watershed Institute and the building of the Ring-of-Bone Zendo, and celebrating the poet's work provided a lesson in how radical an act it is in this culture to live a life devoted to something other than capitalism. Yes, we all participate in it. Yes, we are all complicit in environmental degradation and overconsumption simply because of our position in the global food chain. But we can make life choices that nuture more meaningful and sustainable relationships. To live a life devoted to art, to spiritual practice, to service to one's community and ecosystem, restores faith in our collective human enterprise. Work on the culture is work on the self.
"Art can serve activism by teaching an attentiveness to existence and by enriching the culture in which our roots are set down. Culture is both the crop we grow and the soil in which we grow it. And human culture is the most powerful evolutionary force on Earth these days. The grief we feel at abuses of human power is the first positive step at transforming that power for the good. Legislation, information, and instruction cannot effect change at this emotional level -- though they play a significant role. Art is necessary because it gives us a new way of thinking and speaking, shows us what we are and what we have been blind to, and gives us new language and forms in which to see ourselves. To effect profound cultural change requires that we educate ourselves about our own interior wildness that has led us into such a hostile relationship with the forces that sustain us. Work on the self is work on the culture."
The images in this post are by Canadian artist Kristin Bjornerud, who was born in Alberta, studied at the Universities of Lethbridge and Saskatchewan, and is now based in Montreal.
"My watercolour and gouache paintings," she writes, "explore contemporary political themes, ecological motifs, and personal narratives through the lens of folktales, dreams, and magical realism. In these delicately painted tableaus, a world is revealed wherein dream logic pervades, where women swim with narwhals and vivify hand-knit fauna. These eccentric landscapes are uncanny projections of a possible world where familiar activities are imbued with a mythic quality while, at the same time, extraordinary deeds are carried out with unruffled poise by proud, unconventional heroines.
"My aim is to create contemporary fairy tales that act as a medium through which we may consider our ethical obligations to the natural world and to each other. Retelling and reshaping stories helps us to understand how we are entangled, where we meet, and how our differences may be viewed as disguises of our sameness."
The passage by Alison Hawthorne Deming above is from Writing the Sacred Into the Real (The Credo Series, Milkweed Editions, 20010. All rights to the text and imagery above reserved by the author and artist. A previous post on Writing the Sacred Into the Real: "Lines for Winter."