Guest Post: Tenderness, the Breaker of Curses
Something we once knew

Creating a tolerable world

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Anaïs Nin was born to Cuban parents in France, raised in Europe, Cuba and the U.S., and then settled in Paris after her marriage, establishing herself in its lively arts community of the '20s & '30s. By the summer of '39, however, facism was rising, war was approaching, and the French government was urging foreign nationals to get out of the country while they still could. Nin followed her American husband to New York, heart-broken at losing the city she loved, worried sick about friends and family she was leaving behind. Fourteen years later, having emerged from the world-wide trauma of the war years, she wrote the following words in her diary:

"Why one writes is a question I can answer easily, having so often asked it of myself. I believe one writes because one has to create a world in which one can live. I could not live in any of the worlds offered to me -- the world of my parents, the world of war, the world of politics. I had to create a world of my own, like a climate, a country, an atmosphere in which I could breathe, reign, and recreate myself when destroyed by living. That, I believe, is the reason for every work of art.

"The artist knows the world is a subjective creation, that there is a choice to be made, a selection of elements. It is a materialization, an incarnation of his inner world. Then he hopes to attract others into it, he hopes to impose this particular vision and share it with others. When the second stage is not reached, the brave artist continues nevertheless. The few moments of communion with the world are worth the pain, for it is a world for others, a gift for others, in the end. When you make a world tolerable for yourself, you make the world tolerable for others."

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It has been one week since the U.S. election, and the country has taken a fearsome turn for those of us who value civility, decency, diversity, and the norms of democracy. I keep hearing the same question from friends and colleagues in the Mythic Arts field: How can I simply return to my work? Making art can seem like a frivolous pursuit compared to the urgent news of the day; to the need for action and activism, as opposed to the quiet withdrawal from the world upon which creative work often depends.

I have two thoughts about this. First, that art is not frivolous. As Jeannette Winterson states so eloquently:

"Naked I came into the world, but brush strokes cover me, language raises me, music rhythms me. Art is my rod and my staff, my resting place and shield, and not mine only, for art leaves nobody out. Even those from whom art has been stolen away by tyranny, by poverty, begin to make it again. If the arts did not exist, at every moment, someone would begin to create them, in song, out of dust and mud, and although the artifacts might be destroyed, the energy that creates them is not destroyed. If, in the comfortable West, we have chosen to treat such energies with scepticism and contempt, then so much the worse for us."

Or as Ursula Le Guin said in her National Book Award acceptance speech in 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."

And how right she was.

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My second thought is that, yes, we are in a period of cultural crisis -- and in such times, each of us must decide where our energy and resources can best be employed. For some, this may mean postponing personal projects in order to throw oneself fully into activism as a matter of urgency. The brilliant young writer Laurie Penny, for example, tweeted this last week:

"I'd planned to scale back the full-time political writing to do more fiction. That nice life plan is now in the bin. That's okay. Game on."

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For others, full-time activism is not a practical option, nor is it the best deployment of our time and our gifts. I'll use myself as an example here. I was widely politically active in my younger years, but in late middle-age I'm contrained by health issues, by family responsibilities, and by the paucity of "spoons" I have to distribute among competing priorities each day. Within these constraints, the best use of my time is to focus on the things I'm designed by my nature to do: to write, to paint, to create "beauty in a broken world" (to use Terry Tempest William's evocative phrase), and perhaps lift the spirits of those who are on the Front Lines, doing the hard physical work I can no longer do.

I do not think this task is a lesser one. My job is to tell stories, in words and in paint -- and stories, well-told, are not trivial things. Stories teach. Challenge. Console. Refresh. They examine the world, and re-imagine the world. They remind us of what courage looks like, and hope. They explain us to each other. They explain us to ourselves. They feed us. Heal us. Confound us, and shake us out of despair or complacency. They light the way through the dark of the forest, bring us home on a path of breadcrumbs and stones. Telling stories is meaningful work, even now. Especially now. Game on.

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I don't mean to say it's a binary choice: going out into the world in the form of activism or turning inward to create works of art. We can do both, of course, and many of the artists I admire most throughout history have blended the two. How do we do this? With "sacred rage," Terry Tempest Williams advises, and an open and active heart:

"I don’t think there is anything as powerful as an active heart. And the activists I know possess this powerful beating heart of change. They do not fear the wisdom of emotion, but embody it. They know how to listen. They are polite when they need to be and unyielding when necessary. They remain open, even as they push boundaries and inhabit the margins, understanding eventually, the margins will move toward the center. They are tenacious, informed, patient, and impatient, at once. They do not shy away from what is difficult. They refuse to accept the unacceptable. The most effective activists I know are in love with the world. A good activist builds community.

"I used to ask the question, 'Am I an activist or a writer?' I don’t ask that anymore. I am simply a human being engaged."

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May we all be "human beings engaged" with the world around us, in one way or another. Loudly or softly, on the streets or at the desk...whichever way suits each of us best. We need it all right now. We need the urgent political conversations...but also the quiet discussions of books and art, folklore and myth, for they serve to keep our hearts open, receptive and responsive. To remind us of what we're fighting for. And to honor what's soft, and deep, and nuanced at a time when the dominant discourse is too often hard, and shallow, and simplistic.

"All kinds of activism will be needed in the coming months and years," says Laurie Penny. "Including the quiet, gentle activism of quiet, gentle people."

Myth & Moor is a safe haven for the quiet and gentle....

Art by Charles Robinson

But if you're loud and compassionate, you are welcome here too.

Nattadon 8The passage by Anaïs Nin is from The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Volume 5, 1947-1955 (Harcourt, 1975). The passage by Jeanette Winterson is from Art Objects (Vintage, 1966). The two quotes by Laurie Penny are from her Twitter page. The quote by Terry Tempest Williams is from an interview by Devon Fredericksen (Guenerica, August 2013). The poem in the picture captions is from What to Remember When Waking by David Whyte (Sounds True, 2010). All rights reserved by the authors. The drawing is by Charles Robinson (1870-1937).

Comments

Today is my birthday, I am an old woman with that lean number of 'spoons' true for me as well. But, in this last year of the exquisite 60's I have imagined a world held together with safety pins a legacy passed to me by my Ma, the Safety Queen Goddess. I picked up a lonely safety on the post office floor one day in winter that only a duck could love ... some years ago now. The pin turned common magic into medicine stories filled with characters, circumstance and bridgework for a robust future. And it seems my Ma has been busy with all the other mothers filling us with artistic enrage-ment over there where you are Terri, and where I am. Safety pins are showing up everywhere.http://thesafetypincafe.blogspot.com/2016/11/safety-pins-for-solidarity.html

Art, writing, imagining made manifest it's what counts. And yes, the game continues!

Thanks so much Terri for making the quiet and gentle as well as the noisy welcome here.

Thankyou Terri. I love the quote from Jeanette Winterson! Without turning my back on the world, never that, I need to work and work with a good conscience, and this post helps.

Work well, friends.

:)

thank you. your quotation choices are always so exactly what i need.

Thank you so much for this. I have been struggling myself with the question of how I return to the work of my natural instinct - quiet work, small stories - but you have given me such heart here. And by doing so you have also given me space to remember that, when sitting with someone who is hurting, I tell them quiet soulful reflective stories, or the old magical stories, the healing tales. Why I forgot even for one moment that this kind of gentleness wasn't absolutely powerful, I don't know. So thank you deeply for the reminder. <3

Thank you so much. I have been unable to work, feeling that it is worthless in the world we are now in, because I can't make what I do fit with how I feel. But you offer hope that I can try and lift the spirits.

I also love that you begin Anais Nin's diary. I love the quote, have been spurred to reserve that volume from our wonderful local library, and so appreciate the Cuban birth connection. For recently I have found great meaning in Cuban solidarity; and of course, the theme of Anais and Arthur Miller letters weaves throughout your novel Wood Wife a book I consider soul food to be read often, and more so when in pain. Connections, reconnections.

soul on deck shining with deep heart & fierce love

I can't say better: thank you Terri for posting this.

Thank you, Terri, for reminding me of those quotes from Jeanette Winterson and Ursula Le Guin—quotes I am familiar with, but that are so relevant to these troubled times. It's always difficult to know what direction to go in, especially when there are only a small number of 'spoons' available to me, but to know that making art, in my own small way, is just as important as activism is heartening. It helps me redirect my energy to what I can do, and that it is enough.

This is my gift to you (though I didn't write it, it led me through a dark night of the soul and to new hope and peace): http://charleseisenstein.net/hategriefandanewstory/

Terri: Another voice of thanks for sharing this. I am often fascinated by the root origins of words and how much their meanings shift through time, and one word that would be appropriate here is 'sacrifice'. In modern dictionaries the word sacrifice is associated with slaughter, surrender or giving up of something held dear or valuable in order to offer it to a deity or some greater force - even a cause. People are often told today that they need to make sacrifices, to tighten their belts, to fight the good fight. I'm with Mother Teresa here, who proclaimed that she wouldn't attend an anti-war rally but to let her know about a pro-peace one. Seth once said, "A generation that hates war cannot bring about peace. Only a generation that loves peace can do that."

The word sacrifice actually comes from two root words, collectively meaning to 'make sacred'. If you go back far enough in time, rather than having people trying to propitiate their gods by offering sacrifices, what you find instead are stories of the deity being separated in order to make the whole. To sidestep and use a scientific analogy, consider the idea of the Big Bang, the beginning of the Universe as being the sacrifice of a single entity breaking apart in order to become everything we know (and more). The whole still exists; now it exists as a multitudinous whole rather than a single entity.

To move forward I think we need to sacrifice ourselves and our ideas (ideals) in the same way - not giving them up in hope that by willing to do with less we might curry the gods' favour, but sacrificing in terms of spreading ourselves apart so that our love, our healing and our desire for peace becomes a part of every breath, every movement. It's the difference between having a light go out in the world and having light go out into the world.

Tbere will be those who aren't interested in walking this path. That's okay. A part of sacrifice, of opening ourselves to Love means accepting them for who they are.

My 2¢

Hugs,
Mike.

P.S. This fits in here too:

http://womenofwondercircle.com/eulogy/

Hugs,
M&M

Game on, indeed, Terri! Well put. And I am rolling my sleeves up and getting back to work.

First came shock, then a plunge to within,
then a widening out after slow digestion and a great deal of thought. I'm HERE, in line, on point and ready.
No longer the passionate young marcher,
fence climbing, boundary breaking revolutionary.
No longer naively assuming that I/We can heal this wound
or turn back time. But here nonetheless,
fully here with my most important abilities in tact
--feeling, caring, listening and understanding--
with some gifts to share and a few tricks up my sleeves,
tempered by the wisdom of personal experience.

Thank you for a beautiful reminder that we don't have to be 'either/or'. We can be 'and' as long as we are true to ourselves and each other. The US needs this so much right now. I do too. Myth and Moor is a safe haven to be sure. Thank you for guarding and guiding this space with such wisdom. Much love to you and yours.

Also, your pictures today feel deeply emotional to me. I think the second one is my favorite. Makes me think of Van Gogh and the somber beauty in so much of his work.

Thank you, Terri.

Thank you for these supportive words, everyone. It's good to have community in these troubled times.

You are offfering both a refuge and a cauldron for transformation and I'm very grateful for that.

This is so perfect, and your words have freed me from the sense of guilt I've felt all week. During the week of the election I allowed myself to speak up about my outrage and my fear, but my health, which is compromised by chronic adrenal fatigue, demanded I let it go, and I've spent the last three days in bed working on my next book. I've loved your blog since the day I found it, but now it has become a refuge for me and for others who need gentleness in order to meet whatever we are facing in the days to come. Thank you.

Thank you, Terri, for reminding us that we can all contribute, even if our gift currently is not building the barricades. We can all save and share information...we can all share hope.

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