Tunes for a Monday Morning
A writer's pledge

Home is Imaginary: the power of imagination

Woodland gate

This week has a dark significance: it is the time of year, statistically, when the most suicides take place; and the majority of those suicides are related to depression.

Depression is on a sharp rise in the West, increasingly afflicting our young people -- and young men in particular. Several conversations with friends this last week have centered on what we -- as writers, as artists, as members of geographic and artistic communities -- can do to support younger generations to grow into lives that are mentally healthy, balanced, grounded in values beyond the marketplace, and connected to the physical, natural world, to the numinous, and to each other.

Art plays a role in this, of course, for the imagery we put out into the world helps to shape it, for good or for ill..and each of us is responsible for our small part in the collective creation.

Through the leaves

Here are some useful thoughts on the subject from an essay by Ursula K. Le Guin:

"Young human beings need exercises in imagination as they need exercise in all the basic skills of life, bodily and mental: for growth, for health, for compentence, for joy. This need continues as long as the mind is alive.

"When children are taught to learn the central literature of their people, or, in literate cultures, to read and understand it, their imagination is getting a very large part of the exercise it needs.

Leaf and moss

"Nothing else does quite as much for most people, not even the other arts. We are a wordy species. Words are the wings both intellect and imagination fly on. Music, dance, visual arts, crafts of all kinds, all are central to human development and well-being, and no art or skill is ever useless learning; but to train the mind to take off from immediate reality and return to it with new understanding and new strength, nothing quite equals poem and story.

"Through story, every culture defines itself and teaches its children how to be people and members of their people -- Hmong, !Kung, Hopi, Quechua, French, Californian....We are those who arrived at the Fourth World.... We are Joan's nation.... We are sons of the Sun.... We came from the sea.... We are people who live at the center of the world.

Rock hound 1

"A people that doesn't live at the center of the world, as defined and described by its poets and storytellers, is in a bad way. The center of the world is where you live fully, where you know how things are done rightly, done well.

"A child who does not know where the center is -- where home is, what home is -- that child is in a very bad way.

Rock hound 2

"Home isn't Mom and Dad and Sis and Bud. Home isn't where they have to let you in. It's not a place at all. Home is imaginary.

"Home, imagined, comes to be. It is real, realer than any other place, but you can't get to it unless your people show you how to imagine it -- whoever your people are. They may not be your relatives. They may never have spoken your language. They may have been dead for a thousand years. They may be nothing but words printed on paper, ghosts of voices, shadows of minds. But they can guide you home. They are your human community.

Through the leaves again

"All of us have to learn how to invent our lives, make them up, imagine them. We need to be taught these skills; we need guides to show us how. Without them, our lives get made up for us by other people....What a child needs, what we all need, is to find some other people who have imagined life along lines that make sense to us and allow us freedom, and listen to them. Not hear passively, but listen.

"Listening is an act of community, which takes space, time, and silence.

"Reading is an act of listening."


The quote above is from "The Operating Instructions," an essay I recommend reading in full. You'll find it in Le Guin's latest collection, Words Are My Matter: Writings About Life & Books, 2000-2016 (Small Beer Press, 2016).

Related reading:

* Danuta Kean's recent article "Library cuts harm young people's mental health services" (The Guardian, January 13, 2017)

* Jane Yolen on the value of fantasy in "Children, reading and Tough Magic" (Myth & Moor, August 26, 2016)

* My own thoughts about early storybooks in "The stories we need" (Myth & Moor, February 25, 2016)

* Jay Griffiths on children and nature: "In the forest, the child. In the child, the forest" (Myth & Moor, June 11, 2015).

On the hillside

Words Are My MatterThe text above is from "The Operating Instructions," a talk given at a meeting of Oregon Literary Arts in 2002, and reprinted in Words Are My Matter (Small Beer Press, 2016). All rights reserved by the author.


The words today went straight to my heart, across the sea and the miles and I think it spoke to me. Thank you for the article and I will be reading more of Ursula K. Le Guin on this subject.

On the subject of depression, I do believe that many young people feel displaced within their community. I do a lot of listening to young people in the role of a Counsellor and this would be my findings. Also, at times it appears as if their souls have disappeared. These are sad times, but one always needs an open heart to assist.

Yes, this definitely strikes a chord, so very thought-provoking. "A child who does not know where the center is -- where home is, what home is -- that child is in a very bad way"...yes. That applies to anyone whose cultural narrative feels empty, there is no meaningful CENTER to it. What is the central literature of America? Some might say, the Bill of Rights. Others might say the Bible. Do these narratives call to us, hold us together, or separate us? We are on our own to make sense of it, or sometimes come to the despairing conclusion that it does not make sense. Or maybe we go out into the trees, and feel at home on the earth.

I think that children and teenagers, like adults, have become disconnected to nature, the outdoors, moving and being. Part of the being is being connected to art as well. I know that I have been feeling as if I am not outdoors enough (although it is winter in Vermont).

"When children are taught to learn the central literature of their people, or, in literate cultures, to read and understand it, their imagination is getting a very large part of the exercise it needs."

And yet, the central literature of the people must be more than watching the people fail, lose, crumble away. Do you know what books I remember from my schooling, so long ago? "The Pearl," "The Great Gatsby," "Of Mice and Men," "The Scarlet Letter," "A Separate Peace," "Julius Caesar," "Examination Day," "Harrison Bergeron," etc. Works of art? Yes, certainly. But in my memory of them, the central works of my people, which I was told to read as a child and a teen, tell me I will fail no matter what I do. I don't remember a single one that had a joyful or triumphant ending. Those I got from television and from most F&SF stories, both sources of which were denigrated by my elders as being time-wasters.

I wonder what they're teaching kids in school THESE days.

oh, yes, YES.

so many people today, especially young ones, remind me of cut flowers---bereft of their roots, their kin, their ground of being...

It looks like what kids learn in school is tech, tech and more tech. I have heard they do not write with pen or pencil any more. They just tap.

For UK citizens/residents, there is a petition asking the government to develop a GCSE in Natural History, which is a damn good idea. If you'd like to sign it, go here:

(For Americans: What these means, very roughly, is that Natural History would be taught as a certified course at the high school level.)

I agree about the pricelessness of the written word. Stories can be read and re-read forever. Books are shared and passed on through generations or among friends. But storytelling is older than writ. I grew up listening to family members telling the same stories my great grandparents learned and passed on. Visitors told stories each time they visited my grandmother after church, when the house was filled with her children, grands and great-grands. Myths and legends were as thrilling as true adventures and mysteries.

Oral traditions still exist in our large family but only among the gray heads at family reunions. Sometimes I miss those stories more than I miss the old Golden Books of childhood. I grew up reading Aesop's Fables in lieu of tales of fairies and dragons, trolls and witches. Children I know read less and play violent games whose story lines focus on random kills rather than morals or lessons. It doesn't take much imagination to shoot enemies. Who tells fresh modern stories these days? Who are the storytellers? I sorely miss Reading Rainbow.

Your words make me sad because they are too true. However. I heard a father ask a bookseller for "Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day." Dad explained how his son loved the book and wanted to buy any sequels if they existed. My heart did a happy beat!

Such a troubled world we are passing to our young folk. I'm so glad there are people like you to sit and listen.

It is hard to imagine a single, central story for America, for as a nation we are so diverse.

I love this passage by Rebecca Solnit (from Storming the Gates of Paradise: Landscapes for Politics):

"A year ago I was at a dinner in Amsterdam when the question came up of whether each of us loved his or her country. The German shuddered, the Dutch were equivocal, the Brit said he was 'comfortable' with Britain, the expatriate American said no. And I said yes. Driving now across the arid lands, the red lands, I wondered what it was I loved. The places, the sagebrush basins, the rivers digging themselves deep canyons through arid lands, the incomparable cloud formations of summer monsoons, the way the underside of clouds turns the same blue as the underside of a great blue heron's wings when the storm is about to break.

"Beyond that, for anything you can say about the United States, you can also say the opposite: we're rootless except we're also the Hopi, who haven't moved in several centuries; we're violent except we're also the Franciscans nonviolently resisting nucelar weapons out here; we're consumers except the West is studded with visionary environmentalists...and the landscape of the West seems like the stage on which such dramas are played out, a space without boundaries, in which anything can be realized, a moral ground, out here where your shadow can stretch hundreds of feet just before sunset, where you loom large, and lonely.”

From an article by UK poet & scholar Ruth Padel:

"What would Robin Hood have made of Country Life's recent excavation into the fantasies of British 7-to-14-year-olds concerning the wild life and wild places of their native land? Two thirds had no idea where acorns come from, most had never heard of gamekeepers (do they mug people or protect the Pokemons?), and most believed there were elephants and lions running round the English countryside. A third did not know why you had to keep gates shut — was it to keep the elephants in (or was some joker taking the piss just then?), or stop cows 'sitting on cars,' upsetting the countryside's most vital beast — the traffic?"

More from Padel on the subject here:

Sara Maitland writes in Gossip from the Forest:

"The whole tradition of [oral] story telling is endangered by modern technology. Although telling stories is a very fundamental human attribute, to the extent that psychiatry now often treats 'narrative loss' -- the inability to construct a story of one's own life -- as a loss of identity or 'personhood,' it is not natural but an art form -- you have to learn to tell stories. The well-meaning mother is constantly frustrated by the inability of her child to answer questions like 'What did you do today?' (to which the answer is usually a muttered 'nothing' -- but the 'nothing' is cover for 'I don't know how to tell a good story about it, how to impose a story shape on the events'). To tell stories, you have to hear stories and you have to have an audience to hear the stories you tell. Oral story telling is economically unproductive -- there is no marketable product; it is out with the laws of patents and copyright; it cannot easily be commodified; it is a skill without monetary value. And above all, it is an activity requiring leisure -- the oral tradition stands squarely against a modern work ethic....Traditional fairy stories, like all oral traditions, need the sort of time that isn't money.

"The deep connect between the forests and the core stories has been lost; fairy stories and forests have been moved into different catagories and, isolated, both are at risk of disappearing, misunderstood and culturally undervalued, 'useless' in the sense of 'financially unprofitable.' "

Fortunately there are people out there championing the cause of oral storytelling (David Abram, Martin Shaw, etc.). Not enough of them, not nearly enough, but I'm grateful for the work they do.

Terri: This is a beautiful piece. I don't know if you remember me, but we met once many years ago in Tucson (in 2000 or 2001) when I first arrived in town.

I stumbled upon this post in the random-yet-not-random way the mind and the internet both work. It was uncanny timing. Hope all is well.


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