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November 2019

In the gift-giving season

Gifts

Every year about this time I get requests to re-post this piece on gifts and creativity, so here it is....

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 is upon us. Here in "austerity Britain," where work and money are increasingly scarce for those in freelance and arts professions (which are   Bunny Giftsprecarious 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.

I love the spirit of Christmas gift-giving, 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 the 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 come 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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The quotes above are from Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert (Riverhead Books, 2015); "Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What's To Be Said" by C.S. Lewis (The New York Times, November 18, 1956); The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property by Lewis Hyde (Vintage, 1983); Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art by Madeleine L'Engle  (WaterBrook, 2001); a conversation between Terry Tempest Williams, Jocelyn Bartkevicius, and Mary Hussmann (The Iowa Review, Spring 1997); and Touch Magic by Jane Yolen (Philomel, 1981). All rights reserved by the authors. The painting above is my "Bunny Gifts."

Related posts: On the care and feeding of daemons and Knowing the world as a gift, and


Turning Black Friday into a rainbow...

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As "Black Friday" begins the gift-buying season, please consider giving your money to artists, artisans, indie shops and local small businesses instead of low-wage paying, tax-avoiding, book-industry-damaging Amazon (and similar companies). Artists and small local shops make the world a better place, and many depend on holiday sales to keep going the rest of the year.

There are many visual artists, artisans, writers, publishers, musicians, etc. who sell mythic, folkloric, magical, and nature-inspired work online. Please recommend some of your favourites in the Comments below so we can spread the word about their work. If you're an art-maker yourself, please do list your own work. Don't be shy; we want to know about it.

And if you're anywhere near Dartmoor, the annual Winter Artisan Fayre is tomorrow at Endecott House here in Chagford, featuring the work of Virginia Lee, Danielle Barlow, Silverandmoor, and other fine local artists....

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Art above: Embracing the Bear by Virginia Lee and The Wisdom Keeper by Danielle Barlow.


Happy Thanksgiving from Myth & Moor

Fairies feasting by Arthur Rackham

The hound and I wish all our American friends, family members, colleagues and readers a very, very Happy Thanksgiving!

Apple Harvest by Arthur RackhamHere in Devon, the house is quiet. Howard is still away teaching in London, and I'm still down with stomach flu ... but with plenty of books to read, and my sweet hound cuddled close by, there is much to be thankful for.

Little Prayer in November
by Lee Rudolph

That I am alive, I thank
no one in particular;
and yet am thankful, mostly,
although I frame no prayer

but this one: "Creator

Spirit, as you have come,
come again," even in November,
on these short days, fogbound.


Hound in the mist

Leaves in autumn

The poem above is from A Woman and a Man, Ice-Fishing by Lee Rudolph (Texas Review Press, 20015). The passage in the picture captions is from Wild Comfort: The Solace of Nature by Kathleen Dean Moore (Trumpeter Books/Shambhala, 2010). All rights reserved by the authors. The illustrations above are by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939).


The Onondaga Thanksgiving Address

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From Braiding Sweetgrass by author, ethnobotanist, and biologist Robin Wall Kimmerer, of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation:

"Our old farm is within the ancestral homelands of the Onondaga Nation, and their reserve lies a few ridges to the west of my hilltop. There, just like on my side of the ridge, school buses discharge a herd of kids who run even after  the bus monitors bark 'Walk!' But at Onondaga, the flag flying outside the entrance [of the school] is purple and white, depicting the Hiawatha wampum belt, the symbol of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy....Here the school week begins and ends not with the Pledge of Allegiance, but with the Thanksgiving Address, a river of words as old as the people themselves, known more accurately in the Onondaga language as the Words That Come Before All Else. This ancient order of protocol sets gratitude as the highest priority. The gratitude is directed straight to the ones who share their gifts with the world.

"All classes stand together in the atrium, and one grade each week has responsibility for the oratory. Together, in a language older than English, they begin the recitation. It is said that the people were instructed to stand and offer these words whenever they gathered, no matter how many or how few, before anything else was done. In this ritual, their teachers remind them that every day, 'beginning with where our feet touch the earth, we send thanks and greetings to all members of the natural world.' "

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"The Address is, by its very nature of greeting to all who sustain us, long. But it can be done in abbreviated form or in long and loving detail. At the school, it is tailored to the language skills of the children speaking it.

"Part of its power surely rests in the length of time it takes to send greetings and thanks to so many. The listeners reciprocate the gift of the speaker's words with their attention, and by putting their minds into the place where gathered minds meet. You could be passive and just let the words flow by, but each call asks for the response: 'Now our minds are one.' You have to concentrate; you have to give yourself to the listening. It takes effort, especially in a time when we are accustomed to sound bites and immediate gratification.

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"Imagine raising children in a culture in which gratitude is the first priority. Freida Jacques works at the Onondaga Nation School. She is a clan-mother, the school-community liaison, and a generous teacher. She explains to me that the Thanksgiving Address embodies the Onondaga relationship to the world. Each part of Creation is thanked in turn for fulfilling its Creator-given duty to others. 'It reminds you every day that you have enough,' she says. 'More than enough. Everything needed to sustain life is already here. When we do this, every day, it leads us to an outlook of contentment and respect for all of Creation.'

"You can't listen to the Thanksgiving Address without feeling wealthy. And, while expressing gratitude seems innocent enough, it is a revolutionary idea. In a consumer society, contentment is a radical proposition. Recognizing abundance rather than scarcity undermines an economy that thrives by creating unmet desires. Gratitude cultivates an ethic of fullness, but the economy needs emptiness. The Thanksgiving Address reminds you that you already have everything you need. Gratitude doesn't send you out shopping to find satisfaction; it comes as a gift rather than a commodity, subverting the foundation of the whole economy. That's good medicine for land and people alike.

"As Frieda says, 'The Thanksgiving Address is a reminder we cannot hear too often, that we human beings are not in charge of the world, but are subject to the same forces as the rest of life.'

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"For me, the cumulative impact of the Pledge of Allegiance, from my time as a schoolgirl to my adulthood, was the cultivation of cynicism and a sense of the nation's hypocrisy -- not the pride it was mean to instill. As I grew to understand the gifts of the earth, I couldn't understand how 'love of country' could omit recognition of the actual country itself. The only promise it requires is to a flag. What of the promises to each other and to the land?

"What would it be like to be raised on gratitude, to speak to the natural world as a member of a democracy of species, to raise a pledge of interdependence? No declarations of political loyalty are required, just a response to a repeated question, 'Can we agree to be grateful for all that is given?' In the Thanksgiving Address, I hear respect toward all our nonhuman relatives, not one political entity, but all of life.

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"Cultures of gratitude must also be cultures of reciprocity. Each person, human or no, is bound to every other in a reciprocal relationship. Just as all beings have a duty to me, I have a duty to them. If an animal gives his life to feed me, I am in turn bound to support its life. If I receive a stream's gift of pure water, then I am responsible for returning the gift in kind. An integral part of a human's education is to know those duties and how to perform them.

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"The Thanksgiving Address reminds us that duties and gifts are two sides of the same coin. Eagles were given the gift of far sight, so it is their duty to watch over us. Rain fulfills its duty as it falls, because it was given the gift of sustaining life. What is the duty of humans? If gifts and responsibilities are one, then asking, 'What is our responsibility?' is the same as asking 'What is our gift?' It is said that only humans have the capacity of gratitude. That is one of our gifts."

The wording of the Thanksgiving Address varies with the speaker, but you can read well-known version by John Stokes and Kanawahientun here.

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Words: The passage above is from Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer (Milkweed Editions, 2013). The poem in the picture captions is from In Mad Love and War by U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo, of the Mvskoke/Creek Nation (Wesleyan University Press, 1990). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: Dartmoor ponies grazing on the village Commons after the rain.


Myth & Moor update

HJ Ford

I'm out sick today with a bug I picked up in London over the weekend, but hope to be back in the studio very soon. When I return, I'll tell you about my travels -- which were full of music, selkies, and the art and lives of Pre-Raphaelite women.

HS OwenIn the meantime, some recommend reading:

*  Chabon's moving tribute to Ursula K. Le Guin (Paris Review

* C.J. Hauser's sad and beautiful essay "The Crane Wife" (Paris Review)

* Sabrina Orah Mark's "I Am the Tooth Fairy" (Paris Review)

* Nick Holland's "Folklore, Faeries and the Brontë Novels" (on his Anne Brontë blog) 

The art today is "The Princess Carried Off by the Bees" by Henry Justice Ford (published in Andrew Lang's Green Fairy Book, 1892), and an illustration for the Grimms fairy tale The Robber Bridegroom by H.S. Owen (published by Blackie & Sons in 1922). The latter book is a wonderful thing, full of rats in traditional Japanese dress for no apparent reason....