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December 2019

Following the bear

The White Bear King by Theodor Kittelsen

As the old year ends, and a new one begins, and the grey winter months roll on and on, I find myself think of bears -- and of something Terry Tempest Williams once said about bears as symbols of life held in balance.

For Williams, the bear embodies "opposing views, that we can be both fierce and compassionate at once. The bear is above ground in spring and summer and below ground, hibernating, in fall and winter -- and she emerges with young by her side. I think that's a wonderful model for us, particularly as women. And it's one I've tried to adopt." 

Ice Bear by Jackie Morris

She goes on to explain that she divides her years into halves. From April Fool's Day to The Day of the Dead (November 1st), she lives a public life as a writer and activist, doing any traveling or public speaking or teaching during these months. From The Day of the Dead until April Fool's Day, however, she stays at home -- to spend time with her family; to write; to live within the rhythms of her creativity. The bear, she suggests, "offers us a model of how one lives with that paradox, of public and private life, of a creative life as well as a life of obligation."

Photograph by Katerina Plotnikova

Williams also addresses this theme in her essay "Undressing the Bear," pointing out that the she-bear has two sides her nature: both fierce and maternal, wild and nurturing. In mythic terms, this oppositional duality held in instinctive balance is the point.

Photograph by Katerina Plotnikova

"If we choose to follow the bear," she writes, "we will be saved from a distracted and domesticated life. The bear becomes our mentor. We must journey out, so that we might journey in. The bear mother enters the earth before snowfall and dreams herself through winter, emerging with young by her side. She not only survives the barren months, she gives birth. She is the caretaker of the unseen world. As a writer and a woman with obligations to both family and community, I have tried to adopt this ritual of balancing public and private life. We are at home in the deserts and mountains, as well as in our dens. Above ground in the abundance of spring and summer, I am available. Below ground in the deepening of autumn and winter, I am not. I need hibernation in order to create."

Dream Basket by Susan Seddon Boulet

In Women Who Run With the Wolves, psychologist and storyteller Clarissa Pinkola Estés notes the age-old connection of women and bears in the mythic traditions of many different lands. "To the ancients," she writes, "bears symbolized resurrection. The creature goes to for a long time, its heartbeat decreases to almost nothing. The male often impregnates the female right before hibernation, but miraculously, egg and sperm do not unite right away. They float separately in her uterine broth until much later. Near the end of hibernation, the egg and sperm unite and cell division begins, so that the cubs will be born in the spring when the mother is awakening, just in time to care for and teach her new offspring. Not only by reason of awakening from hibernation as though from death, but much more so because the she-bear awakens with new young, this creature is a profound metaphor for our lives, for return and increase coming from something that seemed deadened.

Brown bear and cubs

Bear Mother by Jackie Morris

"The bear is associated with many huntress Goddesses: Artemis and Diana in Greece and Rome, and Muerte and Hecoteptl, mud women deities in the Latina cultures. These Goddesses bestowed upon women the power of tracking, knowing, 'digging out' the psychic aspects of all things. To the Japanese the bear is the symbol of loyalty, wisdom, and strength. In northern Japan where the Ainu tribe lives, the bear is one who can talk to God directly and bring messages back for humans. The cresent moon bear is considered a sacred being, one who was given the white mark on his throat by the Buddhist Goddess Kwan-Yin, whose emblem is the crescent moon. Kwan-Yin is the Goddess of Deep Compassion and the bear is her emissary.

The Snow Maiden by Edmund Dulac

"In the psyche, the bear can be understood as the ability to regulate one's life, especially one's feeling life. Bearish power is the ability to move in cycles, be fully alert, or quiet down into a hibernative sleep that renews one's energy for the next cycle. The bear image teaches that it is possible to maintain a kind of pressure gauge for one's emotional life, and most especially that one can be fierce and generous at the same time. One can be reticent and valuable. One can protect one's territory, make one's boundaries clear, shake the sky if need be, yet be available, accessible, engendering all the same."

Father Bear Comes Home by Maurice Sendak and Bear Dancer by Susan Seddon Boulet

Bear scuptures by Gene Tobey

Though Williams and Estés are focused on women and women's issues in the passages above, the oppositional nature of bear symbology is useful to all artists, men and women alike, who struggle to balance their public and private selves, and the often-conflicting demands of family life, community engagement, and creative work. To be available to others, while protecting time to be available only to ourselves and our muse...is this not the dilemma that all creative artists (if we're not complete monsters of self-importance or self-effacement) face again and again?

Bearskin by Trina Schart Hyman and East of the Sun, West of the Moon by Liga Klavina

And even when we are alone in the studio, the symbol of the mythic bear and cyclical hibernation is a useful one. As a culture, we tend to prize action, accomplishment, and public expression over stillness, retreat, and quiet reflection -- but creativity needs all parts of the cycle: the taking in, the pause, the putting back out. Art is born in the movement between them, the mythic rhythm at the heartbeat of our lives.

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The winter months have always been a challenge for me. I love sunshine, dry weather and warmth (the hotter the better), and for many years I avoided the cold by wintering in the Arizona desert -- where bears roamed above us on the mountain peaks, but did not venture down to the heat of the valley.

By living full-time on Dartmoor now,  however, I am learning to appreciate winter's stark gifts: it slows me down, turns my thoughts inward, keeps me closer to hearth and home, strengthening the introverted side of my nature, without which I couldn't write or paint. I am learning at last to follow the bear; to trust in the process of hibernation and gestation. I am learning patience. Slowness. Stillness.

All things have their season. And spring always comes.

Sleeping bear by Marc Simont

Bear stories

It's a good time of year to be reading about bears -- in fiction, nonfiction, poetry and myth. The bearish tales above are three of my favourites, along with Margo Lanagan's Tender Morsals, Judith Berman's Bear Daughter, and Marion Engle's strange but compelling Bear. What are some of yours...?

She Kissed the Bear on the Nose by John Bauer

Pictures: The bear art above is by Theodore Kittelsen, Jackie Morris, Katerina Plotnikova, Susan Seddon Boulet, Edmund Dulac, Maurice Sendak, Gene Tobey, Līga Kļaviņa, Trina Schart Hyman, John Bauer and Marc Simont. Titles and artist credits can be found in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) All rights reserved by the artists.

Words: The passages quoted above are from A Voice in the Wilderness: Conversations with Terry Tempest Williams by Michael Austin (Utah State University Press, 2006); "Undressing the Bear," published in An Unspoken Hunger: Stories from the Field by Terry Tempest Williams (Vintage, 1994); and Women Who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estés (Ballentine, 1992). All rights reserved by the authors.


Tunes for a Monday Morning

Embraced by the Bear by Virginia Lee

Today, music for the turning of the year....

Above: "The Bear Song" by Lady Maisery (Hannah James, Rowan Rheingans, Hazel Askew), with Jimmy Aldridge and Sid Goldsmith. I love this song, which is from their new album, Awake Arise (2019). The whole album is superb.

Below: "The King," also from Awake Arise. This song is the traditional blessing of the "wrenboys" on St. Stephen's Day (December 26). You can read more about this old folk practice here.

Above: "Banks of Inverurie," a wintry performance of a traditional Scottish ballad from Iona Fyfe. "The Banks of Inverurie echoes the form and structure of the American folksong, The Lakes of Pontchartrain," notes the singer. "The definite origins of the song remain unknown, but it is thought that it originated in Scotland and was brought to America by soldiers fighting for the British army in Louisiana and Canada in 1812. It could be argued that Aberdeenshire is the source region of the localised song, by its inclusion in Greig-Duncan and the song being set on the banks of the River Ury." The song can be found on Fyfe's lovely album Away From My Window (2018).

Below: "Vinterfolk" performed by The String Sisters during a recording session in the Shetland Islands. The String Sisters are: Annbjørg Lien (Norway), Catriona Macdonald (Shetland), Emma Härdelin (Sweden), Liz Carroll (U.S.), Liz Knowles (U.S.) abd Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh (Ireland) -- accompained by Tore Bruvoll on guitar, Dave Milligan on piano, Conrad Molleson on bass, and James Mackintosh on percussion. The song, written by Tore Bruvoll, appeared on their album Between Wind And Water (2017).

Above: "Ca' the Yowes" performed by Band of Burns from their fine new album The Thread. You'll find more of their music in this previous post.

Below: "The Parting Glass" performed by Scottish singer Emily Smith, from her seasonal album Songs for Christmas (2016). More information on this old Scottish ballad can be found here.

Time Out by Virginia Lee

The wonderful, wonderful art today is "Embraced by the Bear" and "Time Out" by my friend and village neighbour Virginia Lee. To see more her work, go here.


The Folklore of Winter

Santa Claus by Arthur Rackham

I'm been asked to re-post this piece on the tales and folk customs of winter holiday season. Happy holidays from all of us at Bumblehill and Myth & Moor....

A cold wind howls, stripping leaves off of the trees, and the pathways through the hills are laced with frost. It's time to admit that winter is truly here, and it's here to stay. But Howard keeps the old Rayburn stove in the kitchen well fed, so our wind-battered little house at the edge of the village is cozy and warm. Our Solstice decorations are up, and tonight I'll make a second batch of kiffles: the Christmas cookies passed on through generations of women in my mother's Pennsylvania Dutch family...carried now to England and passed on to our daughter, who may one day pass it to children of her own.

Mexican Santos on kitchen mantle,
and the Rayburn stove pumping out its warmth.

My personal tradition is to talk to those women of the past generations as I roll out the kiffle dough and cut, fill, roll, and shape each cookie: to my mother, grandmother, and old great-aunts (all of whom have passed on now)...and further back, to the women in the family line that I never knew.

Shaping the kiffles

Finished kiffles

Kiffles are a labor-intensive process (as so many of those fine old recipes were), so I have plenty of time to tell the Grandmothers news and stories of the year gone by. This annual ritual centers me in time, place, lineage, and history; it keeps my world turning through the seasons, as all storytelling is said to do. Indeed, in some traditions there are stories that can only be told in the wintertime.

Breakfast table during the dark days of winter

Here in Devon, there are certain "piskie" tales told only in the winter months -- after the harvest is safely gathered in and the faery rites of Samhain have passed. In previous centuries, throughout the countryside families and neighbors gathered around the hearthfire during the long, dark hours of the winter season, Jack Frost by Arthur Rackhamgossiping and telling stories as they labored by candle, lamp, and firelight. The "women's work" of carding, spinning, and sewing was once so entwined with storytelling that Old Mother Goose was commonly pictured by the hearth, distaff in hand.

In the Celtic region of Brittany, the season for storytelling begins in November (the Black Month of Toussaint), goes on through December (the Very Black Month), and ends at Christmas. (A.S. Byatt, you may recall, drew on this tradition in her wonderful novel Possession.) In early America, some of the Puritan groups which forbade the "idle gossip" of storytelling relaxed these restraints at the dark of the year, from which comes a tradition of religious and miracle tales of a uniquely American stamp: Old World folktales transplanted to the New and given a thin Christian gloss. Among a number of the different Native American nations across the continent, winter is also considered the appropriate time for certain modes of storytelling: a time when long myth cycles are told and learned and passed through the generations. Trickster stories are among the tales believed to hasten the coming of spring. Among many tribes, Coyote stories must only be told in the dark winter months; at any other time, such tales risk offending this trickster, or drawing his capricious attention.

Winter Wood by Arthur Rackham

In myth cycles to be found around the globe, the death of the year in winter was echoed by the death and rebirth of the Winter King (also called the Sun King, or Year King), a consort of the Great Goddess Fairy Linkmen Carrying Winter Cherries by Arthur Rackham(representing the earth's fertility) in her local guise. The rebirth or resurrection of her consort (representing the sun, sky, or quickening winds) not only brought light back to the world, turning the seasons from winter to spring, but also marked a time of new beginnings, cleansing the soul of sins and sicknesses accumulated in the twelve months passed. Solstice celebrations of the ancient world included the carnival revels of Roman Saturnalia (December 17-24), the Anglo-Saxon vigil of The Night of the Mother to renew the earth's fertility (December 24th), the Yule feasts of the Norse honoring the One-Eyed God and the spirits of the dead (December 25), the Persian Mithric festival called The Birthday of the Unconquered Sun (December 25th), and the more recent Christian holiday of Christmas, marking the birth of the Lord of Light (December 25th).

Stockings Were Hung by the Chimney With Care by Arthur Rackham

Many symbols we associate with Christmas today actually come from older ceremonies of the Solstice season. Mistletoe, holly, and ivy, for instance, were gathered in their magical potency by moonlight on Winter Solstice Eve, then used throughout the year in Celtic, Baltic and Germanic rites. The decoration of evergreen trees can be found in a number of older traditions: in rituals staged in decorated pine groves (the pinea silvea) of the Great Goddess; in the Roman custom of dedicating a pine tree to Attis on Winter Solstice Day; and in the candlelit trees of Norse Yule celebrations, honoring Frey and Freyja in their aspects of Hunter, Huntress, and Protectors of Forests. The Yule Log is a direct descendant from Norse and Anglo-Saxon rites; and caroling, pageantry, mummers plays, eating plum puddings, and exchanging gifts are all elements of Solstice celebrations handed down from the pre-Christian world.

Even the story of the virgin birth of a Divine, Heroic or Sacrificial Son is not a uniquely Christian legend, but one found in cultures all around the globe -- from the myths of Asia, Africa and old Europe to Native American tales. In ancient Syria, for example, a feast on the 25th of December celebrated the Nativity of the Sun; at midnight the sun was born in the form of a child to the Virgin Queen of Heaven, an aspect of the the goddess Astarte.

The Night Before Christmas by Arthur Rackham

Likewise, it is interesting to note that the date chosen for New Year's Day in the Western world is a relatively modern invention. When Julius Caesar revised the Roman calendar in 46 BC, he chose January 1 -- following the riotous celebrations of Saturnalia -- as the official beginning of the year. Early Christians condemned the date as pagan, tied to licentious practices, and much of Europe resisted the Julian calendar until the Strawberries in the Snow by Arthur RackhamGregorian reforms in the 16th century; instead, they celebrated New Year's Day on the 25th of December, the 21st of March, or various other dates. (England first adopted January 1 as New Year's Day in 1752).

The Chinese, Jewish, Wiccan and other calendars use different dates as the start of the year, and do not, of course, count their years from the date of Christ's birth. Yet such is the power of ritual and myth that January 1st is now a potent date to us, a demarcation line drawn between the familiar past and the unknowable future. Whatever calendar you use, the transition from one year into the next is the traditional time to take stock of one's life -- to say goodbye to all that has passed and prepare for a new life ahead.  The Year King is symbolically slain, the sun departs, and the natural world goes dark. Rituals, dances, pageants, and spiritual vigils are enacted in lands around the world to propitiate the sun's return and keep the great wheel of the seasons rolling.

The Dance of Winter and Gnomes by Arthur Rackham

The Snow Queen by Charles Robinson

Special foods are eaten on New Year's Day to ensure fertility, luck, wealth, and joy in the year to come: pancakes in France, rice cakes in Ceylon, new grains in India, and cake shaped as boar in Estonia and Sweden, among many others. In my family, we ate the last of those scrumptious kiffles...if they'd managed to last that long. They could not, by tradition, be made again before December of the following year, and so the last bite was always a little sad (and especially delicious). The Christmas tree and decorations were taken down on New Year's Day, and the house was thoroughly cleaned and swept: this was another Pennsylvania Dutch custom, brushing out any bad luck lingering from the year behind, making way for good luck to come.

May you have a lovely winter holiday, in whatever tradition you celebrate, full of all the magic of home and hearth, of oven and table, and of the wild wood beyond.

Gerda and the Reindeer by Edmund Dulac

Winter in Kensington Garden by Arthur Rackham

The Night Before Christmas by Arthur Rackham

The paintings above are by three great artists of the Golden Age of Book illustration: Arthur Rackham (1867-1939), Edmund Dulac (1882-1953), and Charles Robinson (1870-1937). You'll find titles in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) I recommend a related article by Derek Johnstone, published in The Conversation: "Why Ghosts Haunt England at Christmas But Steer Clear of America." Also, don't miss "Father Christmas: A New Tale of the North," a perfectly magical story by Charles Vess.


Tunes for a Tuesday Morning

Cathedral Dreams by Virginia Lee

My apologies for the paucity of posts in the last week; a combination of work, health issues, and holiday preparations seemed to have swallowed up all my time. I'm a day late, but here's music to kick off the week: folk carols, new Christmas ballads, and interesting renditions of traditional tunes.

Above: "Up the Morning Early/The Christmas Road" by Lady Maisery (Hannah James, Rowan Rheingans, Hazel Askew), with Jimmy Aldridge and Sid Goldsmith, from their absolutely gorgeous new album, Awake Arise (2019).

Below: "We Shall Sing All Merrily," from the same album.

Above: "Christmas is Merry" by Yorkshire singer/songwriter Kate Rusby. The song comes appears on her lovely new Christmas album Holly Head (2019)

Below: "The Holly King" by Kate Rusby, from the same album.

Above: "At the Time of Year," a new Christmas single by Scottish singer/songwriter Siobhan Miller.

Below: "The Wexford Carol," a new Christmas single by Aizle, a folk band based in Manchester, with Irish-born singer and flautist Ríoghnach Connolly.

Below: I'll end, as I often do, with my favourite Christmas video: a wacky (and very pagan) rendition of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" by the great Annie Lennox.

The exquisite art today is by my friend and village neighbour Virginia Lee: "Catherdal Dreams," a portrait of Exeter Cathedral (Exeter is our closest city), and the magic winter's vision of "The Deer's Domain."

The Deer's Domain by Virginia Lee


By the Light of the Moon and Stars

John Bauer

"The world rests in the night," writes John O'Donohue. "Trees, mountains, fields, and faces are released from the prison of shape and the burden of exposure. Each thing creeps back into its own nature within the shelter of the dark. Darkness is the ancient womb. Night-time is womb-time. Our souls come out to play...." 

Remedios Varo

"Sometimes, when you're deep in the countryside, you meet three girls, walking along the hill tracks in the dusk, spinning. They each have a spindle, and on to these they are spinning their wool, milk-white, like the moonlight. In fact, it is the moonlight, the moon itself, which is why they don't carry a distaff. They're not Fates, or anything terrible; they don't affect the lives of men; all they have to do is to see that the world gets its hours of darkness, and they do this by spinning the moon down out of the sky. Night after night, you can see the moon getting less and less, the ball of light waning, while it grown on the spindles of the maidens. Then, at length, the moon is gone, and the world has darkness, and rest." 

- Mary Stewart (The Moonspinners)

Presently by Jeanie Tomanek

Catherine Hyde

"Night falls. Or has fallen. Why is it that night falls, instead of rising, like the dawn? Yet if you look east, at sunset, you can see night rising, not falling; darkness lifting into the sky, up from the horizon, like a black sun behind cloud cover. Like smoke from an unseen fire, a line of fire just below the horizon, brushfire or a burning city. Maybe night falls because it’s heavy, a thick curtain pulled up over the eyes. A wool blanket." 

- Margaret Atwood (A Handmaid's Tale)

Edmund Dulac

Virginia Lee

Titania Sleeping by Arthur Rackham

Adrienne Segur

"Night does not show things, it suggests them. It disturbes and surprises us with its strangeness. It liberates forces within us which are dominated by our reason during the daytime." 

- Brassaï (Gyula Halász)

The Fisherman Stops to Listen (from ''The Nightingale'') by Edmund Dulac.jpg

Murmur of Pearls by Gina Litherland

"The message of the lullaby is that it’s okay to dim the eyes for a time, to lose sight of yourself as you sleep and as you grow: if you drift, it says, you’ll drift ashore: if you fall, you will fall into place." 

- Kevin Brockmeier ("These Hands")

Vladislav Erko

Kelly Louise Judd

"Anything seems possible at night when the rest of the world has gone to sleep." 

- David Almond (My Name is Mina)

Charles Vess

Arthur Rackham

"Night is a time of rigor, but also of mercy. There are truths which one can see only when it’s dark." 

- Isaac Bashevis Singer (Teibele And Her Demon)

Marianna And the Whippets by David Wyatt

"Our fantastic civilization has fallen out of touch with many aspects of nature, and with none more completely than with night. Primitive folk, gathered at a cave mouth round a fire, do not fear night; they fear, rather, the energies and creatures to whom night gives power; we of the age of the machines, having delivered ourselves of nocturnal enemies, now have a dislike of night itself. With lights and ever more lights, we drive the holiness and beauty of night back to the forests and the sea; the little villages, the crossroads even, will have none of it.

"Are modern folk, perhaps, afraid of night? Do they fear that vast serenity, the mystery of infinite space, the austerity of stars? Having made themselves at home in a civilization obsessed with power, which explains its whole world in terms of energy, do they fear at night for their dull acquiescence and the pattern of their beliefs? Be the answer what it will, today's civilization is full of people who have not the slightest notion of the character or the poetry of night, who have never even seen night. Yet to live thus, to know only artificial night, is as absurd and evil as to know only artificial day."  

Henry Beston (The Outermost House)

The Hidden Pool by Flora McLachlan

Look, as the day slows towards the space
that draws it into dusk: rising became
upstanding, standing a laying down, and then
that which accepts its lying blurs to darkness.

Mountains rest, outgloried be the stars -
but even there, time’s transition glimmers.
Ah, nightly refuged in my wild heart,
roofless, the imperishable lingers.

- Rainer Maria Rilke (Uncollected Poems: 1912-1922, translation by Susan Ranson & Marielle Sutherland)

Eclipse by Jeanie Tomanek

Catherine Hyde

"This is the ending. Now not day only shall be beloved, but night too shall be beautiful and blessed and all its fear pass away." 

- J.R.R. Tolkien (The Return of the King)

Flora McLachlan

Inga Moore

Julia Gukova

The illustrations above are : "Trolls" by John Bauer (1882-1918), "Celestial Pablum" by Remedios Varo (1908-1963), "Presently" by Jeanie Tomanek, "The Woods are Lovely, Dark and Deep" by Catherine Hyde, "The Arabian Nights: Descent" by Edmund Dulac (1882-1953), a drawing from the "Inner Seasons" series by Virginia Lee, "A Midsummer Night's Dream" by Arthur Rackham (1887-1969), "Kip the Enchanted Cat" by Adrienne Ségur (1901-1981),  "The Nightingale: The Fisherman Stops to Listsen" by Edmund Dulac (1882-1953), "Murmur of Pearls" by Gina Litherland, "The Tin Soldier: The Dog Carries the Princess on His Back" by Vladislav Erko, "Companions to the Moon" by Charles Vess, "A Midsummer Night's Dream: Oberon and Titania" by Arthur Rackham (1887-1969), "Forest Sleep" by Kelly Louise Judd, "Marianna and the Whippets" by David Wyatt, "The Hidden Pool" by Flora McLachlan, "Eclipse" by Jeanie Tomanek, "Crossing the River" by Catherine Hyde, "Starfall" by Flora McLachlan, "The Wind and the Willows" by Inga Moore, and "The Legendary Unicorn" by Julia Gukova. All rights to the imagery and text above are reserved by the artists and authors.


On Winter Solstice

The title of this magical animation by paper cut artist Angie Pickman refers to the Winter Solstice...but it's also symbolic of other "long nights" we face in life, such periods of grief, hardship, illness, trauma...or political and cultural upheaval.

We are always on a journey from darkness into light, the Irish poet/philosopher John O'Donohue reminds us:

"At first, we are children of the darkness. Your body and your face were formed first in the kind darkness of your mother's womb. You lived the first nine months in there. Your birth was the first journey from darkness into light. All your life, your mind lives within the darkness of your body. Every thought you have is a flint moment, a spark of light from your inner darkness. The miracle of thought is its presence in the night side of your soul; the brilliance of thought is born of darkness. Each day is a journey. We come out of the night into the day. All creativity awakens at this primal threshold where light and darkness test and bless each other. You only discover the balance in your life when you learn to trust the flow of this ancient rhythm."

Copyright by Karen Davis

In the mythic sense, we practice moving from darkness into light every morning of our lives. The task now is make that movement larger, to join together to carry the entire world through the long night to the dawn.

Stray by Jeanie Tomanek

Capturing the Moon by Jeanie Tomanek

The art above is"The Spirit Within" by Karen Davis (UK); "Stray" and "Capturing the Moon" by Jeanie Tomanek (US). The video is by Angie Pickman (US); go here to see more of her work. The quote is from Anam Cara (Bantam Books, 1997) by John O'Donhue (1956-2008, Ireland). All right to the video and art above are reserved by the artists; all rights to O'Donohue's text are reserved by his estate.


Tunes for a Monday Morning

Kelmscott Manor

It's a misty, moody morning here, and instead of fighting against the melancholy weather let's flow along with it....

Above: "Only Ghosts" by Pine the Pilcrow (Kevin Murray, Hannah Ryan, Shay Sweeney and Robert Campbell), based in Dublin.  The song comes from their EP of the same name (2018).

Below: "Sovay," the classic female-highwayman ballad performed by Varo (Lucie Azconaga and Consuelo Nerea Breschi), a French/Italian folk and baroque duo based in Dublin. The song will appear on their first album, due out early next year. If it's all this good, it will be quite a debut.

Above: "Shelter" by singer-songwriter Olivia Chaney, from Oxfordshire. The song appeared on her gorgeous album of the same name (2018).

Below: "Teignmouth" by singer-songwriter Patrick Wolf, from south London. The River Teign runs from Dartmoor, past our village, and down to the sea on the south Devon coast, and so this has long been one of my favourite of his songs. This version was filmed at Hilles House in Gloucestershire in 2012.

Above: "The Snow Queen" by London-based singer-songwriter Ana Silvera, whose work I absolutely love. This song, with its fairy tale imagery, appeared on The Aviary (2012).

Below:"Bedlam" by Ana Silvera, performed live with the Santiago Quartet in 2010. Her latest album is Oracles, and highly recommended.

And one more, below: "We Are" by the Haevn (Marijn van der Meer and  Jorrit Kleijnen), based in Amersterdam. The song was recorded with a 50-piece string orchestra for their latest album, Symphonic Tales (2019).

Kelmscott Manor


After the storm...

Books on my desk

Drawing by Arthur RackhamAs an American writer living in the UK, processing this week's election news feels terribly familiar: first hard-right Nationalism claimed the White House in the country of my birth, and now it has taken hold of governmental power over here. (Wherever you happen to stand on Brexit, the Trumpian bent of the current Conservative party is cause for alarm, as the party's own elder statesman have been warning.) For those of us working in the Arts, taking stock of the darker, harder political and cultural landscape we'll be navigating for the foreseeable future, it's all too easy to fall into despair... or even to wonder what good art-making is at all at such a time. In response, I'd like to re-post the following passages from "On Becoming an American Writer" by Alexander Chee. His words speak to British writers too, and creative artists everywhere:

"My generation of writers -- and yours, if you're reading this -- lives in the shadow of Auden's famous attack on the relevance of writing to life, when he wrote that 'poetry makes nothing happen.' I had heard that remark repeated so often and for so long I finally went looking for its source, to try to understand what he really meant by it....Auden wrote the line in an elegy for Yeats. And Yeats, it should be said, was a hero of Auden's. To read the whole poem is to know he meant, if not the opposite of what this line is often used to say, something at least more subtle: an ironic complaint. This isn't even the sharpest line Auden wrote on the subject. But somehow, the line handed anyone who cared a weapon to gut the confidence of over fifty years' worth of writers in the West. As we face the inexorable creep of William F. Buckley's intellectual conservatism that used anti-intellectualism as its arrowhead, this attitude, that writing is powerless, is one that affects you even if you have never read that poem, much less the quote. Pundits, reviewers, and critics spit it out repeatedly, as often now as ever, hazing anyone who might imagine anything to the contrary."

Writing desk at the Bumblehill Studio

What then is the point of writing, particularly at a time like this? The point, Chee says,

"is the point of samizdat, readers and writers meeting secretly all over the Soviet Union to share forbidden books, either written there or smuggled into the country. The point is the widow of Osip Mandelstam memorizing her husband's poetry while in the camps with him in the Soviet Union, determined that his poems make it to readers. The point of it is the possibility of being read by someone who could read it. Who could be changed, out past your imagination's limits. Hannah Arendt has a definition of freedom as being the freedom to imagine that which you cannot yet imagine. The freedom to imagine that as yet unimaginable work in front of others, moving them to still more action you can't imagine, that is the point of writing, to me. You may think it is humility to imagine your work doesn't matter. It isn't. Much the way you don't know what a writer will go on to write, you don't know what a reader, having read you will do."

Desktop Oct 2018

I believe this is true even for those of us in the Fantasy and Mythic Art fields. Our stories may not be overtly political, but we work with the powerful tools of archetype and metaphor, and everything we put out into the world has the potential to touch the lives of others in ways we may never know.

Collage tools

Here's one instance that I do know about. Years ago I published The Armless Maiden, an anthology of fairy-tale-inspired stories reflecting on the dark side of childhood. The Armless Maiden  published by Tor BooksThis was back in the days when child abuse was still a taboo subject, little discussed. A few years later, I received a letter forwarded through my publisher. It was from a stranger, a lawyer, in the American south. He'd come across my book while staying in a house where there was little else to read -- and despite having scant interest in either fairy tales or fantasy, out of sheer boredom he gave it a try. The thing he was writing to tell me was that the book had changed the direction of his life. Haunted by those stories, he decided to volunteer his services to a child advocacy group -- and had recently left his corporate law firm to work in the service of traumatized children full time.

Such letters are incredibly precious, but rare. Most people do not write to authors or other artists whose works have had meaning for them. There are books and artworks that have literally saved my life, yet I've never written to their creators to say so. Most of time we will never know where our work has gone, if it's reached the right readers or sank like a stone; we just cast it out like a message in a bottle*, hoping it will reach the right shore.

Studio worktop

Children's lit

Why, Chee asks, do we expect our writers to believe they don't matter as a condition of writing?

"It is time to end this. Much of my time as a student was spent doubting the importance of my work, doubting the power it had to reach anyone or to do anything of significance. I was already tired of hearing about how the pen was mightier than the sword by the time I was studying writing. Swords, it seemed to me, won all the time.

"By the time I found that Auden quote -- 'poetry makes nothing happen' -- I was more than ready to believe what I thought it was saying. But books were still to me as they had been when I found them: the only magic. My mother's most common childhood memory of me is of standing next to me trying to be heard over the voice on the page. I didn't really commit to writing until I understood that it meant making that happen for someone else. And in order to do that, I had to commit the chaos inside of me to an intricate order, an articular complexity.

"To write is to sell an escape ticket, not from the truth, but into it. My job is to make something happen in a space barely larger than the span of your hand, behind your eyes, distilled out of all I have carried, from friends, teachers, people met on planes, people I have only seen in my mind, all my mother and father ever did, every favorite book, until it meets and distills from you, the reader, something out of everything it finds in you. All of this meets along the edge of a sentence like this one, as if the sentence is a fence, with you on one side and me on the other....All of my life I have been told this isn't important, that it doesn't matter, that it could never matter. And yet I think it does. I think it is the real reason the people who would take everything from us say this. I think it's the same reason that when fascists come to power, writers are among the first to go to jail. And that is the point of writing."

Bookshelf

As a teacher of writing himself now, Chee tells his students "that art endures past governments, countries, and emperors, and their would-be replacements. That art -- even, or perhaps especially, art that is dedicated somehow to tenderness...is not weak. It is strength. "

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Desktop  with Waterhouse coffee mug and Marja Lee drawing

At the end of the essay, he challenges us all:

"If you are reading this, and you're a writer, and you, like me, are gripped with despair, when you think you might stop: Speak to your dead. Write for your dead. Tell them a story. What are you doing with this life? Let them hold you accountable. Let them make you bolder or more modest or louder or more loving, whatever it is, but ask them in, listen, and then write. And when war comes -- and make no mistake, it is already here -- be sure you write for the living too. The ones you love, and the ones who are coming for your life. What will you give them when they get there? I tell myself I can't imagine a story that can set them free, these people who hate me, but I am writing precisely because one did that for me. So I always remember that, and I write even for them."

Please seek out the full essay in Chee's collection How to an Autobiographical Novel, which is simply stunning. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Puppets by Wendy Froud and print by Virginia Lee

Tilly in the Bumblehill Studio

Collage by Lynn Hardacker and pencil drawing by Alan Lee

* Jeanette Winterson has said: "I think every work of art is an act of faith, or we wouldn't bother to do it. It is a message in a bottle, a shout in the dark. It's sayin, 'I'm here and I believe that you are somewhere and that you will answer if necessary across time, not necessarily in my lifetime.' "

Words: The passage quoted above is from "On Becoming an American Writer" by Alexander Chee, published in How to an Autobiographical Novel (Mariner Books, 2018); all rights reserved by the author.

Pictures: The pen-and-ink drawing above is by Arthur Rackham. The photographs are from my studio. In those photos, the framed collage is one of mine ("The Luminosity of Birds"), the little felt figure hanging on a bookshelf is William Morris and the poem below him is A Writer's Prayer, the next small section of collage is based on Delia Sherman's beautiful poem Carabosse, the pencil drawing behind the JWW Waterhouse cup is by Marja Lee, the Wolf and Sheep puppets are by Wendy Froud and the print behind them is "Moorland Melodies" by Virginia Lee, the final collage is by Lynn Hardaker and the drawing beside it is by Alan Lee.