In gratitude during perilous times
The gift of stillness

The Dark Forest

Eclipse by Jeanie Tomanek

In late January, Howard and I gave a talk here in Chagford titled The Path Through the Dark Forest, discussing how myth and mythic fiction can help us through challenging times. Little did we know how appropriate the subject would be in the months ahead....

A journey through the dark of the woods is a common motif in myths and fairy tales: some heroes set off boldly through the forest in order to reach their destiny, while others are driven into woods, fleeing worse dangers behind. The woodland road is a treacherous one, prowled by ghosts, ghouls, wicked witches, wolves and the more malign sorts of faeries....but helpers also appear on the path: wise crones, good faeries, and animal guides, often cloaked in unlikely disguise. The hero's task is to tell friend from foe, and to keep walking steadily onward.

Such stories are symbolic of the difficult passages that we all face in life, at one point or another -- but they are not simply tales of endurance and survival. The trials our heroes encounter in their quests illustrate the process of transformation: from youth to adulthood, from victim to hero, from a wounded state to wholeness, from passivity to action. Those who emerge from the dark of the trees are not the same as when they went in. And nor are we, after a journey through hardship, loss, or calamity.

"When you enter the woods of a fairy tale, and it is night, the trees tower on either side of the path," writes Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew. "They loom large because everything in the world of fairy tales is blown out of proportion. If the owl shouts, the otherwise deathly silence magnifies its call. The tasks you are given to do (by the witch, by the stepmother, by the wise old woman) are insurmountable -- pull a single hair from the crescent moon bear's throat; separate a bowl's worth of poppy seeds from a pile of dirt. The forest seems endless. But when you do reach the daylight, triumphantly carrying the particular hair or having outwitted the wolf; when the owl is once again a shy bird and the trees only a lush canopy filtering the sun, the world is forever changed for your having seen it otherwise."

The Return by Jeanie Tomanek

At the time we gave our Chagford talk, my own life's path seemed calm and bright...but then the road turned a bend and dipped, plunging into the dark trees. I spent a few weeks in thorny undergrowth while coping with serious health issues...and just as the landscape cleared again, I learned that my youngest brother had died, in a way that was sudden, shocking and desperately sad. Now I was truly in the Dark Forest: weighted by grief, overwhelmed by the numerous tasks that the death of a family member requires...but aided by helpers along the way, in the best of fairy tale fashions. As those heartbreaking tasks finally came to an end, I thought I'd reached the edge of the woods at last...only to find the trees stretching on and on as Coronavirus spread across Europe.

Then the whole of Britain went into lock-down, the Dark Forest encompassing us all.

Sometimes in the Forest by Jeanie Tomanek

Meanwhile, Howard was meant to be in Berlin as part of his year-long Journey Into the Heart of the Fool; his bags were packed and he was just about to leave when the news from Italy and Spain gave us second thoughts. After much debate, he cancelled the trip -- and soon that cautious decision was justified as flights were grounded, and borders closed, and theaters across Europe went dark. Between his drama work, Fool training and PhD studies, Howard has been away more than he's been home this year -- but life has now ground to a screeching halt for everyone in the Performance Arts. Losing employment and income is frightening, of course (most of us working in the Arts live hand-to-mouth at the best of times), but I suspect I'm not the only "theater spouse" relieved to have my partner home right now. We'll have to find, or invent, new ways of working, but at least we'll be doing it together.

Jeanie Tomanek

As those of you who are also on lock-down know, daily life is now full of practical and emotional challenges; each day seems to bring brand new ones, and nothing has settled yet into a routine. I don't discount the gravity of those challenges (those of us with high-risk medical conditions know full well the danger we're facing), but the questions I want to focus on here on Myth & Moor are these: How do we create thoughtful and artful lives despite that danger? How do live through the hard days ahead as artists?

For me, these are not unfamiliar questions. My particular health condition affects my immune system, so I'm already used to periods of self-isolation. I'm used to putting time and thought each day into the practical business of staying alive, and of taking mortality seriously. For many of us with a range of illnesses to manage, this is already familiar territory, so perhaps we can be of particular help now to those for whom such concerns are new. We know how to live in the shadow of death. We know how to let fear and joy co-exist inside us. We've learned to live without certainty, and without illusions of being in full control. We've learned to keep working, to keep creating, to keep showing up and to live fully in the present. Just as important, we've learned to forgive ourselves on those hard, weary, painful days when we simply can't.

Eve Does Take Out by Jeanie Tomanek

Because I'm writer and scholar of stories, it's to stories I turn when the going gets rough. It's through stories I find the tools I need: imagination, wonder, beauty, compassion for others, compassion for myself, courage, persistence, understanding, discernment...and narratives that make sense of it all.

In Wonder and Other Survival Skills, H. Emerson Blake argues for the cultivation of "wonder" especially:

"The din of modern life constantly pulls our attention away from anything that is slight, or subtle, or ephemeral," he says. "We might look briefly at a slant of light while walking through a parking lot, but then we're on to the next thing: the next appointment, the next flickering headline, the next task, the next thing that has to be done before the end of the day. But maybe it's for just that reason -- how busy we are and distracted and connected we are -- that wonder really is a survival skill. It might be the thing that reminds us of what really matters, and of the greater systems that our lives are completely dependent on. It might be be the thing that helps us build an emotional connection -- an intimacy -- with our surroundings that, in turn, would make us want to do anything we can to protect them. It might build our inner reserves, give us the strength to turn ourselves outward and meet those challenges with grace.

"In a day and age when we are reminded unendingly of the urgency and magnitude of the problems we face, wonder may seem like something we no longer have time for -- a luxury, or a dalliance. But in one of Orion's live web events, David Abram said this:

'When we trivialize people's sensory attachment to the beauty of their place, to the beauty of the land where they live...we need to at least be aware that it is undermining peoples' sense of solidarity to the rest of the earth. Sensory perception is the glue that binds our separate nervous systems into the encompassing ecosystem.'

"In other words, Abram ties our terrible, selfish decision-making about how we treat the earth -- what we take from it, what we put into it, what we demand of it -- directly to our estrangement from its beauty. He is saying that wonder is the antidote. That wonder is the thing that can save us."

Jeanie Tomanek

Myth, folklore, fantasy fiction, and mythic arts are vibrant sources of wonder, and thus good medicine for these troubled times. We must keep creating such stories, and sharing such stories, for wondrous tales are not frivolous things. When created with heart, honesty, and skill, they are fresh water and bread to sustain us.

In the days ahead, I'm going to talk about some of the books that I have carried with me through the deep dark forest, highlight art that shines light on the path, and share (as always) the magic and beauty of the land here on Dartmoor's edge. I'm also going to re-visit old posts that might have something new to tell us right now: on living slowly, on living rooted in "place," and on embracing the quieter rhythms of life that a pandemic lock-down requires.

I hope you will share your own stories here too, in the Comments section below each post. How are you doing? How are you coping? Are you still creating...and if so, how? And if not, why? (No judgements on the latter, I promise; just community and solidarity.)

"[W]hile the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new," wrote the great James Baldwin, "it always must be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell, it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness." 

Jeanie Tomanek

Pictures: The art above, of course, is by the wonderful American painter Jeanie Tomanek. All rights reserved by the artist. Please visit her website to see more.

Comments

The thing with dark forests is they are rarely endless and often have clearings and pools. Sometimes there are strange little men who it pays to be polite to, or animals that you should treat with kindness.
It is a scary time right now, having spent some weeks keeping a number of 9-10 year olds calm and focused I know how hard it can be swallow down our own fears so they don't overwhelm us. At school we tell stories to help children make sense of their world and its boundary edges. Now we are in a new mode of teaching we are doing the same thing - through internet links, e-mails and texts. And all the time it is using stories that helps us find a way through this tangled and brambled forest around us.
One of the most cathartic things I have done this week was plan a lesson for my time in school with our small number of children who still need us.
Using Jackie Morris Tell me a Dragon as the starting point I plan for the children to hatch their personal dragon out of an egg. Once they have created it in their minds they will be able to tell it their wishes. We will make a miniature book to give to our dragon, carry in our pocket, keep our wishes in.
I made my own book, and found myself putting in my wishes for my dragon. The act of doing so had a profound effect on me and I felt a weight was being lifted. Something so simple helped in ways I did not anticipate.

So when hunting for the path through this forest of ours, look for your own personal dragon and whisper your thoughts to it. It will gather them in, look after them and help you see your way through.
Keep safe and guard your health. Much light and love (and a dragon or two) to you all at Bumblehill.

Brilliant post Terri! One that I shall revisit many times in the days to come, for one cannot digest such richness in one sitting alone. Creatively, although I'm not picking up the magick stick and producing new life yet, I'm happy to visit the cloister within where I'm spinning through a world of intuitions and ideas. I get the feeling I'll be watering the root and not tasting for the fruit for a while longer. Blessings always, Deborah.

Thank you from the heart for this, Terri, and for all the wisdom, wit, and wonder you put out into the world ... like lifesaving threads that weave through the forest, shining so that we may follow their path and find our way to the cozy cottage at the center of the wood, the silver lake filled with magic waters, or even the way out. I already look forward to rereading this piece and plucking out the gems nestled on this virtual page. There is much that offers comfort, and much that offers encouragement and inspiration.

Dear Terri, you always seem to know how to find the way to spin straw into gold. Deepest gratitude to you for leading the way though our Dark Forest. Honored to have my images illustrate your map
Much love
Jeanie

Thank you for your generosity, Jeanie, in allowing me to keep using your beautiful work here. I am constantly inspired by these images, and by you.

Used to sticking close to home for good chunks of time, thus far I am undaunted. Spending time in meditation, lost in story, morning yoga and creating Beasties the Froud way. Counting my blessings and ending the days in gratitude also helps. The generosity of artists and authors , such as yourself, keeps the flame of hope burning brightly. Bless you Terri for sharing your art, both in pictures and words.

Yes, yes and thank yous to both you wonderful women!! Jeanie your art marvels me. Terri your presents? Present me with mirrors of solidarity. Amplifying the small, common, uncommonly good strength of each enfolding us. xoxo

Yes, yes I too live an everyday life held together with safety pins ... small, common, moveable and gentle in their strength. Isolation is not new to me, but, the tincturing down to my essence IS. Between and through the uncertainty, my raw nature has become a tincture: I am more potent, but not deadly; my power and artfulness portable; the art I create lasts longer than other medicine; and aging has its benefits ... I laugh at myself to finally admit: I am easier taken in small doses:)

Yes, I keep writing the stories and birthing new blogs to let the wind, and the CLOUD transport them.

I've been getting reacquainted with your blog after some time away and am finding your space and your words exactly what I need in this time. Thank you so much for what you are sharing and what you plan to share. I will look forward to being here reading.

Locking Down the Moon

The path through the forest
is dim, overgrown.
I have already tripped
over three tree roots,
slipped down a stone,
all but crawled across
an old wooden bridge
jigsawed with broken slats.
I trusted the dog’s nose
to lead us back.
But the authorities warned
plague attacks the sense of smell.
What if my dog all unknowing,
Is leading us astray?
We should have stayed
in the well-lit house,
staring at one another
across the six-foot space,
while I wove a leash
to lock down the moon,
to keep us safe from night.

© 2020 Jane Yolen all rights reserved

Dear Terri

First. let me say it is so good to see you back. I send you my heart felt prayers and condolences for the loss of your beloved brother. It is always so difficult dealing with the passing of someone in the family or someone from a close friendship. It seems you have found some solace in your meditative reflections, books and time, itself. I am so grateful you have shared with us your insight and these words by people who understand the darkness and the journey through the sombre woods toward the light..

These days, as much of the world, my partner and I are living in lock down. California was one of the first states to impose this necessary measure. We only go out for food, medicine and occasionally gas. So many thoughts have gone through my mind with the onset and raging horror of this virus. I find myself reading different headlines and writing different poems from various points of view. One of the things that struck me this morning in your blog post was what David Abrams said about how we treat the earth. This idea of how we act toward it, demand of it and simply out of ignorance or selfishness, forget the fragile creatures and habitats that create a planet of diversity and wonder.

Recently CNN ran article in its health section about how the origin of the virus might be related to human behavior and our effect on climate change and disruption of the wild eco- systems. This really struck a chord with me and led me to contemplate how we impact both the destiny of earth and each other. I thought of " the fates" from Greek mythology and how perhaps, we have angered them as well as the earth's mother spirit with our defiance of respect, wisdom and wonder, our loss of sensitivity and caution.

Though isolated, I still live in a housing community; and there are neighbors who don't respect nature or care about others living in close proximity. The poem I wrote several days ago, sprung from such an incident where someone violated the fire codes and the incident became unsettling. It reminded me that we must be aware of our environment and the people we live next to and beyond. We , both human and non -- human are all interconnected and the neglect or irresponsible actions incurred by just one being can become something global.

After Thinking About The Fates and Contemplating Our Own

Zoologists and disease experts have told CNN that changes to human behavior -- the destruction of natural habitats, coupled with the huge number of fast-moving people now on Earth -- has enabled diseases that were once locked away in nature to cross into people fast.
CNN Health

Fog piles on the mountain
and the ancient woman (there)
spins much of it into thinner threads
that warm the wind and bind us to spring.

A task she has performed for days,
and yet in the past few, we haven't heard
from numerous birds that nest
in the nearby pines

or seen squirrels rummaging
through the grass for stray seeds, the hedges
for loose berries.

The gardener ( an old man with Mayan blood) says
something drove them off, maybe stress
or the scent of disaster.

I can only recall
that my neighbors spent an hour
burning the synthetic tarp
that didn't fit their roof. The smell so bad
someone phoned the fire chief

and his big truck came
dowsing the flames and the toxic fumes. White smoke
lingered along with shadows
of the street lamp and pergola
lengthened by the afternoon, showing perhaps

how we've extended
our space in the high desert, angered the crone
who has spun more than fog. A fuse

that was lit and led to forests
still burning, a virus that rages
through borders and walls, the bone gates
of our breath.
_______________________________________________

Let us all use this time of isolation to pray for one another, love one another and seek to regain the wonder of life and earth that brings us back into the light. Let us continue to share our stories and invent stories to make the world a richer and more humane place. Again, thank you for all you do.

Wishing you peace, good health and inspiration.
Take care,
wendy

Dear Jane

Another beautiful poem that looks with keen insight into our current situation, the nature or tendency of our human condition.

Journeying through the unknown is a journey of stumbling, of seek and try to find one's way. Yet, even the experts or the theories we want to trust, have uncertainty and the risk of error --

"all but crawled across
an old wooden bridge
jigsawed with broken slats.
I trusted the dog’s nose
to lead us back.
But the authorities warned
plague attacks the sense of smell.
What if my dog all unknowing,
Is leading us astray?"

And what then, as your poem so astutely asks, is the right thing to do. Is it safer to stay home and lock oneself down with the window streaming moonlight or should we entertain the idea of crossing the bridge of another possibility. It's a haunting question and maybe the answer is to simply stay at a distance for the moment and take that pause to invent new solutions like --

while I wove a leash
to lock down the moon,
to keep us safe from night.

Thank you for sharing this.
Always you inspire!

Take care and stay safe.
All my best
Wendy

Yah hay, Jane

Yay hay
And oh fiddle in the way.
Yah hay
And no, we can't stay, away.

The moon
She does wobble
The dog
He would gobble

A virus
A leash
Some fear
Greed-infusion

Go fly
a kite talisman
with 'oli (chants)
"Send wind!"

xo Moki

Thanks for this, Terri. Glad Howard is home with you and Tilly!

It's been a very rough time for me, as in Sept. I was hospitalized with sepsis for a week. Recovery is long and slow and I had a few complications and tons of fatigue for a long, long while. I was just starting to feel a bit more energy when, bam, the virus exploded. I had been looking forward to a bit of gentleness and ease. Alas, everything is on overdrive as I've had a week to shift all my university classes over to distance learning - two studio art classes and one dialogue class. Now one week into it and it's exhausting. A deep calling from the forest is tugging at my roots, an intense craving to draw and write and be with all that is going on. So the answer to your question, am I still working, is no. There is such a need to, but circumstances won't allow it right now. I hope this changes soon, because when the call to create is so intense, it almost HURTS not to be able to.

(((Valerianna))) I know, I know, I know.

Thanks, Wendy--been in lockdown here with fiance for over two weeks. We walk the dog in odd places where there are no other walkers.

Jane

Send wind indeed!

Jane

"The bone gates of our breath. . ." Shudderingly right.--Jane

Charlotte, my thanks to you and all the brave teachers. (Children are germy at the best of times.)
I see how the structure, loose as it is, of schoolwork by email is giving my daughter a path to follow, a rope to run her hand along as we walk through our neck of the woods. It suggests a connection to her friends and to a life which will resume one day. It suggests hope and security and I am deeply grateful that
our children have access to that.

This is a sweet time for me and my girls, in the sun. We walk the hills and picnic in woods; their friendships and learning continue through screens. It is good to be so much together.
And also I am casting about for greater food security, for an answer to what happens to my children if I become too ill, if this virus takes me as close to death as its cousin did.
And also my work, my study, my own necessary writing, should all be able to continue...but I am exhausted by the work of caring for my girls, by being there for them always, by holding and hiding anxiety so they can play...
And also sometimes there is a moment and the words come and I feel I have planted seeds for my future and perhaps they will receive what they need to nourish us all, if only a little.
And also I am held open with gratitude to be here, now.

Dear Jane,

Thanks so much for taking the time to read my poem. I deeply appreciate your input and agree this is a time that makes us shudder, even venturing out for necessities. It's the uncertainty that incurs fear and how contagious this virus is.

Take care and stay safe
wishing you and yours
the best of life, health and inspiration!

Wendy

When our community and county first went into a kind of lockdown, 2 weeks ago, I found myself frantically casting about for what I could do to help, what I could OFFER. I shared my art instruction videos, I put one of my eBooks that seemed particularly helpful (or hopefully so) free for the duration, I shared healthy recipes and simple, slow living.

I guess I am still doing some of that, in a way, but I feel myself slowing, taking it easier, doing what I can on a smaller scale, a more local scale--while still self-isolating as much as possible. Offering protective essential oil mixtures to my friends who have to be in public, nurses, radiologists, business owners (and I'm not above sending a prayer--or a spell--along with each little jar.) I've always been a fixer, a caregiver, and it's hard to feel, and really, to be, helpless.

And I know what I need, also, is to let myself feel. Perhaps all this busy-ness is another form of armor. Funny, we meditate, we read, I journey, and yet...I still feel frantic, surface. MUST DO SOMETHING!!

Great post.Always sincere and helpful.

This is one of my favourite posts I've read so far on Myth and Moor. Thank you. There's so much in it.

Right now my wife and son are both healthy and fairly full of joy, thank the gods. This has meant I've been able to keep writing, and the little story I'm working on is pouring out much more freely than it has in the past (so grateful for that).

The story's about a young woman trying make it as a potion-maker in strange and beautiful city - a familiar trope I'm trying to make fresh with inspiration drawn from some of the nature writers we both love.

Writing the story is having some unexpected side-effects, such as making me want to garden more, putting slices of lemon in my water, and dressing more colourfully than I normally do. All good things in a global pandemic!

Hi Teri -
This is so lovely. I came across this on Facebook. Is there a way to subscribe to your blog so I get it in my email rather than coming across it by chance? If so, how?

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