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April 2020

Myth & Moor update

A Dartmoor hedgewitch by Brian Froud

Dear readers,

I'm afraid that images are still disappearing, reappearing, then disappearing again on previous posts. I hear that other sites on Typepad (Myth & Moor's blogging platform) are also having the same problem, and the company is working on fixing it. I hope it will be soon.

If it's our local piskies and goblins causing the chaos, they seem to have spread through the Typepad network now. Perhaps instead of coders and trouble-shooters we need a hedgewitch to put it all to rights....

The art in this post (if it appears properly) is by my dear friends and village neighbours Brian Froud and Alan Lee, experts on the local fey folk. Follow the links if you'd like to read more about their work.

A swarm of fairies and piskies by Alan Lee


On a quiet day in the studio...

Lazy hound

...Tilly snoozes on the sofa as I work, while outside the cabin's windows rain and mist has swallowed the world.

Friends keep asking, Are you and Howard all right? And the answer is, yes, we're doing okay. He's finding ways to do theatre work online, and for me, the days are much the same. A writer's life, or at least this writer's life, is one of semi-isolation anyway, for how else would the work get done? Here in my woodside studio, it's just me, Tilly, a blackbird calling, rain tapping on the cabin's tin roof as I tap words onto a laptop screen. The same thick mist that veils the hills also blots out everything beyond: the news, the noise, the gathering clouds of the world pandemic and economic collapse. It's there, but it's invisible, while I'm enfolded in fog and rain. Doing my work. Tapping out stories. And living with uncertainty as best as I can. 

Sleeping beauty awakes

"Listen to me," Jean Rhys once said.  "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."

We are safe and well on our green hillside. Still working. Still feeding the lake.

Mist swallows the world

The poem in the picture captions is from All of It Singing by Linda Gregg (Graywolf Press, 20018); all right reserved by the author.


Homemade ceremonies

Morning 1

In Braiding Sweetgrass, Native American author and biologist Robin Wall Kimmerer (of the Potowatomi people) explains how her family was severed from their traditional culture when her grandfather, like so many children of his generation, was taken from home by the U.S. government and sent to the Carlisle Indian School to be "civilized" (a truly shameful chapter of my country's history). It was not until many years later that his descendants reclaimed their language and heritage. Against this painful background, Kimmerer writes movingly of her father's morning ritual when the family camped on the slopes of Tahawus each summer (the Algonquin name for Mount Marcy in the Adirondaks):

"When he lifts the coffee pot from the stove the morning bustle stops; we know without being told that it's time to pay attention. He stands at the edge of camp with the coffeepot in his hands, holding the top in place with a folded pot holder. He pours coffee on the ground in a thick brown stream. The sunlight catches the flow, striping it amber and brown and black as it falls to the earth and steams in the cool morning air. With his face to the morning sun, he pours and speaks into the stillness, 'Here's to the gods of Tahawus.' "

Morning 2

Morning 3

"I was pretty sure no other family I knew began their day like this, but I never questioned the source of those words and my father never explained. They were just part of our life among the lakes. But their rhythm made me feel at home and the ceremony drew a circle around our family. By those words we said, 'Here we are,' and I imagined that the land heard us -- murmured to itself, 'Ohh, here are the ones who know how to say thank you.' "

Morning 4

Morning 5

"Sometimes my father would name the gods of Forked Lake or South Pond or Brandy Brook Flow, wherever our tents were settled for the night. I came to know each place was inspirited, was home to others before we arrived and long after we left. As he called out the names and offered a gift, the first coffee, he quietly taught us the respect we owed these other beings and how to show our thanks for summer mornings.

 Morning 6

Morning 7

"I knew that in the long-ago our people raised their thanks in morning songs, in prayer, in the offering of sacred tobacco. But at that time in our family history we didn't have sacred tobacco and we didn't know the songs -- they'd been taken away from my grandfather at the doors of the boarding school. But history moves in a circle and here we were, the next generation, back to the loon-filled lakes of our ancestors, back to the canoes....

"In the same way that the flow of coffee down the rock opened the leaves of the moss, ceremony brought the quiescent back to life, opened my mind and heart to what I knew, but had forgotten. The words and the coffee called us to remember that these woods and lakes were a gift. Ceremonies large and small have the power to focus attention to a way of living awake in the world. The visible became invisible, merging with the soil. It may have been a secondhand ceremony, but...I recognized that the earth drank it up as if it were right. The land knows you, even when you are lost.

Morning7

"A people's story moves along like a canoe caught in the current, being carried closer and closer to where we had begun. As I grew up, my family found again the tribal connections that had been frayed, but never broken, by history. We found the people who knew our true names. And when I first heard in Oklahoma the sending of thanks to the four directions at the sunrise lodge -- the offering in the old language of the sacred tobacco -- I heard it as if in my father's voice. The language was different but the heart was the same.

Morning 8

Morning 9

"Ours was a solitary ceremony, but fed from the same bond with the land, founded on respect and gratitude. Now the circle drawn around us is bigger, encompassing a whole people to which we again belong. But still the offering says, 'Here we are,' and still I hear at the end of the words the land murmuring to itself, 'Ohh, here are the ones who know how to say thank you.' Today my father can speak his prayers in our language. But it was 'Here's to the gods of Tahawus' that came first, in the voice I will always hear. It was in the presence of ancient ceremonies that I understood that our coffee offering was not secondhand, it was ours."

Morning 10

Wildflowers

The power of ceremony, writes Kimmerer,

"is that it marries the mundane to the sacred. The water turns to wine, the coffee to a prayer. The material and the spiritual mingle like grounds mixed with humus, transformed like steam rising from a mug into the morning mist. What else can you offer the earth, which has everything? What else can you give but something of yourself? A homemade ceremony, ceremony that makes a home."

Bluebells

I've written before about my own early morning ritual of climbing the hill up to my studio, and how I prefer to move in silence through the liminal space between waking up and creative work. We can draw parallels between the rituals of approach we employ to facilitate creative work and the morning ritual Kimmerer describes. Ritual, ceremony, meditation, creative routines and practices designed to ease us into work -- these are all means of acknowledging the transition from one state into another: from sleep into a brand new day, from morning chores and mundane concerns to the focused state of creativity and inspiration.

But there's also an important difference here -- which, I fear, often gets lost when First Nation ceremonies are too-casually adapted by non-Native peoples. While the coffee ritual may indeed have helped Kimmerer's father to feel more meditative, centered, and ready to start his day, this therapeutic aspect of the ceremony is not its purpose or focus. Rather, it is an act of gratitude, an acknowledgement of the larger world of which we humans are just one part. There is no ego in the ritual, no self-aggrandizing, no  "look at me, look how spiritual I am" -- just the simple, humble act of a man offering a humble gift to creation.

Morning coffee

In my own morning rituals, gratitude to the land, to our animal neighbors, to the vast nonhuman world plays a crucial part. It is why I write and why I paint: sheer gratitude for being alive, even on -- perhaps especially on -- those mornings when, because of poor health or other difficulties, life feels most burdensome. I want to create not from a place of ego and self-aggrandizement but as a means of gifting stories to the beautiful land that feeds and clothes and houses and sustains me; and to give, as Pablo Neruda once said, "something resiny, earthlike and fragrant in exchange for the gift of human brotherhood."

Some days I succeed, and some days I don't. But each morning I wake up, climb the hill with Tilly, pour steaming coffee from a silver thermos as birdsong greets the sun, and I try again. And again. And again. On the hill, I remember that my place in the world is very small. And very precious. And I'm grateful for it all.

Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer

The passage above is from Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer (Milkweed Editions, 2014); all rights reserved by the author. Related posts: The language of the earth, Loving the wounded world, and Following the White Deer: On Myth & Writing.


Daily grace

Bumblehill courtyard

In addition to "telling the holy" (as we were speaking about yesterday), I strive to "practice the holy" as well by living a life filled with rituals, large and small, that connect me to the land I live on and those I share it with -- expressing daily affinity and appreciation for it all. In her beautiful essay "Daily Grace," a discussion of rituals worldwide, cultural and ecological philosopher Jay Griffiths writes:

"No culture and few individuals live without ritual. There are the inaugurations of presidents, student graduations, the rituals of temples, mosques and synagogues, Christmas lights or Easter’s ritual opening of the doorway of spring. While large, public rituals might be vulnerable to commercialisation, tedium or cynicism, they can also be freighted with significance, and shine with what Émile Durkheim in 1912 called the ‘collective effervescence’ of ritual, a shared grandeur beyond the individual.

"For Indigenous Australians, ritual sings the natural world into continued life, in a diffuse and enspirited relationship between the Dreamtime ‘past’ and the present. The Dreamtime surrounds the present, having created the landscape and order of the world, giving meaning and profundity to life and reflecting cosmic order, while rituals of the ‘ordinary’ present, in turn, sustain the ‘extraordinary’ Dreamtime order. In Bali, the ferocious flamboyance of the traditional cremation of a king unbuckled a terrible divinity from the very clouds: arrows that turn into flowers, coffins shaped like lions, snakes of cloth, doves flying from the foreheads of women committing ritual suicide. In his book Negara (1980), the cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz describes the lexicon of sensuous symbols in Balinese ritual, including carvings, flowers, dances, melodies, gestures, chants and masks, writing that the state rituals of classical Bali were ‘metaphysical theatre: theatre designed to express…the ultimate nature of reality and…by presenting it, to make it happen’.

Lady of Bumblehill statue by Wendy Froud

"Yet ritual is also alive in the slightest of phrases: a ‘thank you’ that enhances gratitude; a ghost of a god in ‘goodbye’ (god be with you); the grace spoken before eating. It is there in the little personal talismans touched a certain way for luck, because sometimes that one lucky strike of chance – before a journey, competition or meeting – is what ritual seeks to shelter, cradling the match to an Olympian flame. Given half a chance, habits seem to want to augment themselves into ritual: embellish a habit with attention, stylise it slightly, and it will elbow its way into the domain of rites, until even a cup of tea can be ceremonious.

Words in the wild

Milk for the faeries

"Tiny, everyday rituals are a hand-crafted prayer to domestic order, beckoning the divine to step inside a moment. In Bali, the making of the canang sari offerings is done individually but its effect is a collective efflorescence. Canang means a basket of flowers, while sari means essence, and what is essential, I was told, is the right intent, a kind of purity, paying heed to the scripture of the Bhagavad Gita in which Krishna describes what god requires of an offering: ‘Whosoever offers to me with devotion a leaf, a flower, a fruit, or water, that offering of love, of the pure heart I accept.’ As in so many small rituals in so many cultures, an elemental grammar of nature is used: flowers suggest earth, candles suggest fire, then a little holy or purifying water, and the air is made visible by incense, with the ethereal element of prayer."

Wildflowers and Coyote in the kitchen window

Kitchen window

Like Griffiths, I find great meaning in personal rituals, both domestic and wild. When life is hard -- whether it's a personal hardship or the collective hardship of a global pandemic -- the quiet beauty of daily ritual helps to center me within my own life, stripping away the swirl of fearful thoughts that might otherwise overwhelm me. I often think of these words by author Italo Calvino, who'd lived a harrowing life as an Italian Resistance fighter during World War II:

"Seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space."

Ritual, for me, is "not inferno," and I give it all the space I can.

Cedar and sage

Drumming springtime in

In our modern, increasingly secular world we need ritual now more then ever, says Griffiths:

"Through the unregulated, unjust and unmetered use of resources, we have collectively created a cosmic disorder, and arguably the loss of ritual thinking is part of the reason. Some scholars argue that the loss of effective rituals leads to destructive behaviours, while the anthropologist Roy Rappaport in the 1990s called for a collective responsibility to ecological order, vitalised by ritualisation.

"To me, the most eloquent example of this is demonstrated by the Shinto priests at Lake Suwa in Japan who ritually recorded the lake’s freezing. As it froze, ridges of ice were formed and, when the world is viewed with twice-sight and nothing is only what it seems, the ice-ridges were seen as the footsteps of the gods. For 255 years, there were only three years when the lake did not freeze. Then between 2005 to 2014, there were five years when the lake didn’t freeze. Since 2013, it has frozen over just once, suggesting a terrifying planetary disorder. Confucius considered that ritual propriety guides humanity into authentic goodness (ren). ‘If for a single day one were able to return to the observance of ritual propriety, the whole empire would defer to ren.’

"The sweet paradox of small daily rituals is that the ordinary is intensified into the sacred through the numinousness of the absolutely commonplace, an illustration of immanent divinity, demonstrating that all it takes to find cascades of enchantment is a tender attention in which the natural living world is blessed by the psyche, and the psyche by the natural world."

Tilly below the cloutie tree

Clouties

Or as the German philosopher Meister Eckhart wrote: "If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough."

Lighting the fire

Fire and ceremony

Feather on moss

Words: The passage quoted above is from "Daily Grace" by Jay Griffiths (Aeon Magazine, January 31, 2019). I recommend reading the full essay here; and please consider supporting Griffiths' extraordinary work via her Patreon page. The poem in the picture captions is from Even in Quiet Places by William Stafford (Confluence Press, 2010). All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: The statue in our courtyard is by Wendy Froud. The drum was made by Munro Sickafoose, back in our Arizona days. The tree tied with rags is the local cloutie tree; to read more about clouties, go here. The pictures of me and Howard were taken last autumn before our annual hand-fasting ritual.


Myth & Moor update

Painting by Brian Froud

Dear readers,

You may have noticed that images have been disappearing and reappearing from current and past posts. There is something wonky going on, and Typepad (Myth & Moor's blogging platform) is working on fixing it. Our apologies in the meantime.

Maybe the piskies and goblins are up to their tricks....

The art in this post is by my dear friends and village neighbours Brian Froud and Alan Lee, experts on the local fey folk. Follow the links if you'd like to read more about their work.

Drawing by Alan Lee