The call

Ponies on the Commons

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From "The Miracle of the Mundane" by Heather Havrilesky:

An illustration from More Celtic Fairy Tales by John Batten"On a good day, humankind's creations make us feel like we're here for a reason. Our belief sounds like the fourth molto allegro movement of Mozart's Symphony no. 41, Jupiter: Our hearts seem to sing along to Mozart's climbing strings, telling us that if we're patient, if we work hard, if we believe, if we stay focused, we will continue to feel joy, to do meaningful work, to show up for each other, to grow closer to some sacred ground. We are thrillingly alive and connected to every other thing, in perfect, effortless accord with the natural world.

"But it's hard to sustain that feeling, even on the best of days -- to keep the faith, to stay focused on what matters most -- because the world continues to besiege us with messages that we're failing. You're feeding your baby a bottle and a voice on the TV tells you that your hair should be shinier. You're reading a book but someone on Twitter wants you to know about a hateful thing a politician said earlier this morning. You are bedraggled and inadequate and running late for something and it's always this way. You are busy and distracted. You are not here."

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"We are living in a time of extreme delusion, disorientation, and dishonesty," Havrilesky notes later in the essay. "At this unparalleled moment of self-consciousness and self-loathing, commercial messages have replaced real connection or faith as our guiding religion. These messages depend on convincing us that we don't have enough yet, and that everything valuable and extraordinary exists outside of ourselves.

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"It's not surprising that in a culture dominated by such messages, many people believe that humility will only lead to being crushed under the wheels of capitalism or subsumed by some malevolent force that abhors weakness. Our anxious age erodes our ability to be open and show our hearts to each other. It severs our ability to connect to the purity and magic that we carry around inside us already, without anything to buy, without anything new to become, without any way to conquer and win the shiny luxurious lives we're told we deserve. So instead of passionately embracing the things we love the most, and in doing so reveal our fragility and self-hatred and sweetness and darkness and fear and everything that makes us whole, we present a fractured, tough, protected self to the world. Our shiny robot soldiers do battle with other shiny robot soldiers, each side calling the other side 'terrible,' because in a world that can't see poetry or recognize the divinity of each living soul, fragility curdles into macho toughness and soulless rage. All nuance is lost in a fearful rush to turn every passing though or idea or belief into dogma.

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"Against this landscape, anything that celebrates the wildness and complexity of the human soul is worthy of celebration. This is true in a global sense, in communities, and it's true within a single human being. The antidote to a world that tells us sick stories about ourselves and and poisons us into thinking we're helpless is believing in our world and in our communities and in ourselves."

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Bog water

"We are called to resist viewing ourselves as consumers or as commodities," she concludes. "We are called to savor the process of our own slow, patient development, instead of suffering in an enervated, anxious state over our value and our popularity. We are called to view our actions as important, with or without consecration by forces beyond our control. We are called to plant these seeds in our world: to dare to tell every living soul that they already matter, that their seemingly mundane lives are a slowly unfolding mystery, that their small choices and acts of generosity are vitally important. "

I couldn't agree more.

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Hound on the Commons 1

Ponies on the Commons 9

I highy recommend seeking out Havrilesky's inspiring essay to read in full -- which you'll find it in her new collection What If This Were Enough?, along with other treasures. (Her essay on the subject of "bravado" is another one I can't stop thinking about.)

Hound on the Commons 3

What if This Were Enough by Heather Havrikesky

Words: The passages above are from What if This Were Were Enough? by Heather Havrilesky (Doubleday, 2017). The poem in the picture captions is from The House of Belonging by David Whyte (Many Rivers Press, 1997). All rights reserved by the authors.
Pictures: Dartmoor ponies grazing in the bog-land by the village Commons on a wet and wild day. The drawing is by English illustrator John D. Batten (1860-1932), who was born just across the moor in Plymouth.

A few related posts: For a discussion of avoiding the tyrany of critical voices on the Internet (and inside on our own heads), see "On Fear of Judgement." For a variety of thoughts on living life deliberately and contemplatively, see the thread of writings under the topic In Praise of Slowness.


Chasing beauty

Ponies 1

From "Beauty" by Scott Russell Sanders:

vintage dragonfly drawing"As far back as I can remember, things seen or heard or smelled, things tasted or touched, have provoked in me an answering vibration. The stimulus might be the sheen of moonlight on the needles of a white pine, or the iridescent glimmer on a dragonfly's tail, or the lean silhouette of a ladder-back chair, or the glaze on a hand-thrown pot. It might be bird-song or a Bach sonata or the purl of water over stone. It might be a line of poetry, the outline of a cheek, the savor of bread, the sway of a bough or a bow. The provocation might be as grand as a mountain sunrise or as humble as an icicle's jeweled tip, yet in each case a familiar surge of gratitude and wonder swells up in me.

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"Now and again some voice raised on the stairs leading to my study, some passage of music, some noise from the street, will stir a sympathetic hum from the strings of the guitar that tilts against the wall behind my door. Just so, over and over again, impulses from the world stir a responsive chord in me -- not just any chord, but a particular one, combining notes of elegance, exhileration, simplicity, and awe. The feeling is as recognizable to me, as unmistakable, as the sound of my wife's voice or the beating of my own heart. A screech owl calls, a comet streaks the night sky, a story moves unerringly to a close, a child lays an arrowhead in the palm of my hand, my daughter smiles at me through her bridal veil, and I feel for a moment at peace, in place, content. I sense in those momentary encounters a harmony between myself and whatever I behold. The word that seems to fit most exactly this feeling of resonance, this sympathetic vibration between inside and outside, is beauty.

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Ponies 4

"What am I to make of this resonant feeling? Do my sensory thrills tell me anything about the world? Does beauty reveal a kinship between my small self and the great cosmos, or does my desire for meaning only fool me into thinking so? Perhaps, as biologists maintain, in my response to patterns I am merely obeying the old habits of evolution. Perhaps, like my guitar, I am only a sounding box played on by random forces.

Ponies 5

"I must admit that two cautionary sayings keep echoing in my head. Beauty is only skin deep, I've heard repeatedly, and beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Appealing surfaces may hide ugliness, true enough, as many a handsome villain or femme fatale should remind us. The prettiest of butterflies and mushrooms and frogs include some of the most poisonous ones. It's equally true that our taste may be influenced by our upbringing, by training, by cultural fashion. One of my neighbors plants in his yard a pink flamingo made of translucent plastic and a concrete goose dressed in overalls, while I plant my yard in oxeye daisies and jack-in-the-pulpits and maidenhair ferns, and both of us, by our own lights, are chasing beauty.

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Ponies 7

"Must beauty be shallow if it can be painted on? Musn't beauty be a delusion if it can blink on and off like a flickering bulb? I'll grant that we may be fooled by facades, led astray by our fickle eyes. But I've been married now for thirty years. I've watched my daughter grow for twenty-four years, my son for twenty, and these loved ones have taught me a more hopeful possibility. Season after season I've knealt over fiddleheads breaking ground, studied the wings of swallowtails nectaring on blooms, spied skeins of geese high in the sky. There are books I've read, pieces of music I've listened to, ideas I've revisited time and again with fresh delight. Having lived among people and places and works of imagination whose beauty runs all the way through, I feel certain that genuine beauty is more than skin deep, that real beauty dwells not in my eye alone but in the world.

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"While I can speak with confidence of what I feel in the presence of beauty, I must go out on a speculative limb if I'm to speak about the qualities of the world that call it forth. Far out on that limb, therefore, let me suggest that a creature, an action, a landscape, a line of poetry or music, a scientific formula, or anything else that might seem beautiful, seems so because it gives us a glimpse of the underlying order of things. The swirl of a galaxy and the swirl of a [human-made object of beauty] resemble each other not merely by accident, but because they follow the grain of the universe. The grain runs through our own depths. What we find beautiful accords with our most profound sense of how things ought to be.

"Ordinarily we live in a tension between our perceptions and our desires. When we encounter beauty, that tension vanishes, and outward and inward images agree....

Ponies 9

"As far back as we can trace our ancestors, we find evidence of a passion for design -- decorations on pots, beads on clothing, pigments on the ceilings of caves. Bone flutes have been found at human sites dating back more than 30,000 years. So we answer the breathing of the land with our own measured breath; we answer the beauty we find with the beauty we make. Our ears may be finely tuned for detecting the movements of predators or prey, but that does not explain why we should be so moved by listening to Gregorian chants or Delta blues. Our eyes may be those of a slightly reformed ape, trained for noticing whatever will keep skin and bones intact, but that scarely explains why we should be so enthralled by the lines of a Shaker chair or a Durer engraving, or by the photographs of Jupiter."

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"I am convined there's more to beauty than biology, more than cultural convention. It flows around and through us in such abundance, and in such myriad forms, as to exceed by a wide margin any mere evolutionary need. Which is not to say that beauty has nothing to do with survival; I think it has everything to do with survival. Beauty feeds us from the same source that created us. It reminds us of the shaping power that reaches through the flower stem and through our own hands. It restores our faith in the generosity of nature. By giving us a taste of the kindship between our small minds and the great mind of the Cosmos, beauty assures us that we are exactly and wonderfully made for life on this glorious planet, in this magnificent universe. I find in that affinity a profound source of meaning and hope. A universe so prodigal of beauty may actually need us to notice and respond, may need our sharp eyes and brimming hearts and teaming minds, in order to close the circuits of Creation."

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Words: The three passages above are from "Beauty," an essay by Scott Russell Sanders (Orion Magazine, 1998). The poem in the picture captions is from Thirst by Mary Oliver (Beacon Press, 2007). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: The beauty of wild ponies. encountered this morning on our hill.


On awe, ethics, and elders

Kestor Valley

A Private History of Awe by Scott Russell Sanders is the story of the writer's coming-of-age in American midwest in the shadow of the Cold War and Vietnam, entwined with reflections on spirituality, creativity, and our place in the natural world. In the opening to the book he writes:

A Private History of Awe"On a spring day in 1950, when I was big enough to run about on my own two legs yet still small enough to ride in my father's arms, he carried me onto the porch of a farmhouse in Tennessee and held me against his chest, humming, while thunder roared and lightning flared and rain sizzled around us. On a spring day just over twenty years later, I carried my own child onto the porch of a house in Indiana to meet a thunderstorm, and then, after thirty more years, I did the same with my first grandchild. Murmuring tunes my father had sung to me, I held each baby close, my daughter, Eva, and then, a generation later, her daughter, Elizabeth, and while I studied the baby's newly opened eyes I wondered if she felt what I had felt as a child cradled on the edge of a storm -- the tingle of a power that surges through bone and rain and everything. The search for communion with this power has run like a bright thread through all my days.

"In these pages I wish to follow that bright thread, from my earliest inklings to my latest intuitions of the force that animates nature and mind. In the world's religions, the animating power may be called God, Logos, Allah, Brahma, Ch'i, Tao, Creator, Holy Ghost, Great Spirit, Universal Mind, Manitou, Wakan-Tanka, or a host of other names. In physics, it may simply be called energy. In other circles it may be known as wildness. Every such name, I believe, is only a finger pointing toward the prime reality, which eludes all descriptions. Without boundaries or name, this ground of being shapes and sustains everything that exists, surges in every heartbeat, fills every breath, yet it is revealed only in flashes, like a darkened landscape lit by lightning, or in a gradual unveiling, like the contours of a forest laid bare in autumn as the leaves fall."

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In an interview, Sanders discussed his own religious roots (he was raised in the Methodist faith) and how this influenced the book:

"The Bible is a great library of tales, songs, images, and instructions, and for me it’s a very resonant library, because I began taking it in when I was quite young. From childhood on, I read and reread this bewildering book, heard it cited in sermons, heard it quoted over the supper table or paraphrased in hymns, so that the rhythms and stories go very deep in me. I’m grateful for that. In A Private History of Awe I tried to give a fair accounting of how much I owe to this tradition.

"I’ve also tried to acknowledge how deeply Christian I am, in spite of my having let go many of the beliefs that I now regard as mythic -- the six-day creation, heaven and hell, the virgin birth, the walking on water, the bodily resurrection, and the claim that Jesus is God incarnate. Those are, for conventional Christians, core beliefs, which I no longer share. But my sense of how I should lead my life, the ethical vision that shapes my response to war and poverty and inequity and racism -- that I learned from the Bible, in particular from the Hebrew prophets and the teachings of Jesus. I was instructed, as well, by my parents and by the preachers and Sunday school teachers whom I encountered in country Methodist churches.

"I feel certain I could have learned very much the same values had I been reared a Buddhist, a Hindu, a Muslim, a Hopi, or a Navajo. But I learned them through Christianity. So in that sense my whole ethical framework is Christian, even though my philosophy and cosmology are at odds with conventional Christianity."

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"Part of what I took in from my religious upbringing was the understanding that talents are gifts that come to us by birth rather than by any virtue of our own, and that we have a responsibility to use these gifts for the benefit of others. One person might have a talent for music, another for visual art, another for storytelling, another for mathematics or mechanics. The Lakota holy man Black Elk said that gifts are never meant for the individual but for the tribe; a vision, a song, a healing touch, or any other such blessing takes on meaning, for the Lakota, only when it is danced before the people, only when it is shared. Publishing a book is a way of dancing before the people. The making of poems or stories or essays is a way of giving back to the world something of what you have received from your life experience, a way of sharing your verbal gifts."

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"I’m aware that I have a strong didactic impulse. I try to rein it in, but I don’t always succeed. Some readers have complained about a preachiness in my writing, and I sympathize. But I can’t hide my feelings of indignation, grief, and anger about the suffering we humans impose on one another, on other creatures, and on the earth. My dismay at the American cult of violence runs right through A Private History of Awe, as it runs through my life. Similarly, I couldn’t avoid writing about the Civil Rights movement, because awareness of racism cuts through my life like a wound. I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t write about my social concerns, but I try not to suggest that I know how to cure us of these ailments, or that I am entirely free of them myself.

"A Private History of Awe traces the formation of one person’s conscience, not because I hold myself up as a model that other people should emulate, but simply because everyone has a conscience that has been shaped by family and friends, by reading, by school, by church or synagogue or mosque, by events in the greater world, and by other influences. In writing about my formation, I wanted to invite readers to consider how they acquired their own deepest values and concerns. I wanted them to think about how they came to love what they love, because, in the long run, we only take care of what we love."

Kestor Valley 8

"I don’t regard myself as a prophet or seer, someone granted clairvoyant understanding, but in recent years I have come to see myself as an elder. This is not a role one seeks, nor does it come automatically with age; it is a role one is given by others, as they ask for guidance and consolation. An elder must tell the truth about what’s amiss in a society. 'You know,' the elder says, 'this torturing of prisoners, this bombing of civilians, this unsettling of the climate, this extinguishing of creatures is not only wrong, but also unwise; it will cause trouble for us, and for those who come after us.' While warning of dangers and injustices, the elder must also keep witnessing to the sources of healing and renewal.

"I feel, now, the responsibility to pass on what I have learned, to say what I believe to be true, no matter how imperfect my wisdom. I feel the call to help younger people find their way, just as many elders have helped me, elders met in books as well as those met in the flesh. Some of my own most important teachers I met only briefly -- as in the encounters with Father Daniel Berrigan and Martin Luther King Jr. I tell about in A Private History of Awe. Dr. King galvanized my conscience at a crucial time in my development. Becoming an elder means, among other things, I can never give in to despair, because I owe to my children, my students, my readers, and all those who come after me a sense that there is always good work to be done."

There is indeed.

Tilly and the oak elder

Autumn leaves

The passages above are from A Private History of Awe (Northpoint Press, 2007) and "A Conversation with Scott Russell Sanders" by Carolyn Perry and Wayne Zade (Image Journal, Issue 53). The poem in picture captions is from The House of Belonging by David Whyte (Many Rivers Press, 1997). All rights reserved by the authors.


What is the point of writing?

The Morellian Method by Barry McGlashan

From "On Becoming an American Writer" by Alexander Chee:

"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."

Tone Poem by Barry McGlasham

What then is the point of American writing, Chee asks, particularly in these dark political times?

The point, he 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."

Purgatorio by Barry McGlasgham

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.

Here's one instance that I do know about. Years ago I published an anthology of fairy-tale-inspired stories reflecting on the dark side of childhood. This 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 that 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.

Waiting for the Light by Barry McGlasham

"Only in American do we ask our writers to believe they don't matter as as a condition of writing," says Chee. "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.

The Father by Barry McGlasham

"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.

The House of Bruegel by  Barry McGlasham

"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."

Tradescant's Ark by Barry McGlasham

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. "

The Botanist by Barry McGlashan

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."

The Extraordinary Mary Anning by Barry Glasham

Alexander Chee's essay can be found in his new collection How to an Autobiographical Novel, which is simply stunning. I cannot recommend it highly enough. You can also read an earlier, shorter version of the essay online here, in Paris Review.

Work-in-progress in Barry McGlasham's studio

The art today is by Scottish painter Barry McGlasham, whose new exhibition, "The Line of Beauty," opens at the John Martin Gallery in London on November 2nd.

Raised in Aberdeen, on Scotland's north-east coast, he studied painting at Grays School of Art, gradulating with first class honours in 1996. He then taught at Grays for seven years, until leaving to focus on painting full time. In 2001, he traveled throughout America on a Royal Scottish Academy scholarship; it is a country that continues to fascinate him and to influence his work.

To see more of his art, please visit his website, the John Martin Gallery, and the beautiful online copy of Barry's Glass Mountain catalogue. I also recommend his Instagram page, where he posts drawings, paintings in progress, and wonderfully atmospheric photographs of his working studio.

Deep Thoughs by Barry McGlasham

* 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.' "

The passage quoted above is from "On Becoming an American Writer" by Alexander Chee, published in How to an Autobiographical Novel (Mariner Books, 2018). I recommend reading the full essay (as well as the rest of this excellent book). All rights to the text and imagery above reserved by the author and artist.


Morning Prayer

Bluebell tree

"A writer -- and, I believe, generally all persons -- must think that whatever happens to him or her is a resource. All things have been given to us for a purpose, and an artist must feel this more intensely. All that happens to us, including our humiliations, our misfortunes, our embarrassments, all is given to us as raw material, as clay, so that we may shape our art."  - Jorge Luis Borges

Edgewood

This morning's prayer: May we have the skill to work with the raw materials we've been given, the clarity to understand their best use, and the tenacity to weave even thread spun from nettles into cloth that is beautiful and strong.

Hound and bluebells

Bluebell treeThe Borges quote is from Twenty-four Conversations With Borges: Interviews by Roberto Alifano 1981-1983 (Grove Press, 1984). The poem in the picture captions is from A Cappella: Mennonite Voices in Poetry (University of Iowa Press, 2oo3). All rights reserved by the authors or their estates.


The practice of kindness

Dartmoor pony

To continue our conversation on kindness:

One problem we have today is that many think of the word "kind" as a synonym for "nice," a quality with soft, even bland, connotations -- whereas true kindness is so much more than this. The practice of kindness requires empathy, compassion, and generosity aligned with keen perception, self knowledge, and clarity of purpose. It's not enough to be nice to live by a code of kindness, it requires fierce courage as well: The courage to be open-hearted. To be vulnerable. To rely on others, and be relied on in turn. To go against the grain of a culture devoted to self-aggrandizement and competitive individualism. To be misunderstood by that culture, or dismissed, and to remain kind nonetheless -- steadfast in purpose, focused on the practice of kindness, not its outcome. Kindess in this wider aspect is not limited to human relationships but extends to the way that we walk through life, and engage with the nonhuman world around us. The code of kindness includes our relationship with the planet, and all who share it.

Tilly and the ponies

Scientist Barbara McClintock, for example, clearly lived by a code of kindness (even if she never defined it that way) -- and her open-hearted approach to research led to a revolution in our understanding of genetics. As Pricilla Stuckey explains:

"Looking at nature with compassion was a method of Barbara McClintock, the 1983 winner of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. McClintock was a geneticist working to decipher the maize genome at the same time in the 1950s that her peers Watson and Crick were discovering the double helix structure of DNA. Unlike most geneticists, however, who thought of genes as fixed units, like pearls on a string, McClintock watched, puzzled, as maize genes jumped from their supposedly fixed postitions to take up other spots on the strand. McClintock's discovery of 'transposable' genetic elements inaugurated what Stephen Jay Gould called a second revolution in genetics....

"McClintock often said that in order to understand any organism, you have to 'get a feel for it.' In her small maize field she walked meditatively every morning during the growing season, memorizing the smallest changes in each plant from the day before. 'I start with the seedling,' she said, 'and I don't want to leave it. I don't feel I really know the story if I don't watch the plant all the way along. So I know every plant in the field. I know them intimately, and I find it a great pleasure to know them.'

Tilly and the pony

"She regarded her stalks of maize, she said, with 'real affection,' watching each as if from the inside -- as if, a colleague remarked, she could write its autobiography. Gould observes that hers was the method of naturalists, who typically spend time watching and listening to -- and developing appreciation for -- the plants or animals or landscape they study, rather than, as most molecular biologists do, trying to isolate chemical chains of cause and effect. McClintock's genius lay in applying the method of naturalism to her work in the lab.

Tilly and the pony

"Both a naturalist and a contemplative -- don't the two often go together? -- McClintock in her deep gazing may seem very familiar to those who have practiced meditation or gone on a retreat in a monestary or ashram. I think of one of her breakthrough moments in the laboratory, when, after some days of feeling stymied, unable to make sense of the tangled chromosomes under her microscope, McClintock took a walk to sit under a eucalyptus tree. She returned to the lab feeling energized. When she looked again through the microscope at the chromesomes, she reported,

'I found that the more I worked with them, the bigger and bigger [they] got, and when I was really working with them I wasn't outside, I was down there. I was part of the system...and everything got big. I was even able to see the internal part of the chromosomes....It surprised me because I actually felt as if I were right down there and these were my friends.'

Dartmoor ponies

Bog 3

"The process of looking closely at the chromosomes led her into a feeling of unity with them," notes Stuckey, "which led in turn to a more accurate understanding of how they operated, seeing them as clearly as if she were moving among them.

"What is remarkable about her form of contemplation, and what makes it accessible to nonscientists, is that, as one biographer wrote, her 'most mystical sounding ideas stemmed from observation and scepticism, not occult visitations.' She merely looked in, and in looking, loved. ' "

Gate

She merely looked, and in looking loved. That's what I aim for every day.

GateThe passage above by Priscilla Stuckey is from Kissed by a Fox & Other Stories of Friendship in Nature (Counterpoint, 2012), which I highly recommend. All rights reserved by the author.


Talking to the moon

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After writing about kindness yesterday, I've been thinking about the ways in which the lack of kindness propels some of us into the arts: not only as way to retreat from pain, or to cope with it, or to attempt to understand it, but also as a means of creating (to quote Anais Nin) "a world in which one can live."

For example, here's a passage by British novelist Catherine Storr from her essay "Why Write? Why Write for Children?" (published in The Thorny Paradise). Storr describes her parents as loving ones who did not mean to be unkind, and yet her own open-hearted nature was viewed with deep suspicion:

"I am a compulsive writer," Storr begins. " I suppose that before I'd learn to write without too much difficulty, I was a compulsive talker. This is borne out by the memory of hearing my parents say, 'Catherine never stops talking.' I think I went on talking too much until the awkwardness of adolesence overcame the habit. But before that I'd discovered writing; and though it didn't immediately cure me of talking too much, it did provide an outlet for the need to communicate.

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"What I needed to communicate was feelings. We were a very buttoned up family as far as the emotions were concerned. I don't remember ever doubting that my parents loved us, but they never said so in so many words. They also weren't at all physically demonstrative; you had to be in considerable distress before you got picked up and hugged. Kissing was something you did before going to bed or saying goodbye for a longer period. This restraint didn't come naturally to me at all, and besides being told I talked too much, I was also frequently told I shouldn't ask for displays of affection. It was recognized in the family that Catherine was sentimental, and that this should be discouraged.

"Until I was ten, these reprehensible feelings had to be repressed, or carefully monitored so that they didn't offend my parents' austere standards. I can still remember attributing one particular enthusiasm to my doll, so that I wouldn't be held responsible for it. It was a marvelous day in the country and I was aching to say so to someone, but I knew if I did I'd be laughed at, so I said, 'Ruthy is feeling sentimental. She says, "How blue the sky! How green the grass!" But even this ruse didn't work. I was laughed at again.

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"What happened when I was ten was that the door suddenly opened. I was lying in bed with the curtains undrawn and I saw a huge white moon looking at me through the branches of the aspen poplar tree which stood about forty feet away in the garden opposite my window. It must have been spring, I think, because the branches were bare. I got out of bed and wrote a poem to the moon with a blunt pencil on a sheet of manuscript music paper, which was all I could find. It was blank verse and until that moment I'd had no idea that I could write anything more ambitious than rhyming couplets. It was a very exciting moment. Probably all the more exciting because it was forbidden to wander out of bed after eight o'clock. Then next morning I read the poem through and was rather impressed by it. It was a great deal better than I'd have expected."

That little girl grew up to become the author of over thirty books for children and adults (as well as a medical doctor and psychologist), writing right up to her death at age 87. Having raised three daughters, Storr was often asked if her childrens' books had been written for them. Well yes, to some degree, she said, but mostly she'd written them for herself:

"William Mayne, when asked for whom he wrote his books, said: For the child I once was. I'm sure this is true of many writers for children, but  I think it is also true that that one writes for the child one still is."

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The Thorny ParadiseThe passage above is from "Why Write? Why Write for Children" by Catherine Storr, published in The Thorny Paradise: Writers on Writing for Children, edited by Edward Blishen (Kestral Books, 1975). The poem in the picture captions is from Poetry magazine (October 2012). All rights reserved by the authors or their estates.


On Kindness

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Living in these strange and troubling times, there's a mantra that I often repeat to myself (as I've mentioned here before): Be gentle, be gentle, be gentle. Stand your ground, know your truth, but be kind.

"Kindness" is a quality I value very highly although it's given little credence these days, dismissed as soft, simple, and sentimental in a culture that rewards the sharp, the hard, the self-reliant (or merely self-absorbed), lauding those who push to the front of the queue of success, wealth, and celebrity -- too often with little regard for the "losers" and "weaklings" thrust out of their way. Thus it was with great interest that I came across the little book On Kindness by two distinguished modern thinkers: historian Barbara Taylor and psychoanalyst Adam Phillips.

"Why do the pleasures of kindness astonish us?" they ask. "And why are stories of kindness often so corny or silly, so trivializing of the things that matter the most to most people?"

Why indeed?

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"The pleasures of kindess were well known in the past," Phillips and Taylor point out. "Kindness was man's 'greatest delight,' the Roman philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius declared, and thinkers and writers have echoed him down through the centuries. But today many people find these pleasures literally incredible, or at least highly suspect. An image of the self has been created that is utterly lacking in natural generosity. Most people appear to believe that deep down they (and other people) are mad, bad and dangerous to know; that as a species -- apparently unlike other species of animal -- we are deeply and fundamentally antagonistic to each other, that our motives are utterly self-seeking and that our sympathies are forms of self-protectiveness."

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On Kindness, say the authors, is an explanation of how this state of affairs has come about. Despite the devaluation (and feminization) of the ideal of kindness in the modern age, "people are leading secretly kind lives all the time, but without a language in which to express this, or cultural support for it. Living according to our sympathies, we imagine, will weaken or overwhelm us; kindness is the saboteur of the successful life.

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"We need to know how we have come to believe that the best lives we can lead seem to involve sacrificing the best things about ourselves; and how we have come to believe that there are greater pleasures than kindness. Kindness -- not sexuality, not violence, not money -- has become our forbidden pleasure. What about our times has made kindness seem so dangerous?"

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That's a question I very much want an answer to -- and this book, alas, did not fully provide it, simply because it's too short to go very deeply into such a complex subject. It makes for a good beginning, however: the chapters on the history and philosophy of kindness are both fascinating and illuminating. (The middle of the book, by contrast, is devoted to Freudian theories of kindness; they are well explicated, but can be skipped over if, like me, you're allergic to Freud.)

Despite these reservations, I recommend On Kindness because it starts a much-needed conversation on the subject. I hope that other writers will continue the conversation, going beyond Taylor & Phillips' classical focus to examine kindness in other societal traditions. We need new conceptual frameworks for re-building kindness as a cultural ideal: genderless, classless, diverse and inclusive. We need to lift the ideal of kindness above the cliche of sentimentality and see it for the brave, vital, necessary force it is. Let's make the Beautiful Resistance a movement rich in kindness.

Are you with me?

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On Kindness by Phillips & TaylorThe passages above are from On Kindness by Adam Phillips & Barbara Taylor (Penguin Books, 2009). The poem in the picture captions is from Poetry magazine (March 2003). All rights reserved by the authors.


The things that unite us

Alexandra Dvornikova

It's Day 3 of my cold, and though it seems ridiculous that something as simple as a cold is keeping me out of the studio (especially since I regularly keep working despite more serious health issues), this one seems to have me in its tight grip for another day.

Alexandra Dvornikova

Here's a thought I'd like to leave you with today, from Kathryn Miles (author of a lovely book about dogs and nature, Adventures with Ari):

In an interview on Terrain.org, Miles is asked about her belief that environmental writers are charged with inspiring "an ethic of care" in their readers. What, the interviewer wonders, might an ethic of care look like?

"An ethic of care," Miles responds, "is based on ideas of interdependence, and the belief that the most vulnerable among us deserve the most consideration. Writers are uniquely suited to raise awareness about both: we can show what unites us, and we can remind people about narratives that have been forgotten or might otherwise become overlooked. There’s that poignant moment in Mary Oliver’s [poem] "Wild Geese," where she says, 'Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.' That’s what writing from an ethic of care looks like. And it broadens this behest even further: tell me about what you love and what you hate; tell me what frightens you and what you’re willing to fight for. Then, if you’re willing to listen, I’ll tell you about those things in my life. And maybe then we both will understand."

I'm thinking about what an ethic of care might look like in relation to fiction, fantasy, and Mythic Arts. And about how questions like this become more urgent during dark political times.

Your thoughts...?

Alexandra Dvornikova

Speaking of "urgent" art and literature, I stumbled across a lovely book blog the other day that I'd like to recommend to you, if you don't know it already: Books Can Save a Life by Valorie Grace Hallinan.

Alexandra Dvornikova

The magical art today is by Alexandra Dvornikova, a young Russian artist, designer, and printmaker. Dvornikova trained at the Saint Petersburg Stieglitz State Academy of Art and Design, and is now studying art-therapy, with a focus on autism. She lives with her husband, a red cat, and two jackdaws in St. Petersburg.

She says: "I think the most inspiring things for me are these: Forest, music, animals, wilderness, moss and lichens, mushrooms, Russian fairy tales that I’ve heard when i was a child, masks, rituals, night dreams, childhood experience, folklore, medieval art, archetypes, psychiatry, human’s brain, carnivorous plants, venomous or dangerous things, lonelyness, mori girls, vintage dresses. Also I inspired by Simona Kossak’s story, the woman who lived more than 30 years in a wooden hut in the Bialowieza Forest, without electricity or access to running water. A lynx slept in her bed, and a tamed boar lived under the same roof with her. She was able talk to wild animals."

Please go here to see more of her work, and here to read an interview with the artist.

Alexandra Dvornikova

Ritual


Loving the wounded world

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"Joanna Macy writes that until we can grieve for our planet we cannot love it -- grieving is a sign of spiritual health. But it is not enough to weep for our lost landscapes; we have to put our hands in the earth to make ourselves whole again. Even a wounded world is feeding us. Even a wounded world holds us, giving us moments of wonder and joy. I choose joy over despair."

  - Robin Wall Kimmerer (Braiding Sweetgrass)

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I first read Dr. Kimmerer's fine book, Braiding Sweetgrass, two years ago. Since then, my copy has been passed around to friends, and only just returned to me last week. I took the book up to the studio, intending to slip it back onto the shelf (next to her previous book on moss), but I started to re-read it instead...and I'm finding it more insightful than ever now that the Windigo (as she describes the legend) stalks boldly through government halls on both sides of the Atlantic.

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My reading recommendations today reach back to the Braiding Sweetgrass posts from two years ago. Here's Dr. Kimmerer on The Windigo: what it is and, importantly, how to defeat it.  You can also read her thoughts on knowing the world as a gift, on homemade ceremonies, and on the democracy of species -- and listen to her speak on "Intelligence in all Kinds of Life" on American public radio.

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And, of course, I highly recommend the book itself to those who haven't read it yet: Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. It's a beautiful read.

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