The gift of stillness

Dunes, north Devon

In A Book of Silence, Sara Maitland explores the cultural history of silence and retreat while seeking to create more room for silence within her own life. It's a fascinating book, leading through myth, religion, philosophy, sociology, natural history and literature to a place of stillness at the center of them all. As life slows down in response to the global pandemic, particularly for those of us in lock-down and other forms of isolation, the practice of retreat takes on new meaning. What gifts might a slower life give us? And what does silence have to teach us?

Dog, waves, sand, north Devon

Early on in her quest for silence, Maitland arranged to spend forty days alone at Allt Dearg, a remote cottage on An t-Eilean Sgitheanach, Scotland's Isle of Skye, noting the changes in her psyche and imagination as the weeks went by and her silence and solitude deepened. Describing the last days of her time on the island, she says: "Part of me had already moved on from Allt Dearg, and another part of me never wanted to leave. The weather became appalling so that I could not go out for a final walk or round off the time with any satisfying sense of closure. I had to clean the house and then drive a long way. I had felt quite depressed for about forty-eight hours...

Dog at play, north Devon

"...and then, the very final evening, I suddenly was seized with an overwhelming moment of jouissance. I wrote:

'They say it is not over till the fat lady sings. Well, she is singing now. She is singing in a wild fierce wind -- and I am in here, just. Now I am full of joy and thankfulness and a sort of solemn and bubbling hilarity. And gratitude. Exultant -- that is what I feel -- and excited, and that now, here, right at the very edge of the end, I have been given back my joy.'

Light, north Devon

"For several hours I enjoyed an extraordinary rhythmical sequence of emotions -- great waves of delight, gratitude, and peace; a realization of how much I had done in the last six weeks, how far I had traveled; a powerful surge of hope and possibility for myself and my future; and above all a sense of privilege. But also a nakedness or openness that needed to be honored somehow.

Beast on the prowl, north Devon

"I experienced a fierce joyful ... joyful what? ... neither pride nor triumph felt like the right word. Near the end of Ursula Le Guin's The Farthest Shore (the third part of The Earthsea Trilogy), Arren, the young prince-hero, who has with an intrepid courage born of love rescued the magician Sparrowhawk, and by implication the whole of society, from destruction, wakes along on the western shore of the island of Selidor: He smiled then, a smile both somber and joyous, knowing for the first time in his life, and alone, and unpraised and at the end of the world, victory.

"That was what I felt like, alone on An t-Eilean Sgitheanach, The Winged Isle. I felt an enormous  victorious YES to the world and to myself. For a short while I was absorbed in joy. I was dancing my joy, dancing, and flowing with energy. At one point I grabbed my jacket, plunged out into the wind and the storm. It was physically impossible to stay out for more than about a minute because the wind and rain were so strong and I came back in soaked even from that brief moment; but I came back in energized and laughing and exulting as well. I was both excited and contented. This is a rare and precious pairing. I knew, and wrote in my journal, that this would not last, but it did not matter. It was NOW. At the moment that now, and the enormous wind, felt like enough. Felt more than enough.

Stillness, north Devon

"And once again," Maitland concludes, "I am not alone. Repeatedly, in every historical period, from every imaginable terrain, in innumerable different languages and forms, people who go freely into silence come out with slightly garbled messages of intense jouissance, of some kind of encounter with nature, their self, their God, or some indescribable source of power."

Gazing out to sea, north Devon

Dune grass, north Devon

I first read Maitland's A Book of Silence some years ago, when confined to bed by health problems. I was not alone -- I had Tilly snuggled at my side, and my gentle husband nearby -- but the quiet and stillness of recovering from an illness can be another form of retreat from the rapid rhythms of the noisy modern world. There were long hours when the only sounds were Tilly's snores, the rustle of a book's turning page, rain or bird song outside the window glass. Like a spiritual retreat or pilgrimage, illness takes us deep inside ourselves, shaking away all other concerns except those of the body, those of the soul. Afterwards, I always return to life changed. The world is restored to me piece by piece, with each step noted and celebrated: the first hour out of bed; the first morning outdoors, tucked up in a blanket on the garden bench; the first slow climb to my studio on the hill; the first shaky walk in the woods with Tilly. There's a joy in all this that we rarely speak about, as if to admit that there's any pleasure or value in illness might be to dismiss its overwhelming difficulties. We'd all prefer, of course, to plan our times of retreat, not to have them forced upon us by physical collapse, overshadowed by pain or fear. But there is a gift to be found in illness...and perhaps in our current pandemic lock-down as well: the gift of long hours of quiet and stillness, precious and rare in these fast-paced times.

And when this time of enforced retreat is done, we may find it has given us these gifts too: jouissance, wonder, and fresh gratitude for our fragile bodies, our fleeting lives, and the exquisite beauty of the world we return to.

SilencePhotographs: Tilly on the north Devon coast. When will we see that beach again?


A celebration of slowness

Bunny Girl Time (sculpture by Wendy Froud)

Since self-isolation and lock-down is causing so many of us to slow down the pace of our lives, here's a post from the Myth & Moor archives in praise of slowness, stillness, and moments of quiet....

From Rebecca Solnit's Wanderlust: A History of Walking (2001):

"[My friend] Sono's truck had been stolen from her West Oakland studio, and she told me that although everyone responded to it as a disaster, she wasn't all that sorry it was gone, or in a hurry to replace it. There was a joy, she said, to finding that her body was adequate to get her where she was going, and it was a gift to develop a more tangible, concrete relationship to her neighborhood and its residents. We talked about the more stately pace of time one has on foot and on public transportation, where things must be planned and scheduled beforehand, rather than rushed through at the last minute, and about the sense of place that can only be gained on foot. Many people nowadays live in a series of interiors -- home, car, gym, office, shops -- disconnected from each other. On foot everything stays connected, for while walking one occupies the spaces between those interiors in the same way one occupies those interiors. One lives in the whole world rather than interiors built up against it....

The Look

"I had told Sono about an ad I found in the Los Angeles Times a few months ago that I'd been thinking about ever since. It was for a CD-ROM encyclopedia, and the text that occupied a whole page read, 'You used to walk across town in the pouring rain to use our encyclopedias. We're pretty confident that we can get your kid to click and drag.' I think it was the kid's walk in the rain that constituted the real education, at least of the senses and the imagination. Perhaps the child with the CD-ROM encyclopedia will stray from the task at hand, but wandering in a book or a computer takes place within more constricted and less sensual parameters. It's the unpredictable incidents between official events that add up to a life, the incalculable that gives it value. Both rural and urban walking have for two centuries been prime ways of exploring the unpredictable and incalculable, but now they are under assault on many fronts.

My desk

Bear & woman image by Katrina Plotnikova

"The multiplication of technologies in the name of efficiency is actually eradicating free time by making it possible to maximize the time and place for production and minimize the unstructured travel time between. New time-saving technologies make most workers more productive, not more free, in a world that seems to be accelerating around them. Too, the rhetoric of efficiency around these technologies suggests that what cannot be quantified cannot be valued -- that that vast array of pleasures which fall into the category of doing nothing in particular, of woolgathering, cloud-gazing, wandering, window-shopping, are nothing but voids to be filled by something more definite, more productive, or faster paced....

"The indeterminacy of a ramble, on which much may be discovered, is being replaced by the determinate shortest distance to be transversed with all possible speed, as well as by electronic transmissions that make real travel less necessary. As a member of the self-employed whose time saved by technology can be lavished on daydreams and meanders, I know these things have their uses, and use them -- a truck, a computer, a modem -- myself, but I fear their false urgency, their call to speed, their insistence that travel is less important than arrival. I like walking because it is slow, and I suspect that the mind, like the feet, works at about three miles an hour. If this is so, then modern life is moving faster than the speed of thought, or thoughtfulness."

The Look, again

Bunny girl sculpture by Wendy Froud, collage by Lynn Hardaker, card by Jeanie Tomanek

Solnit returned to the subject of time in an essay for the London Review of Books:

"Nearly everyone I know feels that some quality of concentration they once possessed has been destroyed. Reading books has become hard; the mind keeps wanting to shift from whatever it is paying attention to to pay attention to something else. A restlessness has seized hold of many of us, a sense that we should be doing something else, no matter what we are doing, or doing at least two things at once, or going to check some other medium. It’s an anxiety about keeping up, about not being left out or getting behind. (Maybe it was a landmark when Paris Hilton answered her mobile phone while having sex while being videotaped a decade ago.)

"The older people I know are less affected because they don’t partake so much of new media, or because their habits of mind and time are entrenched. The really young swim like fish through the new media and hardly seem to know that life was ever different. But those of us in the middle feel a sense of loss. I think it is for a quality of time we no longer have, and that is hard to name and harder to imagine reclaiming. My time does not come in large, focused blocks, but in fragments and shards. The fault is my own, arguably, but it’s yours too – it’s the fault of everyone I know who rarely finds herself or himself with uninterrupted hours. We’re shattered. We’re breaking up.

At the studio door

"It’s hard, now, to be with someone else wholly, uninterruptedly, and it’s hard to be truly alone. The fine art of doing nothing in particular, also known as thinking, or musing, or introspection, or simply moments of being, was part of what happened when you walked from here to there alone, or stared out the train window, or contemplated the road, but the new technologies have flooded those open spaces."

Studio

Later in the piece she wonders

"if there will be a revolt against the quality of time the new technologies have brought us, as well as the corporations in charge of those technologies. Or perhaps there already has been, in a small, quiet way. The real point about the slow food movement was often missed. It wasn’t food. It was about doing something from scratch, with pleasure, all the way through, in the old methodical way we used to do things. That didn’t merely produce better food; it produced a better relationship to materials, processes and labour, notably your own, before the spoon reached your mouth. It produced pleasure in production as well as consumption. It made whole what is broken."

Spying on cats

In "7 Things I Learned in 7 Years of Reading, Writing, and Living," Maria Popova notes:

"Presence is far more intricate and rewarding an art than productivity. Ours is a culture that measures our worth as human beings by our efficiency, our earnings, our ability to perform this or that. The cult of productivity has its place, but worshipping at its altar daily robs us of the very capacity for joy and wonder that makes life worth living — for, as Annie Dillard memorably put it, 'how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.' "

Stairway to the stream

Behind the studio

A stairway of roots

Terry Tempest Williams, too, has questioned our culture's emphasis on speed, ease, productivity, and consumption. In her beautiful essay "Ode to Slowness" (Red, 2001), she reflects on her transition from the urban pace of Salt Lake City to the quiet rhythms of a village in the Utah desert, using language that echoes my own transition from Boston and New York City to the Arizona desert and rural England:

"My husband and I were comfortable in our urban routine," she writes," but one night over dinner her said, 'What if we are only living half-lives? What if there is something more?'

"We wanted more.

"We wanted less.

"We wanted more time, fewer distractions. We wanted more time together, time to write, to breathe, to be more conscious with our lives. We wanted to be closer to wild places where we could walk and witness the seasonal changes, even the changing constellations. And so we banked on the idea of a simpler life away from the city near the slickrock country we love. What we would lose in income, we would gain in sanity."

Dog and sun

Time, she discovered, (as I, too, discovered), moves differently outside of the city.

"I am not so easily seduced by speed as I once was. I find that I have lost the desire to move that quickly in the world. To see how much I can get done in a day does not impress me any more. I don't think it's about getting older. It feels more like honoring the gravity in my own body in relationship to place. Survival. A rattlesnake coils; its tail shakes; the emptiness of the desert is evoked.

"I want my life to be a celebration of  s l o w n e s s ."

Woodland gate

As do I. Oh, as do I.

Hill and sun

Works by Terry Tempest Williams, Maria Popova, & Rebecca Solnit

Tilly, being slow

Bunny Girl (by Wendy Froud)

The Bunny Girl on my desk (and in the grass) is by Wendy Froud, the collage art by Lynn Hardaker, and the "woman with dog" card by Jeanie Tomanek. They were gifts, all of them, and much treasured.


Bowing to the Birds

Arctic Snowy Owl

In his now-classic book on the far north, Arctic Dreams, Barry Lopez describes tundra life in the western Brooks Range of Alaska:

"On the evening I am thinking about -- it was breezy there on the Ilingnorak Ridge, and cold; but the late-night sun, small as a kite in the northern sky, poured forth an energy that burned against my cheekbones -- it was on that evening that I went on a walk for the first time among the tundra birds. They all build their nests on the ground, so their vulnerability is extreme. I gazed down at a single horned lark no bigger than my fist. She stared back as resolute as iron. As I approached, golden plovers abandoned their nests in hysterical ploys, artfully feigning a broken wing to distract me from the woven grass cups that couched their pale, darkly speckled eggs. Their eggs glowed with a soft, pure light, like the window light in a Vermeer painting.

Golden plover beside her clutch of eggs

Lapland larkspur

Lapland longspur chick

"I walked on to find Lapland longspurs as still on their nests as stones, their dark eyes gleaming. At the nest of two snowy owls I stopped. These are more formidable animals than plovers. I stood motionless. The wild glare in their eyes receded. One owl settled back slowly over its three eggs, with an aura of primitive alertness. The other watched me -- and immediately sought a bond with my eyes if I started to move.

Snowy Owl and chick

Snowy Owl and chick

"I took to bowing on these evening walks. I would bow slightly with my hands in my pockets, towards the birds and the evidence of life in their nests -- because of their fecundity, unexpected in this remote region, and because of the serene arctic light that came down over the land like a breath, like breathing.

Caribou migrating across the Alaskan tundra by Joel Satore

"I remember the wild, dedicated lives of the birds that night and also the abandon with which a small herd of caribou crossed the Kokolik River to the northwest, the incident of only a few moments. They pranced through like wild mares, kicking up sheets of water across the evening sun and shaking it off on the far side like huge dogs,  bloom of spray that glittered in the air around them like grains of mica.

Caribou herd crossing a river

Caribou calf

"I remember the press of light against my face. The explosive skitter of calves among the grazing caribou. And the warm intensity of the eggs beneath these resolute birds. Until then, perhaps because the sun was shining in the very middle of the night, so out of tune with customary perception, I had never known how benign sunlight could be. How forgiving. How run through with compassion in a land that bore so eloquently the evidence of centuries of winter."

Four plover eggs on the tundra by Joel Satore

I first discovered Lopez's work when I was living in the Arizona desert and writing my desert novel, The Wood Wife. I read Desert Notes, then River Notes, and then everything else I could get my hands on -- changing my vision of the world and deepened my attention to it ever since. My personal favourites are his 1986 essay collection, Crossing Open Ground, and his magnificent latest book, Horizon -- and yet Arctic Dreams is a volume I have read and re-read more times than I can count.

''How is one to live a moral and compassionate existence,"  Lopez asks, "when one is fully aware of the blood, the horror inherent in life, when one finds darkness not only in one’s culture but within oneself? If there is a stage at which an individual life becomes truly adult, it must be when one grasps the irony in its unfolding and accepts responsibility for a life lived in the midst of such paradox. One must live in the middle of contradiction, because if all contradiction were eliminated at once life would collapse. There are simply no answers to some of the great pressing questions. You continue to live them out, making your life a worthy expression of leaning into the light.''

Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez

Pictures: The photographs above are of a snowy owl, a golden plover with her clutch of eggs, a Lapland larkspur, a Lapland larkspur chick in a tundra nest, a caribou herd crossing the tundra, caribou crossing a river, a frisky caribou calf, and a golden plover nest on the tundra. The caribou herd on the tundra and the golden plover nest are by the wildlife photographer and activist Joel Satore, whose work I highly  recommend. The other wildlife images come from Audubon and Arctic wildlife sites, photographers uncredited. All rights reserved.

Words: The passage above is from Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape by Barry Lopez (Charles Scribner's Sons, 1986), winner of the National Book Award. All rights reserved by the author. 


Rooms of Our Own

The Lew River valley

Lewtrenchard in the trees

In Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasure of a Creative Life, novelist and memoirist Dani Shapiro discusses the importance of having (as Virginia Woolf instructed so wisely) a "room of one's own" for nurturing our best creative work:

"It doesn't matter what or where it is, as long as it is yours. I don't necessarily mean that it has to belong to you. Only that, for the time you're working, you have what you need. Learning what you need to do your best work is a big step forward in the life of any writer. We all have different requirements, different ways of working. I have a friend who likes to write on the subway. She will board the F-train just to get work done. The jostle and cacophany -- she finds it clears her mind. Me? You'd have to shoot me first. For one, I'm a wee bit claustrophobic. Also, I need solitude and silence. I have friends who work best in coffee shops, others who like to work in the same rooms as their partners. Friends who have written multiple books at their kitchen tables. Marcel Proust famously wrote in bed, and so did Wendy Wasserstein. Gay Talese, the son of an Italian tailor, dresses in custom-made suits each morning  and descends the stairs to his basement study. Hemingway wrote standing up. One writer I know works best late at night, a habit left over from the years when she had young children under her roof and those were the only hours that were hers alone....

Lewtrenchard

Our window

Front door

"We writers spend our days making something out of nothing. There is the blank page (or screen) and then there is the fraught and magical process of putting words down on the page. There is no shape, no blueprint, until one emerges from the page, as if through a mist. Is it a mirage? Is it real? We can't know. And so we need a sense of structure around us. These four walls. This cup. The wheels of the train beneath us. This borrowed room. The weight of this particular pen. Whatever it is that makes us feel secure in our physical space allows us to make the leap, hoping that the page will catch us. Writing, after all, is an act of faith. We must believe, without the slightest evidence that believing will get us anywhere."

Window seat at Lewtrenchard

I agree with Shapiro that it's important to discover how, and where, we do our best work -- for with this knowledge we can align our habits with our creative temperament instead of handicapping ourselves by working against our natural rhythms. But these rhythms, I find, also change through time; what has worked during an earlier phase of life might be entirely unhelpful to us today. Over the course of my life, I have been all of the writers Shapiro describes above (except that unimaginable subway scribbler): I was a big-city cafe writer in my twenties; I shared an office with a fellow writer throughout my thirties; I've worked in communal Art Studio buildings in New York, Boston, Tucson and Devon over the years...and yet today I find myself wedded to the silence and solitude of a small cabin by the woods.

Stained glass window 1

Stained glass window 2

Stained glass window 3

And then, of course, when we think we've finally got it sussed -- our work place set, our habits established, our schedule steady, productive, and predictable -- life throws a curveball at us, things change, we change, and we start all over again. We have to hone our working methods not once but several times over, as our art and our lives unfold.

Hornsea, Lewtrenchard

What what about you? Where do you do your best work? Do you have a "room of your own"...are you searching for one...or are you one of those people who can plunk down and work from anywhere? What's your ideal space; has it changed over the years? What was the best space that you've worked in, or the worst, and how much does your physical environment matter?

Do you ever retreat from the world to write or paint? What would the retreat space of your dreams be like? The room pictured here, in a 16th century Devon manor house, is one of mine....

Lord of the Manor

Lewtrenchard Manor

Pictures: The photographs above are of Lewtrenchard, a Jacobean manor house in Lewdown, Devon -- home to the Victorian author and folklorist Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould, and the setting of Laurie R. King's novel The Moor, in her "Mary Russell" series.  You can read more about Lewtrenchard (and the story of how Howard and I came to be there) in the picture captions, which you'll find by running your cursor over each photograph.

Words: The passages quoted about are from Still Writing by Dani Shapiro (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2013), which I highly recommend -- as well as the author's blog about her writing life, Moments of Being. All rights reserved by the author.

A related post: What makes a good writing day?, full of pictures of writing rooms, cabins, and huts.


The Folklore of Hearth & Home

Weaver's Cottage

I've been corresponding with my friend Steve Toase on the subject of "home and homelessness" in life and literature, which made me go back to this article I wrote some years ago (prior to getting married and moving to Bumblehill, our current house, with Howard and our daughter). Since stories of "home and homelessness" are on my mind, I thought I'd share this article with you....

In the autumn of 2007, I packed up and sold the house where I'd lived for many years: a 16th century, thatch–roof cottage in a small English village on Dartmoor. The cottage was hugely significant to me, for I'd lived there much of my adult life, but in the house's own story, spanning four centuries, my two decades were a drop in the bucket. The cottage felt strange on my last evening there, emptied of furniture and books; only the goblin murals on the kitchen walls remained of the life I'd known there. I lit a last fire in the ancient stone hearth…and when the flames had burned down low, I put hot coals into an old tin can, following a Dartmoor folk custom. The coals would be used to light a fire at my next abode, just down the street -- which would bring me luck, according to some legends, and allow any fairies that lived in the hearth to move along with me, according to others. I left the cottage, locked the door, and pushed the house keys through the door's mail slot. They hit the floor, and with that sound, a large part of my life was now over.

I'd been anticipating this move for over a year, and was making the change for positive reasons, so the depth of the loss I felt in that moment was entirely unexpected. It wasn't just the cottage I was leaving behind, but the person I'd been there for so many years...and the future I'd always imagined I'd have growing old under its roof. Living in a magical, ancient house had become part of my self-identity. Who was I now, without that familiar backdrop of grinning goblins and old oak beams, of Morris fabrics and medieval tapestries? What remained of me, with the world that I'd woven around me stripped away? For the better part of two decades, my concept of "home" had been solid, unchangeable, literally built of granite; but life had taken an unexpected turn. I didn't yet know where this was leading. For now, I'd be in temporary digs, my worldly belongings packed in storage, my work/living needs pared down to essentials. Without the weight of that old stone house, my life felt curiously unmoored...but also full of narrative possibility as I waited for its next chapter to begin.

Weaver's Cottage, Chagford, Devon

Weaver's Cottage, built in 1596, in a small village at the edge of Darmoor

In this time of upheaval, I began to think about the hold that our homes can have on us, even in a transient culture where multiple moves are not unusual. The places we live and the places we grew up in have an impact, whether acknowledged or not, on our lives, our relationships, our dreams; and the houses we yearn for, whether real or imagined, reveal much about our inner nature. As a folklorist, I'm interested in how the idea of home is expressed in traditional stories; and as a fantasist, in how this translates into modern magical fiction.

Oliver Twist by E.M. TaylorFairy tales, for example often begin with a hero propelled from his or her home by poverty or calamity; and the search for the safe haven of a new home, or the task of restoring prosperity to an old one, is central to such stories. Fairy tales tend to be rites-of-passage narratives, chronicling a transformational journey from one archetypal life stage to another. Most often, such tales follow a young hero's transition from childhood to adulthood, the completion of the journey symbolized by a wedding at the story's end. In the modern, simplified versions of the tales popularized by Disney films and children's books, the emphasis is so often placed on the romantic (and wealth accumulating) aspects of the stories that finding "true love" (with a well heeled spouse) can seem to be what fairy tales are all about. Older, adult versions of the tales, by contrast, are focused on the steps of the hero's passage through a period of upheaval and peril -- a period required to test the hero's mettle and provoke growth and self-transformation. Such tales speak to the challenges we face at any time in life (not just in our youth) when circumstances force us to leave home, either literally or metaphorically, setting us on the road to an unknown future and a new identity.

Woods Thicker and Thicker by HJ FordSnow White, Donkeyskin, The Girl With No Hands, Hans My Hedgehog: these are all rites-of-passage narratives. Each tale begins in a childhood home that has become constricting, even dangerous, and each hero must leave this home behind in order to forge a new life in the adult world. The completion of the hero's task is marked by the traditional rewards of the fairy tale genre: a marriage, a crown, a storehold full of treasure; but the true reward at journey's end is a new-found ability to survive life's trials, transcend its terrors, and determine one's own fate.

The heroes begin in one home and end in another (or else in the old home restored and renewed), but in between these two poles is a crucial period of homelessness. Homelessness is a liminal state rich in opportunities for character change and growth, which has made it a popular plot device among storytellers both old and new. Homelessness detaches protagonists from the roles they have played in the past, strips them of identity, blurs the markers of class or rank, removes usual sources of aid and comfort, and throws them on their own resources. . .a perfect recipe for suspense, adventure, and heroic metamorphosis.

Weaver's Cottage

The archetypal Hero's Journey is often a different one for the young men and women in traditional stories, as Midori Snyder discussed in her fine article on the Armless Maiden folk tale: "In hero narratives," she wrote, "a young man leaves the familiar home of his birth and ventures into the unknown world where the fantastic waits to challenge him. Along the journey, his worth as a man and as a hero is tested. But when the trials are done, he returns home again in triumph, bringing to his society new-found knowledge, maturity and often a magical bride." A young woman, by contrast, ventures out or is propelled into the world "knowing that she will never return home. Instead, at the end of a perilous and solitary journey, she arrives at a new village or kingdom. There, disguised as a dirty-faced servant, a scullery maid, or a goose girl, she completes her initiation into adulthood and brings the gifts of knowledge, maturity, and fertility to a new home and community."

Such stories rose from societies in which this gender difference was a fact of life; where girls were expected to leave home upon marriage and join the household, village, or tribe of their new husband's family. (We see the echo of this tradition today when women give up their own names upon marriage.) The anxiety felt by women in such cultures, particularly in places where they were allowed no say in the choice of husband, was expressed by tales such as Bluebeard/Fitcher's Bird, or Beauty and the Beast, in which a young woman finds herself far from home, co-habiting with a monster.

Kitchen goblins by Brian Froud

Goblins in my Goblin Kitchen, painted by Brian Froud, inspired by Christina Rossetti's classic fairy poem "Goblin Market"

Another staple of folk and fairy tales is the mysterious house that appears to offer shelter but is actually a source of danger or enchantment. The gingerbread house in Hansel and Gretel is a welcome sight to the two hungry children made homeless by their feckless parents, but it's really just a trap designed to lure boys and girls into a cooking pot. There are numerous tales in which weary travelers stumble upon a house in the woods with its front door standing invitingly open, a fire lit, a hot meal spread temptingly on the table, and the owner of the house nowhere in sight. Lisel Mueller wrote about just such a house in her magical poem "Voices from the Forest. "No matter how exhausted you are, Mueller says, do not enter the house in the forest: Drawing by Laura Barrett

It is only when you finish eating
and, drowsy and grateful, pull off your shoes,
that the ax falls or the giant returns
or the monster springs or the witch
locks the door from the outside and throws away the key.

But if you must enter, Neil Gaiman has advice in his charming poem "Instructions":

A red metal imp hangs from the green–painted front door, as a knocker,
do not touch it; it will bite your fingers.
Walk through the house. Take nothing. Eat nothing.

Those last words are important. Folk tales from all over the world warn that eating the food of a witch, a demon, a djinn, a troll, an ogre, or the fairies can be a dangerous proposition. You might owe your youngest child in return, or be bound to your host for the rest of your life. Likewise, don't kiss the beautiful woman who offers you a meal and a bed in her sumptuous chateau hidden deep in the woods. By morning light she'll be a monster, and her house but a pile of rocks and bones. Some enchanted houses appear for a single night each year and then vanish again. Be sure to be out by dawn or you too will disappear along with it. And sometimes the houses themselves are monstrous, such as the famous hut of the witch Baba Yaga in Russian fairy tales, which balances on chicken legs and can spin and move from place to place.

Weaver's Cottage

Goblins by Alan Lee, Dennis Nolan, and Charles Vess

There are also houses in the woods, however, where the safe haven offered is not mere illusion, often put on the hero's path by a kindly fairy or a guardian angel. The hero of The Girl With No Hands finds just such a sanctuary deep in the forest, and the princess in The White Deer lives in one at night, when she's in human form. Jungian psychologist Marie-Louise von Franz considered these woodland dwellings to represent the place deep within ourselves where we retreat, in solitude, to ponder life's deeper meanings, heal our wounds, and renew our spirits. In tales like The Girl With No Hands, she said, the hero enters the woods (the psyche) in a maimed or enchanted state, and does not leave again until she is healed, whole, transformed.

Weaver's CottageIn both Jungian psychology and dream analysis, a house is much more that just a dwelling or shelter -- it is a symbol in the ancient, pictorial language of mythic archetypes. Dream analysts say that a house represents the levels of the dreamer's own mind, and some give each different part of the house a specific significance: The front porch is our social or public mask; the living room, our interior consciousness; the kitchen represents our potential — the place where ideas are stirred, cooked up, and brought into conscious form. Cabinets and drawers hold experiences; closets hold hidden aspects and talents; stairs represent growth and moving up to (or down from) higher levels of consciousness. A bedroom dream reveals the things that the subconscious mind is pre–occupied with; a hallway leads to memories and the past, or to possibilities and the future. Rearranging the furniture indicates a sorting of priorities, ideals, or beliefs. A house demolition is a major life change, or the deterioration of physical health, and moving represents a change of consciousness or a psychic upheaval.

Weaver's Cottage

Carl Jung himself had recurring dreams in which houses featured prominently. He often dreamed he was building a house, or had stumbled upon a new room in his home -- representing, he said, the building of the self and the discovery of new ideas. In his forties, Jung bought a parcel of land and turned dream into reality by building Bollingen, his spiritual retreat on the banks of Lake Zurich. He started off with a low stone tower, built largely with his own two hands, its round shape representing the maternal archetype (and his own mother's recent death). Slowly, over thirty years, the house sprouted another tower, a courtyard, an annex, and a second floor, each addition marking a life change and the evolution of his theories of the psyche. Bollingen was Jung's attempt to achieve a "representation in stone of my innermost thoughts and the knowledge I had acquired....From the very beginning, I felt the Tower as in some way a place of maturation -- a maternal womb or maternal figure in which I would become what I was, what I am, and will be."

Weaver's CottageJung's vision of a house, built in the round, as the embodiment of the "eternal feminine" had its roots in the mythology and building practices of ancient Greece, where the home was sacred to Hestia, goddess of the hearth and perpetual flame. Sometimes called "the forgotten goddess," Hestia rarely appears in the tales of the gods, and seems to have had few temples or acolytes; and yet she was actually the first of the goddesses, sitting higher in the Olympian pantheon than even Hera (wife of Zeus, goddess of love and marriage) or Demeter (goddess of fertility and the harvest). Although avidly courted by both Poseidon and Apollo, Hestia vowed she would never marry, dedicating herself instead to the management of Mount Olympus, home of the gods. For this, she received the first portion of tribute in the temple rites of all the other gods, and was worshipped at the hearth in the center of all houses and buildings. Each morning began with Hestian prayers as the family fire was stoked for cooking and heating; each day ended with prayers to the goddess as the fire was banked for the night.

Weaver's CottageUnlike the rest of the Greek pantheon, well known for their tempers, jealousies, and quarrels, Hestia was an unusually stable goddess, revered for her gentle, calm, and forgiving nature. But lest we think of her as the Olympian equivalent of a 1950s housewife, limited to home and the service of others, she was also the first builder, the inventor of architecture, and the patron of these arts. Her symbols were the circle and perpetual flame (including the undying flame of the Olympics), and her sphere of influence reached beyond the home to the undying flame at the heart of the Senate.

Her counterpart in Roman myth was Vesta, although the two are not completely interchangeable. Vesta, too, was venerated at the hearth and thus played a central role in family life -- but she also had public temples, including her famous circular temple in Rome where priestesses tended the perpetual flame that was the city's source of spiritual strength. Called Vestal Virgins (having pledged themselves to thirty years of celibacy), Vesta's priestesses enjoyed an unusual degree of freedom and political power in a society that was not known for enlightened attitudes towards women. At the end of thirty years, the Vestal Virgins were free to end their vows and marry, but few cared to trade the privileges of their profession for the restricted life of the average Roman matron.

A shadow forest on a bedroom's walls

A shadow forest painted on bedroom walls

In addition to a central shrine to Vesta, most Roman families maintained shrines for a panoply of small domestic gods: the Lares, protectors of the household, and the Penates, gods of pantry and larder. Shrines to the Lares and Penates of the house were located conveniently close to the door so that offerings could be made frequently -- for, like the fairies of English lore, they were troublesome if neglected. The door itself was watched over by Janus, the two-faced god of doors and gates, associated with endings and beginnings, joined in his duties by Cardea, the goddess of door handles and hinges. Ovid tells us that Cardea's power is "to open what is shut, and to shut what is open." As a result, she was also the goddess of midwives, called upon during difficult childbirths. The threshold, and the act of crossing over it, belonged to the trickster god Mercury (Hermes in Greek), whose sign, a phallic-shaped stone or statue, often stood guard at the front of the dwelling. It was customary to stroke the stone for luck when leaving or returning home.

Tapestry bedroom

While Greco-Roman myth divided the roles of the goddess of the home and the goddess of marriage (Hestia/Vesta on one hand, Hera/Juno on the other), Norse mythology combined them into a single powerful figure, the goddess Frigg. The wife of Odin and the queen of the Aesir, Frigg's province covered hearth, home, love, marriage, and child-bearing (among many other things), all of which were accorded high status. Only she, among all the gods, was permitted to share Odin's high seat and look out over the universe.

Under-the-eaves painting studio at Weaver's Cottage

In Celtic myth, Brigidh was the goddess of the hearth and the keeper of the sacred flame, although, like Frigg, her influence extended much beyond the domestic sphere; she was also the goddess of poetic eloquence and of skill in the planning of warfare. Brigidh's legends overlapped with those of Habondia, an Anglo-Saxon goddess of hearth and home. Household shrines to Brigidh or Habondia insured the fertility of the marriage bed, tranquility among family members, and the blessing of domestic chores -- especially the "magical arts" of cooking, bread baking, and brewing.

Wall tree

Weavers Cottage

In Western mythic traditions, the home was the realm of female deities, but when we look at the lesser supernaturals -- the Lares, the Penates, the various tribes of fairies -- we find a range of male figures attached or attracted to human dwellings: hobgoblins, house brownies, hearth fairies,
chimney trolls, and other similar creatures. These could be helpful and protective spirits if treated respectfully and generously (according to the creature's particular code), or they could make a house unlivable: spoiling the bread, curdling the milk, dampening the fire. We must go to other parts of the world to find traditions favoring male household gods, though even these tend to be among the minor deities.

Guardian statue by Wendy FroudIn China, for example, Tsao Wang is a popular hearth god in the countryside, where he watches over each household from his shrine by the hearth or stove. Great care must be taken not to swear, quarrel, or lie within the hearth god's hearing, for each year Tsao Wang makes an annual report to the celestial Jade Emperor, and this determines the family's luck (or lack thereof) in the year ahead. Vietnam has a similar deity called the Stove God, or Mandarin Tao -- a clownish figure who's in such a rush to get to Heaven with his annual report that he often leaves his trousers behind and is commonly pictured without them. Oki-Tsu-Hiko-No-Kami and his consort, Oki-Tsu-Hime-No-Kami, are the kitchen gods of Japanese lore. As the children of harvest deities, their province is food storage and preparation; neglect of their shrine will cause the rice pot to boil over or the vegetables to rot. In Hindu myth, Annamurti, one of many forms of the god Vishnu, is the deity to call upon in the kitchen, where cooks make offerings of sweetened rice and milk to gain his favor. Hinukan, the hearth and kitchen god of the Uchinanchu people of Okinawa, is always paired in the household pantheon with Fuuru nu Kami, the god of the toilet. Without the latter figure, negative spirits attracted to waste matter would cause illness or worse. In Russian folklore, hearth spirits (usually male) followed their particular families from house to house. In customs similar to those here on Dartmoor, the first fire in a new fireplace was lit with coals or embers from the old, with all the doors standing open wide as the spirit was formally invited in.

Two deer women sculptures by Wendy Froud

Two deer women sculptures by Wendy Fround, one in the garden (viewed through a window) and one on a window sill

Weaver's Cottage

It has been many, many years, however, since an open fire was the indispensable center of the home, at least in Western culture, and even the kitchen is losing its importance as rushed family members eat on the run. Where, then, is the heart of the modern home? The television, or computer screen? And what gods might be taking residence there, expecting tribute and propitiation? It is not only modern technology and an increasingly secular culture that have changed our relationship with our homes, however. For the first time in our history more of us live in cities than in rural communities; and few of us in the West still live on the land where our ancestors have lived. Home is where we hang our hat, as the old song says, rather than a landscape grazed or farmed for generation after generation. Home means the place we live right now; tomorrow it may mean someplace different. We are now, most of us, like the female heroes in traditional stories who leave their home with no expectation of returning…and we do this not once in our lives, but sometimes again and again and again.

Folk tales remind us, however, that moving home is not a simple act; it's one with mythic reverberations. It's a rite-of-passage, with all the attendant dangers and potential rewards that such passages offer. Houses are more than just real estate; they represent our innermost selves (as the Jungian say) and the stages of our lives (as the fairy tales tell us). In both views, moving from one home to another means passing through a period of upheaval, provoking internal change and self-transformation. And we're advised to carry the coals of our old life with us to kindle the new life ahead.

Weaver's Cottage

In fantasy literature, as in fairy tales, many stories begin with the loss of a home, and this is precisely what thrusts the protagonists into the world. Some stories, like L. Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz or J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, rest on the main protagonist's fierce desire to go home again; in others, they must find or create new homes for themselves in far distant lands. In Diana Wynne Jones' Charmed Life, for example, young Janet chooses to remain in the magical world of Chrestomanci; in Pamela Dean's "Secret Country" books, some of the children never return home again; and Austin Tappan Wright's great utopian novel Islandia revolves around a hero pulled between loyalties to his old and new countries. In fiction, as in myth, it's that in-between period of wandering and homelessness that allows for adventure and metamorphosis, propelling characters out of their settled ways of life and into their new roles as heroes.

From The Lord of the Rings Sketchbook by Alan Lee

Bilbo & Frodo Baggin's house, Bag End, drawn by Alan Lee

In children's fantasy, many adventures begin when a child's usual home is disrupted -- when they're sent off to live with relatives, or transplanted to a summer cottage, or sent off to boarding school, etc. It's interesting to note that a number of these tales -- The Owl Service by Alan Garner, for example, or The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken -- were penned by writers who grew up in England during the Second World War, a time when children were regularly sent away from home to escape German bombers. Displacement, once again, creates a space that is rich in narrative possibilities, with the added bonus that once the parents are off the scene, the young protagonists are thrown onto their own resources.

What I love best are those fantasy novels where the houses themselves are a source of enchantment, reminiscent of the fairy towers and haunted chateaux to be found in folk tales. The masterwork in this mini-genre is The Gormenghast Trilogy by Mervyn Peake, in which an entire epic world is created beneath one rambling, crumbling roof, but there are plenty of other fantastical houses I'd also love to have a good wander in: such as Edgewood from John Crowley's Little, Big, or Tamsin House from Charles de Lint's Moonheart; or Crackpot Hall from Ysabeau Wilce's Flora Segunda; or Moonacre Manor from Elizabeth Goudge's The Little White Horse. In such books, domestic spaces regain their aura of the numinous, connecting us, in our everyday lives, as we sleep and wake and cook and clean, to the realm of the gods, the fairies, the ancestors, and to worlds of magic.

A painting of Gormenghast by Alan Lee

Gormenghast painted by Alan Lee

In real life, too, there are those who turn their houses into enchanted spaces -- particularly among artists, some of whom seem compelled to transform the whole world around them. The Pre-Raphaelite visionary William Morris was famous for his desire to bring beauty into every small facet of daily life, designing his own furniture, fabrics, and wallpaper patterns; making his own dyes, weaving his own rugs, painting his own chimney tiles, and so forth. A revolution in British design was born from the fanciful homes he created for his family and his friends at Red House in south-east London and Kelmscott Manor in Oxfordshire.

Kelmscott Manor, in Oxfordshire

Kelmscott Manor in Oxfordshire

A drawing of Kelmscott Manor in the Kelmscott Press edition of ''News From Nowhere'' by William Morris

A drawing of Kelmscott Manor in News from Nowhere by William Morris

The Willow Bedroom at Kelmscott Manor

The Willow Bedroom at Kelmscott Manor, will wallpaper & textiles designed by William Morris

Arts-&-Crafts bedroom (for guests)

The Willow Guest-Bedroom at Weaver's Cottage, in honor of Morris

The Bloomsbury artists Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant took their paintbrushes to every surface of Charleston, the farmhouse they shared with other writers and artists in the Sussex countryside. Preserved and open to the public now, Charleston is a timeless, spell-bound world formed of pattern, color, and whimsy.

Charleston Farmhouse in Sussex

Charleston Farmhouse in Sussex

The hand-painted livingroom at Charleston

The living room at Charleston

Duncan Grant's studio at Charleston

Duncan Grant's studio at Charleston

In Moscow, Viktor Vasnetsov's magical home has been turned into a house-museum, featuring the mythic paintings for which this 19th century artist is famed. The house is a fantasy vision, designed in the distinctive "Russian folk tale style" that Vasnetsov created and promoted as part of the Russian Revivalist movement. In Sweden, Carl & Karin Larsson turned their Sundborn farmhouse into a work of art -- made famous by Carl's many paintings of the house, and of their family life within it. On the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, Walter Inglis Anderson spent his last decades in a secluded, rustic cottage where (unbeknownst to family and friends) he covered the walls of a padlocked room with luminous murals of astonishing beauty, born of a spiritual vision rooted in his passion for nature. The "Little Room" was discovered after the artist's death, and can now be viewed at the Walter Anderson Museum.

Viktor Vasnetsov House Museum, Moscow

The Viktor Vasnetsov House-Museum in Moscow

The Carl and Karin Larsson House, Sweden

Carl & Karin Larsson's farmhouse in Sundborn, Sweden

Secret murals by Walter Inglis Anderson

A corner of the room painted by Walter Inglis Anderson on the coast of Mississippi

By the end of my time at Weaver's Cottage, the walls throughout the place were covered with poems, quotes, drawings and paintings of trees, deer, and fairy tale creatures -- added slowly, year by year, as my life and work in the house evolved. There was a forest in the bedroom, deer women on the stairs, bunny girls peeping from hidden corners -- but the Goblin Kitchen is what people remember best, and for good reason. Inspired by Christina Rossetti's classic fairy poem "Goblin Market," the fruit-juggling rascals on the kitchen walls were painted by several artist friends: Brian Froud, Alan Lee, Charles Vess, Dennis Nolan, and Lauren Mills among them. Now they, too, have slipped into the house's long story, haunting the place like all its other ghosts.


Brian Froud & Alan Lee, painting goblins in Weaver's kitchen

Brian's goblins on the kitchen wall

Brian Froud & Alan Lee painting goblins in the kitchen of my cottage, 1991, and Brian's goblins grinning from the wall

As I walked away from Weaver's Cottage, I couldn't help thinking of fairy tales: of endings, and of beginnings, and of how the one loops into the other. I didn't yet know what roads lay ahead, or who I would be on the next stage of the journey. I couldn't imagine the trials I'd face, or the treasures I'd find at journey's end. Would my life become ordinary and dull without that old house, with its ghosts and goblins?

Nah. As the folk tales tell us, it's when you leave home that the magic begins.

In my garden

The photographs of Weaver's Cottage above were taken by Alan Lee, Stephen Dooley, Helen Mason, and me. (Please do not re-post these images, as this was my home.) The murals, sadly, no longer exist; a subsequent owner of the cottage painted them over. Perhaps, like faery gold, they were meant to be ephemeral....

The other houses pictured here are open to the public. The photographs of them are from the public websites for Kelmscott Manor, Charleston Farmhouse, The Viktor Vasnetsov House-Museum, The Carl & Karin Larsson Farmhouse, and The Walter Anderson Museum; all rights reserved by the owners of these estates. The pen-&-ink drawings are "Oliver Twist" by E.M.Taylor and "Woods Thicker and Thicker" by H.J. Ford. The silhouette drawing is "Hansel & Gretel" by Laura Berrett. The pencil drawing of Bag End and the painting of Gormenghast are by Alan Lee. All rights to the text, photographs, and art in this post reserved by the author, photographers, and artists.


On the New Year and fresh starts

Signpost 1

I've been asked to re-post this piece from a couple of years ago, and so here it is, with heartfelt thanks to the kind readers who remembered and requested it....

Over the last few days, I've been asking friends how they feel about New Year's celebrations, and from my small sampling (mostly of writers and artists) this is what I've learned:

The vast majority answered with the equivalent of a shrug: The New Year's holiday? They could take or leave it. A smaller (but emphatic) group detest it for a variety of reasons: the social pressure to be happy on New Year's eve, the guilt-tripping nature of New Year resolutions, the arbitrary designation of the year's end in the Gregorian calendar, or simply the bad timing of yet another celebration on the heels of Christmas. I found just a small minority who genuinely love New Year's Eve and Day, and I am one of them. In fact, it's my favorite holiday, so I've been thinking about the reasons why -- especially since I generally mark the changing of the seasons by the pagan, not the Christian, calendar.

Signpost 2

I grew up with the Pennsylvania Dutch traditions of my mother's large extended family: nominally Christian, but rich in folklore, folk ways, and homely forms of folk magic. One of those traditions was my mother's practice of taking down the Christmas tree on New Year's day, cleaning the house from top to bottom, and then opening the kitchen door (with a great flourish) to sweep the old year out and welcome in the new: my mother, my great-aunt Clara, and I each taking turns with the broom. Christmas was a hard time for my mother and always ended in tears, but she would rally by New Year's day, relishing the act of making order out of chaos: a woman's ritual, shared only with me and not my half-brothers (my stepfather's sons). Boys doing housework? The very notion was unthinkable in that time and place.

Signpost 3

At some point in the midst of all that cleaning, my mother and I would sit down at the kitchen table, eat the last of the kiffles (a traditional cookie made only at Christmas; it is bad luck to eat them past New Year's Day), and talk about plans for the year ahead. These were not New Year's resolutions, exactly; no lists were made, nothing was written down. It was more like a verbal conjuring, a vision of what we'd do differently and better, spoken at the right folkloric time when words held the power of an incantation: the pause between the old year and the new when anything seemed possible.

Signpost 4

My mother was a great believer in new beginnings, in a way that was both painful and brave. We moved around a lot when I was young, in search of work for my stepfather, whose alcoholism and violent temper ensured that employment never lasted long. In each new place my mother would mentally sweep her troubles out the kitchen door and make a brand new start: each house, each job, each new school for my young brothers and me would be different and better, she insisted. We would finally settle down.

Since the new house was usually worse than the last, she would set herself to transforming it, ingeniously making small amounts of money go a long, long way: she'd paint our rooms in surprising colors (dictated by the paint choices in the bargain bins); make new curtains in cheap, cheery fabrics edged with bright Ric Rac and Pom Pom trim; scour yard sales for pretty new dishes and lamps (constantly broken in my stepfather's rages).  For a while she'd be happy and fiercely optimistic...until the usual troubles caught up with us. There would be fights, and tears, and everything would shatter. My mother would collapse, her husband disappear to the nearest bar. Then she'd pick herself up, we'd move again, and she'd start afresh with quiet courage.

Signpost 5

As a kid I moved even more often than my mother, shunted between her, my grandmother, my great-aunt Clara or other relatives, with a couple of stints in foster care -- and so I needed my mother's lesson in embracing change rather more than most. Many people from peripatetic childhoods react with a deep dislike of change. My own reaction is a mix of opposites. My childhood has left me with a soul-deep need for home, place, and community -- yet I also love stepping into the unknown and using the act of relocation as a catalyst for transformation and renewal. In this I am my mother's daughter. I like transitions, beginnings, the changing of the seasons, the turning of the calendar's pages. As I wrote in a previous New Year post:

I have a great affection for those moments in time that allow us to push the "re-set" buttons in our minds and make a fresh start: the start of a new year, the start of a new week, the start of a new morning or fresh endeavor. As L. M. Montgomery (author of Anne of Green Gables) once wrote, "Isn't it nice to think that tomorrow is a new day with no mistakes in it yet?"

The American abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher advised: "Every man should be born again on the first day of January. Start with a fresh page." Some people, of course, find a blank page terrifying...but that's something I've never quite understood. I love the feeling of potential inherent in an untouched notebook, a fresh white canvas, even a new computer folder waiting to be filled. It's the same sense of freedom to be found at the start of a journey, when all lies ahead and limits haven't yet been reached.

Signpost 6

My mother died from cancer sixteen years ago, at roughly the age that I am now, and she never managed to turn those new beginnings into the calm, stable life she craved. The determined optimism she practiced wasn't always entirely admirable. Optimism can also be blind or foolish, and prevent the solving of problems through the refusal to accept reality. A fresh start can only transform a life if it is followed by the hard and clear-eyed work of making substantive change: leaving the violent husband, for example, rather than putting fresh paint on walls that will soon be bloodied once again.

But there were reasons my mother couldn't make those harder changes, so I'm not going to sit in judgement of her now. I'm just going to love her for who she was. Acknowledge her quiet bravery. And appreciate the gifts that she's passed on: kiffles and a broom on New Year's Day. And a love of new beginnings.

Signpost 7

 Yesterday I swept the house. Today I am the sweeping the studio. I'm thinking about what I'll do differently, and better.

The world is full of possibilities.

Signpost 8

Pictures: The photographs today are from Queen's Wood, an ancient woodland in London's Muswell Hill: 52 acres of oak and hornbeam trees, abutting Highgate Wood. The pictures were taken during a Christmas holiday spent with our daughter in the city. I recommend "The History and Archaeology of Queen's Wood" by Michael Hacker if you'd like to know more about this beautiful place: a tranquil, magical piece of wild preserved within a bustling cityscape. (Tilly loved it.) The last photo was taken by Howard.

Words: The poem in the picture caption is from Tell Me by Kim Addonizio (BOA Editions, 2000); all rights reserved by the author.


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.


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.


A parliament of owls

Detail from The Falling Star by Catherine Hyde

Studio 1

This post is reprinted today by request. It goes out to all who struggle with the short days and long nights of winter....

At this time of year the mornings are dark, so I climb the hill to my studio on a pathway lit by moonlight and stars. I unlock the cabin, light the lamps, and Tilly settles sleepily on the couch. Behind us, the oak and ash of the woods are silhouettes cut out of black paper; below, the village lies in a bowl of darkness, the outline of the moor on its rim. I can hear water in the stream close by, and owls calling from the woodland beyond. The sun rises late, the days are short, and the owls are a regular presence.

In the myths and lore of the West Country, the owl is a messenger from the Underworld, and a symbol of death, initiation, dark wisdom. She is an uncanny bird, a companion to hedgewitches, sorcerers, and the Triple Goddess in her crone aspect. There are owls in the woods all year long, of course, but winter is when I know them best: as I climb through the dark guided by a small torch, and my dog, and the owls' parliament.

Studio 2

In her essay "Owls," Mary Oliver writes of her search for the birds in the woods near her home -- describing her quest, and the passage from winter to spring, in prose that takes my breath away:

The Wild Night Ascending by Catherine Hyde"Finally the earth grows softer, and the buds on the trees swell, and the afternoon becomes a wider room to roam in, as the earth moves back from the south and the light grows stronger. The bluebirds come back, and the robins, and the song sparrows, and great robust flocks of blackbirds, and in the fields blackberry hoops put on a soft plum color, a restitution; the ice on the ponds begins to thunder, and between the slices is seen the strokes of its breaking up, a stutter of dark lightning. And then the winter is over, and again I have not found the great horned owl's nest.

"But the owls themselves are not hard to find, silent and on the wing, with their ear tufts flat against their heads as they fly and their huge wings alternately gliding and flapping as they maneuver through the trees. Athena's owl of wisdom and Merlin's companion, Archimedes, were screech owls surely, not this bird with the glassy gaze, restless on the bough, nothing but blood on its mind.

"When the great horned is in the trees its razor-tipped toes rasp the limb, flakes of bark fall through the air and land on my shoulders while I look up at it and listen to the heavy, crisp, breathy snapping of its hooked beak. The screech owl I can imagine on my wrist, also the delicate saw-whet that flies like a big soft moth down by Great Pond. And I can imagine sitting quietly before that luminous wanderer the snowy owl, and learning, from the white gleam of its feathers, something about the Arctic.

"But the great horned I can't imagine in any such proximity -- if one of those should touch me, it would be the center of my life, and I must fall. They are the pure wild hunters of our world. They are swift and merciless upon the backs of rabbits, mice, voles, snakes, even skunks, even cats sitting in dusky yards, thinking peaceful thoughts. I have found the headless bodies of rabbits and bluejays, and known it was the great horned owl that did them in, taking the head only, for the owl has an insatiable craving for the taste of brains. I have walked with prudent caution down paths at twilight when the dogs were puppies. I know this bird. If it could, it would eat the whole world.

Studio 3

"In the night," writes Oliver, "when the owl is less than exquisitely swift and perfect, the scream of the rabbit is terrible. But the scream of the owl, which is not of pain and hopelessness, and the fear of being plucked out of the world, but of the sheer rollicking glory of the death-bringer, is more terrible still. When I hear it resounding through the woods, and then the five black pellets of its song dropping like stones into the air, I know I am standing at the edge of the mystery, in which terror is naturally and abundantly part of life, part of even the most becalmed, intelligent, sunny life -- as, for example, my own. The world where the owl is endlessly hungry and endlessly on the hunt is the world in which I too live. There is only one world."

Studio 4

Sleepy Tilly

Like Oliver, I strive to create and inhabit a "becalmed, intelligent, sunny" life -- fashioned from ink and paint, old storybooks, and rambles through the hills with the hound -- but darkness, mortality, and mystery are the flip side of that coin. I remember this during the winter months, on the dark path up to my studio. I remember it when my body fails and death glides by on a horned owl's wings; it does not come to my wrist, not yet, thank god, but some day it must, and it will. I remember it when the dark daily news intrudes on my studio solitude, demanding response, outrage, activism. I resist the dark. My life has known too much dark and I want no more of it. I'm a creature of dawn...but the nightworld is our world too. There is only one world.

"Most people are afraid of the dark," writes Rebecca Solnit (in a beautiful essay on Virginia Woolf). "Literally, when it comes to children; while many adults fear, above all, the darkness that is the unknown, the unseeable, the obscure. And yet the night in which distinctions and definitions cannot be readily made is the same night in which love is made, in which things merge, change, become enchanted, aroused, impregnated, possessed, released, renewed.

The Soft Hush of Night by Catherine Hyde

"As I began writing this essay," Solnit continues, "I picked up a book on wilderness survival by Laurence Gonzalez and found in it this telling sentence: 'The plan, a memory of the future, tries on reality to see if it fits.' His point is that when the two seem incompatible we often hang onto the plan, ignore the warnings reality offers us, and so plunge into trouble. Afraid of the darkness of the unknown, the spaces in which we see only dimly, we often choose the darkness of closed eyes, of obliviousness. Gonzalez adds, 'Researchers point out that people tend to take any information as confirmation of their mental models. We are by nature optimists, if optimism means that we believe we see the world as it is. And under the influence of a plan, it’s easy to see what we want to see. It’s the job of writers and explorers to see more, to travel light when it comes to preconception, to go into the dark with their eyes open.' "

That is indeed our job. So I climb through the dark, and open myself to its beauty, its terrors. And I sit down to write.

The Running of the Deer by Catherine Hyde

The art today is by Catherine Hyde, an extraordinary painter based in Cornwall. Catherine trained at Central School of Art in London, and has been exhibiting her work in galleries in London, Cornwall, and father afield for over thirty years. In 2008 she was asked to interpret Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy’s fairytale The Princess’ Blankets, which won the English Association’s Best Illustrated Book for Key Stage 2. Her second book, Firebird written by Saviour Pirotta, was awarded an Aesop Accolade by the American Folklore Society. Her third book, Little Evie in the Wild Wood, written by Jackie Morris, was a wonderful twist on the Red Riding Hood fairy tale; and she both wrote and illustrated The Star Tree, which was shortlisted for the Kate Greenaway Award and Cambridgeshire Children’s Picture Book Award. Her latest is The Hare and the Moon: A Calendar of Pictures, amd it's utterly magical.

Regarding her work process, she says: "I am constantly exploring the places between definable moments: the meeting points between land and water, earth and sky, dusk and dawn in order to capture the landscape in a state of suspension drawing the viewer to the liminal spaces that lie between dream and consciousness.”

Please visit Catherine's website and online shop to see more of her art.

The Golden Path by Catherine Hyde

The Sleeping Earth by Catherine Hyde

Words: The passage by Mary Oliver is from "Owls" (Orion Magazine, 1996). The passage by Rebecca Solnit is from "Virginia Woolf’s Darkness: Embracing the Inexplicable"  (The New Yorker, 2014). The poem in the picture captions is from New & Selected Poems by Mary Oliver (Beacon Press, 1992). All right reserved by the authors.

Pictures: The Falling Star (detail), The Wild Night Ascending, The Soft Hush of Night, The Running of the Deer, The Golden Path, and The Sleeping Earth, all by Catherine Hyde. All rights reserved by the artist.


Gracious acceptance

White Tower by William Bailey

Over the weekend I posted a piece on creativity and the art of gift-giving ... and the other side of that coin, of course is the art of gift-receiving. If we're to have a balanced, creatively fecund life we must practice both with equal skill. But as Alexander McCall Smith points out (in his novel Love Over Scotland), the act that he calls gracious acceptance is "an art which most never bother to cultivate. We think that we have to learn how to give, but we forget about accepting things, which can be much harder than giving."

"Until we can receive with an open heart," notes psychologist Brené Brown astutely, "we're never really giving with an open heart. When we attach judgment to receiving help, we knowingly or unknowingly attach judgment to giving help."

"Human life runs its course in the metamorphosis between receiving and giving," the German Romantic poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once wrote -- and art-making, too, thrives in the space where giving and receiving dance in partnership. We take in the gifts of inspiration, shape them to our purposes, and then pass those gifts along through our stories, paintings, and other creative works.

Ceremony by William Bailey

To be skilled in the art of "gracious acceptance" is to be wide-open and receptive to the gifts the muses bring, and this skill, it seems to me, is helped or hindered by one's perception of the emotion of gratitude. There are those for whom gratitude is an uncomfortable, weakening, even shameful feeling; while others of us experience gratitude in a warm and positive manner, perceiving its ties as chords of connection, not heavy chains of obligation.

The narrator of Elizabeth Berg's novel Open House is clearly in the latter camp: "I made cranberry sauce," she tells us, "and when it was done put it into a dark blue bowl for the beautiful contrast. I was thinking, doing this, about the old ways of gratitude: Indians thanking the deer they'd slain, grace before supper, kneeling before bed. I was thinking that gratitude is too much absent in our lives now, and we need it back, even if it only takes the form of acknowledging the blue of a bowl against the red of cranberries."

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Mary Oliver, too, is a writer who seems to follow Meister Erkhart's dictum that "if the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough" -- for every poem she writes is a hymn of gratitude for the commonplace marvels of daily living. Take her 1992 poem "Morning," for example:

Salt shining behind its glass cylinder.
Milk in a blue bowl. The yellow linoleum.
The cat stretching her black body from the pillow.
The way she makes her curvaceous response to the small, kind gesture.
Then laps the bowl clean.
Then wants to go out into the world
where she leaps lightly and for no apparent reason across the lawn,
then sits, perfectly still, in the grass.
I watch her a little while, thinking:
what more could I do with wild words?
I stand in the cold kitchen, bowing down to her.
I stand in the cold kitchen, everything wonderful around me.

Still life by William Bailey

Art-making, like gift-giving, requires two separate actions: giving and receiving, both of them equally important. We breathe in the world and push it out again: inhaling, exhaling; the cycle kept in motion; never resting for too long on one side and not the other. The perpetual giver, like the perpetual receiver, is an artist (and a person) out of balance, in danger of draining the creative well dry. It's hard work, and it's humbling work, to master both roles equally, including whichever one we find the hardest -- but that's precisely the task that art (and life) demands of us.

"The reality of all life is interdependence," notes cultural anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson. "We need to compose our lives in such a way that we both give and receive, learning to do both with grace, seeing both as parts of a single pattern rather than as antithetical alternatives."

Still Life by William Bailey

"When we give cheerfully and accept gratefully," says Maya Angelou, "everyone is blessed."

Still Life by William Bailey

The quietly beautiful still life paintings here today are by the American artist William Bailey. Born in Iowa in 1930, educated at the University of Kansas, Bailey taught at the Yale School of Art, Cooper Union, the University of Pennsylvania, and Indiana University. He maintains studios in New Haven and in Umbertide, Italy.

Still Life by William Bailey

"Morning" by Mary Oliver is fromNew and Selected Poems(Beacon Press, 1992). All rights to poem, quotes, and art above reserved by the authors and artist.