Daily grace

Bumblehill courtyard

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

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

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

Lady of Bumblehill statue by Wendy Froud

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

Words in the wild

Milk for the faeries

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

Wildflowers and Coyote in the kitchen window

Kitchen window

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

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

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

Cedar and sage

Drumming springtime in

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

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

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

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

Tilly below the cloutie tree

Clouties

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

Lighting the fire

Fire and ceremony

Feather on moss

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

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


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."

D5108798x

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.


The secular sacred

Herring Gulls by Ekaterina Bee

Here's another lovely passage from Wild Comfort by Kathleen Dean Moore -- a book that I keep returning to over the years, and love afresh with each re-reading. In her essay "The Time of the Singing of the Birds," Moore writes:

"This is a story a friend gave to me. I am giving it to you.

"There was a man who searched and searched for the sacred in nature -- in the forest, at the beach -- and sure enough: one day as he was walking along the coast, he heard a voice, loud and clear.

" 'Stand here,' it said, 'and God will speak to you.'

"The man stood. What else could he do? What would you have done? He stood for a very long time, shifting his weight from one leg to another. His back stiffened up. A flock of brants flew down the trough between the breakers. The wind came up and died back. The tide flowed in. He zipped his jacket and unzipped it, zipped it again as the sun went down and gulls cried out and flew to their roosts. He shivered in fog that came with the night, and finally he went home.

''Realm of the Seychelles'' by Thomas Peschak

Weddell seals by Laurent Ballesta

"I'm not sure what he hoped to hear. The sound of the wind bringing rain, the rattle of surf-driven stones -- these didn't tell him what he needed to know? That he is alive in this place, at this time, alive in the midst of all this life. That he is aware in the midst of all that is mysterious, every fact that might have been and yet is. Stinging sand, the storm-driven waves, the swirling gulls --they are all cause for surprise and celebration.

Sperm whales in Sri Lanka by Tony Wu

Night of the Turtles by Ingo Arndt

"Instead of standing still and waiting for instructions, what if he had laid his back in the midst of the mussels, laid there with barnacles poking his scalp, felt -- in the hollow echo chamber of his ribs -- the breakers pound against rock, listened to the shouts of faraway children and the pop of sand fleas next to his ear, as all the while tide crept in around him and surf exploded closer and closer to his brain?

"Then what would he have heard?

Female humpback whale  by Wade Hughes

"I don't want to say he would have heard the voice of God.

"I want to say he would have heard -- really heard, maybe for the first time -- the squeak of mussels, the smash of surf, the peeping of sandpipers. Maybe a fish crow cawing or a chainsaw cutting cedar drifted in on storms.

"And I want to say this is enough. I want to say that this is astonishing enough -- the actual Earth, the extraordinary fact of the ticking, smashing, singing, whistling, peeping Earth -- to make me feel I live in a sacred place and time.

"I want to say there is a secular sacred, that this phrase, paradoxical as it seems, makes good and profound and important sense.

Nesting leatherback turtle by Brian Skerry

"Here is what I believe: that the natural world -- the stuff of our lives, the world we plod through, hardly hearing, the world we burn and poke and stuff and conquer and irradiate -- that THIS WORLD (not another world on another plane) is irreplaceable, astonshing, contingent, eternal and changing, beautiful and fearsome, beyond human understanding, worthy of reverence and awe, worthy of celebration and attention.

"If the good English word for this combination of qualities is 'sacred,' then so be it. Even if we don't believe in God, we walk out the door on a sacred morning and lift our eyes to the sacred rain and are called to remember our sacred obligations of care and celebration.

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"And what's more, is the natural world is sacred and 'sacred' describes the natural world; of there are not too worlds but one, and it is magnificent and mysterious enough to shake us to the core; if this is so, then we -- you and I and the man on the beach -- are called to live our lives gladly. We are called to live lives of gratitude, joy, and caring, profoundly moved by the bare fact that we live in the time of the singing of birds."

Great Crested Grebes by Knut Erik Alnæs (Norway)

If we allow for the concept of the "secular sacred," then I suppose that Wild Comfort is one of my sacred texts -- along with books by Barry Lopez, Terry Tempest Williams, Ursula Le Guin, Alan Garner, Patricia McKillip, John Crowley, Jane Yolen, Lloyd Alexander, David Abram, Lewis Hyde, Rebecca Solnit, and so many others. They honor the mystery. Restore my sense of wonder. Remind me to be astonished by the world, and call me to gratitude and joy.

Spanwing brook trout David Herasimtschuk

Pictures: The glorious photographs above are from the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition, running at The Museum of Natural History in London until the May 28th. They are identified & credited in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) You'll find more on the NHM website.

Words: The passage above is from Wild Comfort: The Solace of Nature by Kathleen Dean Moore (Trumpeter Books, 2010); all rights reserved by the author.
 


On Thanksgiving Day: elemental gratitude

Nattadon waterfall

Prayer for the Great Family
by Gary Snyder (after a Mohawk prayer)

Gratitude to Mother Earth, sailing through night and day —
and to her soil: rich, rare, and sweet
in our minds so be it

Waterfall 2

Gratitude to Plants, the sun-facing light changing leaf
and fine-root hairs; standing still through wind
and rain; their dance is in the flowing spiral grain
in our minds so be it

Waterfall 3

Gratitude to Air, bearing the soaring Swift and the silent
Owl at dawn. Breath of our song
clear spirit breeze
in our minds so be it

Waterfall 4

Gratitude to Wild Beings, our brothers teaching secrets,
freedoms, and ways; who share with us their milk;
self-complete, brave, and aware
in our minds so be it

Waterfall 5

Gratitude to Water: clouds, lakes, rivers, glaciers;
holding or releasing; streaming through all
our bodies salty seas
in our minds so be it

Waterfall 6

Gratitude to the Sun: blinding pulsing light through
trunks of trees, through mists, warming caves where
bears and snakes sleep — he who wakes us –
in our minds so be it

Waterfall 7

Gratitude to the Great Sky
who holds billions of stars — and goes yet beyond that –
beyond all powers, and thoughts
and yet is within us –
Grandfather Space.
The Mind is his Wife,
so be it
.

Waterfall 8

To which I add:

Gratitude for the things that will help us get through the long winter ahead: warmth and light, friendship and art, good talk, good music, good books, good dreams, good single malt whiskey (hey, whatever it takes). Gratitude for the storms that shake us, and the sweet calm after.

Gratitude for it all.

Waterfall 9

Waterfall 10

The poem above is from Turtle Island by Gary Snyder (New Directions, 1974); it first appeared on Myth & Moor in the winter of 2014. The poem in the picture captions is from Orpheus by Don Paterson (Faber, 2006). All rights reserved by the authors. The photograph of me and Tilly was taken by Ellen Kushner. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.