The dignity business

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From "To Save Our Lives," an essay by A.L. Kennedy:

"Let's begin at my beginning. Perhaps some of you will identify. I had an interest in theatre -- it had lit me, had sustained me through a small-town childhood and adolescence. I remember watching a TV production of Chekhov's Three Sisters, knowing nothing of the man or his life, but understanding that when the characters said 'To Moscow, to Moscow' that I knew exactly how they felt. Chekhov articulated the horror of being trapped in a dead end and out of context, of being a permanent stranger. He had also let me know that I wasn't alone, other people felt like that -- like Chekhov, whose brother remembered him saying, 'In my childhood, I had no childhood.' Chekhov grew up in the Crimean backwater of Taganrog, not Moscow -- it took him a while to reach Moscow, to reach himself. On the 7th January 1889, when he was just shy of his twenty-ninth birthday, he wrote to his friend Suvorin:

Write a story about a young man, the son of a serf, a former shop-minder, chorister, schoolboy and student who was brought up to fawn upon rank, to kiss priests' hands and to worship others' thoughts...write how this man squeezes the slave out of himself, drop by drop, and then wakes up one fine morning to discover that in his veins flows not the blood of a slave, but of a real human being...

"As I say, when I saw Three Sisters I didn't know about Chekhov's life, I didn't know he had a bumpy childhood like mine, I didn't know he worked with prisoners and the poor, I didn't know anything other than what he made, the product of simple, joyful, human creativity -- his writing. But it started to squeeze the slave out of my blood, drop by drop.

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"And I read -- all I could get -- and then I went to university, because a grant made it financially possible for me. It wouldn't have mattered how many exams I passed, I wouldn't have got there without a grant. Beyond university, I started to work with community groups and special-needs groups, partly because I couldn't do anything else, partly because I was looking for something and I didn't know what, but it somehow seemed the proper course for me to write and to search in the company of other people. On the one hand, I was completely busking it. I was working with groups of radically mixed ability, in unsuitable spaces, inventing everything from scratch. Very few people were working with non-literate people to produce writing -- I had to make up how we did that, relying on the fact that written words are simply a high-status record of what someone would say in their absence. I hoped that if we worked out how to catch what people wanted to say and how to finish it in a way that was pleasing to them, we could proceed happily. And so we did. Simply earning a living until I found out my proper direction was pretty much all I had as a plan, but then I saw -- I saw face after face changing after one session, ten sessions, twenty sessions -- I saw the slave leaving the blood. I laughed more than I ever had. And I cried. We all laughed and cried. I found out about people. I was no longer alone.

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"I found out what happens when, for example, I watch Three Sisters, when I touch art and art touches me. That's when I get something beautiful and new in my life. I feel no longer alone, I have more strength to be myself and I see there may be other possibilities beyond the here and now.

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"I receive a gift within which is a kind of hope about human nature -- it's not naïve, but it's not the unreality of reality TV, not a cheap and nasty opportunity to feel good about ourselves because other people are manifestly more dysfunctional than we are, more stupid, more greedy, more sex-obsessed, more shoddy. Functional art doesn't show us that -- a toxic stasis, a warning not to leave the house -- it shows us what we really are and could be, good or bad. Art is about motion, strategies, rehearsals of new futures. It's a power.

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"And think -- of course you've thought -- if you're not just receiving the end product, accepting the gift from the artist, joining in humanity with someone who may be in many ways alien to you -- from another culture, another country, another time, who may be dead -- what if you make that art? What if others can suddenly know a part of you, a deep and intimate part of you, the dreams you make? What if you light them and are useful, bring them into what might have been an alien experience? What if you change their lives? How could that possibly not be a joy in your life and change you? How could that not possibly improve, for example, your health and well-being?

"I began with mercenary and confused motives, running drama workshops, leading writing workshops, improvising from nothing -- and I found a wonder, a purity: people making things for other people, being useful and getting well -- not markets, not an industry, not egos, not much -- just beauty, at very little expense, over and over and over."

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A little later in the essay, Kennedy adds:

"When we make art, art to which we commit ourselves, art which isn't simply a commercial artifact, a pose, a gesture towards a concept, when we go all out and really create, we do a number of remarkable things. We take on a little of what we usually set aside for the divine  -- the troubles and delights which spring from overturning entropy and bringing something out of nothing. We excel. We offer something of ourselves, or from ourselves, to others. We allow and encourage a miracle -- one human being can enter the thoughts and life of another. We can be the other: the king, the foreigner, the wino, the superstar, the debutante, the murderer, we can experience a little of the large, strange, wonderful, horrible thing which is the human experience.

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"What we make can reveal us to ourselves as greater than we were and help us practice addressing the world with courage and -- because it is practical to involve such a thing -- with love. As the listener, the viewer, the reader, the recipient of art, once again we are, of course, encouraged to be greater.

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"The proverb tells us we should walk a mile in a person's shoes before we judge them. And if we've spent a whole novel in their thoughts, if we've heard their heart in music, if we've seen as they do how light falls, if we've breathed with them as they speak, felt the way they dance under our skins? Then I believe it is very difficult not to grant others at least dignity, at least that. In the arts, I feel we are in the dignity business."

Commons bench

I urge you to read Kennedy's essay in full, which can be found in her frank, witty, erudite and inspiring book On Writing.

On Writing by AL Kennedy

Words: The passage by A.L. Kennedy is from her essay "To Save Our Lives," published in On Writing (Vintage Books, 2014). The poem in the picture captions is from O the Chimneys by Nelly Sachs (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1967), translated by Ruth & Matthew Mead. All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: Dartmoor ponies grazing and snoozing by a bench on the village Commons where I often go to read and write.


Writers and readers

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"The writer, functioning in a magical medium, an abstract medium, does one half of the work, but the reader does the other," Ben Okri states. "The reader's mind becomes the screen, the place, the era. To a large extent, readers create the world from words, they invent the reality they read. Reading therefore is a co-production between writer and reader. The simplicity of this tool is astounding. So little, yet out of it whole worlds, eras, characters, continents, people never encountered before, people you wouldn't care to sit next to on a train, planets that don't exist, places you've never visited, enigmatic fates, all  come to life in the mind, painted into existence by the reader's creative powers. In this way, the creativity of the write calls up the creativity of the reader. Reading is never passive."

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Neil Gaiman, too, sees writers and readers as co-creators:

"What we, as authors, give to the reader isn't the story. We don't give them the people or the places or the emotions. What we give the reader is the raw code, a rough pattern, loose architectural plans that they use to build the book themselves. No two readers can or will ever read the same book, because the reader builds the book in collaboration with the author. I don't know if any of you have had the experience of returning to a beloved childhood book. A book that you remember a scene from so vividly, something that was etched onto the back of your eyeballs when you read it, and you remember the rain whipping down, you remember the way the trees blew in the wind, you remember the whinnies and the stamps of the horses as they fled through the forest to the castle, and the jangle of the bits, and every noise. And you go back and read the book as an adult and you discover a sentence that says something like, 'What a jolly awful night this would be,' he said as they rode their horses through the forest. 'I hope we get there soon.' And you realize you did it all. You built it. You made it."

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"All sorts of pleasant and intelligent people read my books and write thoughtful letters about them," John Cheever once commented. "I don't know who they are, but they are marvelous and seem to live quite independently of the prejudices of advertising, journalism, and the cranky academic world. The room where I work has a window looking into a wood, and I like to think that these earnest, loveable, and mysterious readers are in there."

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Words: The quotes above are from The View From the Cheap Seats: Selected Non-fiction by Neil Gaiman (Headline, 2016); A Way of Being Free by Ben Okri (Head of Zeus, 2015); and John Cheever's page in The Writers' Desk by Jill Krementz (Random House, 1997).  The poem in the picture captions is from Halflife by Meghan O'Rourke (WW Norton & Co., 2007). All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: Meadow, bog, and a few of our nonhuman neighbours, Lower Commons, Chagford.


On inspiration, madness, and art

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In the mythic tradition, both artists and shamans tread perilously close to insanity; and indeed, in some cases their gifts specifically come from journeying into the wilds of madness, or Faerie, or the Realm of the Gods, and back again. The process of creative intuition and inspiration is a profoundly mysterious one, and it can certainly seem like magic or madness to those on the outside looking in.

In Tuesday's post, Lewis Hyde explained the ancient Greek and Roman view that creative "genius" is not a personal attribute, but a guiding spirit, or daemon: the divine spark of inspiration comes from the daemon, and the artist's job is to be a worthy vessel for that spark. On Wednesday, Philip Pullman described the feeling that stories come from somewhere else, and need special protection while they're still new and tender, taking form on the page. I've come across many artists in different fields who view creation in similar ways: as an almost mystical, alchemical process composed not only of skill and intent but also of creative ideas that come through us from some unknown and unknowable place.

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Here, for example, is Haruki Murakami describing his creative process: "A short story I have written long ago would barge into my house in the middle of the night, shake me awake and shout, 'Hey, this is no time for sleeping! You can't forget me, there's still more to write!' Impelled by that voice, I would find myself writing a novel."

He's far from the only writer to report that tales and characters sometimes just appear, large as life, demanding to be attended to and rendered into print. On one end of the spectrum are the logical, methodical artists who map their stories and paintings and performances entirely in advance, rarely deviating from the route they've set themselves...and on the other end are the purely intuitive artists who discover the work as they create it, as though it already exists somewhere, waiting to be found and given earthly form. (The majority of us I suspect fall somewhere on the line between the two.)

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"I did not deliberately invent Earthsea," Ursula Le Guin once said of her now-classic fantasy series. "I did not think, Hey wow -- islands are archetypes and archipelagoes are superarchetypes and let's build us an archipelago! I am not an engineer, but an explorer. I discovered Earthsea."

"In a very real way, one writes a story to find out what happens in it," notes Samuel R. Delaney. "Before it is written it sits in the mind like a piece of overheard gossip or a bit of intriguing tattle. The story process is like taking up such a piece of gossip, hunting down the people actually involved, questioning them, finding out what really occurred, and visiting pertinent locations. As with gossip, you can't be too surprised if important things turn up that were left out of the first-heard version entirely; or if points initially made much of turn out to have been distorted, or simply not to have happened at all.”

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The creative process, like any mythic act of world creation (which is what it is, even for writers of Realist fiction), follows different rules than ordinary living. And that's not always a comfortable thing to experience -- for the artists themselves, or for those close by.

"In the middle of a novel," says Zadie Smith, "a kind of magical thinking takes over. To clarify, the middle of the novel may not happen in the actual geographical centre of the novel. By middle of the novel I mean whatever page you are on when you stop being part of your household and your family and your partner and children and food shopping and dog feeding and reading the post -- I mean when there is nothing in the world except your book, and even as your wife tells you she’s sleeping with your brother her face is a gigantic semi-colon, her arms are parentheses and you are wondering whether rummage is a better verb than rifle. The middle of a novel is a state of mind. Strange things happen in it. Time collapses."

While the world goes on wily-nily without us, we're off chasing visions down the hedgerows of the mind, living in a place where lines and landscapes and imaginary voices become more real than the keyboard under our fingers, the paint in the cup, the vibration of the harp string.

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"I discover my images during the process of working on them," says artist Rima Staines. "I'm interested in the spark which happens when the image suddenly comes together in front of you and starts to work. It's almost as if, while I'm drawing the lines, what I'm about to draw next reveals itself to me. Maybe I will start to see a face in some loose lines -- in the same way that you sometimes see a face or figure in the gnarled bark of a tree. I am not completely in control of the process; it's as though the characters in the image make themselves known to me. It’s like being in an altered state of consciousness. And it can take a real presence of mind to stay in that process. It often feels like walking a tightrope whilst you are creating: it is all too easy to come out of the process by looking at your work too critically -- or to tip the other way and go too far with a particular idea."

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My husband Howard, who works in theatre, points out that "artists often live in two worlds at once, which is why we can seem a bit mad to other people. One foot is in the real world, where we have to feed ourselves and pay the bills, and the other foot is in the creative world, which has a different time scale and demands different things of us. One way of living seems sane and sensible, the other is ruled by impulse, intuition, and archetypal forces of dream and creation. Living constantly on the knife-edge between these two different worlds can be both liberating and distressing, I find, in equal measure." 

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"When I was young, it seemed so much easier," painter and filmmaker Brian Froud recalls. "You had a mad idea and you just went with it. Youth has an arrogance. With age and experience, I know enough to question myself more, so the creative impulse can be more of a struggle -- but there’s still that inner voice which, when I draw a line, goes: No. Rub it out, draw another. No! And then, suddenly, Oh, yes! And then I think: 'Where has that come from? Why is this the right line? And why were all the other ones wrong?' To an observer those lines would probably seem all the same -- but those rubbed-out lines were wrong. The drawing knows what it wants to to be."

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“I think the mystery of art lies in this, that the artists’ relationship is essentially with their work," mused Ursula Le Guin, "not with power, not with profit, not with themselves, not even with their audience.” 

This tends to be true for the stories and images that I inevitably find myself most drawn to: art that has arisen from a deeply personal conversation between the artist and the work at hand. It is art that walks perilously close to the Edge, that crosses the river of blood into Faerie, that flies so high it is scorched by the sun, and then returns to tell the tale to us. It is art that needed to be written, or painted, or sung, or woven, or otherwise shaped. It is art gifted by the Mystery to the maker...and then, in turn, gifted to us.

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"We're not mad," writes author and teacher Sue Moorcroft, defending the peculiar habits of artists, "we're inhabited."

Inhabited by the work. Inhabited by the lines, the colors, the characters, the stories. All clamouring to get out into the world.

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Words: The quotes above are from a variety of essays and interviews. The poem in the picture is from Dreamtigers by Jorge Luis Borges, translated by Harold Morland (EP Dutton, 1970). All rights reserved by the authors and translator. Pictures: Our local herd of Dartmoor ponies and their growing foals.

Related reading: Chasing inspiration, Stories in the air around us, When the magic is working, and Following the White Deer.


On poetry and paying attention

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From an interview with David Whyte (author of In The House of Belonging):

"I’ve written poetry since I was very small. I had very powerful experiences with poetry where I felt literally abducted, taken away by poetry and just like a hawk had come down and taken me in its claws and carried me off. I remember reading Ted Hughes when I was young -- and he must’ve been young then too -- and having that feeling, and a very powerful feeling, that this was language that adults had written who had not forgotten the primary visions and insights of childhood.

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"But when I was 14 years old, I saw Jacques Cousteau, the famous French marine zoologist and inventor of the aqualung, sail across our little television set in the north of England. I really couldn’t believe you could have work like this in the world. You could actually follow the life of the dolphin aboard the good ship Calypso. I was so astonished by it that I gave up all my art subjects and put myself into the salt mines of biology, chemistry, and physics. Then I emerged with a degree in marine zoology many years later. Through sheer luck and fortune, I found myself on the shores of the Galapagos Islands as a naturalist guide. That was really astonishing, and experiencing those islands led me back into poetry and philosophy, really.

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"I went back into poetry because I felt like scientific language wasn’t precise enough to describe the experiences that I had in Galapagos. Science, rightly, is always trying to remove the 'I.' But I was really interested in the way that the 'I' deepened the more you paid attention. In Galapagos, I began to realize that because I was in deeply attentive states, hour after hour, watching animals and birds and landscapes -- and that’s all I did for almost two years -- I began to realize that my identity depended not upon any beliefs I had, inherited beliefs or manufactured beliefs, but my identity actually depended on how much attention I was paying to things that were other than myself and that as you deepen this intentionality and this attention, you started to broaden and deepen your own sense of presence.

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"I began to realize that the only places where things were actually real was at this frontier between what you think is you and what you think is not you, that whatever you desire of the world will not come to pass exactly as you will like it. But the other mercy is that whatever the world desires of you will also not come to pass, and what actually occurs is this meeting, this frontier. It’s astonishing how much time human beings spend away from that frontier, abstracting themselves out of their bodies, out of their direct experience, and out of a deeper, broader, and wider possible future that’s waiting for them if they hold the conversation at that frontier level. Half of what’s about to occur is unknown both inside you and outside you.

"John O’Donohue used to say that one of the necessary tasks is this radical letting alone of yourself in the world, letting the world speak in its own voice and letting this deeper sense of yourself speak out."

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And likewise, Mary Oliver said: "To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work."

For writing poetry, telling stories, making mythic art, and creating artful, thoughtful lives, no matter where they unfold: city, town, suburb...or the green hills of Devon, where wild ponies roam.

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Words: The passage above is from "David Whyte: The Conversational Nature of Reality" (On Being with Krista Trippett, American Public Radio, April 7, 2016). I recommend listening to the full interview, which you'll find here. The poem in the picture captions is from Everything is Waiting for You (Many Rivers Press, 2003). All rights reserved by David Whyte and Krista Trippett. Pictures: Dartmoor pony foals on our village Commons.


Daily magic

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This is Benji, our neighbour's sweet, elderly horse, who lives in a field just down the road. His companion horse died last year, and now many of us stop by regularly to bring him a treat or have a chat and make sure he's not lonely.

"There's a flame of magic inside every stone and every flower, every bird that sings and every frog that croaks. There's magic in the trees and the hills and the river and the rocks, in the sea and the stars and the wind, a deep, wild magic that's as old as the world itself. It's in you too, my darling girl, and in me, and in every living creature, be it ever so small. "

 - Kate Forsyth (The Puzzle Ring)

There is certainly magic in Benji, and the love he inspires in everyone.

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The language of the animate earth

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From The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception & Language in a More-Than-Human World by David Abram:

"The sense of being immersed in a sentient world is preserved in the oral stories of indigenous peoples --in the belief that sensible phenomena are all alive and aware, in the assumption that all things have the capacity for speech. Language, for oral peoples, is not a human invention but a gift of the land itself.

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"I do not deny that human language has its uniqueness, that from a certain perspective human discourse has little in common with the sounds and signals of other animals, or with the rippling speech of the river. I wish simply to remember that this was not the perspective held by those who first acquired, for us, the gift of speech.

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"Human language evolved in a thoroughly animistic context; it necessarily functioned, for many millenia, not only as a means of communication between humans, but as a way of propitiating, praising, and appeasing the expressive powers of the surrounding terrain. Human language, that is, arose not only as a means of attunement between persons, but also between ourselves and the animate landscape.

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"The belief that meaningful speech is a purely human property was entirely alien to those oral communities that first evolves our various ways of speaking, and by holding to such a belief today we may well be inhibiting the spontaneous activity of language. By denying that birds and other animals have their own styles of speech, by insisting that the river has no real voice and that the ground itself is mute, we stifle our direct experience. We cut ourselves off from the deep meanings of many of our words, severing our language from that which supports and sustains it.

"We wonder then why we are so often unable to communicate even among ourselves."

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The pictures today are of our local Dartmoor pony herd and their newborn foals. (The last time I posted pony photos here, the mares were still pregnant.) These semi-wild ponies travel between the hills of Chagford (full of tender green grass for grazing) and the open moor; the sheltered slope of our village Commons is where they come to give birth each year. It's been a good season for the ponies: we've counted ten new foals in all. I watch the movement of the herd across the valley from the windows of my hillside studio, and the hound and I make daily visits to the Commons to check on the foals' progress. They are exquisite.

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Words: The passage above is from The Spell of the Sensuous by David Abram (Vintage, 1996). The poem in the picture captions, "A Blessing" by James Wright, is from Above the River: The Complete Poems & Selected Prose (Wesleyan University Press, 1990). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: Photographs of the new crop of foals on the village Commons, taken shortly after they were born, earlier this spring. More recent photos to follow. 

Related posts: Living in a storied world, Animalness, Relationship & reciprocity, and The speech of animals.


Myth & Moor update

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There will not be a Myth & Moor post today, as I'm hard at work on two super-tight deadlines. My apologies.

Instead, I recommend reading the latest interview with always-inspiring Terry Tempest Williams: "My heart is very deep in these wild lands." Or Anne Boyer's beautifully written essay, "What Cancer Takes Away" (which some of us can relate to all too well). Or have a look at Mariano Rentería Garnica's video "Dance with the Devil," about the survival of a folkloric dance form in Mexico, filmed as part of his fine series on artisans in Michoacán.

Tilly I wish you a good, creatively productive, and quietly enchanting day...or outrageously enchanting, if you prefer.

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Going to ground

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Here in Chagford, surrounded by woodland and moorland, by rain-soaked hills and fields full of ponies and sheep, we tend to live half-a-step removed from the pace and preoccupations of modern life.

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Time itself moves different. The lanes to the village are winding and narrow, slowing cars down as they make the approach, or stopping them altogether when sheep, cows or ponies drift onto the road. Village shops are small, service leisurely as neighbors chitchat over the counters (while city folk check their watches impatiently). Internet and mobile phone services don't always work here, and the rest of the world can seem very far away....

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But it's not, of course. The relentless stress of political turmoil reaches us here in Brigadoon too. And it has been relentless -- in Britian, in America, on the streets of France and Italy and Hungary and around the world. So many people shouting. So few people listening. The polar ice caps quietly melting away all the while.

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In response, I find myself "going to ground," and I mean that literally: going out to the hills to find solace and strength, to find calm and clarity. At such times, I believe, we need art more than ever. So I turn to nature, and I turn to stories, for guidance. For insight. For healing.

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"A people are as healthy and confident as the stories they tell themselves," says Ben Okri. "Sick storytellers can make nations sick. Without stories we would go mad. Life would lose its moorings or orientation....Stories can conquer fear, you know. They can make the heart larger."

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"Fiction and poetry are doses, medicines," Jeanette Winterson concurs. "What they heal is the rupture reality makes on the imagination."

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The late, great Lloyd Alexander also spoke about truths best conveyed through magical modes of storytelling. " 'True to life' may not always be true enough," he said. "The difficulty is perhaps in confusing truth with objectivity. By its very nature, art can never be objective. Try as we might, we can't 'tell it like it is.' We can only tell it the way it seems to us. And this, of course, is what we must do -- in realism or in fantasy -- if we hope to create anything of durable value. We have always needed good art to sustain us, to strengthen us, even to console us for being born human. Where better can we learn to see through the eyes of others, to gain compassion, to try to make sense of the world outside ourselves and the world within ourselves?"

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"To open our eyes, to see with our inner fire and light, is what saves us," says Chickasaw poet and novelist Linda Hogan. "Even if it makes us vulnerable. Opening the eyes is the job of storytellers, witnesses, and the keepers of accounts. The stories we know and tell are reservoirs of light and fire that brighten and illuminate the darkness of human night, the unseen."

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If you, too, are struggling with your creative work during this unsettled time, this is what I advise:

First, do whatever you need to right now to find hózhó (balance), stillness, center ground. Once you've found it, or even a whisper of it, then take a deep breath. Let it out. And begin. No matter what medium you are using to weave new stories, remember that this is good work to be doing. The world needs more light, more beauty, more wonder. More compassion for the Other. More understanding of the darkness.

Together, we'll light a path for those coming after. Breathe deep. And again.

And begin.

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The text above is adapted from a piece posted in 2016, with new photographs and poetry. The poem in the picture captions is from Long Life: Essays & Other Writings by Mary Oliver (Da Capo Press, 2004); all rights reserved by the author.


Spinning straw into gold, pain into art

Morning on Nattadon Hill

As a writer, and as a woman with health problems, I have a particular interest in a genre of books sometimes referred to (affectionately or condescendingly) as "sick lit": reflections on living life with a serious illness or disability. I seek out such books not only to discover how other writers think about these issues, but also how they've managed the alchemical work of turning hard experience into art -- for this is something I strive to do myself, and fail at more often than I succeed.

Upper bench, Nattadon Hill

Disability literature is plenty, and increasing. The dog-earred volumes on my own shelves include The Cancer Journals by Audre Lorde, Illnesss as Metaphor by Susan Sontag, essay collections by Nancy Mairs and Floyd Skloot, The Anatomy of Illness by Kat Duff, Elegy for a Disease by Anne Finger, Eating the Underworld by Doris Brett, A Match to the Heart by Gretel Ehrlich, One Hundred Names for Love by Diane Ackerman, The Still Point of a Turning World by Emily Rapp, An Unquiet Mind by Kay Redfield Jamison, Hillbilly Gothic by Adrienne Martini, Tristomania by Jay Griffiths, The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison,  It's Just Nerves by Kelly Davio, Kissed by a Fox by Priscilla Stuckey, and The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey.

Each of these is well worth a read, but one volume I've only recently discovered is in a league of its own: Pain Woman Takes Your Keys & Other Essays from a Nervous System by Sonya Huber. It's simply the best account that I've yet read of living a writer's life in a body that does not function properly, told in language so exquisitely crafted that it took my breath away.

Painwoman Takes Your Keys by Sonya Huber

The collection begins with "What Pain Wants," a short piece in the interstice between poetry and prose, in which Huber personifies pain as an implacable yet poignant figure with "the inscrutable eyes and thin beak of an egret." Trapped in "a body that is ill-fitting for its unfolded shape," Pain communicates in symbols and signs -- then, faced with human incomprehension, puts its "beaked head in its long-fingered wing hands in frustration and loneliness." Huber's image of pain as tormentor and tormented, a Hib Sabin Trickster god come to life, has the ring of mythic truth about it, and is one I won't soon forget.

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She then goes on to explore the physical, emotional, political, sexual, and practical aspects of living, working, and raising a child while dealing with disability and navigating the maddening medical world. There is sorrow, frustration, and anger in these essays, of course, but also comedy, wisdom, and sharp, bright joy -- lifted from reportage to art by the poetic precision of Huber's writing.

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"Welcome to the Kingdom of the Sick," for example, begins like this:

"When I am ill, only the kingdom of the ill is a comfort. The image of laughing, limber-limbed bodies with shining hair is not bitter because I long for it. It is bitter because it does not have anything to teach me and because it makes me forget the solidity of my own ground. I cannot aim for that bright country of the well anymore. It is barred to me, and as I hold it in my mind's eye, there is no room for crushing nostalgia. The taste is bitter because it is the taste denied.

"What I learn is that the kingdom of the ill is a vast bedrock. We appear weak and reclined, yet we cannot be invaded or defeated. Look at us: We are unbreakable in our brokeness. We cannot be cured and are therefore invincible. We have dropped down the well. We reel in a slow-motion dance, treading where others fear to tread, continuing to breathe in the postnormal existence. We are the zombies, the undead. We are the good and bad witches, double-sighted.

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"The kingdom of the ill is mighty and legion, and it is the borderland all bodies must pass through. And we have set up tents, encampments, and homes. We wave at you from beyond the gates.

"When you have arrived, you have arrived. Welcome and blessings."

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Some of the essays in the volume are straight-foward in construction; others stray from linear narrative in order to conjure the experience of pain, describing the indescribable. I admit I'm often wary of experimental modes of writing, for in unskilled hands such forms can be affectations rather than necessary to the text. But here, the breaking of convention works. It is purposeful, controlled, sparingly applied, and thus powerfully effective.

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I found myself reading Pain Woman slowly...doling it out...savouring each essay, reluctant for the book to end. I turned the last page on a bright winter's day on the hill behind my studio -- exhilarated by Huber's prose, and sad that there was to be no more of it.

Shaking myself from under its spell, I looked up and found a herd of Dartmoor ponies drifting toward my bench.  They'd climbed up from the fields below, heading over the hill and out to the moor. Soon they surrounded me and Tilly, their breath steaming lightly in the cold air. The end of a book is a super-charged moment, particularly if the book has been good, and the presence of ponies felt like a benediction on the surge of emotions Pain Woman had raised.

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Pony

The hound and I watched quietly as the herd slowly drifted away again, disappearing over the crest of the hill. Then I packed up my things, whistled for Tilly, and headed back down to the studio. In that moment, I knew I would write this post: on language and ponies and life in a body that fails me, then heals again, time after time. I knew I needed to recommend Huber's book, both to those who know the sly/shy Trickster god of pain, and those who don't, at least not yet.

It's a searing, honest, beautiful read...

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...and now blessed by wild ponies too.

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The passage above is from Pain Woman Takes Your Keys & Other Essays from a Nervous System by Sonya Huber (The University of Nebraska Press, 2017). The poem in the picture captions is from New Ohio Review (Spring, 2011). All rights reserved by the authors.