Guest Post: Tenderness, the Breaker of Curses

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Continuing on with the theme of water, today's Guest Post is by my friend Briana Saussy. Bri is a writer, teacher, and community-maker based in Texas, deeply rooted in the myth & fairy tale tradition. She's the author of Making Magic and Star Child, both of which I highly recommend. In the following piece, she looks at the symbolic, mythic, and magical connection between water and tenderness. After the long, long months of the Covid-19 pandemic, and with the world on fire in too many places both literally and metaphorically, this reminder be tender to ourselves and others is timely indeed. Bri writes:

Circe Invidiosa by John William Waterhouse"To be cursed is to be dried up, devoid of moisture and suppleness, brittle and lacking the essential ingredient of life: fresh, circulating water. The most harmful afflictions of body, mind, spirit, and soul are those that seek to take away, ignore, and otherwise exploit our ability to be tender towards ourselves and towards one another. The remedy for this affliction may take many different forms, but always includes blessing what is tender within you.

"In many different cultures, the evil eye is understood primarily as a 'drying' condition, one in which your money dries up, your health dries up, your fertility and verve for life also dry up. In opposition, to be blessed is to be moist, supple, full of flowing water, clean, bathed, and tender like new shoots of grass, tender like fresh green wood sprouting forth from a tree, tender like the water filled skin of a newborn baby nestled up safely in your arms.  Losing one’s tenderness, therefore, is tantamount to losing one’s life.

"The loss of tenderness and thus of life is not difficult to achieve. Let yourself be taken over by anger, envy, jealousy, hatred, and fear, and you will know how easy it is to do. You can observe for yourself the negative consequences of being taken over by these emotions, how they cause a withering and a contraction in your life and relationships. But even so, we may come to doubt the need for tenderness. Why be tender in a world and in a time that seems so often to only reward the tougher-than-nails? How does one cultivate tenderness in the face of violence, bloodshed, and injustice? What is tenderness other than one more vulnerability, easily overcome by those who are 'stronger'? How do we stay tender in times such as these and how do we bless our tender places?

Hylas and the Nymphs by John William Waterhouse

"We bless our tender places by calling in the waters. We call in the waters so that we might cry good and salty tears, make nourishing soup, wash the dust off our clothes, and irrigate the seeds we have planted. So that we may drink of the waters and bathe in them, washing ourselves clean, literally renewing ourselves. We call in the waters from within, reaching deep and accessing the sacred well that may be blocked or polluted, but is simply waiting to be set free, waiting to be cleansed so that it can run, rush, and spring forth from the solid ground of your very life.  

Mermaid by John William Waterhouse"Tenderness -- and the circulating life waters corresponding to it -- points to the deepest parts of our resilient nature. Resilience is a power, and it is what makes for much needed hardiness of life and soul. 

"Sometimes it seems that there is no water to call in, no source of nourishment, of life-celebrating and life-protecting magic. But finding the water, finding the sources of life and nourishment, is not an easy task. Especially not when you look around and all you see is hard, sun-baked rock, packed gravel, and too much asphalt.

"I have lived most of my life in desert regions, and so I know from firsthand experience the water that is there, hundreds of feet under the ground and flowing in madly rushing rivers or collected in fathomless lakes. You don’t see it, but it is there. When the territory around looks most inhospitable to tenderness, then you know that you are in exactly the right spot to fill yourself up with all that gives life, all that keeps you supple, all that keeps you tender. You may have to dig for it, you might have to learn to collect it drop by drop from precious rainfalls, you may end up going on a pilgrimage to find it; but it is there, waiting to be called upon.

The Charmer by John William Waterhouse"To bless tenderness is also to protect it. In desert areas that are hot, arid, and dry, the culture is one of toughness, and even the plants with their prickles and thorns seem to just be waiting for their chance to chew you up and spit you out. If you neglected to look closely, you would be forgiven for thinking that toughness and hardness is all that matters. But soulful seekers do look closer, and what we find are that the plants with the best boundaries are the same that have the most tender, water-filled skins. They give us the blessing way. Find the water, find the sources of life, and when you do, keep them safe; build a good boundary around them. Don’t just let anyone access your tenderness, choose actively and with discernment who and when and where receives the privilege of your softness.

"To bless our tender places is to ask for and gladly accept help. In many cultures there are Gods and Holy Helpers who bring the waters of life, bring the rains, bring the thunderclouds that roll in with their big noise, making the hairs on the back of your neck stand up and reminding you that you are very much alive, creating with every breath you take, holding an infinite cosmos within your very body. We are not islands meant to do it all on our own. We have two-legged and four-legged, winged, clawed, fanged, and finned relatives who are here and ready and willing to help point us in all the right directions; so we look to them and we listen.

Ariadne by John William Waterhouse

"Finally, tenderness is meant to be shared. Like water, it requires a solid vessel, the boundary of the cacti, to keep it stored up safely; but once we are filled up with it we cannot help but overflow. The overflow happens in many ways -- through tears and laughter and deep kisses and long touches, through creative work and vibrant dance, and the sweet sound of the saxophone or drums under the stars. These are all medicines, results from the blessing and safe keeping of your tenderness, that literally spill forth and out into the world much like water, nourishing much like water, and restoring so many that are on the brink of death back into life.

"Tenderness is no small thing. It is, in truth, a source of the greatest strength. It is not the weak spot or the pain point to be covered up, but rather a sign post, the tracks in the snow, that carry you forward to your own headwaters, no matter where it leads. So remember that anytime the flow feels blocked, anytime your skin feels shrunken and life feels too dry, relationships too brittle, and your broken places too yawning and jagged; remember when you feel raw and exposed, vulnerable, or too tender, remember what lessons tenderness has to teach you about your own hardiness, your own deeply resilient nature. It may be time to bless your most tender places and call forth the waters once more."

Miranda by John William Waterhouse

The paintings today are by John William Waterhouse (1849-1917), an English artist in the "Second Wave" of the Pre-Raphaelite movement.

Destiny by John William Waterhouse

All rights to the text above reserved by Briana Saussy. Related posts: Water, wild and sacred and Let's talk about magic.


Re-kindling the fire within

The Two Fridas by Frida Kahlo

Frida Khalo painting in bed

Here's another older post on dealing with creative burn-out: specifically the kind of burn-out that comes during or after a period of trauma (illness, tragedy, grief, etc.).  We've all been going through collective trauma since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, and that journey isn't over yet. What kind of art will come out of it? How might it change (or is it already changing) the kind of work we do? And what about artists (and there are many) who feel unable to work at all, the creative well gone dry under the pressures of all that we've been living through? There are no simple answers, of course, but the discussion is one worth having. I'd love to hear your thoughts in the Comments below.

Information on the pictures here can be found in the picture captions (run your cursor over the images to see them).

Frida KhaloIn her beautiful Guest Post on this blog, Nomi McLeod discussed the ways "The Handless Maiden" fairy tale spoke to her at a difficult time of life, and how the art she created based on the tale both documented her journey through the dark of the woods and helped her to comprehend it. This is a subject that particularly interests me: the means by which writers, painters, and other artists respond to trauma, crisis, and grief, alchemizing hard experience into story, image, and other creative works.

There are so many different ways this occurs. Sometimes the transformation from life experience to art is immediate and direct: an outpouring of creative energy in the middle of the crisis as it unfolds. Frida Khalo's self-portraits are one example of this, sometimes painted from the confines of her sickbed; another is the "savage creative storm" that caused Rilke to write Sonnets to Orpheus upon hearing the news of a family friend's death. I had a similar experience once myself, after learning that my stepfather had died: working night and day for almost two weeks, I produced, unplanned and almost without conscious thought, my "Surviving Childhood" series of drawings. (These are very large charcoal drawings made on rolls of butcher's paper, and unsuitable for reproducing here.) The Cancer Journals by Audre Lorde is another example of work produced in the eye of the storm; as is the art created by Henri Matisse after an operation left him bed- and chair-bound; Angelo Merendino's "The Battle We Didn't Choose," a photographic response to his wife's diagnosis with breast cancer; Hannah Laycock's "Perceiving Identity" series about living with multiple sclerosis; the final essays of Oliver Sacks, written in the last months of his terminal illness; and the work of Mohammed Al-Amari and other Syrian artists documenting the ongoing refugee crisis....to name just a few.

Henri Matisse working from bed

The Sorrows of the King by Henri Matisse

It is rare, however, that a serious illness or other crisis allows the time, space, and temper of mind required for art-making, and so the second category is a larger one: art in response to a crisis that has ended, but that still feels somehow unresolved. Through this kind of work, we return to the dark parts of our lives and transform our muddles of emotion and reaction into something more ordered, more comprehensible, more universal...perhaps even beautiful, if painfully so. Nomi's "Handless Maiden" falls in this category, as does the unflinching work of German artist Käthe Kollwitz in response to World War I, or the devastating "Hiroshima Panels" of Japanese artists Iri & Toshi Maruki. More recent example include Beckie Kravetz's powerful "Witness" sculpture installation; Meg Zivahl-Fox's "Nettles and Deliverance" collages (using fairy tale imagery in response to childhood trauma); Richard Johnson's heart-breaking "Weapon of Choice," a photographic series on verbal abuse and bullying (in response to his own childhood experiences); and CELL, a puppetry project exploring Motor Neurone Disease. (Two of the puppeteers behind the project lost family members to MND.)

Kathe Kollwitz

Kathe Kollwitz

Rescue, from the Hiroshima panels of Iri & Toshi Maruki

There are many fine examples of art born from hard experience in literature too, especially in the genre of personal essay and memoir, including If This is a Man by Primo Levi, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou, Early Spring by Tove Ditlevsen, The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Dideon, One Hundred Names for Love by Diane Ackerman, Slow Motion by Dani Shapiro, Hillbilly Gothic by Adrienne Martini, The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Wintersen, The Color of Water by James M. McBride, Refuge by Terry Tempest Williams, I Want to Be Left Behind by Brenda Peterson, The Woman Who Watches Over the World by Linda Hogan, Education by Tara Westover, My Name is Why by Lemn Sissay, In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado, I Am I Am I Am by Maggie O'Farrell, The Outrun by Amy Liptrot, Tristimania by Jay Griffiths, Heavy Light by Horatio Clare, A Still Life by Josie George, and numerous others. When we turn to the field of poetry, there are almost too many examples to list, but I'll mention two that have touched me deeply: Jane Kenyon's poems on her battle with depression (found in Constance and Otherwise), and Jane Yolen's The Radiation Sonnets, written during her husband's treatment for cancer, and after his death. I also recommend "Finding Poetry in Illness," a moving article by Jennifer Nix.

Memoirs

Personal experience is often used in the creation of fiction too, of course, although here the alchemical magic is so strong that we're not always aware (nor should we be aware) of the ways in which strands of the author's own life may be woven with other material to create the tapestry of a novel or story. One interesting example is Jeanette Winterson's Oranges are Not the Only Fruit, in which the main character shares the author's name and some of the details of her life -- and yet this is a work of fiction, not memoir, with autobiographical elements skillfully juggled and altered in the service of art. Dorothy Allison's Bastard Out of Carolina is another excellent book of this type, as is Heinz Insu Fenkl's gorgeous Memories of my Ghost Brother: published as a novel in one edition and as a "magical realist memoir" in another, but actually falling into the interstices between those two literary forms. A fourth example is Jo Walton's wonderful fantasy novel Among Others -- which, she is clear to note, is not straight autobiography with magical trimmings but a "mythologization" of her Welsh childhood and family dynamics, written (to use Rilke's phrase) in a "savage create storm" of 36 writing days.

From Witness by Beckie Kravetz

Although powerful work can be born of hard life experience, there are also times when calamity silences us: when shock, or grief, or sheer emotional exhaustion serves to snuff out one's creativity altogether. For those of us used to moving through life by breathing in the world and breathing out art, this silence is an unsettling, even terrifying thing. It is not quite the same thing as depression; it's more like finding the inner room where we go to create is now shuttered and bolted against us. It's like trying to speak without language. It's like living without breathing. It's not living at all.

From ''The Battle We Didn't Choose'' by Angelo & Jennifer Merendino

Perhaps the alchemical process of creativity has not stopped altogether at such times; perhaps it's still moving, but moving so slowly it does not appear to be moving at all. Our creative daemon has gone underground: not hibernating but germinating, like a seed buried deep in the frozen earth, gathering strength and preparing to break through the soil when the proper time comes. Meanwhile, the winter drags on and we move through our days unaware of things stirring below. Winter is bleak, and endless, and we worry: What if this time the spring doesn't come?

Stray by Jeanie Tomanek

I think of trauma as cold, and sharp, with edges that hurt when you bump up against it. It's the sliver of glass from the Snow Queen fairy tale, and the kiss that turns Kay's heart to ice, making him numb to love, to passion, to everything that he once held dear. And yet, even numbness has its use. In a crisis, sometimes we just have to keep moving, putting one foot in front of another, weighted with burdens too heavy to carry but which we must not put down. At such times, it can feel like a mercy to leave the weight and heat of emotion behind us. There are decisions to make and things to be done and miles to cross before we can sleep; there's no time for emotion, no room for it in the basket of boulders we carry.

The Angel of Moving Safely Through the Darkness by Terri WindlingThe problem here is that inspiration arises from an inner fire that feeds on all the stuff our lives: both the dark and the bright, our emotions included. Take emotion away and the fire diminishes. It sputters. It goes out altogether. Numb, like Kay, we may think we are fine, we may think we are coping magnificently... but we sit down to work and the fire just isn't there. And that's hardly surprising.

What is a surprise (or so it was to me) is that the end of a crisis and the thawing of the heart are two things that don't always happen in tandem. A long illness has ended, or a painful problem resolved, or grief has finally loosened its grip and we've emerged from the deep dark forest at last, ready to live Happily Every After...or at least to enjoy a hard-won period of calm and creative renewal. Instead, we just sit there, frozen and numb, not even moving forward now, creativity gone (and our sense of self with it), smiling tightly when dear friends say: At last it's all over! We're glad that you're back!

But in fact, we're not back, at least not fully. Spring is here, but our souls are still clenched underground. We must call them back up to the light.

Life Vs Death by Nomi McLeod

In an earlier series of posts, we looked at illness as a mythic/metaphoric journey to the Underworld and back -- and I'd like to propose that the journey through crisis or grief might be viewed in a similar manner. The process unfolds Cradle by Nomi McLeodin mythic time, or wild time, not on clock time, on schedule, on human demand. It's a journey as perilous as it is profound and it needs to be acknowledged. It needs to be honored. We cannot return from the mythic Underworld as precisely the person we were when we started, and we do not return as the same artist either. Coaxing the soul back up to the sun involves learning just who it is we've become, and what fairy tale gifts we have brought from below. This post-crisis process cannot be rushed; it needs quiet reflection, solitude, time. And yet time, in our pressured and fast-paced world, is precisely what we rarely have.

Bunny Maiden with scars by Terri WindlingFor those of us working professionally in the arts, the strictures of the marketplace require that work be produced in a regular manner. We spend years mastering the discipline required to create works of art to schedule and deadline -- and when that discipline fails us, when the fire's been dampened and the work just will not come, what on earth does one do?

I wish I had an easy answer to that question...or even a difficult one. But every artist is different, every journey is different, and each of us must discover our personal way of re-kindling the fire (though in a perfect world, a charitable foundation aimed at giving working artists the time and resources to do so would not go amiss). What does help, I think, is to recognize the process occurring; to be patient (both with yourself and with others' reactions); and to accept, without shame, the problems that arise when deep healing processes conflict with careers run on clock-time, not soul-time. It also helps to know that other creative artists have gone into the dark before us, and returned, and then burned brighter than ever -- often using the Underworld's painful gifts to enable their very best work.

The Tree of Doors by Meg Zivahl-Fox

One book I keep returning to lately is "An Unreal House Filled With Real Storms" by Elizabeth Knox: a slim volume containing an essay composed for the 2014 Inaugural Margaret Mahy Memorial Lecture. In this powerful piece, Elizabeth weaves the story of her mother's final illness and several other hard life experiences into reflections on writing, on the nature of genre, and on the work of her friend Margaret Mahy. The essay has been a touchstone for me not because it gives me concrete answers or instructions to follow in times of hardship, but because it shows how another writer, and one I respect, has grappled with such issues too.  I've re-read my copy so many times now -- usually on coffee breaks in the woods -- that it's worn, leaf-strewn, coffee-stained, and dog-eared at favorite passages...such as this one, in which Elizabeth relates a conversation with her husband, Fergus:

"A few weeks back I was trying to explain to Fergus how I see things differently now. How my world view has changed. It had been heroic, by which I mean that everything, obligingly, had a shapeliness -- everything fell into story -- and revealed itself that way, becoming beautiful, and habitable for heroes. Then I got sad; sad for such a sustainable period of time that my world view became an abject one.

"The context of the conversation was this: what the hell could I say in my Inaugural Margaret Mahy Memorial Lecture, with the tectonic plates of my world view still in motion? What could I say when, as I saw it, it was my job to be inspiring? How was I ever to find inspiration in my discouraged soul?

"In trying to communicate this to Fergus, I began thinking about what I learned from my mother -- and not from her death. What she tried, from my infancy, to consciously impart: the vital goodness of kindness and civility in life."

Kindness and civility, yes. Potent magic for the thawing of hearts.

The Inaugural Margaret Mahy Memorial Lecture by Elizabeth Knox, published by Victoria University Press

Crumbs by Jeanie Tomanek

Everyone goes through the deep dark woods at some point in life; artists are not unique in this. But the impact of the journey on the work we do, and even on our ability to do it, makes the questions we ask in trauma's wake somewhat different than in other professions. After a searing experience, how do we re-open ourselves to inspiration? How can we bear such vulnerability? And yet, if we stay protectively closed, how will we bear the alternative: living our lives with our fires banked and the door to art locked against us?

With these thoughts in mind, I came across the following passage by M.C. Richards, from her book Centering: In Pottery, Poetry, and the Person. She's talking about love, but her words seem to me to apply to creativity as well. (For some of us -- and Richards is one, I think -- they are two sides of the same coin.) She asks:

After the Deluge by Gina Litherland"How are we to love [and how are we to create] when we are stiff and numb and distinterested? How are we to transform ourselves into limber and soft organisms lying open the world at the quick? By what process and what agency do we perform the Great Work, transforming lowly materials into gold? Love, like its counterpoint, Death, is a yielding at the center...figured forth in intelligent cooperation, sensitive congeniality, physical warmth. At the center the love must live.

"One gives up all one has for this. This is the love that resides in the self, the self-love, out of which all love pours. The fountain, the source. At the center. One gives up all the treasured sorrow and self-mistrust, all the precious loathing and suspicion, all the secret triumphs of withdrawal. One bends in the wind. There are many disciplines that strengthen one's athleticism for love [and creativity]. It takes all one's strength. And yet it takes all one's weakness too. Sometimes it is only by having one's so-called strengths pulverized that one is weak enough, strong enough, to yield. It takes the power of nature in one which is neither strength nor weakness but closer perhaps to virtu, person, personalized energy. Do not speak about strength and weakness, manliness and womanliness, aggressiveness and submissiveness. Look at this flower. Look at this child. Look at this rock with lichen growing on it. Listen to this gull scream as he drops through the air to gobble the bread I throw and clumsily rights himself in the wind. Bear ye another's burdens, the Lord said, and he was talking law.

"Love is not a doctrine, Peace is not an international agreement. Love and Peace are beings who live as possibilities in us."

After the Deluge by Gina Litherland

During periods when I've been unable to cross through the doorway into the room of creation, I've taken courage in knowing that others have also stood at that threshold and found a way in. Their entrance might not be one I can use, but I've learned I am capable of finding my own.

If you've been on that journey, if you are on it now, then this is the thing that I want most to tell you: You have my compassion, and you have my respect. The winter does end. Hearts thaw. Seeds grow. A spark hits dry tinder, and the fire roars.

Coyote Woman by Terri Windling

Pictures: (from top to bottom) "The Two Fridas" & "Tree of Hope, Remain Strong" by Frida Kahlo (1907-1954), and a photograph of Kahlo painting while recovering from one of her many operations. "The Sorrow of the King" by Henri Matisse (1869-1954) , and a photograph of Matisse at work even though confined to bed."Hunger: Mother & Sleeping Children" and "Survivors: Widows & Orphans" by Käthe Kollwitz' (1867-1945). "Rescue," one of the Hiroshima panels of Iri & Toshi Maruki. Recommended works of memoir, poetry, & fiction. Figures from "Witness," a sculptural installation by Beckie Kravetz. A photograph  by Angelo Merendino from The Battle We Didn't Choose project. "Stray" by Jeanie Tomanek. "The Angel of Moving Safely Through the Darkness" from my Angel series of paintings. "Life Vs. Death" and "Cradle" by Nomi McLeod. "Bunny maiden with scars," from one of my hospital sketchbooks. "The Tree of Doors" from Nettles and Deliverance by Meg Zivahl-Fox. The Victoria University Press edition of the Inaugural Margaret Mahy Memorial Lecture by Elizabeth Knox. "Crumbs" by Jeanie Tomanek. "Crossing an Iced-Over Stream" and "After the Deluge" by Gina Litherland. "Coyote Woman" from my Desert Spirits series.

Words: The passage by Elizabeth Knox is from An Unreal House Filled With Real Storms (Victoria University Press, 2014). The passage by M.C. Richards (1916-1999) is from Centering in Pottery, Poetry, and the Person (Wesleyan, 1989). All rights by Elizabeth Knox and the estate of M.C. Richards. All rights to the words and pictures above reserved by the authors and artists or their estates.


On creative burn-out & the practice of swaling

Dartmoor

I wrote the following post ten years ago, and had long forgotten about it until Lisa Leslie, Tiffany Trent, and Stephanie Burgis kindly shared it on social media this week. (Many thanks to the three of you.) After a year and a half of living with the stresses, fears, and sorrows of a world pandemic, and the many changes it has brought to our daily lives, and thus to our art-making, quite a lot of people I know are feeling burned-out right now, their creativity flagging. If you're one of them, I hope these words from painter Jane Champagne and others might help....

In a previous post on artists' blocks and creative burn-out, I quoted the Canadian artist Jane Champagne (1930-2008) as saying, "Sometimes, if you just wait it out, and go on about your business without trying to force a solution, it comes -- almost as if the old artist has to die before the new one can be born."

Australian artist Christina Cairns responded: "I especially like the Jane Champagne quote. It reminds me of the affinity between artist and Shaman, that a kind of death needs to take place for the new life to begin. And also of that need not just for solitude, but of 'fallow' time to allow the seeds of new ideas to emerge into the light in their own time."

This in turn reminded me of am article I wrote some years ago, called "The Dark of the Woods," which discussed the importance of journeys into darkness and despair in myths and shamanic traditions world-wide. Here's the opening passage:

" 'In the mid-path of my life, I woke to find myself in a dark wood,' writes Dante, in The Divine Comedy, beginning a quest that will lead to transformation and redemption. A journey through the dark of the woods is a motif common to fairy tales: young heroes set off through the perilous forest in order to reach their destiny, or they find themselves abandoned there, cast off and left for dead. The road is long and treacherous, prowled by wolves, ghosts, and wizards -- but helpers also appear along the way, good fairies and animal guides, often cloaked in unlikely disguises. The hero's task is to tell friend from foe, and to keep walking steadily onward."

Dartmoor 2

"In older myths, the dark road leads downward into the Underworld, where Persephone is carried off by Hades, much against her will, and Ishtar descends of her own accord to beat at the gates of Hell. This road of darkness lies to the West, according to Native American myth, and each of us must travel it at some point in our lives. The western road is one of trials, ordeals, disasters and abrupt life changes -- yet a road to be honored, nevertheless, as the road on which wisdom is gained. James Hillman, whose theory of 'archetypal psychology' draws extensively on Greco-Roman myth, echoes this belief when he argues that darkness is vital at certain periods of life, questioning our modern tendency to equate mental health with happiness. It is in the Underworld, he reminds us, that seeds germinate and prepare for spring. Myths of descent and rebirth connect the soul's cycles to those of nature."

It's hard, however, to descend to the Underworld with equanimity. I have no fear of darkness per se, but what I hate is the feeling of emptiness that marks creative burn-out for me: a flatness, a lack of enthusiasm for paint or words or light or color or any of the daily, common things that usually fill my heart to bursting with beauty, wonder, and inspiration. It's a kind of death, living in that grey, muffled Underworld where I can see, but not touch, the bright world above. Each time I descend, I despair utterly, forgetting all that I know about myth, and life, and art. Forgetting that there's nothing to truly fear down here. The Underworld is not one's permanent destination; it's simply the mythic/shamanic/creative passageway to next part of the cycle, rebirth: the ascent to a new self, to a new stage of life, and to a new way of making art.

Going back to the "Dark of the Woods" article:  

"Rites-of-passage stories...were cherished in pre-literate societies not only for their entertainment value, but also as mythic tools to prepare young men and women for life's ordeals. A wealth of such stories can be found marking each major transition in the human life cycle: puberty, marriage, childbirth, menopause, death. Other rites-of-passage, less predictable but equally transformative, include times of sudden change and calamity such as illness and injury, the loss of one's home, the death of a loved one, etc. These are the times when we wake, like Dante, to find ourselves in a deep, dark wood -- an image that in Jungian psychology represents an inward journey. Rites-of-passage tales point to the hidden roads that lead out of the dark again -- and remind us that at the end of the journey we're not the same person as when we started. Ascending from the Netherworld (that grey landscape of illness, grief, depression, or despair), we are 'twice-born' in our return to life, carrying seeds -- new wisdom, ideas, creativity and fecundity of spirit."

Dartmoor 3

Yet it's hard not to panic when one finds oneself in an artistically fallow period; it's hard (at least for me) to accept, even to welcome, this part of the creative cycle. "I've lost my spark, my inspiration," I wailed recently to my friend and writing-buddy Wendy Froud. "I don't seem to even want to write anymore. What if I've lost the spark for good? I'll have to get a job at the hardware store...and I'll probably just suck at that too...." 

"Your muse will come back," Wendy assured me, laughing, "and she'll come sooner if you turn your back on her. Do something else. Take a walk. Read a book. This happens to me too; it happens to everyone. But I find if I do something else for a bit, inspiration comes back in no time."

"I've lost all my fire," I whined to my husband. "I've never felt this empty before."

"Sure you have," he reminded me patiently. "It happens whenever you're over-tired, or over-stressed, or when some new idea is gestating in the dark.  Listen to your body, listen to your spirit. They're both telling you that you need some time off. The fire will come back, it always does. And it will come back stronger than ever. "

He's right, of course; I have been through this before...and you'd think by now I would recognize the pattern. As Jane Champagne says: sometimes the old artist has to die before the new artist is born. And the "death" part takes as longs as it takes. It doesn't care about schedules and deadlines.

Plunging in

As younger writers or artists, with energy to spare, we often pushed ourselves to produce and produce and produce, living on caffeine and nerves and adrenaline...and that's fine, even fun, at a certain age, but not sustainable over a lifetime of work. Now, as a woman deep into her middle years, I know I must find a different rhythm -- one that is cyclical, seasonal, sustainable. To quote Christina Cairns again:

"Everything else in the natural world works in cycles of activity and inactivity, fallow and productive. Why should we humans think we are any different? And yet we push ourselves, or allow others (clients, deadlines, family and so on) to push us to keep going, not stop (or feel guilty if we dare to), and keep producing. No wonder the well gets empty, the creative flowering grows weaker and less beautiful. But it's not just in the arts, it's everywhere. I just noticed a headline yesterday, that Australian workers are working longer than ever hours, and yet are more inefficient than ever before...hmmmm, I wonder why?!"

Here in Devon, there's an old rural tradition of swaling: a controlled burning of overgrown heath land that clears out dead vegetation and allows for new growth. Perhaps creative burn-out can be viewed as an inner form of swaling, creating the space and enriching the soil where fresh ideas can germinate. A burn-off rather than a burn-out, clearing the ground for years of life and art still to come.

So here's a toast to creative burn-out and burn-off, and to the tender new growth that emerges from them. I'm emerging at last from my own fallow time (a period of weeks that has felt like years)...and Howard is right: the spark of inspiration is not only returning, it's coming back stronger than ever. But someday, I know, I'll return to the Underworld, or awake, like Dante, in the dark of the woods. And when I do, I'll try to remember not to panic. To remember that it's all part of the creative/mythic journey. And to move through it with just a little more grace.

Walking with grace

"Dark of the Woods: Rites of Passage Tales" was published in the "Healing & Transformation" issue of The Journal of Mythic Arts, Winter 2006; all rights reserved. The journal stopped publication in 2008, but some of the articles published in JoMA are archived here.


In the quiet of the woods

Woods 1

After months and months of dealing with Long Covid (on top of a long-term health condition), I can't manage long walks with Tilly yet, so we usually head to the woods close by -- where I sit while Tilly prowls through the underbrush, never straying far. Sometimes I read, sometimes I write, and sometimes I do nothing at all, absorbing the quiet while beech, holly, oak and ash all absorb me in turn.

Woods 2

Once she's explored the terrain, Tilly sits close: ears cocked, nose twitching with every scent. I watch her and wish I could see as she sees, hear as she hears, live as fully in this bright moment in time -- remembering that I am an animal too, made of water and wind and the dust of stars.

Woods 3

The life of a freelance writer and editor is measured in hours of productivity, and it takes some effort to slough off guilt when time spent silent among the trees results in no tangible accomplishment: no pages written or manuscript read or email answered or paycheck earned. And yet I'm convinced that it's on such moments that every other part of my creative life rests. 

Woods 5

The land is muse, teacher, and mentor. It is doctor, pastor, and therapist. It is the place where I return to myself when the jangle of life, the demands of work, and the ceaseless clamour of the Internet lead me astray. In the quiet of the greenwood it all fades away. I can hear my own softer voice once again.

Woods 4

But now I am justifying time spent outdoors by emphasizing the manner in which it supports my productivity back in the studio -- and while this is true, it is not the only truth. Quiet moments are worth much more than this. I will not measure their value in output, in books and paintings made and sold. I will not hang a price tag on my love for the natural world. I am not a consumer of the forest, obtaining my money's worth from the trees and grasses, the fungi and moss. I am just a woman sitting in the green arms of the Mother who made me. Just sitting. Just healing. Just being, for these precious moments, alive and present.

Woods 6

Woods 7

I am not dismissing the importance of productivity for those of us working in the arts, or of enagagement with the media and marketplace which places our work in the hands of others, for I believe that art is important, even sacred, and is capable of no less than changing the world.

But then, so is this: these quiet hours in the dappled light of the greenwood, with my good dog beside me. It changes my world. It changes me. And that's all the value it needs.

Woods 8

"I pin my hopes," said the Quaker writer Rufus Jones, "to quiet processes and small circles, in which vital and transforming events take place."

I pin my own hopes to the rustle of leaves, the murmur of water, the grace note of the birdsong overhead; to the ordinary, daily domestic act of rising in the morning and walking the dog. And to art, of course, but also to this. To the quiet of the woods.

Woods 9

Woods 11

Woods 12

The quote by Quaker historian and philosopher Rufus Jones is from a letter to Violet Holdsworth, 1937. The poem in the picture captions is from Swan: Poems and Prose Poems by Mary Oliver (Beacon Press, 2012). All rights reserved by the authors' estates.


More tales from the sea

The sandstone stacks of Northmavine (Shetland Mainland), photograph by David Gange

Shetland coast, photograph by David Gange

Having sailed up the west coasts of Ireland and Scotland in Philip Marsden's The Summer Isles, I'm now kayaking down the same coasts in David Grange's engrossing book, The Frayed Atlantic Edge -- starting in the far north of Shetland this time, and ending up down south in Cornwall.

Like Marsden's book, The Frayed Atlantic Edge is the perfect antidote to the Covid-19 pandemic. At a time when physical journeys are hard-to-impossible due to travel restrictions, this is arm-chair traveling at its best: mixing robust adventure with reflections on the history, culture and literature of the coastal lands and islands of the Celtic fringe. What is the difference between the two books? Marsden delves more deeply into myth, folklore, and the ancient texts of the regions he travels through, whereas Gange responds to the landscape around him as an historian -- but both books are well worth your time. They compliment rather than compete with each other.

Shetland puffin, photograph by David Gange

The following passage from The Frayed Atlantic Edge will give you a taste of the book. Gange writes:

Frayed Edge of the Atlantic by David Gange"This journey involved arriving, dripping and bedraggled, in dozens of coastal communities. When I set out, I hadn't imagined just how generous the people whose homes and workplaces I dampened would be: without such openness, particularly evident on small islands, this project would never have gotten far. I learned as much through long evenings of discussion as through the other three resources on which the book is based: libraries, archives and the observation of land and sea from the kayak. It wasn't just the spectacles of sea cliffs, nor the drama of ocean weather, but also those social occasions that meant I ended the journey with greatly intensified enthusiasm for scattered Atlantic islands like Foula, Barraigh and Thorai. 

"Such conversations worked to strengthen the conviction I set out with: that British and Irish histories are usually written inside out, perpetuating the misconception that today's land-bound geographies have existed forever. Despite the efforts of authors such as Barry Cunliffe, whose Facing the Ocean: The Atlantic and Its Peoples, 8000 BC to AD 1500 (2001) inspired much debate among historians, the significance of coasts is consistently underestimated, and the potential of small boats as tools to make sense of their histories is rarely explored. 

Orkney in August, photograph by David Gange

Orkney dwelling, photograph by David Gange

"This book sets out to put some of that imbalance right, showing not only that Atlantic geographies have been crucial to British and Irish life but that they continue to be so. It is structured by region, because part of its purpose is to show how similar ingredients of wind, wave and rock have been transformed into entirely different island and coastal cultures by the divergent processes of history. The chapters were written in order, while I travelled, so my process of learning runs parallel to the reader's experience of moving through the book: burrowing gradually deeper into the many ways that the shorelines are significant. This allows the narrative to follow a trajectory in which the opening chapters evoke the act of kayaking, establishing sounds, smells, sights and stories of the venerable tradition of travelling at sea level. Only gradually does the balance shift towards historical research, literary criticism and argument, revealing the implications of new perspectives picked up through slow travel.

Inner Hebrides, photograph by David Gange

Seal colony in the Inner Hebrides, photograph by David Gange

Skye, photograph by David Gange

"The final section, 'The View from the Sea', completes the transition. It switches to a different register as it unpicks historical significance from the chapters. It argues that the whole shape of British history is transformed by granting Atlantic coasts and islands a central rather than marginal role. The implications of key historical moments are problematised or reversed. The so-called Enlightenment, for instance, might best be interpreted as the triumph of a few cities -- Dublin, Edinburgh, London, Birmingham -- at the expense of other regions. For coastal communities it was the beginning, and the cause, of a lengthy dark age. In contrast, much of what were once referred to as Dark Ages had been eras of great coastal strength and enlightenment, when the intellectual traditions of the Irish Atlantic were the most advanced in Europe. Such reversals abound. The widely celebrated Education Acts of 1870 and 1872 were unmitigated disasters for many coastal zones, while the grim economic recession of the 1970s saw an island renaissance unprecedented for two centuries. All British history looks different when inland cities are made remote by seeing them from Atlantic shorelines, and the most powerful element of a year's journey by kayak was immersion in that changed perspective....

Donegal to Galway, photograph by David Gange

Kayak on the west Irish coast, photograph by David Gange

Coastal lambs, photograph by David Gange

"Just as the most significant history often happens on the edge of the islands, the most interesting phenomena regularly occur in the margins between disciplines. Exploring past lives on coasts meant reaching for ideas from geologists, ecologists, naturalists, geographers, anthropologists, artists, poets, novelists or musicians more often than historians. Seabirds, fish and species of seaweed play roles as significant in this book as politicians or their institutions; they has as great an effect on past shoreline lives, and the importance of island pasts today almost always relate both to ecology and community. Talking to naturalists, ecologists, archaeologists and artists was a highlight of researching this book and I'd love to think that such lines of communication might one day be wedged more permanently open."

So would I. 

Munster coast, photograph by David Gange

The photographs here were taken by the author journey during his long, daunting, and fascinating journey. To see more, visit the Frayed Edge of the Atlantic website.

Seal on the Munster coast, photograph by David Gange

Photograph by David Gange

The passage above is from The Frayed Atlantic Edge: A Historian's Journey from Shetland to the Channel by David Gange (William Collins, 2019). All rights to the text and photographs reserved by the author.