Telling Stories

I've been thinking about the storytelling process recently -- and why some of us are driven to make the telling of stories (on paper, on canvas, on the stage, etc.) the central work of our lives. What's behind this compulsion? Beyond issues of skill, craft, and earning a living, what is it we have to say? Every so often, in different stages of my life, I ask myself once again: Why am I a writer; why am I a painter; what is it I am trying to communicate? I can't reply on past answers to those questions, because the answers change as I age and change. Sometimes I'm clear and passionate about why it is I do the work I do. Other times, it is only by engaging with the work itself that I come to understand my own mind -- as thoughts, feelings, and concerns I didn't even know I had emerge in the creative process.

Yesterday I was in a large bookstore, which is generally one of my favorite places to be -- and instead of feeling thrilled by all the choices around me, I felt suddenly depressed by all those shiny new books. So many authors, so many dreams, so many voices clamoring to be heard. What need had anyone of mine? I thought, dispirited. Later, while I was making supper, I turned on Ellen Kushner's radio program Sound & Spirit for company. I've only recently discovered how many of the Sound & Spirit shows are now available online, and I'm enjoying listening to old favorites again and catching up on the ones I'd missed. Last night, I listened to "Surviving Survival" -- a show Ellen recorded years ago, for which I'd been one of the writers interviewed. I then had the very odd experience of listening to my younger self explain to me why the telling of stories is important. It's simple really (my younger self reminded me): I tell the stories that I do because I'm the person that I am. It's bearing witness. It's creating beauty in the teeth of destruction. It's both a necessity and a privilege, and that's enough.

Patricia Hampl once wrote (in The Writer on Her Work, Volume II): "For a writer it's a big deal to bow -- or kneel or get knocked down -- to the fact that you are going to write your own books and not somebody else's. Not even those books of the somebody else you thought it was your express business to spruce yourself up to be."

It's taken me all these years to fully appreciate how true this is.


Video above: "Telling Stories" by the exquisite Tracy Chapman. Photograph: The younger Ellen and me. The picture is from the late 1980s, when Ellen, after working publishing in New York, began her radio career in Boston, and I was starting The Endicott Studio.  Photographer: Beth Gwinn.

On the Hill


Here is my morning ritual: I get up and get dressed at an early hour, usually before the sun comes up. The house is quiet but for me and the pup, for my husband is a later riser than us and I cherish this morning solitude...when dreams, images, and ideas float to consciousness in the liminal space between sleep and wakefulness. I feed the pup; make coffee for me, pour it into a thermos, and head outside: to the studio, and the hillside beyond, where my day properly begins.

As we enter the woods, the pup and I, the pathway splits into three directions. Tilly, eager to race ahead, looks to me to know which one to take. In the past I would signal to her with my hand, but lately I'm trying to teach her in words: "Bees," I tell her when I mean the trail that runs near a place where old beehives are kept. "Woods," I say when I'm heading for a mossy perch in a circle of holly and oak. Or "Hill," I say. This third direction is Tilly's favorite one of all.


On the hill, we climb to an old iron bench overlooking the patchwork of Commons and fields, and the blue-grey slopes of the moorland beyond. In this season, the feathery fronds of the bracken are turning the hillside from green to rust.


A rising mist often swirls at this hour as I drink my coffee. (Italian roast. Strong.) Tilly prowls through the bracken, or grazes blackberries, or sits near my feet as the day slowly brightens. . . ears cocked, nose twitching, alert to each rustle of animal, wind, and spirit.


I've been getting up early since I was a girl, chasing sunrise and magic in the unlikeliest of landscapes. How I wish that young girl could sit here with me now; she would marvel to see just how far we have come.  There she is: a flicker of a shadow on the hillside, by Tilly. There she is.


And then she's gone.


Pat & baby meToday, it is ten years since my mother died, in eastern Pennyslvania. When she lost her battle with lung cancer, she was not much older than I am now -- for she'd been just a teenager when I came tumbling, unexpected and fatherless, into the world. That she would lose the battle was something we all knew, but it happened a good six months sooner than expected. I'd been making arrangements to travel from England to Pennsylvania to relieve my exhausted half-brother from caretaking duties when I woke bolt upright from sleep one night, knowing, somehow, that she had gone. My brother called 40 minutes later, confirming what I already knew.

Today, it is also ten years (and nine days) since the World Trade Center came down in New York, ash blanketing streets I'd often walked when I lived and worked in the city.

Tomorrow will be ten years from the day that I hurriedly traveled back to the States in time for my mother's funeral. At London's Heathrow Airport, the numb shock I felt at my mother's death was mirrored in every face around me, for most of the world was also in shock as the Twin Towers lay in ruins. The airport was thick with soldiers and fear as international flight schedules slowly resumed. My New-York-bound flight was half empty of course (who in their right mind would want to fly then?), the passengers eerily silent, sitting fearful and white-knuckled all across the Atlantic. A bomb scare diverted the plane to Canada, but I made my way back to New York and then on to Pennsylvania, to a small, private death in a country that had bigger things to think about and to mourn.

Thus today, not September 11th, is the day of remembering for me. Tomorrow I'll go back to books and art, to walking in the woods and loving the land and dealing with some difficult things that are on my plate right now.... But today is for remembering. For forgiveness of the past. For gratitude for the present.

My mother was not an easy woman. Our relationship was not an easy one. But I deeply value the gifts she gave me: a love of beauty, the ability to cope with change, and a capacity for working hard. Today is a day of remembering a quiet young girl named Patricia Ann, who had a baby much, much too young. And did the best she could, in a hard situation. This beautiful poem is for her, with compassion, and with love:

"Flare" by Mary Oliver.

As Oliver says: "A lifetime isn't long enough for the beauty of this world...."

On time

The pssage of time

Time passes. Time changes everything -- both the things in our lives that we're grateful to move on from and the things that we try to clutch tightly and must, inevitably, someday, let go of. "We all lose everything," says the poet Marge Piercy:

Thinking about timeWe lose
ourselves. We are lost.
Only what we manage to do
lasts, what love sculpts from us...

Recently my friend Yoann Lossel, the French painter, asked me why I'm so fascinated by time, which he sees as a theme running throughout my work...most obviously in The Wood Wife, but also in other fiction and essays. Perhaps it's living a life shadowed by a serious illness that makes one hyper-aware of time and mortality; or perhaps it's simply one aspect of living as a mythic writer & artist: I am always looking both backwards and forwards, living in the rich past and shimmering future as well as the sensual present, in order to make art out of the experiences of my life, and to make life out of the experiences of my art.

In The Wood Wife, the sly Trickster character, Crow, explains time as it's viewed in his spirit world to the novel's protagonist, Maggie Black. Time is not a line, he tells her, it's a spiral, and we all stand at its center. From that place we can move through time in any direction we chose: forwards, backwards, sideways. But he warns her that if she's to travel through time, she must always be anchored firmly to the present; otherwise, she might lose herself in the past and be unable to return.

Indeed, for me, too, it sometimes requires strong effort to remain anchored to the physical world when I'm caught up in the giddy time-travel of writing or painting. That's why, for me, a dog, a footpath, and a stout pair of walking boots are as necessary to my creative process as paper and ink and paint. Among trees and stone and weather and wind, I am rooted in the present once again.

Albert Einstein has stated: "The only reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen at once." But for the writer or artist, it does all happen at once. Time is not linear in art-making; we constantly walk backwards and forwards as we draw upon all of our experiences, all of our past and future selves, to create each day's work in the here and now.

"Time does not change us," the Swiss playwright Max Frisch once wrote. "It just unfolds us. "

I like this image. Perhaps as we travel the road of time we're not so much aging or changing but unfurling like leaves; unfolding like flowers, petal by petal.

Lizbeth ZergerThumbelina by Lisbeth Zwerger

I woke up to this....

Rainbow over the rooftop

When I was 15, I sat in despair one day in a creaky old bus that was winding its way through central Mexico (that's another story), trying to decide if I truly believed in God. Not necessarily God with a big white beard looking down from a Biblical heaven, but some kind of sacred spirit above, beneath, and within all things. I'd aways had a deep, instinctive faith (even as a small child) in a sacred dimension to life, a Mystery I didn't need to fully define in order to know it, feel it, experience it. But recent grueling events had shaken my faith and closed that connection.

I realize that sitting and railing at God is a perfect cliche of teenage angst -- but that doesn't make the experience any less urgent at age 15, and I was in a dark place. "Okay," I said, throwing the gauntlet down to whatever out there might be listening, "if there is something more than this, then prove it. Just prove it. Or I quit."  The bus turned a corner on the narrow, dusty road, and a gasp went up from the people around me. Above us, a rainbow arched through a bright blue, cloudless, rainless desert sky.

Rainbows have been special to me ever since. I know the scientific explanation, of course, water and air and angles of sunlight and all that. But to me, they are always a message. They say: "The universe is a Mystery and you're part of it." And sometimes that's all I need to hear; that's all the answer I need, no matter what the prayer.