'Lord, increase my bewilderment'

Waterfall 1

From Jenn Ashworth's fascinating, challenging new book Notes Made While Falling (a memoir and cultural study of illness, trauma, and creativity):

"Zadie Smith, when writing about the work of her friend David Foster Wallace after his death, remarked on the way his writing was a gift -- not only in terms of a talent but one that he dispatched, like faith, into the void. She characterises the moment of giving -- of writing -- as 'the moment when the ego disappears and you're able to offer up your love as a gift without expectation of reward.' At the moment the gift hangs, like Federer's brilliant serve, between the one who sends and the one who receives, and reveals itself as belonging to neither. We have almost no words for this experience of giving. The one we do have is hopelessly degraded through misuse. The word is prayer.

Waterfall 2

Waterfall 3

"The word prayer here very easily brings one towards precarity. 'Precarious' is related to the Latin adjective precaria, from precārius, 'obtained by prayer, given as a favour,' which relates to precari,  'to ask or beg for help.' It helps to remember that prayer is an entreaty, a request for both attention and care. If I understand anything about praying or writing, I have come to believe in a demythologised form of them both: a de-enchantment of prayer and a making magical of writing. Neither process is a way of conjuring or manipulating necessary care or favour from a separately existing power, but a practice which gently and gradually adjusts the self to the terrible truth of its own precarity -- to its own need of care."

Waterfall 4

Waterfall 5

To do creative work in a failing body requires facing the precarity of ones life squarely, Ashworth argues:

"[and] to abandon the illusion that there's a future moment that can be striven to, or imagined, or drunk or eaten or earned or run or cut or dreamed towards. It means here. There's no cure for the chronic condition of human nature. These are the facts that I live with. I have always lived with them, but surrendering to them entirely is the thing that finally brings the fiction back: the will and capacity to imagine, the conditions of compassion and curiosity that are essential for inhabiting the mind of a sentence, a story, a fictional other. Still, I will always struggle, and I will probably always fail, to find a way to write fiction that honours these facts and does not attempt to decorate nor numb nor conceal them. Though now I've come to realise that writing itself unsticks me, when I let it.

Waterfall 6

Waterfall 7

"It is a process that, when its hopeless difficulty is adequately surrendered to, dismantles all forms of expertise, specialism, and mastery. When I let the writing work, any carapace of teacherly or writerly authority swiftly dissolves into mere curiosity. It is a way of getting lost -- between disciplines and subject positions. It lets me do and be, make and consume, be alone and connected -- simultaneously. There is an ethical gentleness to writing: I get curious about what works, what's appropriate, and what helps, rather than what is right or wrong. When process and product, thinking and feeling, and making become entwined, I become more tolerant of ambiguity and confusion. At its best writing does not only allow me to try and report on what I have seen, experienced and felt of this confusing and painful world, but it expands my available range of seeing, experiencing and feeling.

Waterfall 8

"It becomes something other than work, is what I'm saying. This type of not-work writing/praying -- a holidaying, a truancy, a way of loving -- is a move towards the type of implicated, uncontrolled seeking /paying -- that Fanny Howe identifies in her essay 'Bewilderment.' Not a technique of a method or a subject matter -- though all of these things too -- but mainly 'a way of entering the days as much as the work' -- a matter of ethics and politics as well as a matter of craft. There's a prayer in this too -- and Howe quotes it at the start of her essay, 'Lord, increase my bewilderment.'

"There's something reckless about this dislodging from certainty into fiction's possibility: a fall into love."

Waterfall 9

Waterfall 10

Words: The passage above is from Notes Made While Falling by Jenn Ashworth (Goldsmiths Press, 2019). The poem in the picture captions is from Rose by Li-Young Lee (BOA Editions, 1986). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: The waterfall on our hill, swelled by autumn rain.


Life as kintsugi

kintsugi

In her beautiful little book Broken Spaces & Outer Spaces: Finding Creativity in the Unexpected, Nnedi Okorafor writes about how she found her vocation as an author of African-based science fiction and fantasy. She'd gone to university intending to focus on science and athletics, until a shattering experience took her down another path completely:

"Ultimately, I lost my faith in science after an operation left me paralyzed from the waist down. It took years, but battling through my paralysis was the very thing that ignited my passion for storytelling and the transformative power of the imagination. And returning to Nigeria brought me back around to the sciences through science fiction, for those family trips to Nigeria were where and why I started wondering and then dreaming about the effects of technology and where it would take us in the future.

"This series of openings and awakenings led me to a profound realization: What we perceive as limitations have the power to become strengths greater than what we had when we were 'normal' or unbroken. In much of science fiction, when something breaks, something greater often emerges from the cracks. This is a philosophy that positions our toughest experiences not as barriers, but as doorways, and may be the key to us becoming our truest selves.

kintsugi

"In Japan there is an art form called kintsugi, which means 'golden joinery,' to repair something with gold. It treats breaks and repairs as part of an object's history. In kintsugi, you don't merely fix what's broken, you repair the total object. In doing so, you transform what you have fixed into something more beautiful than it previously was. This is the philosophy that I came to understand was central to my life. Because in order to really live life, you must live life. And that is rarely achieved without cracks along the way. There is often a sentiment that we must remain new, unscathed, unscarred, but in order to do this, you must never leave home, never experience, never risk or be harmed, and thus never grow."

kintsugi

This passage from Nnedi's brave, wise book spoke to me especially, for I have long believed in living my life as a form of kintsugi. I, too, carry numerous scars, both physical and psychological, but I think of them as ribbons of gold. To be broken and then to be repaired, or to repair ourselves, can be a very powerful source of art. Of beauty. Of strength. Even of joy.

kintsugi

To read more about kintsugi, here's a previous post: The beauty of brokeness.

In a similar vein I recommend The Jagged, Gilded Script of Scars by American essayist Alice Driver, and the late Irish poet John O'Donohue on The art of vulnerability.

kintsugi

kintsugi

The passage quoted above is from Broken Places & Outer Spaces by Nnedi Okorafor (TED Books/Simon & Schuster, 2019), which is highly recommended. Many thanks to Stephanie Burgis for recommending it. The poem in the picture captions is from Facts About the Moon by Dorianne Laux (W.W. Norton & Co, 2007). All rights reserved by the authors.


The Wild Time of the Sickbed

Come Away oh Human Child

This post first appeared on Myth & Moor in the spring of 2018. It's a follow-up to yesterday's piece on illness, art, and work/life balance; and it too is re-posted by request....

As those who also have medical issues can concur, it's not just the large, dramatic things (surgery, chemo, and the like) that disrupt our schedules and overturn our plans, it's often the small things too: the side-effects of a medication, for example; or the body's shock after an invasive test; or a simple virus making the rounds, knocking others out for a couple of days while knocking us out for a couple of months. Illness takes time, and time for artists is a crucial resource. Writing, editing, or illustrating a book, for example, takes hours and hours of focused attention; and whenever we are knocked from the ladder of health, it feels like our time has been stolen.

Yet the loss is not really of time itself, but of one particular form of it: the "productive" time prized in our commerical culture, which priviliges results and finished products over process. "Time is money," as the old saying goes, and a sick person's time is not worth a bad penny. Yet paradoxically, when we're in poor health we are often rich in time, but in the wrong kind of time: the "unproductive" time of the sickbed. After a lifetime lived in the liminal space between disability and good health, I have come to believe "unproductive" time has its place and its value as well.

The Perfumier's Clock

The business world operates on a linear concept time, structured in regular working hours, measured by schedules, spreadsheets, targets; products made, marketed, and sold. Art-making is not a linear process, but those of us who work in the arts professions do our damn best to pretend that it is: writing books to deadline, making film or theatre to schedule, etc., while walking a precarious tightrope stretched between the muse and the marketplace. It's not an easy balance, but we do it. We live in a market culture, after all, and daily life jogs along by its rules. But illness cares nothing for markets; we do not heal in a linear fashion; and the common symptoms of failing health (the brain-fog, fatigue, and fevers of a body engaged with repairing itself) are at odds with the fast and furious pace of an industrialized, digitalized world.

Time, during an illness, slows and meanders: we sleep and wake, sink and rise, drift through the days absorbed in the mysteries of the body -- its fluids and fevers, its terrors and comforts, its cycles of pain and merciful release -- while our colleagues rush past in a bright busy world that seems far removed and unreal.

The Old Mother Time Clock and The Wedding Clock

The Acocado Tree Clock

In her poetic memoir of illness, The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, Elizabeth Tova Bailey reflects on the time she spent bedridden with a semi-paralysing auto-immune disease:

"The mountain of things I felt I needed to do reached the moon, yet there was little I could do about anything and time continued to drag me along its path. We are all hostages of time. We each have the same number of minutes and hours to live within a day, yet to me it didn't feel equally doled out. My illness brought me such an abundance of time that time was nearly all I had. My friends had so little time that I often wished I could give them what I could not use. It was perplexing how in losing health I had gained something so coveted but to so little purpose."

The Rootpond Clock

The Hedge-Brother Clock and The Word-Owl Clock

I sympathize with Bailey's despair about the "mountain of things" she suddenly could not do, (I've often felt the same), but I resist defining the slowed-down time of the sickbed as time that has no use. There are many modes of experiencing the world, and linear time is just one of them. During illness, I enter a different mode: slower, stranger, cyclical, tidal. Attuned to the immediate environment. I see it as a form of Wild Time, a term coin by cultural historian Jay Griffiths (in her excellent book on time, Pip Pip) -- defined as time that's not been dictated by modern industrial cultural norms; time rooted in the body, the land, the ebb and flow of sea and psyche.

It is always hard to remember the exact qualities of time experienced in the sickbed when we're back in the flow of the linear world; it blurs around the edges, bright and elusive as a fever dream. What I recall best about the strange Otherworld I enter whenever my body fails is how the world shrinks to the size of my bedroom, to the dimensions of a bed littered with books, and to a window view of the garden, the hill, and the oaks at the woodland's edge. Unable to summon the focused attention required to write, paint, or simply communicate, I surrender to those things that illness allows and facilitates: Reading, deeply and widely. Watching the natural world through window glass. Thinking the kind of thoughts that rise, for me, only in stillness and isolation.

Illness prevents me from being active. From climbing the hill up to my studio and re-engaging with the work I've left undone. But the art that I make in "productive" time is informed by the things I feel (and watch, hear, read, reflect on) during the slow, strange hours of fever and pain. Both aspects of life -- the busy studio, the quiet sickbed -- combine to make me the artist that I am.

The November Clock

Writing in EarthLines magazine in 2013, Deppe Dyrendom Graugaard described a conversation with musician and philosopher Morten Svenstrup about time in relation to nature and art -- reflecting on the way that time slows down when we are fully engaged in listening to music, looking at a painting, reading a book ... or, I'd add, communing with the body during the slow sensory days of an illness.

"Around the time this conversation took off, Morten was writing his thesis Time, Art, and Society, in which he explores the insight that when we engage with an artwork, we pay attention in a way we don't always do with other objects. The composition of an art piece, its inherent timing, cannot be forced to fit whatever our personal sense of time may be. Being a cellist, he was very aware that if we want to really engage with music, we have to surrender our immediate sense of time and listen. The question arose: what happens if we take the kind of attention we bring to bear on a painting, a symphony, or a poem into our everyday surroundings and listen to the inherent time of our neighbourhood, a nearby woodland, or our own bodies?

The White Rabbit checks his pocket watch  an illustration from Alice in Wonderland by John Tenniel"Doing this, we encounter an astonishing diversity of timescales which make a mockery of the idea that there is such a thing as a singular, universal, abstract Time. The present is made up of a multiplicity of lifetimes, and getting past our personal view and tuning into what can best be described as a symphonic view of time, we immediately acquire the sense of the richness of life. By sidestepping our notion of time as something outside ourselves and independent of us, we see that everything has its own time, an Eigenzeit. This can work as an antidote to the speed that marks a society driven by principles of efficiency and growth. It is a practice which begins with noticing the world around us, paying attention and becoming present -- but which leads to a deeper understanding and connection with the places we inhabit."

Graugaard notes that an unrushed relationship with time is valuable in a digital age which constantly fractures our powers of concentration, and explains why cultivating Wild Time is a radical act.

"Wresting our attention from the flurry of information that is hurtled at us through fibre-optic communication and turning it toward the depth of time is not just about engaging new ways of seeing and honing the lifeskills we need to live fully in the context of a digitalized world. It is also a way of finding joy in the places we live in, whether they are urban or rural. Surrendering and accepting what is, and figuring out what we want to hold onto and what we can let go of. Without attention we are lost. Whatever distracts attention kills our potential to be free.

"This is why resisting the progressive notion of time as linear, singular, and above all placeless is profoundly political. It is about power. Tuning into the timescapes of the other allows us to dissolve the separation that modern life requires from us. That is what is meant by the beautiful metaphor of 'thinking like a mountain.' By thinking like a mountain, we open the possibility of becoming other." 

The Hare Mycomusicologist Clock

There are many ways we can "think like a mountain" and pull ourselves from the frantic pace of the mechanized world into periods of soul-enriching (perhaps even soul-saving) Wild Time. We can take breaks from the Internet, for example; or immerse ourselves in nature; or cultivate "deep attention" by making art and engaging with art. And although it's not a method most of us would choose, illness, too, allows us to surrender to time in a slower, wilder way, thereby fostering a deeper, richer connection to the physical world we live in.

Don't get me wrong, I prefer good health. I prefer to be energetic and active. But during those times when I'm back in bed again, too weak, too tired, too pain-raddled to keep up with the friends and colleagues racing ahead on time's straight track, I am learning to accept that mine's a slower, more meandering trail. But it has its value. It has its use. It will get me where I want to go.

Wild time

The Hummingbird Clock (full clock & detail)

About the art:

The wonderful painted clocks in this post are by my friend and Dartmoor neighbour Rima Staines, a multi-disciplinary artist who uses paint, wood, word, music, animation, puppetry, and story to "build a gate through the hedge that grows along the boundary between this world and that." Born in London to a family of artists, and raised on the roads of Bavaria in her early years, Rima has always been stubborn about living the things that make her heart sing.

With her partner Tom Hirons, Rima also runs the Hedgespoken folk arts project. For part of the year, they travel the lanes and byways of Britain in a glorious old truck converted into an off-grid venue for storytelling, folk theatre, and puppetry. In the winter months, they return to us on Dartmoor and focus on writing, painting, and running Hedgespoken Press.

Rima’s inspirations include the world and language of folk tales, folk music, folk art of Old Europe and beyond, peasant and nomadic living, wilderness, plant-lore, magics of every feather, and the beauty to be found in otherness. To see more of her extraordinary work, visit her website: Paintings in a Minor Key, her blog: The Hermitage, and seek out her book, Tatterdemalion, co-created with Sylvia V. Linsteadt

We Three & the Moon Balloon Clock and The Nisse Mother Clock

The Mad Hatter Clock

The clock paintings above are by Rima Staines (the charming titles are in the picture captions - run your cursor over the pictures to read them); and all rights are reserved by artist. The drawing of Alice's White Rabbit checking his pocket watch ("Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late!") is by John Tenniel (1820-1940).

The passages quoted above are from The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elizabeth Tova Bailey (Algonquin Books, 2010), and Deppe Dyrendom Graugaard's introduction to an interview with Jay Griffiths (EarthLines magazine, 2013). I highly recommend Jay Griffith's book Pip Pip: A Sideways Look at Time (Flamingo, 1999). All rights reserved by the authors.

A few related posts on illness, and on time: In a Dark Wood, Stories are Medicine, The Subtle Element of Time, and Wild Time & Storytelling.


On blogging (and spoons)

Carl Larsson

This post first appeared on Myth & Moor in 2011. It's re-posted today by request....

During a recent interview, my friend Rima Staines discussed the art of blogging: how she started, and why she started, at a time when personal blogs like hers (The Hermitage) were still new and unusual. "What a strange and cumbersome word 'blogging' is," she said, "but I like where it comes from: a web log, like a ship's log. You can perhaps imagine us all pegging log entries onto a huge web for the general perusal of spiders everywhere. My reasons for blogging? They touch upon connection, friendship, and the sharing of delights. Sharing art and ideas online has become a vital part of the work of so many self-employed artists and craftspeople, and I would not now be lucky enough to spend my days painting for a living without the connections I made through The Hermitage."

Reading Rima's interview has led me to think about why I blog myself  (here on Myth & Moor since 2008, and prior to that for The Journal of Mythic Arts). The thread of my thoughts about blogging is all knotted up with a number of other things that I've been pondering lately -- about art, and life, and energy, and "spoons" -- and out of this tangle there's something specific I want to unravel -- but I'm going to have to tease it out slowly from the snarl of other threads, so please bear with me.

Loom and Thread by Carl Larsson

This is also going to be a more personal post than usual for me, since one of those threads involves chronic illness, and that's a subject that I approach gingerly. Writing frankly about coping with illness can be mistaken for a plea for sympathy ("Oh, poor, poor me!"), or as a means of defining oneself as part of an aggrieved minority ("Sick people don't get no respect!") rather than what it actually is: a creative/intellectual attempt to understand the process of living in a malfunctioning body while also living as a creative artist. So I hereby give notice that I am about to tread further than usual into this murky territory today ... and perhaps in speaking of the personal, I can find my way back to more general thoughts about living the Artist's Life; or, at very least, give voice to issues that others dealing with illness might find familiar, or useful.

Painting by Carl LarssonFirst let me define my terms. I'm going to refer to the limited energy one has when dealing with a chronic illness in terms of "spoons" -- so if you haven't yet read Christine Miserandino's very useful "Spoon Theory" essay, it might be helpful to do so. And by the term "blogging," I'll be referring specifically to the writing of personal blogs, rather than all of the other sorts: professional, political, commercial, multi-author, et cetera.

With Rima's words running through my head, I was walking in the woods with my dog earlier (where I ran, quite unexpectedly, into Brian Froud and his dog, but I digress), thinking about the "art of the blog" and why, after a somewhat trepidatious beginning, I find it so congenial. I'm in a different stage of my life and career than Rima, and thus my answer to the question "Why write a blog?" is bound to be a different one from hers, or any other young artist's. The answer that appeared to me suddenly as I trudged up the hill through the mud and leaves came from an unexpected direction. It has to do with dodgy health and spoons and the thorny issue of communication.

Now, I can't speak for everyone with a serious and/or long-term illness, and my own (which I prefer not to name in this public space) affects life in ways that differ from other medical conditions -- but what many of us with a range of health issues share is a constant need to juggle whatever spoons we have to hand on any given day. And for me, the simple act of communication is one that consistently threatens to empty my spoon drawer.

By Carl Larsson

Perhaps it's because I communicate for a living, and therefore the spoons specifically shaped for that job are ones I particularly have to hoard in order to meet the daily demands of my work. All I know is that the simple act of writing a letter to a friend, or answering an email, or (especially) picking up the phone are entirely beyond me when those spoons are used up -- and they're precisely the spoons I tend to run out of first, due to the nature of my work.

This is an aspect of my life that constantly frustrates my dear, patient, long-suffering family members and friends. I drop out of sight, I don't pick up the phone, emails drop into some kind of cosmic black hole. I'm warm and engaged and present on a good day, and retreat into mumbles and chilly distance on a bad one. Sometime I'm a reliable friend/sister/niece/co-worker, and a regular part of others' daily lives ... and sometimes I disappear for days, weeks, months on end with no warning at all. If I were a hermit by nature, none of this would be a problem, but I'm not -- I'm a person with a wide, deep circle of close relationships; an artist who thrives on connection and community; a sociable woman whose natural rhythms are often disrupted by the over-riding rhythms of illness.

 Carl Larsson

What has all this to do with blogging, you ask? It is this: Writing short pieces for a more-or-less daily blog is, for me, a means of communication, of maintaining vital connections: with friends, with colleagues in the publishing field, with the wider Mythic Arts community. Yes, it takes spoons, but not many of them (now that I'm comfortable enough with the form and technology that I can put up a daily post reasonably quickly) -- and when compared to the number of spoons it would take to stay in frequent touch with the many people I know and love, to answer every email and return every call, those couple of spoons become negligible and well worth the cost. Blogging, for me, is my daily missive from the trenches of my creative life to the people, near and far, who make up my world. It's a form of round-robin letter to say: this is what I'm doing, this is what I'm thinking, I haven't disappeared. I may not be entirely well, but I'm still here. And if other people whom I've never personally met are reading these missives too, well then that's fine by me. I assume they're here because they also love books and folklore and mythic arts, and that means they're not really strangers, they are part of my wider community too.

Carl Larsson

Now here's where I'd like to see if I can make the leap from personal circumstance to something that might relate to other artists as well, beyond the small subgroup of folks also coping with illness or disability. It's almost always difficult for artists in any field (except, perhaps, for a very privileged few) to balance the time required by creative work with all the other demands of life. The need to manage ones time and energy may be more extreme and urgent for the chronically ill, yet I know few writers or artists (heck, do I know any?) who don't wrestle with the details of work/life balance. If it's not medical issues taking up ones time, it might be children, elderly relatives, a day job, community obligations, political activism, or all of these things at once. The sheer busyness of modern life can feel relentless and overwhelming ... and that, in turn, conflicts with art's requirement for time, solitude, and periods of sustained, uninterrupted concentration.

Painting by Carl LarssonI think that even if illness was suddenly, blessedly removed as a factor in my life, I would still be at this same point in my journey: having reached an age that forces recognition that time is not infinite, I feel compelled to turn inward and focus my time and attention on truly mastering my craft. The social gregariousness of youth is no longer possible, or desirable; there are only so many hours in the day, after all. And yet, the life- and art-sustaining web of connection begun in ones early years remains important even as one grows older, slower, and more protective of ones time. That, for me, is where blogging comes in. It maintains that web of connection.

Here's what blogging is to me: It's a modern form of the old Victorian custom of being "At Home" to visitors on a certain day of the week; it's an Open House during which friends and colleagues know they are welcome to stop by. I'm “At Home” each morning when I put up at post. Here, in the gossamer world of the Internet, I throw my studio door open to friends and family and strangers alike. And each Comment posted is a visiting card left behind by those who have crossed my doorstep.

Carl Larsson

But it's important to remember that the flip side of the Victorian "At Home" day is that it also provided boundaries -- for it was widely understood that visitors were not to drop by on other days of the week. Visitors could leave calling cards with the butler, but the Mistress of the house was not instantly available to them. Like every artist (and particularly artists deficient in health and energy), I too need large periods of time when I'm simply not available to others: when I'm working, or resting, or off at the doctor's, or re-charging my creative batteries, or working out thorny plot problems while roaming the countryside with the hound. In these days of speed and instant access, of Facebook and tweets and 8-year-olds with their own mobile phones, it's almost a revolutionary act to say: I'm not in to callers. You can't reach me now. And yet artists need this. We need to unplug. We need to spend time in the world of our imaginations, where the Internet and mobile phones cannot go.

Summer in Sundborn by Carl Larsson

But here's what I find interesting: The very same technology that threatens to force constant communication upon us can also be the thing that allows us to create necessary boundaries. Blogging, for all its intimacy as an art form, is also an excellent boundary maker. Yes, we open up our lives on a personal blog ... but only this much, not that much, and each blogger decides where that line will be drawn. The blog is a controlled kind of publication. It doesn't provided instant access to its maker, unless the blog's author specifically wants it to. The open, generous space cultivated on a blog need not (indeed, probably should not) be duplicated in the physical world; for in the world, what a working artist truly needs is the equivalent of the butler at the door, politely turning callers away: The mistress is not 'At Home' today. She is working. I will tell her you called.

This, then, is why I write a blog: not for the reasons so many young artists do (as they build their careers and find their audience), but because, as an older artist, it helps resolve one of life's central conflicts: that both illness and art demand solitude, yet the heart requires communication and connection.

Carl Larsson

I live a life chronically deficient in spoons, and at this age I have learned to accept it. (Okay, my husband would say that I am learning to accept it.) Calls will continue to go unanswered. Emails will routinely begin with the words: Please forgive me for taking so long to respond. Friends will continue to worry when they haven't heard from me for a week, or a month. But these days, at least, they know they can always find me here at Myth & Moor ... with fresh coffee brewing, Tilly at my side, and a pen or paintbrush in my hands.

In the physical world, my studio is my work space, not a social space, and a four-footed butler stands guard at the door....

The guard at the door

But here, in my online studio, I am "At Home." And everyone is welcome in.

Carl Larsson studio

The paintings above are by the Swedish painter Carl Larsson (1854-1919). The poem in the picture captions is "After Illness, Walking the Dog" by Jane Kenyon (1947-1995), from Poetry Magazine, Oct/Nov 1987. (Kenyon died from leukemia at age 48.) All rights reserved by the Larsson and Kenyon estates. This post is dedicated to Midori Snyder, who talked me into creating this blog. (I owe you big time, old friend.)

A few related posts on illness, art, and work/life balance: In the quiet of the woods, Living and working in place, A celebration of slowness, Every illness is narrative, and Silence and stillness.


Wild healing

Lords & Ladies

Another fine book I'd like to recommend is Emma Kennedy's The Wild Remedy: How Nature Mends Us. In this beautiful diary enriched by nature drawings, paintings, and photographs, Emma recounts the ways that immersion in nature helps her to live with chronic depression, records her encounters with the flora and fauna of the Cambridge fens, and discusses the science underpinning her thesis: that being in nature produces physical and neurological change in the human body.

Bank Vole by Emma MitchellIn the book's Introduction she writes:

"Of course, I am not the first to have noticed the consolation of walking outdoors. Literature is peppered with references to striding in the countryside as a means of easing melancholy, inspiring creative thought and hastening recovering. The 19th-century Danish philosopher, poet and theologian, Søren Kierkegaard, exalted a daily stroll: 'Every day I walk myself into a state of well-being away from every illness; I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it.' Elizabeth von Arnim wrote one of my favourite novels, The Enchanted April, in the 1920s, and her feelings on walking through the countryside echo my own: 'If you go to a place on anything but your own two feet you are taken there too fast, and miss a thousand delicate joys that were waiting for you by the wayside.' "

Lords & Ladies

Woodland triptych

A few pages later she notes:

"Joint research from the University of Madrid and the Norwegian University of Life Sciences published in 2007 showed that simply seeing natural landscapes can speed up recovery from stress or mental fatigue, and hasten recovery from illness. Studies published in 2017 from the University of Exeter have demonstrated that the presence of vegetation in an urban landscape diminishes levels of depression, anxiety, and perceived stress levels in city dwellers, and the same raft of work showed that time spent outdoors alleviates low mood....

Bluebells in a Devon wood

"Research aimed at understanding the Shrinrin-yoku phenomenon [the practice of 'forest bathing' in Japan] has show that walking in green space has a direct positive effect on several systems in our bodies. Blood pressure decreases, levels of the stress hormone cortisol drop, anxiety is alleviated and pulse rates diminish in subjects who have spent time in nature and particularly among trees. Levels of activity in the sympathetic nervous system, responsible for our fight or flight response to stress, drop away and the activity of a particular kind of white blood cell called natural killer (NK) cells, which can destroy virally infected and certain cancerous cells, increases when humans spend time in a woodland environment."

Lords & Ladies

The science is still progressing, Emma writes, "but I'm fascinated by the idea that the balance of the chemistry of my brain, and my hormonal and nervous systems, are changing as I linger among trees and plants, and that this can impact the tone of my thoughts and my mental health. I have felt the curative effects of my surroundings as I walk in a wild place numerous times, and it is reassuring to know that there is something I can do to help myself on dark days."

Hound in a Devon woodland

Wildflowers around a badger sett

Wild Remedy

"At no point would I suggest standard treatments for this condition can be replaced by dawdling near a dog rose," she adds; "I rely on antidepressants and talking cures to prevent my illness from becoming overwhelming, but depression varies in its grip on my mind, depending on the season and on daily stress levels. I have found that the basal level of respite provided by antidepressants and therapy is sometimes insufficient to prevent my thoughts falling down a well. It is at these times that I find walking among hazels and hawthornes can help to dial down cortisol levels and cause the shift in neurotransmitters that I need to fend off the black dog."

(Sorry, Tilly. She doesn't mean you, dear.)

Woodland creature

Lords & Ladies among the Bluebells

Although my own health problems are physical rather than neurological, the two are inextricably linked, of course, and much of this gentle, artful, informative book spoke to me on a personal level. I, too, find healing among the trees. Thus I recommend Wild Remedy to all who travel through illness of one kind or another...and since, sooner or later, that is all of us, this book is for every reader who loves, or might come to love, the natural world.

Wild Remedy

Woodland wanderer

Words: The passages above are from Wild Remedy: How Nature Mends Us by Emma Mitchell (Michael O'Mara Books, 2019). The poem in the picture captions is from Jay Griffith's unusual and brilliant book on her journey with bipolar disorder, Tristimania (Penguin, 2016). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: Emma Mitchell's artwork from Wild Remedy, and photographs from my own rambles through the Devon woods. Every year I wait for the Lords & Ladies to appear in a certain place, and they never fail to warm my heart -- it's like catching up with old friends. (Americans may known the plant best under the name Jack-in-the-Pulpit.)


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.

Dartmoor ponies 2

Dartmoor ponies 3

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.

Dartmoor ponies 7

"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.

Dartmoor ponies 4

"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."

Dartmoor ponies 5

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.

Dartmoor ponies 6

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.

Dartmoor ponies

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...

Dartmoor ponies 8

...and now blessed by wild ponies too.

Dartmoor ponies 9

Dartmoor ponies 10

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.


Finding the Words

Budleigh Salterton 1

From "Writing With and Through Pain" by Sonya Huber:

"It’s an odd thing to continue to show up at the page when the brain and the fingers you bring to the keyboard have changed. Before the daily pain and head-fog of rheumatoid disease, I could sit at my computer and dive headlong into text for hours. Like many writers, I had a quasi-religious attachment to the feeling of jet-fuel production, the clear writing process of my twenties: the silence I required, the brand of pen I chose when I wrote long-hand, those hours when I would sit and pour out words and forget to breathe.

Budleigh Salterton 2

"Then, I thought that my steel-trap focus made for good writing, but I confess that I’m not sure what 'good writing' means anymore. For example, what happens when the fogged writing you thought was sub-par results in your most popular book? ...

Budleigh Salterton 3

"Today I am tired -- despite a full night’s sleep -- merely because I had a busy workday yesterday. I’m actually hungover, in a sense, from standing upright and talking between 9:00 am and 5:00 pm. Before I got sick, I would have declared this day a rare lost cause. But this is the new normal. Now, even the magic of caffeine doesn’t allow me to smash through the pages like I used to. As my body and mind changed, I feared that I would become unhinged from text itself, and from the thinking and insight that text provides. In a way, that did happen. Over the past decade, I have had to remake my contract with sentences and with every step of the writing process. The good thing is that there’s plasticity in that relationship, as long as I am patient.

Budleigh Salterton 4

"I don’t know a lot about neurology, but here’s what it feels like: there’s a higher register, buzzing, logical, and mathematical, in which I could often write when I was at full energy. And then there’s a lower tone, slower and quieter -- my existence these days. The music of the words sounds completely different at this lower register, producing different voices and different shapes, but it still resonates. It requires me to intuit more, to pay much more attention to non-verbal senses and emotional structures and to try to put them into words, rather than to follow the intellectual string of words themselves.

Budleigh Salterton 5

"Although our diseases are very different, I have felt what Floyd Skloot describes in his essay 'Thinking with a Damaged Brain,' in which he traces the ways his thought processes have been altered by the aftermath of a virus that ravaged his attention and memory:

'I must be willing to write slowly, to skip or leave blank spaces where I cannot find words that I seek, compose in fragments and without an overall ordering principle or imposed form. I explore and make discoveries in my writing now, never quite sure where I am going but willing to let things ride and discover later how they all fit together'

Budleigh Salterton 6

"I do work more slowly. Of necessity, I place more faith in Tomorrow Me. When I stop writing, daunted by a place where I’m stuck, my energy plummets and I hand it off, knowing I’ll pick up the challenge on the next session....The dim semaphore through which my sentences arrive today leads to a strange by-product: I have less energy to worry about all the ways in which I might be wrong (though maybe age and confidence have also helped). In plodding along slowly, my voice has become clearer, at least in my own head. This slow writing forces me to make each word count."

Drawing by Helen Stratton

Please take the time to read Huber's insightful essay in full (published online at Literary Hub), as this is just a small taste of it. I also recommend her collection Pain Takes Your Keys & Other Essays from a Nervous System, as well as her other fine books.

Budleigh Salterton 7

Some other good pieces on writing with, or about, illness and pain:

"Stephanie Burgis Talks about Snowspelled" (Mary Robinette Kowal's blog)
If you're having trouble with this link, try this url: https://maryrobinettekowal.com/journal/favorite-bit-stephanie-burgis-talks-snowspelled/

"Out of My Mind" by Sarah Perry (The Guardian)

"On the Harmed Body: A Tribute to Hillary Gravendyk" by Diana Arterian (Los Angeles Review of Books)

"On Telling Ugly Stories: Writing with a Chronic Ilnness" by Nafissa Thompson-Spires (The Paris Review)

"Writing & Illness: More Than Metaphor" by Victoria Brownworth (Lambda Literary)

"The Heart-Work: Writing About Trauma as a Subversive Act" by Melissa Febos (Poets & Writers)

My own various writings on illness, posted on this blog, are collected here.

Budleigh Salterton 8

"In order to keep me available to myself," wrote Audre Lord in The Cancer Journals,  "and able to concentrate my energies upon the challenges of those worlds through which I move, I must consider what my body means to me. I must also separate those external demands about how I look and feel to others, from what I really want for my own body, and how I feel to my selves."

This is also a challenge for all of us, the sick and the well alike.

Budleigh Salterton 9

Words: The passage above is from "Writing With and Through Pain" by Sonya Huber (Literary Hub, June 25, 2018). The Andre Lorde quote is from The Cancer Journals (Aunt Lute Books, 1980). The poem in the picture captions is from Guts Magazine (November 19, 2015).  All rights reserved by the authors. Drawing: "The Little Mermaid" by Helen Stratton (1867-1961). Photographs: A walk on the pebble beach at Budleigh Salterton on the south Devon coast, late summer, with my old friends Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman, and my husband Howard.


The gift blocked up

Oak

From The Gifts of Reading, a gorgeous little chapbook by Robert Macfarlane:

"Great art 'offers us images by which to imagine our lives' notes Lewis Hyde in his classic 1983 book, The Gift, 'and once the imagination has been awakened it is procreative: through it we can give more than we were given, say more than we have to say.' This is a beautiful double-proposition: that art enlarges our repetoire for being, and that it further enables a giving onwards of that enriched utterance, that broadened perception.

"I was given a copy of Hyde's The Gift -- and I don't have that copy any longer, because I gave it to someone else, urging them to read it. Gifts give on, says Hyde, this is their logic. They are generous acts that incite generosity. He contrasts two types of 'property': the commodity and the gift. The commodity is the acquired and then hoarded, or resold. But the gift is kept moving, given onwards in a new form. Whereas the commodity circulates according to the market economy (in which relations are largely impersonal and conducted with the aim of profiting the self), the gift circulates according to the gift economy (in which relations are largely personal and conducted with the aim of profiting the other). In the market economy, value accrues to the individual by means of hoarding or 'saving.' In the gift economy, value accrues between individuals by means of giving and receiving.

"This, for Hyde, is why gifts possess 'erotic life,' as property: when we give a gift, it is an erotic act in the sense of eros as meaning 'attraction,' 'union,' a 'mutual involvement.' ... Unlike commodities, gifts -- in Hyde's account and my experience -- possess an exceptional power to transform, to heal and to inspire."

White pony

Lewis Hyde's The Gift was a seminal book for me when I first encountered it as a young writer/editor, forming the way that I think about art: as a passing of gifts through the world, through time, and through the generations. I write, edit, and paint to make a living of course, to put food on the table and keep a roof overhead, but for me the first and most important impulse in the art-making process is, as Pablo Neruda once said, " to give something resiny, earthlike and fragrant in exchange for the gift of human brotherhood" ... to which I would add the gifts of sisterhood, and of a deeply cherished relationship with nature and the more-than-human world.

Sheep

Sheep

In a previous post on gift exchange I noted:

"Making art is a form of gift-giving, made wondrous by the way that some of our creations move outward far beyond our ken, gifting recipients we do not know, will never meet, and sometimes could never imagine. And I, in turn, have received great gifts from writers, painters, musicians, dramatists and others who will never know of my existence either, and yet their words, images, or ideas, coming to me at the right time, have literally saved me.

"The paradox inherent in making art, of course, is that it's an act involving both giving and receiving. Like breathing, it requires both, the inhalation and the exhalation. We receive the gift of inspiration (inhale), give it shape and form and pass it on (exhale)."

Sheep

Path

And yet somehow over the last few months, I seem to have lost the knack of breathing: the natural and mostly-unconscious cycle of in and out that sustains my life. I was working...writing...but the work didn't flow. My regular morning posts for Myth & Moor slowed down to a trickle, then stopped altogether. My inbox filled with unanswered mail as my ability to communicate -- the very thing I've built my life and career upon -- seemed to vanish altogether. I can point to particular reasons why: Exhaustion. Medical problems, both time-consuming and worrying. Too many demands upon my time and attention, and too few spoons to distribute among them. The weariness of spirit caused by the constant assault of the daily news since the Brexit vote and the American election. It was all of those things and none of those things. I hadn't gone to ground intentionally; I kept trying to speak, and found myself dumb -- which is not a comfortable situation for a professional writer, a creature with language at her core. As novelist/memoirist/poet May Sarton once wrote:

"The gift turned inward, unable to be given, becomes a heavy burden, even sometimes a kind of poison. It is as though the flow of life were backed up."

Cow on the hill

What has changed, then, since the silent summer months, allowing me to return to work and resume this blog?

This, too, is mysterious. Perhaps it's simply the turn of the season: the air growing crisp, the leaves turning gold, the reminder that nothing in nature stands entirely still. Perhaps it's just the need to breathe out after holding my breath for too long. Perhaps it was a visit by two old friend, writers themselves, pulling me back to the literary world. Perhaps it's the way that the things that serve to frighten us into paralysis -- whether medical issues or other challenges -- eventually grow familiar, become the things you simply cope with, learn to fold into your days because you must...and life goes on...and the birds still sing...and the hound still wants her afternoon walk...and you find yourself speaking, once again, hesitantly at first, and then just a little louder...re-finding the words...re-finding yourself...until one day your fluency in your life's language returns.

Cow on the hill

Braising on oak leaves

"The earth offers gift after gift," writes Kathleen Dean Moore, "life and the living of it, light and the return of it, the growing things, the roaring things, fire and nightmares, falling water and the wisdom of friends, forgiveness. My god, the forgiveness, time, and the scouring tides. How does one accept gifts as great as these and hold them in the mind?"

By noticing them. By honoring them. By holding them close when the world goes dark, and passing them on when the light comes back.

Climbing the hill

The door of my studio stands open. Myth & Moor is back on schedule again. Autumn is here. I am moving forward, and I suddenly have so much to say.

Reaching the top

Moore  Hyde  & Macfarlane

Credits: The passages quoted above are from The Gifts of Reading by Robert Macfarlane (Penguin Books, 2016); The Gift by Lewis Hyde (Vintage, 1983); and Wild Comfort by Kathleen Dean Moore (Shambhala, 2010). The May Sarton quote is from her novel Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing (W.W. Norton, 1975). All rights reserved by the authors. Three related posts: Gift Exchange (and the making of art), Doing It for Love, Knowing the World as a Gift.


Wild Sanctuary and The Handless Maiden

...with art by Jeanie Tomanek

The Handless Maiden by Jeanie Tomanek

For those of you who follow Folklore Thursday on Facebook or Twitter, today is "Favorite Fairy Tale" day, so I'm reprinting this post about wild sanctuary & healing in relation to the Handless Maiden story. It's not my absolute fairy fairy tale, which is Donkeyskin -- but the only piece I've written about that one is a rather dark essay-cum-memoir addressing the subject of child abuse. (If you're curious, and up for it, the essay is here. And Helen Pilinovsky has a good piece on Donkeyskin here. ) But I love The Handless Maiden too, for its complexity, its psychological depth, and for all that it tells us about trauma, strength, and the true nature of healing....

Jungian scholar Marie-Louise von Franz saw the fairy tale forest not only as a place of trials for the hero, but also an archetypal setting for retreat, reflection, and healing. In a lecture presented to the C.G. Jung Institute in Switzerland in the winter of 1958-59 (subsequently published as The Feminine in Fairytales), she looked at the role of the forest in the story of "The Handless Maiden" (also known as "The Armless Maiden," "The Girl Without Hands," and "Silver Hands"). In this tale, a miller's daughter loses her hands as the result of a foolish bargain her father has made with the devil. (In darker variants, it is because she will not give in to incestuous demands.) She then leaves home, makes her way through the forest, and ends up foraging for pears (a fruit symbolic of female strength) in the garden of a tender-hearted king — who falls in love, marries her, and gives her two new hands made of silver. The young woman gives birth to a son — but this is not the usual happy ending to the story. The king is away at war and the devil interferes once again (or, in some versions, a malicious mother-in-law), tricking the court into casting both mother and child back into the forest. "She is driven into nature," von Franz points out. "She has to go into deep introversion.... The forest [is] the place of unconventional inner life, in the deepest sense of the word.

The Handless Maiden then encounters an angel who leads her to a hut deep in the woods. Her human hands are magically restored during this time of forest retreat. When her husband returns from the war, learns that she's gone, and comes to fetch his wife and child home, she insists that he court her all over again, as the new woman she is now. Her husband complies -- and then, only then, does the tale conclude happily. The Handless Maiden's transformation is now complete: from wounded child to whole, healed woman; from miller's daughter to queen.

Von Franz compares the Handless Maiden's time of solitude in the woods to that of religious mystics seeking communion with god through nature. "In the Middle Ages, there were many hermits," she notes, "and in Switzerland there were the so-called Wood Brothers and Sisters. People who did not want to live a monastic life but who wanted to live alone in the forest had both a closeness to nature and also a great experience of spiritual inner life. Such Wood Brothers and Sisters could be personalities on a high level who had a spiritual fate and had to renounce active life for a time and isolate themselves to find their own inner relationship to God. It is not very different from what the shaman does in the Polar tribes, or what the medicine men do all over the world, in order to seek immediate personal religious experience in isolation."

Forget-me-not by Jeanie Tomanek

In other versions of the Handless Maiden narrative, the young queen's time in the woods is not solitary. The angel (or "white spirit") leads her to an inn at the very heart of the forest, where she's taken in by gentle "folk of the woods." (It's not always made clear whether they are human or magical beings.) The queen stays with them for a full seven years (a traditional period of time for magical/shamanic initiation in ancient Greece and other cultures world-wide), during which time her hands slowly re-grow.

In an article titled "Healing the Wounded Wild," Kim Antieau uses this variant of the story to reflect on illness, the healing process, and the ways our relationship with the natural world impacts both physical and psychic health. "In many cultures," she writes, "the prescription for chronic illness was a stay in the country (not necessarily the wild country). In ancient Greece, the chronically ill went to Asklepian Temples for relief. The priests created tenemos — sacred space — for the patient to help facilitate healing. The ill went to the temples and prepared with purification and ritual for a healing dream. Then the patient went to the abaton — the sleeping chamber — and dreamed. Often the dreams either healed the patients or told them of a remedy which would heal them.

"Today, practitioners of integrated medicine believe the body wants to heal, and the patient needs the time, encouragement, support and space to be able to get well. In many instances the time, encouragement, and support can be found, but wild spaces are lacking. Silvia [the Handless Maiden] was able to travel deep into a wild place. Where do we go? Where do the wild things go (including human beings) when no wild remains?"

Gamekeeper by Jeanie Tomanek

Midori Snyder comes at the story from a different angle in her luminous article "The Armless Maiden and the Hero's Journey," examining the tale, in its various forms, as a classic rite-of-passage narrative.

When such stories are devised for young men, she notes, the hero typically sets off from home seeking adventure or fortune in the unknown world, where the fantastic waits to challenge him. "Along the journey, his worth as a man and as a hero is tested. But when the trials are done, he returns home again in triumph, bringing to his society new-found knowledge, maturity and often a magical bride....

"While no less heroic, how different are the journeys of young women. In folktales, the rite of passage from adolescence to adulthood is confirmed by marriage and the assumption of adult roles. In traditional exogamous societies, young women were required to leave forever the familiar home of their birth and become brides in foreign and sometimes faraway households. In the folktales, a young girl ventures or is turned out into the ambiguous world of the fantastic, knowing that she will never return home. Instead at the end of a perilous and solitary journey, she arrives at a new village or kingdom. There, disguised as a dirty–faced servant, a scullery maid, or a goose girl, she completes her initiation as an adult and, like her male counterpart, brings to her new community the gifts of knowledge, maturity, and fertility."

Although fairy tales have been known as children's stories from roughly the 19th century onward, older versions of these same narratives (aimed at older audiences) looked unflinchingly at the darkest parts of life: at poverty, hunger, abuse of power, domestic violence, incest, rape, the sale of young daughters to the highest bidder under the guise of arranged marriages, the effects of remarriage on family dynamics, the loss of inheritance or identity, the survival of treachery or calamity. In rite-of-passage tales devised for young women, the heroes don't tend to ride merrily off into the forest in search of fame and fortune, they are usually driven there by desperation; the forest, despite its perils, is a place of refuge from worse dangers left behind.

Communion by Jeanie Tomanek

The Handless/Armless Maiden is not a passive princess in the old Disney mold, waiting for romance to rescue her. She finds her own way to the orchard of a king in her search of food, and although she agrees to marry him, a royal wedding is not the conclusion of her story, it's the half-way point. "It is a narrative with a strange hiccup in the middle," Midori points out. "The brutality of the opening scene seems resolved as the Armless Maiden is rescued in a garden and then married to a compassionate young man. But she has not completed her journey of transformation from adolescence to adulthood. She is not whole, not the girl she was nor the woman she was meant to be. The narratives make it clear that without her arms, she is unable to fulfill her role as an adult. She can do nothing for herself, not even care for her own child.

"Conflict is reintroduced into the narrative to send the girl back on her journey of initiation in the woods. There the fantastic heals her, and she returns reborn as a woman. Every narrative version concludes with what is in effect a second marriage. The woman, now whole, her arms restored by an act of magic, has become herself the magic bride, aligned with the creative power of nature. She does not return immediately to her husband but waits with her child in the forest or a neighboring homestead for him to find her. When he comes to propose marriage this second time, it is a marriage of equals, based on respect and not pity.

Silver Hands and the Numbered Pears

"I have come to believe," Midori continues, "that robust narratives such as the Armless Maiden speak to women not only when they are young and setting out on that first rite of passage, but throughout their lives. In Women Who Run With the Wolves, psychologist Clarissa Pinkola Estés presents a fascinating analysis of this tale, demonstrating the guiding role the armless maiden plays in a woman's psychic life:

" 'The Handless Maiden is about a woman's initiation into the underground forest through the rite of endurance. The word endurance sounds as though it means "to continue without cessation," and while this is an occasional part of the tasks underlying the tale, the word endurance also means "to harden, to make robust, to strengthen," and this is the principal thrust of the tale, and the generative feature of a woman's long psychic life. We don't just go on to go on. Endurance means we are making something.'

"To follow the example of the armless maiden," Midori concludes, "is an invitation to sever old identities and crippling habits by journeying again and again into the forest. There we may once more encounter emergent selves waiting for us. In the narrative, the Armless Maiden sits on the bank of a rejuvenating lake and learns to caress and care for her child, the physical manifestation of her creative power. Each time we follow the Armless Maiden she brings us face to face with our own creative selves."

Silver Hands by Jeanie Tomanek

Poet Vicki Feaver has also reflected on the story in relationship to creativity. In an interview in Poetry Magazine, Feaver discusses her poem "The Handless Maiden," inspired by the fairy tale :

"The story is that the girl’s hands are cut off by her father and she is given silver hands by the king who falls in love with her. Eventually, she goes off into the forest with her child and her own hands grow back. In the Grimms' version it is because she’s good for seven years. But there’s a Russian version which I like better where she drops her child into a spring as she bends down to drink. She plunges her handless arms into the water to save the child and it’s at that moment that her hands grow. I read a psychoanalytic interpretation by Marie Louise von France in her book, The Feminine in Fairytales in which she argues that the story reflects the way women cut off their own hands to live through powerful and creative men. They need to go into the forest, into nature, to live by themselves, as a way of regaining their own power. The child in the story represents the woman’s creativity that only the woman herself can save. This was such a powerful idea that I had to write about it. It took me three years to find a way of doing it. In the end I chose the voice of the Handless Maiden herself -- as if I was writing the poem with the hands that grew at the moment that she rescued her work, her child. 

"I suppose I go through the process of endlessly cutting off my hands and having to grow them again. You ask if I’ve found any strategies for writing. Only to go away on my own, to be myself, and just to write."

Silver Hands by Jeanie Tomanek

"Fairy tales are journey stories," says Ellen Steiber (in a beautiful essay on the fairy tale "Brother and Sister"). "They deal with initiation and transformation, with going into the forest where one's deepest fears and most powerful dreams are realized. Many of them offer a map for getting through to the other side."

In the universe of fairy tales, the Just often find a way to prevail, the Wicked generally receive their comeuppance — but there's more to such tales than a formula of abuse and retribution. The trials these wounded young heroes encounter illustrate the process of transformation: from youth to adulthood, from victim to hero, from a maimed state to wholeness, from passivity to action. Fairy tales are, as Ellen says, maps through the woods, trails of stones to mark the path, marks carved into trees to let us know that other women and men have been this way before.

Diary by Jeanie Tomanek

Though they warn us to steer clear of gingerbread houses and huts that stalk the woods on chicken's feet, they also show the way to true shelter, sanctuary, and places of healing deep in the forest. (The real lesson here, it seems to me, is to learn to tell the difference.) Think of the hut in "Brother and Sister," for example, where the siblings set up housekeeping in the woods, far from the everyday world (and their stepmother's malice), adapting to the rhythms of the forest, of self-sufficiency, and of the brother's enchantment.  Or the woodland cabin in "The White Deer," where the deer-princess sleeps safely each night.  Or the cottage (or cave) where Snow White finds shelter with a band of rough forest-dwelling men (the metal-working dwarves of Teutonic folklore in some versions, outlaws and brigands in others). Even the Beast's lonely castle deep in the woods is more sanctuary than prison...a place where captor and prisoner both transform, in true fairy tale fashion.

Envoy by Jeanie TomanekThese places are linked not only by their woodland settings, but by the temporary nature of the sanctuary provided. The curse is broken or the secret revealed, or the magical task finished, or the trial survived; transformation is complete, and the hero must now return to the human world. Traditionally, rite-of-passage ceremonies are designed to propel initiates into a sacred place and sacred state (the realm of the spirits, gods, or ancestors; the place of vision, instruction, and metamorphosis)...but then to bring them back again, back to the tribe or community and to ordinary life. We're meant to come out of sweatlodge, down from the Vision Quest hill, home from the Moon Hut, back from the sacred hunt, bringing with us new knowledge, new dreams, a new status, a new name or role to play....intended not just for the sake of personal growth but in service to the whole tribe or community. Likewise, we're not meant to remain in the circle of enchantment deep in the fairy tale forest -- we're meant to come back out again, bringing our hard-won knowledge and fortune with us...in service to the family (old or new), the realm, the community; to children and the future.

Unless, that is, we stay in the woods and take on a different role in the story...not a hero this time, but one of the forest dwellers who aids (or hinders) another's journey: the woodwose, the hermit, the sage, the mad prophet...the men and woman who run with the wolves...the femme sauvage with her herbs and charms... the conjure man with his beehives and songs....

But those are stories for another day, and another journey into the woods.

Sometimes in the Forest by Jeanie Tomanek

Pictures: The paintings above are by Jeanie Tomanek, who lives and works in Georgia, near Atlanta."My all-time favorite folktale is 'The Handless Maiden," she says. "It is about a woman’s journey toward wisdom and self-realization and the obstacles and helpers she encounters. This tale encompasses many of the archetypical representations of women. My 'Everywomen' portray the mothers, daughters, lovers, and crones. Strong, wise women who will survive.  These are filtered through my own experiences many times." All rights to imagery here are reserved by the artist.

Words: I am grateful to Midori Snyder for allowing me to quote such a long passage from her Armless Maiden essay.  I urge anyone interested in the tale to please read this insightful essay in full. All right to text above, included quoted passages, are reserved by the authors. Further reading: The Handless Maiden: an art project by Nomi McLeod.


The small things

2169_o_woman_lying_on_a_bench

I was up much later that usual on Wednesday night, waiting for my husband to return from a work gig in London -- a simple journey that turned into a nine hour ordeal due to multiple train failures on the way. The whole transport system was in chaos that night: every single train from Paddington Station cancelled; and then Waterloo Station, where the weary travellers were directed, paralyzed by breakdowns as well. He finally got home after one in the morning, and I couldn't sleep until he'd made it back safely.

Public transit frustrations are an ordinary part of modern life, of course (at least here in Britain, where our rail system is a disgrace) -- so why am I telling you about it? Because these small, everyday, uncontrollable events affect those of us in the arts with long-term health conditions disproportionately. After losing just a few hours of sleep, I woke up on Thursday morning to a spoon drawer close to empty, my studio schedule disrupted once again. This was not a major problem, of course. I rested up, did some work from home, and I'm back in the studio this morning, catching up on the tasks that I'd missed. My work plans are often affected by these kinds of things, so small and common that they're rarely mentioned....

Carl Larsson

 But today I decided to talk about it. Shining a light on the difficulties of the art-making process can be as important as noting the things that inspire us or help us progress --  including the particular challenges faced by artists with disabilities or medical conditions.

Most healthy people can understand, and empathize with, the disruptive nature of a large medical crisis; but the daily effects of life's random ups and downs on those of us with limits of strength are perhaps less obvious. These small things -- trivial and constant -- chip away at our work time, our output, our income, and sometimes even our self-esteem, as we watch healthier colleagues speed ahead of us, unencumbered by the weight that we carry.

The saving grace comes each and every time that a friend or colleague stops, looks back,  sees us struggling on, and extends a helping hand. That happens often too. The trials of illness are many; but so are the blessings, which shine bright as the moon.

 by Carl Larsson

The second reason I have chosen to write about this is to express my solidarity with all of the writers, painters, and other artists out there coping with various medical conditions: determined to keep working, keep creating, keep contributing to the social good, but not always able to control exactly how and when. Viewed from the outside, our work pace can seem slow, or flakey, or lazy compared to the pace and output of those with reliable strength -- yet as a group, we tend to be more self-disciplined and hard-working, not less; for when energy is limited, you quickly learn to make good and efficient use of whatever work time the body allows.

This wasn't the post I was planning for today. This isn't the week I was planning to have. But this too is part of the artists' life. This too is part of the discussion.

Carl Larsson

Art above: Four paintings by Carl Larsson (1853-1919). Related posts: On blogging (and spoons), Every illness is narrative, and The beauty of brokenness.