Wintering

Ponies 1

Here in Devon, we're on the cusp of spring (daffodils in the woods, new lambs in fields, wild Dartmoor ponies beginning to foal), but I'm reading a book about about winter right now and finding it full of interest. Wintering by Katherine May explores the winter season metaphorically (as a symbol for those hard times in life that I refer to as the Dark Forest), as well as the actuality of winter as it is experienced in northern climes. She weaves her meditations on the cold and dark with a personal memoir about her own period of  "wintering," when illness in her family -- first her husband's, and then her own -- shook every foundation they had built their lives on.

"There are gaps in the mesh of the everyday world," May writes, "and sometimes they open up and you fall through them into Somewhere Else. Somewhere Else runs at a different pace to the here and now, where everyone else carries on. Somwhere Else is where ghosts live, concealed from view and only glimpsed by people in the real world. Somewhere Else exists at a delay, so that you can't quite keep pace. Perhaps I was already teetering on the brink of Somewhere Else anyway; but now I fell through, as simply and discreetly as dust sifting between the floorboards."

Ponies 2

Ponies 3

"Everybody winters at one time or another," she explains; "some winter over and over again.

"Wintering is a season in the cold. It is a fallow period in life when you're cut off from the world, feeling rejected, sidelined, blocked from progress, or cast into the role of the outsider. Perhaps it results from an illness; perhaps from a life event such as a bereavement or the birth of a child; perhaps it comes from a humilation or failure. Perhaps you're in a period of transition, and have temporararily fallen between two worlds. Some winterings creep upon us, accompanying the protracted death of a relationship, the gradual ratcheting up of care responsibilities as our parents age, the drip-drip-drip of lost confidence. Some are appallingly sudden, like discovering one day that your skills are considered obsolete, the company you worked for has gone bankrupt, or your partner is in love with someone new. However it arrives, wintering is usually involuntary, lonely and deeply painful.

Ponies 4

Ponies 5

Ponies 6

"Yet it's also inevitable. We'd like to imagine it's possible for life to be one eternal summer, and that we have uniquely failed to achieve that for ourselves. We dream of equatorial habits, forever close to the sun; an endless, unvarying high season. But life's not like that. Emotionally, we're prone to stifling summers and low, dark winters, to sudden drops in temperature, to light and shade. Even if, by some extraordinary stroke of self-control and good luck, we were able to keep control of our own health and happiness for an entire lifetime, we still couldn't avoid the winter. Our parents would age and die; our friends would undertake minor acts of betrayal; the machinations of the world would eventually weigh against us. Somewhere along the line, we would screw up. Winter would quietly roll in....

Ponies 7

"In our relentlessly busy contemporary world, we are forever trying the defer the onset of winter. We don't ever dare to feel its full bit, and we don't dare to show the way that it ravages us. A sharp wintering, sometimes, would do us good. We must stop believing that these times in our life are somehow silly, a failure of nerve, a lack of willpower. We must stop trying to ignore them or dispose them. They are real, and they are asking something of us. We must learn to invite winter in."

Ponies 8

That's what her new book is about, May says: "learning to recognize the process, engage with it mindfully, and even to cherish it. We may never choose to winter, but we can choose how."

I recommend this wise and beautiful text for those going through their own wintering...which I expect may be a lot of us now, facing the life-altering consequences imposed by a global pandemic.

Ponies 9

As the Great Wheel turns from winter to spring, I've been contemplating my own winterings and the gifts they have given me, over and over. Those gifts are going to be useful now as we cope with unimaginable challenges ahead. Eager for springtime's warmth and sun, I celebrate each flower, each lamb, each foal affirming the steady turning of the seasons....

But I'm also grateful for the dark and cold, and the lessons of slowness, of quiet, of healing.

Ponies 10

Ponies 11

Ponies 12

Wintering by Katherine May

Words: The passage above is from Wintering: How I Learned to Flourish When Life Became Frozen by English novelist/memoirist Katherine May (Penguin/Random House, 2020). The poem in the picture captions is from Fugitive Colours by Scottish poet Liz Lochhead (Polygon, 2016). All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: Our local herd of Dartmoor ponies, many of them pregnant with this year's foals. I love encountering them on walks with Tilly, grazing on the village Commons and roaming the hills behind my studio.


The gift of stillness

Dunes, north Devon

In A Book of Silence, Sara Maitland explores the cultural history of silence and retreat while seeking to create more room for silence within her own life. It's a fascinating book, leading through myth, religion, philosophy, sociology, natural history and literature to a place of stillness at the center of them all. As life slows down in response to the global pandemic, particularly for those of us in lock-down and other forms of isolation, the practice of retreat takes on new meaning. What gifts might a slower life give us? And what does silence have to teach us?

Dog, waves, sand, north Devon

Early on in her quest for silence, Maitland arranged to spend forty days alone at Allt Dearg, a remote cottage on An t-Eilean Sgitheanach, Scotland's Isle of Skye, noting the changes in her psyche and imagination as the weeks went by and her silence and solitude deepened. Describing the last days of her time on the island, she says: "Part of me had already moved on from Allt Dearg, and another part of me never wanted to leave. The weather became appalling so that I could not go out for a final walk or round off the time with any satisfying sense of closure. I had to clean the house and then drive a long way. I had felt quite depressed for about forty-eight hours...

Dog at play, north Devon

"...and then, the very final evening, I suddenly was seized with an overwhelming moment of jouissance. I wrote:

'They say it is not over till the fat lady sings. Well, she is singing now. She is singing in a wild fierce wind -- and I am in here, just. Now I am full of joy and thankfulness and a sort of solemn and bubbling hilarity. And gratitude. Exultant -- that is what I feel -- and excited, and that now, here, right at the very edge of the end, I have been given back my joy.'

Light, north Devon

"For several hours I enjoyed an extraordinary rhythmical sequence of emotions -- great waves of delight, gratitude, and peace; a realization of how much I had done in the last six weeks, how far I had traveled; a powerful surge of hope and possibility for myself and my future; and above all a sense of privilege. But also a nakedness or openness that needed to be honored somehow.

Beast on the prowl, north Devon

"I experienced a fierce joyful ... joyful what? ... neither pride nor triumph felt like the right word. Near the end of Ursula Le Guin's The Farthest Shore (the third part of The Earthsea Trilogy), Arren, the young prince-hero, who has with an intrepid courage born of love rescued the magician Sparrowhawk, and by implication the whole of society, from destruction, wakes along on the western shore of the island of Selidor: He smiled then, a smile both somber and joyous, knowing for the first time in his life, and alone, and unpraised and at the end of the world, victory.

"That was what I felt like, alone on An t-Eilean Sgitheanach, The Winged Isle. I felt an enormous  victorious YES to the world and to myself. For a short while I was absorbed in joy. I was dancing my joy, dancing, and flowing with energy. At one point I grabbed my jacket, plunged out into the wind and the storm. It was physically impossible to stay out for more than about a minute because the wind and rain were so strong and I came back in soaked even from that brief moment; but I came back in energized and laughing and exulting as well. I was both excited and contented. This is a rare and precious pairing. I knew, and wrote in my journal, that this would not last, but it did not matter. It was NOW. At the moment that now, and the enormous wind, felt like enough. Felt more than enough.

Stillness, north Devon

"And once again," Maitland concludes, "I am not alone. Repeatedly, in every historical period, from every imaginable terrain, in innumerable different languages and forms, people who go freely into silence come out with slightly garbled messages of intense jouissance, of some kind of encounter with nature, their self, their God, or some indescribable source of power."

Gazing out to sea, north Devon

Dune grass, north Devon

I first read Maitland's A Book of Silence some years ago, when confined to bed by health problems. I was not alone -- I had Tilly snuggled at my side, and my gentle husband nearby -- but the quiet and stillness of recovering from an illness can be another form of retreat from the rapid rhythms of the noisy modern world. There were long hours when the only sounds were Tilly's snores, the rustle of a book's turning page, rain or bird song outside the window glass. Like a spiritual retreat or pilgrimage, illness takes us deep inside ourselves, shaking away all other concerns except those of the body, those of the soul. Afterwards, I always return to life changed. The world is restored to me piece by piece, with each step noted and celebrated: the first hour out of bed; the first morning outdoors, tucked up in a blanket on the garden bench; the first slow climb to my studio on the hill; the first shaky walk in the woods with Tilly. There's a joy in all this that we rarely speak about, as if to admit that there's any pleasure or value in illness might be to dismiss its overwhelming difficulties. We'd all prefer, of course, to plan our times of retreat, not to have them forced upon us by physical collapse, overshadowed by pain or fear. But there is a gift to be found in illness...and perhaps in our current pandemic lock-down as well: the gift of long hours of quiet and stillness, precious and rare in these fast-paced times.

And when this time of enforced retreat is done, we may find it has given us these gifts too: jouissance, wonder, and fresh gratitude for our fragile bodies, our fleeting lives, and the exquisite beauty of the world we return to.

SilencePhotographs: Tilly on the north Devon coast. When will we see that beach again?


The Dark Forest

Eclipse by Jeanie Tomanek

In late January, Howard and I gave a talk here in Chagford titled The Path Through the Dark Forest, discussing how myth and mythic fiction can help us through challenging times. Little did we know how appropriate the subject would be in the months ahead....

A journey through the dark of the woods is a common motif in myths and fairy tales: some heroes set off boldly through the forest in order to reach their destiny, while others are driven into woods, fleeing worse dangers behind. The woodland road is a treacherous one, prowled by ghosts, ghouls, wicked witches, wolves and the more malign sorts of faeries....but helpers also appear on the path: wise crones, good faeries, and animal guides, often cloaked in unlikely disguise. The hero's task is to tell friend from foe, and to keep walking steadily onward.

Such stories are symbolic of the difficult passages that we all face in life, at one point or another -- but they are not simply tales of endurance and survival. The trials our heroes encounter in their quests illustrate the process of transformation: from youth to adulthood, from victim to hero, from a wounded state to wholeness, from passivity to action. Those who emerge from the dark of the trees are not the same as when they went in. And nor are we, after a journey through hardship, loss, or calamity.

"When you enter the woods of a fairy tale, and it is night, the trees tower on either side of the path," writes Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew. "They loom large because everything in the world of fairy tales is blown out of proportion. If the owl shouts, the otherwise deathly silence magnifies its call. The tasks you are given to do (by the witch, by the stepmother, by the wise old woman) are insurmountable -- pull a single hair from the crescent moon bear's throat; separate a bowl's worth of poppy seeds from a pile of dirt. The forest seems endless. But when you do reach the daylight, triumphantly carrying the particular hair or having outwitted the wolf; when the owl is once again a shy bird and the trees only a lush canopy filtering the sun, the world is forever changed for your having seen it otherwise."

The Return by Jeanie Tomanek

At the time we gave our Chagford talk, my own life's path seemed calm and bright...but then the road turned a bend and dipped, plunging into the dark trees. I spent a few weeks in thorny undergrowth while coping with serious health issues...and just as the landscape cleared again, I learned that my youngest brother had died, in a way that was sudden, shocking and desperately sad. Now I was truly in the Dark Forest: weighted by grief, overwhelmed by the numerous tasks that the death of a family member requires...but aided by helpers along the way, in the best of fairy tale fashions. As those heartbreaking tasks finally came to an end, I thought I'd reached the edge of the woods at last...only to find the trees stretching on and on as Coronavirus spread across Europe.

Then the whole of Britain went into lock-down, the Dark Forest encompassing us all.

Sometimes in the Forest by Jeanie Tomanek

Meanwhile, Howard was meant to be in Berlin as part of his year-long Journey Into the Heart of the Fool; his bags were packed and he was just about to leave when the news from Italy and Spain gave us second thoughts. After much debate, he cancelled the trip -- and soon that cautious decision was justified as flights were grounded, and borders closed, and theaters across Europe went dark. Between his drama work, Fool training and PhD studies, Howard has been away more than he's been home this year -- but life has now ground to a screeching halt for everyone in the Performance Arts. Losing employment and income is frightening, of course (most of us working in the Arts live hand-to-mouth at the best of times), but I suspect I'm not the only "theater spouse" relieved to have my partner home right now. We'll have to find, or invent, new ways of working, but at least we'll be doing it together.

Jeanie Tomanek

As those of you who are also on lock-down know, daily life is now full of practical and emotional challenges; each day seems to bring brand new ones, and nothing has settled yet into a routine. I don't discount the gravity of those challenges (those of us with high-risk medical conditions know full well the danger we're facing), but the questions I want to focus on here on Myth & Moor are these: How do we create thoughtful and artful lives despite that danger? How do live through the hard days ahead as artists?

For me, these are not unfamiliar questions. My particular health condition affects my immune system, so I'm already used to periods of self-isolation. I'm used to putting time and thought each day into the practical business of staying alive, and of taking mortality seriously. For many of us with a range of illnesses to manage, this is already familiar territory, so perhaps we can be of particular help now to those for whom such concerns are new. We know how to live in the shadow of death. We know how to let fear and joy co-exist inside us. We've learned to live without certainty, and without illusions of being in full control. We've learned to keep working, to keep creating, to keep showing up and to live fully in the present. Just as important, we've learned to forgive ourselves on those hard, weary, painful days when we simply can't.

Eve Does Take Out by Jeanie Tomanek

Because I'm writer and scholar of stories, it's to stories I turn when the going gets rough. It's through stories I find the tools I need: imagination, wonder, beauty, compassion for others, compassion for myself, courage, persistence, understanding, discernment...and narratives that make sense of it all.

In Wonder and Other Survival Skills, H. Emerson Blake argues for the cultivation of "wonder" especially:

"The din of modern life constantly pulls our attention away from anything that is slight, or subtle, or ephemeral," he says. "We might look briefly at a slant of light while walking through a parking lot, but then we're on to the next thing: the next appointment, the next flickering headline, the next task, the next thing that has to be done before the end of the day. But maybe it's for just that reason -- how busy we are and distracted and connected we are -- that wonder really is a survival skill. It might be the thing that reminds us of what really matters, and of the greater systems that our lives are completely dependent on. It might be be the thing that helps us build an emotional connection -- an intimacy -- with our surroundings that, in turn, would make us want to do anything we can to protect them. It might build our inner reserves, give us the strength to turn ourselves outward and meet those challenges with grace.

"In a day and age when we are reminded unendingly of the urgency and magnitude of the problems we face, wonder may seem like something we no longer have time for -- a luxury, or a dalliance. But in one of Orion's live web events, David Abram said this:

'When we trivialize people's sensory attachment to the beauty of their place, to the beauty of the land where they live...we need to at least be aware that it is undermining peoples' sense of solidarity to the rest of the earth. Sensory perception is the glue that binds our separate nervous systems into the encompassing ecosystem.'

"In other words, Abram ties our terrible, selfish decision-making about how we treat the earth -- what we take from it, what we put into it, what we demand of it -- directly to our estrangement from its beauty. He is saying that wonder is the antidote. That wonder is the thing that can save us."

Jeanie Tomanek

Myth, folklore, fantasy fiction, and mythic arts are vibrant sources of wonder, and thus good medicine for these troubled times. We must keep creating such stories, and sharing such stories, for wondrous tales are not frivolous things. When created with heart, honesty, and skill, they are fresh water and bread to sustain us.

In the days ahead, I'm going to talk about some of the books that I have carried with me through the deep dark forest, highlight art that shines light on the path, and share (as always) the magic and beauty of the land here on Dartmoor's edge. I'm also going to re-visit old posts that might have something new to tell us right now: on living slowly, on living rooted in "place," and on embracing the quieter rhythms of life that a pandemic lock-down requires.

I hope you will share your own stories here too, in the Comments section below each post. How are you doing? How are you coping? Are you still creating...and if so, how? And if not, why? (No judgements on the latter, I promise; just community and solidarity.)

"[W]hile the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new," wrote the great James Baldwin, "it always must be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell, it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness." 

Jeanie Tomanek

Pictures: The art above, of course, is by the wonderful American painter Jeanie Tomanek. All rights reserved by the artist. Please visit her website to see more.


'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, Jeppe 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 Jeppe 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.)


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.