This morning, in a pause between rain showers, I took my coffee break out on the hill with The Last Selchie Child by Jane Yolen in my bag and the hound at my side. This lovely little edition from A Midsummer Night's Press contains poetry rooted in fairy tales, folklore, and myth -- including five gorgeous selchie poems, and one based on The Little Mermaid. I recommend it highly.
From "Learning to See" by Robin Wall Kimmerer, author of Braiding Sweetgrass, from an earlier essay collection, Gathering Moss:
"I remember my first encounter with the North Pacific, at Rialto Beach on the Olympic Peninsula. As a landlocked botanist, I was anticipating my first glimpse of the ocean, craning my neck around every bend in the winding dirt road. We arrived in a dense gray fog that clung to the trees and beaded my hair with moisture. Had the skies been clear we would have seen only what we expected: rocky coast, lush forest, and the broad expanse of the sea. That day, the air was opaque and the backdrop of the coastal hills was visible only when the spires of Sitka Spruce briefly emerged from the clouds. We knew the ocean's presence only by the deep roar of the surf, out beyond the tidepools. Strange, that at the edge of this immensity, the world had become very small, the fog obscuring all but the middle distance. All my pent-up desire to see the panorama of the coast became focussed on the only things that I could see, the beach and the surrounding tidepools.
"Wandering in the grayness, we quickly lost sight of each other, my friends disappearing like ghosts in just a few steps. Our muffled voices knit us together, calling out the discovery of a perfect pebble, or the intact shell of a razor clam. I knew from pouring over field guides in anticipation of the trip that we 'should' see starfish in the tidepools, and this would be my first. The only starfish I'd ever seen was a dried one in a zoology class and I was eager to see them at home where they belonged. As I looked among the mussels and limpets, I saw none. The tidepools were encrusted with barnacles and exotic-looking algae, anemones, and chitons enough to satisfy the curiosity of a novince tidepooler. But no starfish.
"Disappointed, I straightened up from the pools to relieve the growing stiffness in my back, and suddenly -- I saw one. Bright orange and clinging to a rock right before my eyes. And then it was as if a curtain had been pulled away and I saw them everywhere. Like stars revealing themselves one by one in a darkening summer night. Orange stars in the crevices of a black rock, speckled burgandy stars with outstretched arms, purple stars nestled together like a family huddled against the cold. In a cascade of discovery, the invisible was suddenly made visible.
"A Cheyenne elder of my acquaintance once told me that the best way to find something is not to go looking for it. This is a hard concept for a scientist. But he said to watch out of the corner of your eye, open to possibility, and what you seek will be revealed. The revelation of suddenly seeing what I was blind to only moments before is a sublime experience for me. I can revisit those moments and still feel the surge of expansion. The boundaries between my world and the world of another being get pushed back with sudden clarity, an experience both humbling and joyful."
The magical ocean imagery today is from two Chagford artists who are also mother and daughter: Marja and Virginia Lee. (Each picture is identified in the hidden captions. Run your cursor over the images to see them.)
Marja Lee is a painter and harpist inspired by Celtic art, music, myth and mysticism. Born in the Netherlands, she studied art in Amsterdam, worked as a fashion illustrator in London, and then settled and raised her family here in Devon. Her delicate watercolor paintings and drawings are rich in esoteric symbolism, and fall into the Visionary tradition of such arists as Odilon Redon, Jessie M. King, and Sulamith Wulfing. The drawing just above and the painting below are by Marja.
Virginia Lee is a painter and sculptor inspired by folklore, Surrealism, and the mythic landscape of Dartmoor, where she was born. She has illustrated several fine books for children and adults, including The Frog Bride, Persephone, and The Secret History of Mermaids. She was a sculptor on the set of the Lord of the Rings films, and has published exquisite decks of "oracle" and "story world" cards. To see more of her work, please visit her website, her lovely blog, and her Etsy shop. The first four paintings and drawings above are by Virginia.
The passage above is from Gathering Moss, a collection of linked essays on the natural & cultural history of mosses by Native American author & plant biologist Robin Wall Kimmerer (Oregon State University, 2003). The photographs of me and Tilly were taken by my husband. All rights to the text and art in this post is reserved by their creators.
From Singing to the Sound: Visions of Nature, Animals, & Spirit by Brenda Peterson, a beautiful collection of essays about life on America's Northwest coast:
"If landscape is character, then Northwesterners are most like water. We are shaped by the voluptuous shores and salt tides of Puget Sound, the deep currents of the Columbia, Salmon, and Snake rivers. Northwesterners have always been water folk, shaped by this Sound and also by the sounds of rapid rivers and dousing rains. Our tales are syncopated with rhythms of tide and wind, cries of seagulls, ospreys, and eagles, the mystical breath of whales, and grieving argpeggios of foghorns. Northwesterners are held back from falling off the proverbial edge of the world by a Pacific coastline whose nurturing rain forests and rocky peninsulas face the sea like guardians.
"Our intimacy with water is crucial to understanding our Northwest character; we are more changed by the environment than it is by us....When we try to spell out our 'rainy day intimacies' to outsiders, they cannot believe we actually enjoy living for many months aswirl in great, flowing gowns of gray mist. To survive here without the daily illumination of sunlight, we must have an inner life bright with hidden worlds.
"Northwest Coast Natives tell stories of sea creatures and underwater tribes that shape-shift into humans then return to the original People -- the animals. For example, the Salmon People are an underwater tribe who also spend a season on land; the whales and seals can metamorphose into humans as easily as the ever-present mist and clouds change shape. Many Northwest coast tribes tell of merpeople, part human, part mammal, who mediate between the worlds to keep a watery balance. One of the most common gods was called 'Changer.' Many native tribes began their mythologies with water -- floods and seas creating what we now call The People. A Skagit myth details this beginning, when Changer decided 'to make all the rivers flow only one way' and that 'there should be bends in the rivers, so that there would be eddies where the fish could stop and rest. Changer decided that beasts should be placed in the forests. Human beings would have to keep out of their way.' "
"Northwesterners not only reckon with water shaping our physical boundaries, but also our heavens," Peterson writes a little later in the essay. "Rain is a Northwest native. One recent winter, we had twenty-seven inches of rain in three months and mudslides are now as familiar as side streets. Northwesterners live like slowly drowning people. We are well aware of the predictions that in the next millennium our Pacific Rim shores will sink from the volcanic tsunami waves into an Atlantis-like abyss. Our famous rainfall is perhaps all that shelters us from the massive population and industrial exploitations of nearby California. The rain is so ominpresent, especially between late October and even into June, that most Northwesterners disdain umbrella, the true sign of any tourist.
"One must be rather fluid to live underwater; one must learn to flow with a pulse greater than one's own. A tolerance for misting gray days means an acceptance that life itself is not black and white, but in between. If the horizons outside one's window are not sharply defined but ease into a sky intimately merged with sea and soft landscape, then perhaps shadows, both personal and collective, are not so terrifying. After all, most of the year Northwesterners can't even see their own literal shadows cast on the ground. We live inside the rain shadow. We tolerate edges and difference in people and places perhaps because our landscape blends and blurs as it embraces.
"Widely acclaimed Port Angeles poet Tess Gallagher tells it this way: 'It is a faithful rain. You feel that it has some allegiance to the trees and the people....It brings an ongoing thoughtfulness to their faces, a meditativeness that causes them to fall silent for long periods, to stand at their windows looking out at nothing in particular. The people walk in the rain as within some spirit they wish not to offend with resistence.' "
My morning prayer: Let me learn to live the grey days of Dartmoor's "faithful rain" without resistence. May these long, wet winter months teach me to be more fluid, more meditative, unafraid of change and metamorphosis.
The extraordinary photographs today are by Jason deCaires Taylor, an artist and naturalist known for creating living underwater sculptures that evolve over time into coral reefs, intended "to portray how human intervention or interaction with nature can be positive and sustainable." Born to a British father and Guyanese mother, Taylor was raised in England and Asia, studied sculpture and ceramics in London, then trained as a diving instructor and marine conservationist before bringing all of his interests together in the making of environmental art. He is also the co-founder of an underwater sculpture park in the West Indies, and an underwater museum in Mexico. Currently based in the Canary Islands, he's at work on an new underwater museum for the Atlantic Ocean.
"Working in conservation, I am very concerned with all the associated effects of climate change and the state of peril our seas are in," says Taylor. “If we walked past a forest that was disintegrating every day, with animals dead by the side of the road, we would be much more aware of our actions. But underwater life is out of our sight and the problem is easily ignored. So a big part of my work is to bring people's focus and awareness to the destruction of our seas and of the natural world."
The passage above is from Brenda Peterson's essay "Faithful Rain," in Singing to the Sound (NewSage Press, 2000). I highly recommend her books -- including three wonderful fantasy novels about mermaids and silkies: The Drowning World, Tattoo Master, and The Secret Journal of Kate Morag. All rights to the text and art above is reserved by their respective creators.
Today's music has an ocean theme, with songs of selchies, sailors, and ships lost at sea.
Above, "The Great Selchie" (Child Ballad No. 113), performed by American folk singer Judy Collins and Tommy Maken (of The Clancy Brothers) on a 1992 television program, Songs Of The Sea. (The second guitarist is uncredited.) Collins recorded the song on her second album, The Golden Apples of the Sun, way back in 1962. The ballad's words are traditional, and the tune is by Jim Waters.
Below, "Cruel," performed by Yorkshire singer/songwriter Kate Rusby and her band (including John McCusker on back-up vocals). This traditional song, set to new music by Rusby, appeared on her lovely sixth album, Underneath the Stars (2003).
Above, the great English folk singer June Tabor performs Cyril Tawney's "The Grey Funnel Line" for BBC 4 in 2011, backed up Andy Cutting, Mark Emmerson, Tim Harries, Mark Lockheart, Martin Simpson, and Huw Warren. June first recorded the song with Maddy Prior on the first of their two collaborative albums, Silly Sisters (1976).
And to end with, original songs from two of my favorite songwriters, both of them from the West Country:
Below, "Lady of the Sea" by Seth Lakeman, who lives here in Devon on the other side of the moor. The song, a long time favorite, is from his third album, Freedom Fields (2006).
Below, "Bow to the Sailor" by Ange Hardy, who hails from Somerset (the county just east of Devon). The song can be found on her gorgeous third album, Lament of the Black Sheep (2014).
The photograph above is by Dafydd Thomas, the selkie skin drawing by Alan Lee, & the three paintings by P.J. Lynch.
In the following passage from Brenda Peterson's Build Me an Ark: A Life with Animals, the author is swimming with a dolphin pod on the Florida coast:
" 'Crossover' is a word scientists use to describe dolphins' soaring over seas, their traveling so free and fast, so high-spirited and almost effervescent that their sleek bodies barely skim the waves. The suggestion of splashes from tail and pectoral leaves a luminous wake across the water. For these crossover miles, the dolphins, like their human terrestrial mammal kin, belong more to the element of air than the sea....
"Held in [the dolphins'] fluid embrace, I pulled my arms close against my sides and our communal speed increased... Racing around the lagoon, I opened my eyes again to see nothing but an emerald underwater blur. And then I remembered what I had either forgotten long ago or never quite fully realized. This feeling of being carried along by other animals was familiar.
"Animals had carried me all my life," Peterson continues. "I was a crossover -- carried along in the generous and instructive slipstream of other species. And I had always navigated my life with them in mind, going between the human and animal worlds -- a crossover myself. By including animals in my life I was always engaging with the Other, imagining the animal mind and life. For almost half a century, my bond with animals had shaped my character and revealed the world to me. At every turning point in my life an animal had mirrored or influenced my fate. Mine was not simply a life with other animals, but a life because of animals.
"It had been this way since my beginning, born on a forest lookout station in the High Sierras, surrounded by millions of acres of wilderness and many more animals than humans. Since infancy, the first faces I imprinted, the first faces I ever really loved, were animal."
If you haven't yet read Brenda's luminous work (which includes fiction, essays, memoirs, and anthologies), please do seek it out. Her website is here, and her blog (on books, nature, seal watching and more) is here.
Words: The post above originally appeared in August, 2012. I'm re-visiting it today in the context of our recent discussions on borders and border-crossing, and also in case newcomers to Myth & Moor are unfamiliar with Brenda's wonderful work. Today's passage comes from her essay collection Build Me an Ark (W.W. Norton, 2001); all rights reserved by the author. Pictures: The drawings & paintings above are "Mermaid in Flight" by Fay Ku, "Sky Pack" by Julianna Swaney, "Fox Confessor" by Julie Morstad, and "Hank" by Carson Ellis. Please visit their websites to see more of their art. All rights to the imagery here reserved by the artists.
Like Robert Macfarlane (in Monday's post), Sara Maitland is fascinated by the peregrini: the early Celtic Christian monks and mystics who set out alone in small, flimsy boats, seeking solitude, nature, and God on the most remote islands of Britain.
"On island after island," she writes in A Book of Silence, "the more isolated and far-flung the better -- on St. Kilda, on the Farnes, on the Shiants, throughout the Hebrides and the northern islands, off the coast of Ireland, around Iceland and possibly even North America -- the traces of hermits can be found. This history is confused and uncertain, but originating in Ireland in the fifth century, there was a well-developed form of Christian spirituality which valued the silent eremitical vocation extremely highly.
"In Britain, the most famous such voluntary exile was Columba, who left Ireland in the mid sixth century and crossed the Irish Sea to become first a hermit and later a missionary and founding father based on the tiny island of Iona, which is just to the west of Mull. His community later spread across Scotland and converted north-east England as well, but he was by no means unique: over the next several centuries hermits settled alone or in tiny communities all over western Scotland and further afield too....These adventures were known in Ireland as 'green martydoms' -- to distinguish them from the 'red martyrdom' of being slain, shedding blood for the faith. To leave home and travel out beyond civilization was a martyrdom (the word means 'witness'), death of the ego, a self-giving that seems absolute."
"We do not know very much about the spiritual theology of these early hermits," Maitland continues. "Their lives are lost in legend and story, their physical markers faded or wiped out by the wildness of the places where they dwelt."
One of these hermits was St. Cuthbert, bishop of the monastery on Lindisfarne, a center of Celtic Christianity in the Farne Islands off the Northumbrian coast. A great lover of nature, he issued regulations to his monks for the special protection of Eider Ducks, which are called Cuddy Ducks ("Cuthbert's Ducks") to this day. He retired to live an austere and solitary life on Inner Farne Island in 676, and died there in 687.
Sara Maitland explains that we know more about St. Cuthbert than most other Christian hermits because he was personally known and loved by Bede, author of The Ecclesiastical History of the English People. "But what interested Bede is somewhat different than what interests me," writes Maitland. "So, for example, Bede records that Cuthbert would pray all night standing up to his neck in the frigid waters of the North Sea and, indeed, when he emerged otters would come and warm him with their tongues and fur. This combination of the ferociously ascetic and the miraculous engages Bede, for what he is writing about is the ultimate form of something so obvious to him that he never says anything about what Cuthbert thought he was trying to achieve, nor about the content of those prayers.
"It is not until rather later, from the tenth to twelfth centuries, that we begin to get accounts that attempt to explain what the island hermits were seeking, in the beguiling poetry of the Irish monks:
"Delightful I think it to be in the bosom of an isle, on the peak of a rock, that I might often see there the calm of the sea. That I might see its heavy waves over the glittering ocean, as they chant a melody to their Father on their eternal course. That I might see its smooth strand of clear headlands, no gloomy thing; that I might hear the voice of its wondrous birds, a joyful tune. That I might hear the sound of the shallow waves against the rocks; that I might hear the cry by the graveyard, the noise of the sea. That I might see its splendid flocks of birds over the full-watered ocean; that I might see its mighty wales, greatest of wonders. That I might see its ebb and its flood-tide in their flow; that this might be my name, a secret I tell, "He who turned his back on Ireland." That contrition of heart should come upon me as I watch it; that I might bewail my many sins, difficult to declare. That I might bless the Lord who has power over all, heaven with its pure host of angels, earth, ebb, flood-tide."
Unlike Maitland and the hermit monks she admires, I am not a Christian, and I certainly don't live an isolated life, yet my morning prayers on Nattadon Hill aren't so different from those of the nature-loving peregrini:
Delightful I think it to be in the green hills of Devon, climbing through bracken and blackberries to the granite peaks above, that I might often see the sheep-dotted fields, and the grey tors of Dartmoor beyond. That I might hear the wind singing in the trees, a choir of oak, ash, rowan, and beech; and the bells of the village church; and the bleating lambs; and the hooting of owls in the woods. That I might see this hillside covered in bluebells, stitchwort, and foxgloves, no gloomy thing; and that I might hear the voice of its rooks and its robins, a joyful tune. That I might see the badgers live undisturbed; and the small red deer, shyest of wonders; and watch wild ponies graze in the tall grass as they flow between valley and moor. That I come nameless to this hill, no more, no less than others creatures here, living quietly, gently upon its slopes. That I walk these paths with respect, attentiveness, open eyes, open ears, open heart. That I might bless Mystery within all of us; and my good neighbors, human and nonhuman alike; and the air, the water, the fire, the earth, ebb and flood-tide. Mitakuye oyasin.
Words: The quotes by Sara Maitland are from A Book of Silence (Granta, 2009), which I highly recommend. All rights reserved by the author. Pictures: The last three photographs above are mine, taken here in Chagford: Meldon Hill viewed from Nattadon Hill, a pathway on lower Nattadon, and a very young Dartmoor pony on the village Commons. The photographs of islands in Scottland and north-east England (and their birds and animals) are Creative Commons images. They are identified in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.)
"Yns Enlli was among the many remote places of the west and north-west coasts of Britain and Ireland to be settled between around AD 500 and 1000," he tells us. "During those centuries, an extraordinary migration occurred. Monks, anchorites, solitaries and other devoted itinerants began to travel in their thousands to the bays, forests, promontories, mountain-tops and islands of the Atlantic littoral. In frail craft and with little experience of seamanship, they sailed out across dangerous seas, in search of something we might now call wilderness. Where they stopped, they build monasteries, cells and oratories, dug cemetaries for their dead and raised stone crosses to their God. These travelers were known as peregrini: the name derives from the Latin peregrinus and carries the idea of wandering over a distance, giving us our word 'pilgrim.' "
"We can know very little for certain about the peregrini. We know few of their names. Yet, reading the accounts of their journeys and of their experiences on places like Enlli, I had encountered a dignity of motive and attitude that I found salutary. These men were in search not of material gain, but of a hallowed landscape: one that would sharpen their faith to its utmost point. They were, in the phrasing of their own theology, exiles looking for the Terra Repromissionis Sanctorum -- the Promised Land of Saints.
"A long Christian tradition exists that considers all individuals as peregrini, in that all human life is seen as exile. This idea was perpetuated in the Salve Regina, the chant often recited as a last night prayer. Post hoc exilium, the prayer declares: all will be resolved after this exile. The chant, when sung, sounds ancient and disquieting. It is unmistakably music about wilderness, an ancient vision of wildness, and it still has the capacity to move us.
"Antiphona: Salve Regina," medieval chant
"Much of what we know of the life of the monks of Enlli, and places like it, is inferred from the rich literature they left behind. Their poems speak eloquently of a passionate and precise relationship with nature, and the blend of receptivity and detachment which characterized their interactions with it. Some of the poems read like jotted lists, or field notes: 'Swarms of bees, beetles, soft music of the world, a gentle humming; brent geese, barnacle geese, shortly before All Hallows, music of the wild dark torrent.' Others record single charmed instants: a blackbird calling from a gorse branch near Belfast Loch, foxes at play in a glade. Marban, a ninth-century hermit who lived in a hut in a fir-grove near Druim Rolach, wrote of the 'wind's voice against a branchy wood on a day of grey cloud.' A nameless monk, responsible for drywalling on the island of North Rona in the ninth century, stopped his work to write a poem that spoke of the delight he felt at standing on a 'clear headland,' looking over the 'smooth strand' to the 'calm sea,' and hearing the calls of 'the wondrous birds.' A tenth-century copyist, working in an island monastery, paused long enough to scribble a note in Gaelic beside his Latin text. 'Pleasant to me is the glittering of the sun today upon these margins.'
"Gleanings such as these give us glimpses of the nature of faith of the peregrini. They are recorded instants which carry purely over the long distances of history, as certain sounds carry with unusual clarity within water or across frozen land. For these writers, attention was a form of devotion and noticing continuous with worship. The art they left behind is among the earliest testimonies to human love of the wild."
"Salve Regina in C Minor" by Giovanni Battista Pergolesi
In the first video above, "Antiphona: Salve Regina" is performed by the Ensemble Organum at the Abbey of Fontevraud in Anjou, France in 2006. (The video was filmed by David Wilkes at Canterbury Cathedral, Holy Trinity Church in Coventry, Winchester Castle, and Windsor Castle.)
In the second video, "Salve Regina in C Minor," by the 18th century Italian composer Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, is performed by L'Arco Magico Chamber Orchestra at the Cathedral of Orvieto in Umbria, Italy in 2013. The director is Antonio Puccio, and the soprano is Silvia Frigato.
Below, an exquisitely beautiful "Salve Regina," by the great Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, is performed by the Coral Reyes Bartlet, the Coro de Cámara Mateo Guerra, the Coro Juvenil David Goldsmith, and the Orquesta del Encuentro de Música Religiosa de Canarias in Puerto de la Cruz, Tenerife in 2014.
"Salve Regina" by Arvo Pärt
Credits: The quote by Robert Macfarlane above is from The Wild Places (Granta, 2008), which I highly recommend reading in full. All rights reserved by the author. The photographs above are Creative Commons images, identified in the picture captions.
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. "In Silence there is eloquence," wrote the great Persian poet Jalāl ad-DīnRumi. "Stop weaving and see how the pattern improves."
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...
"...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.'
"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.
"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.
"And once again," she 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."
It was interesting reading Maitland's fine book during the weeks that I was confined to bed. 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, not to have them come at the most disruptive of times, not to have them overshadowed by pain and fear. But there is a gift in the journey of illness: the gift of long hours of quiet and stillness. A gift that's increasingly precious and rare in our fast-paced society.
And, if we are prepared to except them, there are these further gifts as well: jouissance, wonder, and fresh gratitude for our fragile bodies, our fleeting lives, and the exquisite beauty of the world we return to.
What makes the artist's journey exhilarating, she says, is that "one never knows what will emerge from the unconcious, memories that, suprisingly enough, begin coalescing into a pattern, only dimly perceived at first. But before long, for some mysterious reason, this pattern begins taking on the substance and detail that tell the writer that another novel, not necessarily of the past, is coming into being.
"It is something to be grateful for because it can be devastating to see nothing in the offing. I remember Lloyd Alexander saying, when I congratulated him on his latest book, 'Oh, but I haven't an idea what to do next. It's terrible -- I'm utterly barren and it frightens me!' He had not the faintest notion that The First Two Lives of Lukas-Kasha would appear within the next two years, not to speak of the Westmark trilogy during the four after that. There are seven lines near the end of Cavafy's poem 'Ithaka' that particularly move me:
Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich."
"As we sit at our desks, struggling to bring a conception into existence, we are always trying -- if we are serious and not simply working for money and attention -- to make ourselves worthy of the vision, no matter how modest the accomplishment. There, for me at least, lies the mingled hardship and true joy of writing, the journey taken."
From "The Life Journey" by John Rowe Townsend (Innocence & Experience):
''The life journey is a hero's journey. Although we may not feel very heroic, we are all embarked on the heroic quest, to live lives that have meaning for ourselves and others. We are on our individual Odysseys, our personal roads of trials. We have had our adventures, and we shall have more, but we shall come to Ithaka at last.''
"Creative people are curious, flexible, persistent, and independent with a tremendous spirit of adventure and a love of play." - Henri Matisse (Matisse on Art)
"The capacity to relax and play renews the spirit and makes it possible for us to come to the work of writing clearer, ready for the journey." - Bell Hooks (Remembered Rapture: The Writer at Work)
"To enter into play is to enter into uncertainty. It involves letting go, and it involves the risk that in your looseness, in your un-self-conscious spontaneity, you may say or do something strange, something that someone could shame you for. Therein lies the risk, and therein lies our poetry."
- Matthew Burgess ("Serious Play: Odes to the Everyday," Poetry Foundation)
"A master in the art of living draws no sharp distinction between his work and his play; his labor and his leisure; his mind and his body; his education and his recreation. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence through whatever he is doing, and leaves others to determine whether he is working or playing. To himself, he always appears to be doing both."
- L.P. Jacks (Education Through Recreation)
"A child who does not play is not a child, but the man who does not play has lost forever the child who lived within him and who he will miss terribly." - Pablo Neruda (I Confess I Have Lived)
"So, like a forgotten fire, a childhood can always flare up again within us." - Gaston Bachelard (The Poetics of Reverie)
"I believe that half the trouble in the world comes from people asking 'What have I achieved?' rather than 'What have I enjoyed?' I've been writing about a subject I love as long as I can remember -- horses and the people associated with them, anyplace, anywhere, anytime. I couldn't be happier knowing that young people are reading my books. But even more important to me is that I've enjoyed so much the writing of them." - Walter Farley (author of The Black Stallion)
"We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.” - Karl Groos (The Play of Animals)
Photographs above: Howard, Victoria, Tilly and I on a dog-friendly beach near Paignton, south Devon, last week.
The L.P. Jacks quote above is often misattributed to François Auguste René Chateaubriand, and the Karl Goos quote to George Bernard Shaw.