We've often talked here about the value of slowing down, paying attention, being fully present in the place where we live, the lives that we create, and the work that we do. Yet sometimes -- like now, in a world-wide pandemic -- life knocks us off-center and we struggle to regain our sense of hózhó (as the Navajo call it): of balance and "walking in beauty." How do we re-center ourselves in the art-making process (or, indeed, in the life-making process) when this happens?
Wendell Berry proffers this insight in his essay collection Standing by Words:
"What can turn us . . . back into the sphere of our being, the great dance that joins us to our home, to each other and to other creatures, to the dead and unborn? I think it is love. I am perforce aware how baldly and embarrassingly that word now lies on the page -- for we have learned at once to overuse it, abuse it, and hold it in suspicion. But I do not mean any kind of abstract love (adolescent, romantic, or 'religious'), which is probably a contradiction in terms, but particular love for particular things, places, creatures, and people, requiring stands, acts, showing its successes and failures in practical or tangible effects. And it implies a responsibility just as particular, not grim or merely dutiful, but rising out of generosity. I think that this sort of love defines the effective range of human intelligence, the range within its works can be dependably beneficent. Only the action that is moved by love for the good at hand has the hope of being responsible and generous. Desire for the future produces words that cannot be stood by. But love makes language exact, because one loves only what one knows."
For Berry, it all comes back to place (whether rural or urban), and our intricate web of connection to the human and more-than-human neighbours we share it with.
"I stand for what I stand on," he says, "the local landscape, the local community: human, animal, and vegetable alike. I see that the life of this place is always emerging beyond expectation or prediction or typicality, that it is unique, given to the world minute by minute, only once, never to be repeated. And this is when I see that this life is a miracle, absolutely worth having, absolutely worth saving. We are alive within mystery, by miracle."
That, for me, is precisely where art, inspiration, balance and beauty can be found: within mystery, by miracle: the everyday miracles of the place we call home. Spring flowers emerging. A partner's sweet smile. The good scent of coffee on a crisp April morning. A wild spot in the woods to write wild words while Tilly pads quietly nearby.
In his poem "Healing" (2006), Berry writes:
True solitude is found in the wild places, where one is without human obligation.
One's inner voices become audible. One feels the attraction of one's most intimate sources.
In consequence, one responds more clearly to other lives. The more coherent one becomes within oneself as a creature, the more fully one enters into the communion of all creatures.
One returns from solitude laden with the gifts of circumstance.
Words: The two Wendell Berry passages above are from Standing By Words: Essays (Counterpoint, 2011) and What Are People For: Essays (Counterpoint, 2010). The last quote is from "Healing," published in Given: Poems (Shoemaker & Hoard, 2006). The poem in the picture captions is from This Day: Collected & New Sabbath Poems (Counterpoint, 2013). All rights reserved by the author.
Pictures: Writing in the woods behind my studio. The "Daffodil Fairy" painting is by Cicely Mary Barker (1895-1973).