Tunes for a Monday Morning

Christmas Morning by Carl Larsson

In honor of the winter holidays, we start with three songs from A Midwinter Night's Dream (2008) by singer-songwriter, harpist, and music scholar Loreena McKennitt, from Ontario, Canada. McKennitt has spent many years exploring the history of Celtic music from its ancient roots along the Silk Road to western Europe, the British Isles, and on to the New World. Her own work draws on the musical traditions of countries all along the way.

In the videos above and directly below, she records the vocal tracks for two of the pieces on the album over music tracks already laid down by McKennitt and her band. The first is a traditional French song, "Noël Nouvelet" (late 15th century); the second is an English folk carol, "The Seven Rejoices of Mary" (collected in the 18th century).

Carl Larsson's Christmas

Above: "Snow," another lovely song from A Midwinter's Night Dream, performed live in 2012. The lyrics are drawn from a poem by Archibald Lampman (the "Canadian Keats," 1961-1899), with music by McKennitt. Caroline Lavelle, a long-time member of McKennitt's touring band, is on cello.

Below: "Sweet Bells," a traditional carol from the north of England, performed by Yorkshire singer-songwriter Kate Rusby, with her husband Damien O'Kane on guitar. Rusby has recorded two fine albums of folk carols: Sweet Bells (2008) and While Mortals Sleep (2011).

Here in England's West Country, too, the "sweet ringing" of the village church bells on Christmas is a lovely thing, even for a dyed-in-the-wool pagan like me. But then, so many Christmas customs are rooted in those of pagan solstice celebrations that we can fairly share the holiday.

Christmas Feast by Carl Larsson

Decorating the Tree by Carl Larsson
Paintings above: "Christmas Morning," "Sled Pulled by Yule Goats," "Brita," "Christmas Feast," and "Decorating the Tree" by Carl Larsson (Swedish, 1854-1919)

The value of rest

After the storm 1

"We who have lost our sense and our senses -- our touch, our smell, our vision of who we are; we who frantically force and press all things, without rest for body or spirit, hurting our earth and injuring ourselves: we call a halt.

"We want to rest. We need to rest and allow the earth to rest. We need to reflect and rediscover the mystery that lives in us, that is the ground of every unique expression of life, the source of the fascination that calls all things to communion.

"We declare a Sabbath, a space of quiet: for simply being and letting be; for recovering the great, forgotten truths; for learning how to live again."

-- from "Only One Earth," published by the U.N. Environment Programme, Earth Day, 1990

After the storm 2

After the storm 3

After the storm 3


The earth now lies through nights drenched
in the still dark benediction of the rain
and dusky houses and branches stand out bleak
each day in mist, in white, and in the rustling wet.
All, all is rich and restful, with heavy
and secret and rich growth finding its way
through warm soil to every leaf and shoot
and binding everything – near, far – mysteriously
with moisture, fruitfulness, and great desire
- till one clear afternoon suddenly we see
the glistening grass, the tenderly rising grain
and know that life is served by rest.
How could I ever have thought of summer
as richer than this season’s mystery?

- N.P. Van Wyk Louw (South Africa, 1906-1970)

After the storm 5

Tunes for a Monday Morning

This week, four tunes for the winter holidays....

Above: a traditional English carol, "The Seven Rejoices of Mary," sung by the great Canadian musician and music scholar Loreena McKennitt.  In this video, McKennitt is recording the song's vocal track for her 2008 album,  A Midwinter Night's Dream

Below, an enchanting version of another traditional English carol, "The Holly and the Ivy." It's sung by Kate Rusby, from South Yorkshire, on her 2008 album, Sweet Bells.

Next, my favorite holiday song:

"The Christians and the Pagans,"  by the American singer/songwriter  Dar Williams.

And last:

"Winter Trees," beautifully performed by The Staves, a trio of sisters from Hertfordshire.

On the cusp of winter solstice...

Nattadon and Meldon Hills in winter

Contemplating winter solstice

The Nattadon path

Lines for Winter

Tell yourself
as it gets cold and gray falls from the air
that you will go on
Drawing by Arthur Rackhamwalking, hearing
the same tune no matter where
you find yourself—
inside the dome of dark
or under the cracking white
of the moon's gaze in a valley of snow.
Tonight as it gets cold
tell yourself
what you know which is nothing
but the tune your bones play
as you keep going. And you will be able
for once to lie down under the small fire
of winter stars.
And if it happens that you cannot
go on or turn back
and you find yourself
where you will be at the end,
tell yourself
in that final flowing of cold through your limbs
that you love what you are.

- Mark Strand (from Selected Poems)

Arthur Rackham FairiesWith thanks to Ellen Kushner for introducting me to this poem. I love Strand's work, but this one was new to me. The illustrations above, of course, are by the great Arthur Rackham. In the photographs, Tilly "goes on walking, hearing the same tune" on dark, damp Dartmoor day...

"On a Dartmoor Day" by our friend Chris Back.

Tilly's prayer at the end of a very long winter

Waiting for spring, 1

Please come, Lady Spring. Bring sun, soft rain, and mud gentle under paw and foot; swell the streams and wake the Wild Ones from their sleep. Oh, please hurry and come.

Waiting for spring, 2

I am dreamimg of grass river banks and bird song; of bluebells, stitchwort, pink campion; of tender young bunnies that I...umm, will not chase. And lambs. And I won't chase them either.

Waiting for spring, 3

I am dreaming of warmth, and doors standing open, and roaming from house to garden as I please. Of lounging near our front gate and bar- ....umm, not barking at all who pass by.

Waiting for spring, 4

Please come, Lady Spring, and bring Summertime with you. We didn't see much of her last year -- perhaps she's forgottten the way to our hill. So please bring her along, with her sweet peas and foxgloves, her salt sea winds and her cool woodland shade. But if Summer can't come yet, please come by yourself, and I'll keep you good company here.

Waiting for spring, 5

Winter was fun, but he's outstayed his welcome, sitting soused by the fire and refusing to budge. Our wood stocks are low, our spirits need thawing, my thick winter coat has now started to shed. Please come roust him out, send him back to the northlands. Please come just as quick as you can.

Waiting for spring, 6

I'll show you my hillside, my best spots, my secrets. You can sleep in my dog bed and share all my treats. Your favorite flowers are almost in bloom now. The bird choir is gathering, and my People have set you a place at the table. We're ready. I'm ready.

Please come.

Waiting for spring, 7Happy Spring, Festival of Ēostre, Easter, Passover, [insert your celebration here], from all of us at Bumblehill.

The way things change

Into the woods

A few last snow pictures for you, for in fact the snow is already gone -- it  vanished as suddenly as it came. We went to sleep one night to icy white slopes and woke to find green grass hills again, snowmelt flooding the rivers and streams. Not a patch of snow or ice was left. Things can change so quickly.

This time last year, I was traveling through a deep, dark forest that seemed to have no end; now the road winds in new directions and I'm grateful for all that's changed since then: for the ways that bodies and psyches heal; for creative hands and resilient spirits; for the blessings of family, community, and the quiet miracle of daily living.

Today's quotes go out to any of you who are walking through your own dark woods right now. May there be trees to befriend you, and foxes to guide you, and stories to light the way.

Among the trees

"In many shamanic societies, if you came to a medicine person complaining of being disheartened, dispirited, or depressed, they would ask one of four questions: When did you stop dancing? When did you stop singing? When did you stop being enchanted by stories? When did you stop finding comfort in the sweet territory of silence?"  - Gabrielle Roth

'“Stories are medicine. I have been taken with stories since I heard my first. They have such power; they do not require that we do, be, act, anything — we need only listen.” - Clarissa Pinkola Estes

Tree elder in snow

“I had lines inside me, a string of guiding lights. I had language. Fiction and poetry are doses, medicines. What they heal is the rupture reality makes on the imagination. I had been damaged, and a very important part of me had been destroyed - that was my reality, the facts of my life. But on the other side of the facts was who I could be, how I could feel. And as long as I had words for that, images for that, stories for that, then I wasn't lost.”  - Jeanette Winterson

The Ice Forest

“There are certain children who are told they are too sensitive, and there are certain adults who believe sensitivity is a problem that can be fixed in the way that crooked teeth can be fixed and made straight. And when these two come together you get a fairytale, a kind of story with hopelessness in it. I believe there is something in these old stories that does what singing does to words. They have transformational capabilities, in the way melody can transform mood. They can't transform your actual situation, but they can transform your experience of it. We don't create a fantasy world to escape reality, we create it to be able to stay. I believe we have always done this, used images to stand and understand what otherwise would be intolerable.”  -  Lynda Barry (via Gail Arlene de Vos)

The way out of the woods

“When you enter the woods of a fairy tale and it is night, the trees tower on either side of the path. 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. From now on, when you come upon darkness, you'll know it has dimension. You'll know how closely poppy seeds and dirt resemble each other. The forest will be just another story that has absorbed you, taken you through its paces, and cast you out again to your home with its rattling windows..." - Elizabeth J. Andrew

The valley below

"Where you come from does matter -- but not nearly as much as where you are headed.” - Jodi Picoult

Moving foreward, joyouslyFor more on rites-of-passage journeys in myth and fairy tales, see the Winter 2006 "Healing and Transformation" issue of The Journal of Mythic Arts.

Silence, 2

The silence of early morning...

“When words become unclear, I shall focus with photographs. When images become inadequate, I shall be content with silence.”  - Ansel Adams

...up on Nattadon Hill.

It's not really silent when Tilly and I climb our hill in the early morning, of course. There is bird song (cacophanous at this hour), the roar of water in the stream below, the breathing of the wind, and the rustle of a little black dog prowling through the bracken. Yet the sense of silence is a strong one nonetheless, created by the absence of human voices and manmade sounds; a silence that is becoming all too rare these days, and yet remains so necessary. As food fuels the body, silence fuels the spirit and imagination. Or so it is for me.

I cherish (and protect) the early morning silence that fills my studio too, although that isn't a true silence either. There's the humming of the heater, the scritching of a pen on paper, the tap-tap-tap of computer keys, the whisper of book pages turning. What I experience as silence is better described as solitude, and yet even that word is not a perfect fit, for my solitude contains multitudes: not only Tilly, snoring beside me, but also the characters conjured as I write, standing here as real as life; and bunny girls leaping and dancing on the walls; and the voices in everything I read, belonging to people both real and imaginary, fully present here either way.

Sara Maitland asks, "Is reading silent in any sensible understanding of that word? Does it deepen the silence around us or break it up? When we read are we listening to the author, conversing with the author, or are we looking more directly into the author’s mind, seeing the author’s thoughts, rather than hearing her voice? How might one define silence in relation to the written, as opposed to the spoken, word?"

And these are good questions. What do you think? 

Willow and snow

The Sara Maitland quote is from  A Book of Silence. Her new book, Gossip from the Forest, is wonderful too. For a list of thirteen books on "women and silence," go here.

Silence, 1

The Dreamer of Dreams by Edmund Dulac

"Have you ever heard the wonderful silence just before the dawn? Or the quiet and calm just as a storm ends? Or perhaps you know the silence when you haven't the answer to a question you've been asked, or the hush of a country road at night, or the expectant pause of a room full of people when someone is just about to speak, or, most beautiful of all, the moment after the door closes and you're alone in the whole house? Each one is different, you know, and all very beautiful if you listen carefully.”

- Norton Juster (from The Phantom Toolbooth)

Blanket of Snow by Virginia Lee

The White Bear by Kay Nielsen

“After a time I found that I could almost listen to the silence, which had a dimension all of its own. I started to attend to its strange and beautiful texture, which of course, it was impossible to express in words. I discovered that I felt at home and alive in the silence, which compelled me to enter my interior world and around there. Without the distraction of constant conversation, the words on the page began to speak directly to my inner self. They were no long expressing ideas that were simply interesting intellectually, but were talking directly to my own yearning and perplexity.”

- Karen Armstrong

A Silence Like Intimacy by Jackie Morris

"I am obsessed by the idea of silence. I went through an entire library studying art, artists and their critics, philosophers, too, on the meaning and significance of the color white. I dreamed of white birds and white bears. I thought about the white pages of my mother’s journals. I became enthralled with John Cage and his work, 4’33”, his masterpiece of ambient sound. Rauschenberg, too. And then at some point I let go. What sticks to the soul is what gets placed on the page. Maybe that’s the unknown part, the mystery, the power of the empty page."

- Terry Tempest Williams 

The Night Before the Journey to England by Carl Larsson

“How much better is silence; the coffee cup, the table. How much better to sit by myself like the solitary sea-bird that opens its wings on the stake. Let me sit here for ever with bare things, this coffee cup, this knife, this fork, things in themselves, myself being myself.”

- Virginia Woolf

Illustration by Arthur Rackham

Pictures:"The Dreamer of Dreams" by Edmund Dulac (1882-1953), "Blanket of Snow" by Virginia Lee, "The White Bear" (from East of the Sun, West of the Moon) by Kay Nielsen (1886-1957), "A Silence Like Intimacy" by Jackie Morris,  "The Night Before the Journey to England" by Carl Larsson (1853-1919), and a pen & ink skerch by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939). Words: The Terry Tempest Williams quote comes from a recent interview, On Writing as an Act of Living, which I highly recommend.