Embracing the Bear

Photograph by Katerina Plotnikova

First posted in the winter of 2014:

I've long used the term "embracing the bear" for those moments when I'm moving forward into something I fear, but don't want fear to stop me; thus I was intrigued to encounter the same phrase in Terry Tempest William's An Unspoken Hunger, where it has a slightly different, but related, meaning. In a gorgeous little essay on women and bears, Williams includes a description of Marian Engle 's Bear, a highly unsual, memorable novel which portrays a woman and a bear "in an erotics of place":

"It doesn't matter whether the bear is seen as male or female," says Williams. "The relationship between the two is sensual,Victorian illustration, artist unknown wild.

"The woman says, 'Bear, take me to the bottom of the ocean with you, Bear, swim with me, Bear, put your arms around me, enclose me, swim, down, down, down, with me.'

" 'Bear,' she says suddenly, 'come dance with me.'

"They make love. Afterwards, 'She felt pain, but it was a dear sweet pain that belonged not to mental suffering, but to the earth.'

William writes that she, too, "has felt the pain that arises from a recognition of beauty, pain we hold when we remember what we are connected to and the delicacy of our relations. It is this tenderness born out of connection to place that Black bear, artist unknown copyfuels my writing. Writing becomes an act of compassion toward life, the life we often refuse to see because if we look too closely or feel too deeply, there may be no end to our suffering. But words empower us, move us beyond our suffering, and set us free. This is the sorcery of literature. We are healed by our stories.

"By undressing, exposing, and embracing the bear, we undress, expose, and embrace our authentic selves. Stripped free from society's oughts and shoulds, we emerge as emancipated beings. The bear is free to roam."

Photograph by Katerina Plotnikova

"We are creatures of paradox, women and bears, two animals that are enormously unpredictable, hence our mystery," Williams continues. "Perhaps the fear of bears and the fear of women lies in our refusal to be tamed, the impulses we arouse and the forces we represent....As women connected to the earth, we are nurturing and we are fierce, we are wicked and we are sublime. The full range is ours. We hold the moon in our bellies and fire in our hearts. We bleed. We give milk. We are the mothers of first words. These words grow. They are our children. They are our stories and our poems."

Photograph by Katerina Plotnikova

Credits: The sublime images above are by the Russian surrealist photographer Katerina Plotnikova, based in Moscow; all rights reserved by the artist. The pen-and-ink drawings are Victorian illustrations, artists unknown. The text above is from An Unspoken Spoken Hunger: Stories from the Field by Terry Tempest Willians (Pantheon, 1994); all rights reserved by the author.

Other recommended bear fiction: The Red Garden by Alice Hoffman (the woman-bear relationship in this book completely slays me), The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden, Tender Morsals by Margo Lanagan, East by Edith Pattou, Snow White and Rose Red by Patricia C. Wrede, Ice by Sarah Beth Durst, and Her Frozen Wild by Kim Antieau. Short fiction: "The Bear Outside" by Tom Hirons, "Sleeping With Bears" by Theodora Goss, "Else This, Nothing Ever Grows" by Sylvia V. Linsteadt, "Bear's Bride" by Johanna Sinisalo (in The Beastly Bride), "The Woman Who Loved a Bear" by Jane Yolen (in Once Upon a Time), "Brother Bear" by Lisa Goldstein (in Ruby Slippers, Golden Tears), and "The Brown Bear of Norway" by Isobel Cole (in Black Thorn White Rose). For magical poetry, I particularly love "The Bear's Daughter" by Theodora Goss and "An Embroidery" by Denise Levertov. Jackie Morris' picture book The Ice Bear is a thing of beauty; and Michel Pastoureau's The Bear: History of a Fallen King is fascinating. Other recommendations welcome.

More ursine symbology, folklore, and art can be found in "Following the Bear" (winter 2014).


The small things

2169_o_woman_lying_on_a_bench

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

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

Carl Larsson

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

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

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

 by Carl Larsson

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

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

Carl Larsson

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


The Writer's God is Mercury

Skye 1

Skye 2

I was sad to learn that EarthLines magazine has come to an end after an excellent run of 17 issues -- although I understand the need of its editors (Sharon Blackie and David Knowles) to move on and make time for their own writing, as this is precisely what Midori Snyder and I did when we ended our Journal of Mythic Arts after a decade of publication.

I recently came across the very first issue Earthlines, published in March 2012 from a remote croft on the Isle of Lewis -- not far, as the crow flies, from where I was staying last week on the Isle of Skye. One of the issue's treasures is an interview with Jay Griffiths, whose brilliant work (Wild, Kith, Pip Pip, etc.) takes up a fair amount of space on the Favorite Books shelf in my studio. In an exchange that seems even more timely now (in our current political climate), Sharon asks the author:

"How can you bear to see what is happening to the wild places of the earth that you see so clearly and love so much? The places, the ways of life that you write about with such passion in Wild, and that are threatened -- do you feel powerless because of the nature of the threats; does it instead force you to action (and if so, what's the source of the energy needed in that action -- anger? Desperation? Love?) Put simply, how do you live with it?"

Skye 3

"It is an injured, limping world, yes," Griffith responds. "Its vitality is reduced, yes, as if the full spectrum of the rainbow is being painted out with grey. The extinctions of this era -- extinctions of culture and of species, extinctions of minds and philosophies and languages -- will haunt the future in bleached and muted reproach, yes. And yet, and yet, and yet -- I want to paint the rainbow, as far as I can, prismatically, through language. You cannot ultimately break a rainbow, you can only fail to see its myriad, shattered beauties. And I believe in beauty as I believe in goodness, that people are profoundly good in spite of it all, and that when people know about a situation they can care about it.

"That is where the role of the writer comes in. The writer's god is Mercury the messenger, speaking between worlds. We listen to the world we can hear and see, and we speak to the other side, to the world of the reader."

Skye 4

Skye 5

"What do you make of the new growing interest in writing about nature, place, and the environment?" Sharon asks. "Do you see it as part of a process of change, a good thing, a vehicle for transformation -- or does it just refect a passive nostalgia for the things people have already given up on?"

Skye 5

Griffith answers: "When the tread is thinnest...when we sense the tragedy of endings...when life and grace is threatened by deafness and ugliness...when tenderness is bullied...when fences of enclosure overshadow the last scrap of commons...then, which is now, comes a ferocity on the side of life, to protect, to cherish and to envoice what cannot speak in human language."

It is my belief that this is a task that belongs to writers and other creators in the Mythic Arts field as well.

Skye 6

The first and last issues of EarthLines

Words: The passages above come from EarthLines: Nature, Place, and the Environment (Issue 1, May 2012); all rights reserved by Sharon Blackie and Jay Griffiths. Back issues of the magazine are available here, and well worth collecting. Pictures: The photographs were taken last week on the Isle of Skye. Descriptions can be found in the picture captions.


The 4th of July

I cannot celebrate America's Independence Day when the country of my birth is in such a serious crisis. Instead, I celebrate and stand with all the good people who Resist, in their myriad ways, and refuse to be divided neighbor from neighbor. Stand strong, everyone. You have my respect, my gratitude, and my love.

The video above is from Nahko Bear, an American musician & earth activist of Apache, Mohawk, Puerto Rican, & Filipino heritage. (For more of his music, go here, here, and here.)


There and back again

Isle of Skye

Isle of Skye

Howard and I are back home in Chagford after a magical journey to Faerieland (also known as the Isle of Skye), where we celebrated various birthdays, anniversaries, book awards and other milestones in the lives of a group of good friends. 

I'm taking a couple of days to catch up on work, then Myth & Moor will resume regular posting on Wednesday.

Isle of Skye

Isle of Skye

"Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colors."  - Terry Pratchett (A Hatful of Sky)

Isle of Skye

Isle of Skye

“Traveling -- it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.”  - Ibn Battuta (Travels)

Isle of Skye

And now you'll be telling stories
of my coming back
and they won't be false, and they won't be true
but they'll be real...

- Mary Oliver (from A Thousand Mornings)

Isle of Skye


Authors for Grenfell

writing

I'm popping online briefly to let you know about the Authors for Grenfell Tower online auction, raising money for residents affected by the terrible fire in London last week.

Authors, editors, and other publishing people are offering all kinds of good bookish things to bid on. Go here for the full list.

My donation: Join me for a proper Devon cream tea, and a chat about fairy tales and fantasy, at the Mill End Hotel on the outskirts of Chagford. Go here for more information.

Please share with anyone who might be interested in supporting this fund-raising effort. Author friends:  if you'd like to donate something, you can do so here.


Foxglove season

Devon foxgloves

Howard is back from a month of teaching in London, and the hound is over the moon to have him home. Little does she know, poor duck, that both of us are about to leave her, heading far north to the Isle of Skye to celebrate the birthdays of two dear friends, in the company of friends old and new. Tilly adores her dog-sitter (Howard's mum), so it won't be such a terrible ordeal; she'll have good company, and plenty of walks and adventures. But I'm going to miss my little black shadow...probably even more than she'll miss me.

I'll be entirely off-line while we're traveling -- and then back to Devon, back to the studio, and back to Myth & Moor during the first week of July. I wish you all a good, peaceful, and wildly creative time as we move into the summer months.

Devon foxgloves

Devon foxgloves

The pictures today are for Pamela Dean and Stuart Hill, who are, as I recall, particular fans of foxgloves (as well as being wonderful novelists whose books I highly recommend).

For the folklore of foxgloves, see this previous post: "Little gloves for the foxes and the fey." Plus, there's a little summer magic for you hidden in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the foxgloves to find it.)

Devon foxgloves

Fox Girl & Friend

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Devon foxgloves

Hound and foxgloves


Midsummer's Day

Riverbank


Night in Day

The night never wants to end, to give itself over
Arthur Rackhamto light. So it traps itself in things: obsidian, crows.

Even on summer solstice, the day of light’s great
triumph, where fields of sunflowers guzzle in the sun -
we break open the watermelon and spit out
black seeds, bits of night glistening on the grass.

  - Joseph Stroud


Chagford Bridge

Happy Summer Solstice, everyone!

It's been a week of gloriously warm weather here, and the hound and I have been down to river for a swim every morning since it started. These pictures of a very wet and happy Tilly were taken on Sunday.

Testing the water

Plunging in

River

"Green was the silence, wet was the light, the month of June trembled like a butterfly."

- Pablo Neruda

River

River

Leaves and waterThe poem above is from Of This World: New and Selected Poems, 1966-2006 by Joseph Stroud (Copper Canyon Press, 2009); all rights reserved by the author. The drawing is by Arthur Rackham.


Homemade Ceremonies

Morning 1

In honor of Summer Solstice, a sacred day for country pagans like me and a special day for many others, I'd like to re-visit this post on the value of homemade ceremonies, and of living with gratitude, first published in the early spring, 2015.

In Braiding Sweetgrass, Native American author and biologist Robin Wall Kimmerer (of the Potowatomi people) explains how her family was severed from their traditional culture when her grandfather, like so many children of his generation, was taken from home by the U.S. government and sent to the Carlisle Indian School to be "civilized" (a truly shameful chapter of my country's history). It was not until many years later that his descendants reclaimed their language and heritage. Against this painful background, Kimmerer writes movingly of her father's morning ritual when the family camped on the slopes of Tahawus each summer (the Algonquin name for Mount Marcy in the Adirondaks):

"When he lifts the coffee pot from the stove the morning bustle stops; we know without being told that it's time to pay attention. He stands at the edge of camp with the coffeepot in his hands, holding the top in place with a folded pot holder. He pours coffee on the ground in a thick brown stream. The sunlight catches the flow, striping it amber and brown and black as it falls to the earth and steams in the cool morning air. With his face to the morning sun, he pours and speaks into the stillness, 'Here's to the gods of Tahawus.'"

Morning 2

Morning 3

"I was pretty sure no other family I knew began their day like this," she continues, "but I never questioned the source of those words and my father never explained. They were just part of our life among the lakes. But their rhythm made me feel at home and the ceremony drew a circle around our family. By those words we said, 'Here we are,' and I imagined that the land heard us -- murmured to itself, 'Ohh, here are the ones who know how to say thank you.' "

Morning 4

Morning 5

"Sometimes my father would name the gods of Forked Lake or South Pond or Brandy Brook Flow, wherever our tents were settled for the night. I came to know each place was inspirited, was home to others before we arrived and long after we left. As he called out the names and offered a gift, the first coffee, he quietly taught us the respect we owed these other beings and how to show our thanks for summer mornings.

 Morning 6

Morning 7

"I knew that in the long-ago our people raised their thanks in morning songs, in prayer, in the offering of sacred tobacco. But at that time in our family history we didn't have sacred tobacco and we didn't know the songs -- they'd been taken away from my grandfather at the doors of the boarding school. But history moves in a circle and here we were, the next generation, back to the loon-filled lakes of our ancestors, back to the canoes....

"In the same way that the flow of coffee down the rock opened the leaves of the moss, ceremony brought the quiescent back to life, opened my mind and heart to what I knew, but had forgotten. The words and the coffee called us to remember that these woods and lakes were a gift. Ceremonies large and small have the power to focus attention to a way of living awake in the world. The visible became invisible, merging with the soil. It may have been a secondhand ceremony, but...I recognized that the earth drank it up as if it were right. The land knows you, even when you are lost.

Morning7

"A people's story moves along like a canoe caught in the current, being carried closer and closer to where we had begun. As I grew up, my family found again the tribal connections that had been frayed, but never broken, by history. We found the people who knew our true names. And when I first heard in Oklahoma the sending of thanks to the four directions at the sunrise lodge -- the offering in the old language of the sacred tobacco -- I heard it as if in my father's voice. The language was different but the heart was the same.

Morning 8

Morning 9

"Ours was a solitary ceremony, but fed from the same bond with the land, founded on respect and gratitude. Now the circle drawn around us is bigger, encompassing a whole people to which we again belong. But still the offering says, 'Here we are,' and still I hear at the end of the words the land murmuring to itself, 'Ohh, here are the ones who know how to say thank you.' Today my father can speak his prayers in our language. But it was 'Here's to the gods of Tahawus' that came first, in the voice I will always hear. It was in the presence of ancient ceremonies that I understood that our coffee offering was not secondhand, it was ours."

Morning 10

Wildflowers

The power of ceremony, writes Kimmerer, is that "it marries the mundane to the sacred. The water turns to wine, the coffee to a prayer. The material and the spiritual mingle like grounds mixed with humus, transformed like steam rising from a mug into the morning mist. What else can you offer the earth, which has everything? What else can you give but something of yourself? A homemade ceremony, ceremony that makes a home."

Bluebells

I've written before about my own morning rituals, which are solitary ones except for Tilly's presence, and also about how much I prefer that solitude to be undisturbed in the enchanted liminal space between waking up and creative work. We can draw parallels between the rituals of beginning / rituals of approach we employ to facilitate creative work and the morning ritual Kimmerer describes. Ceremony, meditation, creative routines and practices designed to ease us into work, these are all means of acknowledging the transition from one state into another: from sleep into a brand new day, from morning chores and mundane concerns to the focused state of creativity and inspiration.

But there's also an important difference here -- which, I fear, often gets lost when First Nation ceremonies are too-casually adapted by non-native peoples. While the coffee ritual may indeed have helped Kimmerer's father to feel more meditative, centered, and ready to start his day, this therapeutic aspect of the ceremony is not its purpose or focus. Rather, it is an act of gratitude, an acknowledgement of the larger world of which we humans are just one part. There is no ego in the ritual, no self-aggrandizing, no  "look at me, look how spiritual I am" -- just the simple, humble act of a man offering a humble gift to creation.

Morning coffee

In my own morning rituals, gratitude to the land, to our animal neighbors, to the vast nonhuman world plays a crucial part. It is why I write and why I paint: sheer gratitude for being alive, even on -- perhaps especially on -- those mornings when, because of poor health or other difficulties, life feels most burdensome. I want to create not from a place of ego and self-aggrandizement but as a means of gifting stories to the beautiful land that feeds and clothes and houses and sustains me; and to give, as Pablo Neruda once said, "something resiny, earthlike and fragrant in exchange for the gift of human brotherhood."

Some days I succeed, and some days I don't. But each morning I wake up, climb the hill with Tilly, pour steaming coffee from a silver thermos as birdsong greets the sun, and I try again. And again. And again. On the hill, I remember that my place in the world is very small. And very precious. And I'm grateful for it all.

Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer