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, for Corona virus was spreading 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 work and income is frightening, of course, as freelancers in the Arts generally 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.


Myth & Moor update

Benji

Friends have been urging me to stop apologizing for my absence from Myth & Moor due to circumstances beyond my control (health issues and a death in my family), but I can't help it. I am sorry that I haven't been here with you during the worldwide spread of Covid-19, when daily posts from the Dartmoor countryside might have provided some welcome distraction and comfort.

Tilly by David WyattI'm back in the studio now, catching up with work, intending to be with you in a more regular way . . . provided the Little Gods of telephone wires and Internet connectivity are kind to us. Our rural Internet service has always been slow and affected by storms; but lately, with the entire UK on lock-down and demands for connectivity rising, our service has gone from slow to a crawl. We are currently switching service providers, hoping to find a more lasting solution. While we wait for the switch to take place, however, our Internet access remains unpredictable. I'll post when I can, but it's likely to be erratic -- and that's another thing beyond my control. Okay, I won't apologize again, but I do thank you for your patience.

Benji 2

I also want to say a big thank you to all of you who have kept conversation going here (in the Comments section) while I've been away. Conversation maintains community; and community, to me, is everything. 

American naturalist Barry Lopez writes:

"Conversations are efforts toward good relations. They are an elementary form of reciprocity. They are the exercise of our love for each other. They are the enemies of our loneliness, our doubt, our anxiety, our tendencies to abdicate. To continue to be in good conversation over our enormous and terrifying problems is to be calling out to each other in the night. If we attend with imagination and devotion to our conversations, we will find what we need; and someone among us will act -- it does not matter whom -- and we will survive."

He is speaking of ecological crisis here, but his words could apply to a global pandemic as well. Coming together in our various communities is how we take care of and nurture each other.

I'm glad to return to this conversation. Stay safe, everyone. And let's keep talking.

Benji 3

Words: The quote is from"Meditations on Living in These Times" by Barry Lopez, published in Hope Beneath Our Feet, edited by Martin Keogh (North Atlantic Books, 2010).

Pictures:  A visit with sweet Benji, the elderly horse who lives down the road. The little drawing of Tilly is by her good friend (and ours) David Wyatt.