Re-kindling the fire within

The Two Fridas by Frida Kahlo

Frida Khalo painting in bed

Here's another older post on dealing with creative burn-out: specifically the kind of burn-out that comes during or after a period of trauma (illness, tragedy, grief, etc.).  We've all been going through collective trauma since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, and that journey isn't over yet. What kind of art will come out of it? How might it change (or is it already changing) the kind of work we do? And what about artists (and there are many) who feel unable to work at all, the creative well gone dry under the pressures of all that we've been living through? There are no simple answers, of course, but the discussion is one worth having. I'd love to hear your thoughts in the Comments below.

Information on the pictures here can be found in the picture captions (run your cursor over the images to see them).

Frida KhaloIn her beautiful Guest Post on this blog, Nomi McLeod discussed the ways "The Handless Maiden" fairy tale spoke to her at a difficult time of life, and how the art she created based on the tale both documented her journey through the dark of the woods and helped her to comprehend it. This is a subject that particularly interests me: the means by which writers, painters, and other artists respond to trauma, crisis, and grief, alchemizing hard experience into story, image, and other creative works.

There are so many different ways this occurs. Sometimes the transformation from life experience to art is immediate and direct: an outpouring of creative energy in the middle of the crisis as it unfolds. Frida Khalo's self-portraits are one example of this, sometimes painted from the confines of her sickbed; another is the "savage creative storm" that caused Rilke to write Sonnets to Orpheus upon hearing the news of a family friend's death. I had a similar experience once myself, after learning that my stepfather had died: working night and day for almost two weeks, I produced, unplanned and almost without conscious thought, my "Surviving Childhood" series of drawings. (These are very large charcoal drawings made on rolls of butcher's paper, and unsuitable for reproducing here.) The Cancer Journals by Audre Lorde is another example of work produced in the eye of the storm; as is the art created by Henri Matisse after an operation left him bed- and chair-bound; Angelo Merendino's "The Battle We Didn't Choose," a photographic response to his wife's diagnosis with breast cancer; Hannah Laycock's "Perceiving Identity" series about living with multiple sclerosis; the final essays of Oliver Sacks, written in the last months of his terminal illness; and the work of Mohammed Al-Amari and other Syrian artists documenting the ongoing refugee crisis....to name just a few.

Henri Matisse working from bed

The Sorrows of the King by Henri Matisse

It is rare, however, that a serious illness or other crisis allows the time, space, and temper of mind required for art-making, and so the second category is a larger one: art in response to a crisis that has ended, but that still feels somehow unresolved. Through this kind of work, we return to the dark parts of our lives and transform our muddles of emotion and reaction into something more ordered, more comprehensible, more universal...perhaps even beautiful, if painfully so. Nomi's "Handless Maiden" falls in this category, as does the unflinching work of German artist Käthe Kollwitz in response to World War I, or the devastating "Hiroshima Panels" of Japanese artists Iri & Toshi Maruki. More recent example include Beckie Kravetz's powerful "Witness" sculpture installation; Meg Zivahl-Fox's "Nettles and Deliverance" collages (using fairy tale imagery in response to childhood trauma); Richard Johnson's heart-breaking "Weapon of Choice," a photographic series on verbal abuse and bullying (in response to his own childhood experiences); and CELL, a puppetry project exploring Motor Neurone Disease. (Two of the puppeteers behind the project lost family members to MND.)

Kathe Kollwitz

Kathe Kollwitz

Rescue, from the Hiroshima panels of Iri & Toshi Maruki

There are many fine examples of art born from hard experience in literature too, especially in the genre of personal essay and memoir, including If This is a Man by Primo Levi, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou, Early Spring by Tove Ditlevsen, The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Dideon, One Hundred Names for Love by Diane Ackerman, Slow Motion by Dani Shapiro, Hillbilly Gothic by Adrienne Martini, The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Wintersen, The Color of Water by James M. McBride, Refuge by Terry Tempest Williams, I Want to Be Left Behind by Brenda Peterson, The Woman Who Watches Over the World by Linda Hogan, Education by Tara Westover, My Name is Why by Lemn Sissay, In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado, I Am I Am I Am by Maggie O'Farrell, The Outrun by Amy Liptrot, Tristimania by Jay Griffiths, Heavy Light by Horatio Clare, A Still Life by Josie George, and numerous others. When we turn to the field of poetry, there are almost too many examples to list, but I'll mention two that have touched me deeply: Jane Kenyon's poems on her battle with depression (found in Constance and Otherwise), and Jane Yolen's The Radiation Sonnets, written during her husband's treatment for cancer, and after his death. I also recommend "Finding Poetry in Illness," a moving article by Jennifer Nix.

Memoirs

Personal experience is often used in the creation of fiction too, of course, although here the alchemical magic is so strong that we're not always aware (nor should we be aware) of the ways in which strands of the author's own life may be woven with other material to create the tapestry of a novel or story. One interesting example is Jeanette Winterson's Oranges are Not the Only Fruit, in which the main character shares the author's name and some of the details of her life -- and yet this is a work of fiction, not memoir, with autobiographical elements skillfully juggled and altered in the service of art. Dorothy Allison's Bastard Out of Carolina is another excellent book of this type, as is Heinz Insu Fenkl's gorgeous Memories of my Ghost Brother: published as a novel in one edition and as a "magical realist memoir" in another, but actually falling into the interstices between those two literary forms. A fourth example is Jo Walton's wonderful fantasy novel Among Others -- which, she is clear to note, is not straight autobiography with magical trimmings but a "mythologization" of her Welsh childhood and family dynamics, written (to use Rilke's phrase) in a "savage create storm" of 36 writing days.

From Witness by Beckie Kravetz

Although powerful work can be born of hard life experience, there are also times when calamity silences us: when shock, or grief, or sheer emotional exhaustion serves to snuff out one's creativity altogether. For those of us used to moving through life by breathing in the world and breathing out art, this silence is an unsettling, even terrifying thing. It is not quite the same thing as depression; it's more like finding the inner room where we go to create is now shuttered and bolted against us. It's like trying to speak without language. It's like living without breathing. It's not living at all.

From ''The Battle We Didn't Choose'' by Angelo & Jennifer Merendino

Perhaps the alchemical process of creativity has not stopped altogether at such times; perhaps it's still moving, but moving so slowly it does not appear to be moving at all. Our creative daemon has gone underground: not hibernating but germinating, like a seed buried deep in the frozen earth, gathering strength and preparing to break through the soil when the proper time comes. Meanwhile, the winter drags on and we move through our days unaware of things stirring below. Winter is bleak, and endless, and we worry: What if this time the spring doesn't come?

Stray by Jeanie Tomanek

I think of trauma as cold, and sharp, with edges that hurt when you bump up against it. It's the sliver of glass from the Snow Queen fairy tale, and the kiss that turns Kay's heart to ice, making him numb to love, to passion, to everything that he once held dear. And yet, even numbness has its use. In a crisis, sometimes we just have to keep moving, putting one foot in front of another, weighted with burdens too heavy to carry but which we must not put down. At such times, it can feel like a mercy to leave the weight and heat of emotion behind us. There are decisions to make and things to be done and miles to cross before we can sleep; there's no time for emotion, no room for it in the basket of boulders we carry.

The Angel of Moving Safely Through the Darkness by Terri WindlingThe problem here is that inspiration arises from an inner fire that feeds on all the stuff our lives: both the dark and the bright, our emotions included. Take emotion away and the fire diminishes. It sputters. It goes out altogether. Numb, like Kay, we may think we are fine, we may think we are coping magnificently... but we sit down to work and the fire just isn't there. And that's hardly surprising.

What is a surprise (or so it was to me) is that the end of a crisis and the thawing of the heart are two things that don't always happen in tandem. A long illness has ended, or a painful problem resolved, or grief has finally loosened its grip and we've emerged from the deep dark forest at last, ready to live Happily Every After...or at least to enjoy a hard-won period of calm and creative renewal. Instead, we just sit there, frozen and numb, not even moving forward now, creativity gone (and our sense of self with it), smiling tightly when dear friends say: At last it's all over! We're glad that you're back!

But in fact, we're not back, at least not fully. Spring is here, but our souls are still clenched underground. We must call them back up to the light.

Life Vs Death by Nomi McLeod

In an earlier series of posts, we looked at illness as a mythic/metaphoric journey to the Underworld and back -- and I'd like to propose that the journey through crisis or grief might be viewed in a similar manner. The process unfolds Cradle by Nomi McLeodin mythic time, or wild time, not on clock time, on schedule, on human demand. It's a journey as perilous as it is profound and it needs to be acknowledged. It needs to be honored. We cannot return from the mythic Underworld as precisely the person we were when we started, and we do not return as the same artist either. Coaxing the soul back up to the sun involves learning just who it is we've become, and what fairy tale gifts we have brought from below. This post-crisis process cannot be rushed; it needs quiet reflection, solitude, time. And yet time, in our pressured and fast-paced world, is precisely what we rarely have.

Bunny Maiden with scars by Terri WindlingFor those of us working professionally in the arts, the strictures of the marketplace require that work be produced in a regular manner. We spend years mastering the discipline required to create works of art to schedule and deadline -- and when that discipline fails us, when the fire's been dampened and the work just will not come, what on earth does one do?

I wish I had an easy answer to that question...or even a difficult one. But every artist is different, every journey is different, and each of us must discover our personal way of re-kindling the fire (though in a perfect world, a charitable foundation aimed at giving working artists the time and resources to do so would not go amiss). What does help, I think, is to recognize the process occurring; to be patient (both with yourself and with others' reactions); and to accept, without shame, the problems that arise when deep healing processes conflict with careers run on clock-time, not soul-time. It also helps to know that other creative artists have gone into the dark before us, and returned, and then burned brighter than ever -- often using the Underworld's painful gifts to enable their very best work.

The Tree of Doors by Meg Zivahl-Fox

One book I keep returning to lately is "An Unreal House Filled With Real Storms" by Elizabeth Knox: a slim volume containing an essay composed for the 2014 Inaugural Margaret Mahy Memorial Lecture. In this powerful piece, Elizabeth weaves the story of her mother's final illness and several other hard life experiences into reflections on writing, on the nature of genre, and on the work of her friend Margaret Mahy. The essay has been a touchstone for me not because it gives me concrete answers or instructions to follow in times of hardship, but because it shows how another writer, and one I respect, has grappled with such issues too.  I've re-read my copy so many times now -- usually on coffee breaks in the woods -- that it's worn, leaf-strewn, coffee-stained, and dog-eared at favorite passages...such as this one, in which Elizabeth relates a conversation with her husband, Fergus:

"A few weeks back I was trying to explain to Fergus how I see things differently now. How my world view has changed. It had been heroic, by which I mean that everything, obligingly, had a shapeliness -- everything fell into story -- and revealed itself that way, becoming beautiful, and habitable for heroes. Then I got sad; sad for such a sustainable period of time that my world view became an abject one.

"The context of the conversation was this: what the hell could I say in my Inaugural Margaret Mahy Memorial Lecture, with the tectonic plates of my world view still in motion? What could I say when, as I saw it, it was my job to be inspiring? How was I ever to find inspiration in my discouraged soul?

"In trying to communicate this to Fergus, I began thinking about what I learned from my mother -- and not from her death. What she tried, from my infancy, to consciously impart: the vital goodness of kindness and civility in life."

Kindness and civility, yes. Potent magic for the thawing of hearts.

The Inaugural Margaret Mahy Memorial Lecture by Elizabeth Knox, published by Victoria University Press

Crumbs by Jeanie Tomanek

Everyone goes through the deep dark woods at some point in life; artists are not unique in this. But the impact of the journey on the work we do, and even on our ability to do it, makes the questions we ask in trauma's wake somewhat different than in other professions. After a searing experience, how do we re-open ourselves to inspiration? How can we bear such vulnerability? And yet, if we stay protectively closed, how will we bear the alternative: living our lives with our fires banked and the door to art locked against us?

With these thoughts in mind, I came across the following passage by M.C. Richards, from her book Centering: In Pottery, Poetry, and the Person. She's talking about love, but her words seem to me to apply to creativity as well. (For some of us -- and Richards is one, I think -- they are two sides of the same coin.) She asks:

After the Deluge by Gina Litherland"How are we to love [and how are we to create] when we are stiff and numb and distinterested? How are we to transform ourselves into limber and soft organisms lying open the world at the quick? By what process and what agency do we perform the Great Work, transforming lowly materials into gold? Love, like its counterpoint, Death, is a yielding at the center...figured forth in intelligent cooperation, sensitive congeniality, physical warmth. At the center the love must live.

"One gives up all one has for this. This is the love that resides in the self, the self-love, out of which all love pours. The fountain, the source. At the center. One gives up all the treasured sorrow and self-mistrust, all the precious loathing and suspicion, all the secret triumphs of withdrawal. One bends in the wind. There are many disciplines that strengthen one's athleticism for love [and creativity]. It takes all one's strength. And yet it takes all one's weakness too. Sometimes it is only by having one's so-called strengths pulverized that one is weak enough, strong enough, to yield. It takes the power of nature in one which is neither strength nor weakness but closer perhaps to virtu, person, personalized energy. Do not speak about strength and weakness, manliness and womanliness, aggressiveness and submissiveness. Look at this flower. Look at this child. Look at this rock with lichen growing on it. Listen to this gull scream as he drops through the air to gobble the bread I throw and clumsily rights himself in the wind. Bear ye another's burdens, the Lord said, and he was talking law.

"Love is not a doctrine, Peace is not an international agreement. Love and Peace are beings who live as possibilities in us."

After the Deluge by Gina Litherland

During periods when I've been unable to cross through the doorway into the room of creation, I've taken courage in knowing that others have also stood at that threshold and found a way in. Their entrance might not be one I can use, but I've learned I am capable of finding my own.

If you've been on that journey, if you are on it now, then this is the thing that I want most to tell you: You have my compassion, and you have my respect. The winter does end. Hearts thaw. Seeds grow. A spark hits dry tinder, and the fire roars.

Coyote Woman by Terri Windling

Pictures: (from top to bottom) "The Two Fridas" & "Tree of Hope, Remain Strong" by Frida Kahlo (1907-1954), and a photograph of Kahlo painting while recovering from one of her many operations. "The Sorrow of the King" by Henri Matisse (1869-1954) , and a photograph of Matisse at work even though confined to bed."Hunger: Mother & Sleeping Children" and "Survivors: Widows & Orphans" by Käthe Kollwitz' (1867-1945). "Rescue," one of the Hiroshima panels of Iri & Toshi Maruki. Recommended works of memoir, poetry, & fiction. Figures from "Witness," a sculptural installation by Beckie Kravetz. A photograph  by Angelo Merendino from The Battle We Didn't Choose project. "Stray" by Jeanie Tomanek. "The Angel of Moving Safely Through the Darkness" from my Angel series of paintings. "Life Vs. Death" and "Cradle" by Nomi McLeod. "Bunny maiden with scars," from one of my hospital sketchbooks. "The Tree of Doors" from Nettles and Deliverance by Meg Zivahl-Fox. The Victoria University Press edition of the Inaugural Margaret Mahy Memorial Lecture by Elizabeth Knox. "Crumbs" by Jeanie Tomanek. "Crossing an Iced-Over Stream" and "After the Deluge" by Gina Litherland. "Coyote Woman" from my Desert Spirits series.

Words: The passage by Elizabeth Knox is from An Unreal House Filled With Real Storms (Victoria University Press, 2014). The passage by M.C. Richards (1916-1999) is from Centering in Pottery, Poetry, and the Person (Wesleyan, 1989). All rights by Elizabeth Knox and the estate of M.C. Richards. All rights to the words and pictures above reserved by the authors and artists or their estates.


On creative burn-out & the practice of swaling

Dartmoor

I wrote the following post ten years ago, and had long forgotten about it until Lisa Leslie, Tiffany Trent, and Stephanie Burgis kindly shared it on social media this week. (Many thanks to the three of you.) After a year and a half of living with the stresses, fears, and sorrows of a world pandemic, and the many changes it has brought to our daily lives, and thus to our art-making, quite a lot of people I know are feeling burned-out right now, their creativity flagging. If you're one of them, I hope these words from painter Jane Champagne and others might help....

In a previous post on artists' blocks and creative burn-out, I quoted the Canadian artist Jane Champagne (1930-2008) as saying, "Sometimes, if you just wait it out, and go on about your business without trying to force a solution, it comes -- almost as if the old artist has to die before the new one can be born."

Australian artist Christina Cairns responded: "I especially like the Jane Champagne quote. It reminds me of the affinity between artist and Shaman, that a kind of death needs to take place for the new life to begin. And also of that need not just for solitude, but of 'fallow' time to allow the seeds of new ideas to emerge into the light in their own time."

This in turn reminded me of am article I wrote some years ago, called "The Dark of the Woods," which discussed the importance of journeys into darkness and despair in myths and shamanic traditions world-wide. Here's the opening passage:

" 'In the mid-path of my life, I woke to find myself in a dark wood,' writes Dante, in The Divine Comedy, beginning a quest that will lead to transformation and redemption. A journey through the dark of the woods is a motif common to fairy tales: young heroes set off through the perilous forest in order to reach their destiny, or they find themselves abandoned there, cast off and left for dead. The road is long and treacherous, prowled by wolves, ghosts, and wizards -- but helpers also appear along the way, good fairies and animal guides, often cloaked in unlikely disguises. The hero's task is to tell friend from foe, and to keep walking steadily onward."

Dartmoor 2

"In older myths, the dark road leads downward into the Underworld, where Persephone is carried off by Hades, much against her will, and Ishtar descends of her own accord to beat at the gates of Hell. This road of darkness lies to the West, according to Native American myth, and each of us must travel it at some point in our lives. The western road is one of trials, ordeals, disasters and abrupt life changes -- yet a road to be honored, nevertheless, as the road on which wisdom is gained. James Hillman, whose theory of 'archetypal psychology' draws extensively on Greco-Roman myth, echoes this belief when he argues that darkness is vital at certain periods of life, questioning our modern tendency to equate mental health with happiness. It is in the Underworld, he reminds us, that seeds germinate and prepare for spring. Myths of descent and rebirth connect the soul's cycles to those of nature."

It's hard, however, to descend to the Underworld with equanimity. I have no fear of darkness per se, but what I hate is the feeling of emptiness that marks creative burn-out for me: a flatness, a lack of enthusiasm for paint or words or light or color or any of the daily, common things that usually fill my heart to bursting with beauty, wonder, and inspiration. It's a kind of death, living in that grey, muffled Underworld where I can see, but not touch, the bright world above. Each time I descend, I despair utterly, forgetting all that I know about myth, and life, and art. Forgetting that there's nothing to truly fear down here. The Underworld is not one's permanent destination; it's simply the mythic/shamanic/creative passageway to next part of the cycle, rebirth: the ascent to a new self, to a new stage of life, and to a new way of making art.

Going back to the "Dark of the Woods" article:  

"Rites-of-passage stories...were cherished in pre-literate societies not only for their entertainment value, but also as mythic tools to prepare young men and women for life's ordeals. A wealth of such stories can be found marking each major transition in the human life cycle: puberty, marriage, childbirth, menopause, death. Other rites-of-passage, less predictable but equally transformative, include times of sudden change and calamity such as illness and injury, the loss of one's home, the death of a loved one, etc. These are the times when we wake, like Dante, to find ourselves in a deep, dark wood -- an image that in Jungian psychology represents an inward journey. Rites-of-passage tales point to the hidden roads that lead out of the dark again -- and remind us that at the end of the journey we're not the same person as when we started. Ascending from the Netherworld (that grey landscape of illness, grief, depression, or despair), we are 'twice-born' in our return to life, carrying seeds -- new wisdom, ideas, creativity and fecundity of spirit."

Dartmoor 3

Yet it's hard not to panic when one finds oneself in an artistically fallow period; it's hard (at least for me) to accept, even to welcome, this part of the creative cycle. "I've lost my spark, my inspiration," I wailed recently to my friend and writing-buddy Wendy Froud. "I don't seem to even want to write anymore. What if I've lost the spark for good? I'll have to get a job at the hardware store...and I'll probably just suck at that too...." 

"Your muse will come back," Wendy assured me, laughing, "and she'll come sooner if you turn your back on her. Do something else. Take a walk. Read a book. This happens to me too; it happens to everyone. But I find if I do something else for a bit, inspiration comes back in no time."

"I've lost all my fire," I whined to my husband. "I've never felt this empty before."

"Sure you have," he reminded me patiently. "It happens whenever you're over-tired, or over-stressed, or when some new idea is gestating in the dark.  Listen to your body, listen to your spirit. They're both telling you that you need some time off. The fire will come back, it always does. And it will come back stronger than ever. "

He's right, of course; I have been through this before...and you'd think by now I would recognize the pattern. As Jane Champagne says: sometimes the old artist has to die before the new artist is born. And the "death" part takes as longs as it takes. It doesn't care about schedules and deadlines.

Plunging in

As younger writers or artists, with energy to spare, we often pushed ourselves to produce and produce and produce, living on caffeine and nerves and adrenaline...and that's fine, even fun, at a certain age, but not sustainable over a lifetime of work. Now, as a woman deep into her middle years, I know I must find a different rhythm -- one that is cyclical, seasonal, sustainable. To quote Christina Cairns again:

"Everything else in the natural world works in cycles of activity and inactivity, fallow and productive. Why should we humans think we are any different? And yet we push ourselves, or allow others (clients, deadlines, family and so on) to push us to keep going, not stop (or feel guilty if we dare to), and keep producing. No wonder the well gets empty, the creative flowering grows weaker and less beautiful. But it's not just in the arts, it's everywhere. I just noticed a headline yesterday, that Australian workers are working longer than ever hours, and yet are more inefficient than ever before...hmmmm, I wonder why?!"

Here in Devon, there's an old rural tradition of swaling: a controlled burning of overgrown heath land that clears out dead vegetation and allows for new growth. Perhaps creative burn-out can be viewed as an inner form of swaling, creating the space and enriching the soil where fresh ideas can germinate. A burn-off rather than a burn-out, clearing the ground for years of life and art still to come.

So here's a toast to creative burn-out and burn-off, and to the tender new growth that emerges from them. I'm emerging at last from my own fallow time (a period of weeks that has felt like years)...and Howard is right: the spark of inspiration is not only returning, it's coming back stronger than ever. But someday, I know, I'll return to the Underworld, or awake, like Dante, in the dark of the woods. And when I do, I'll try to remember not to panic. To remember that it's all part of the creative/mythic journey. And to move through it with just a little more grace.

Walking with grace

"Dark of the Woods: Rites of Passage Tales" was published in the "Healing & Transformation" issue of The Journal of Mythic Arts, Winter 2006; all rights reserved. The journal stopped publication in 2008, but some of the articles published in JoMA are archived here.


Tunes for a Monday Morning

Selkie by Jackie Morris

Above: "Teif on da Lum" by fiddler and composer Vicky Gray, from the Shetland Islands. The song appears on her debut EP, Atlaness (2021). The video is by Shetland film-maker JJ Jamieson.

Below: "The Grey Selkie of Sule Skerry" (Child Ballad 113), a traditional song of the Orkney and Shetland islands, performed by singer/songwriter Maz O'Conner. The video of seals is not by O'Connor but underscores the song beautifully, filmed by divers off the coast of Coll in the Inner Hebrides, and the Farne Islands of Northumberland. The song itself can be found on O'Conner's second album, This Willowed Light (2014). For previous selkie posts, go here.

Above: "Selkie-boy" by Julie Fowlis, from the Outer Hebrides, based on the words of Robert Macfarlane, the art of Jackie Morris, and the lore of selkies. The piece was created for The Lost Words: Spell Songs (2019), a glorious album and concert series that turned the "spells" found in Jackie & Robert's beautiful book The Lost Words into equally beautiful music. The video was filmed near Jackie's home on the coast of Wales, where she inked the verses of "Selkie-boy" onto stone as a gift to the sea. “When we went in search of seals for the film it was almost as if they knew," she says. "There were many seals in a cave where usually there were only a few. The water was crystal clear, so we could watch them move under water. They seemed almost to welcome us, just sitting beneath the skin of the sea and yes, beckoning us down, to where we belonged. And the colour of the water, the light on it, was a deep green.”

Below: "The Arms of the Ocean" by Gaelic singer/songwriter Rachel Walker, with Alec Dalglish (from Skerryvore). The song was released as a single in 2017. Walker's most recent solo album is Gael (2020), and it's a beauty.

Above: "Charmer" by Salt House (Jenny Sturgeon, Lauren MacColl, Ewan MacPherson), a trio based in Scotland whose music I listen to constantly.  This one is from their gorgeous second album Undersong (2018). The album was made and the video filmed on the Hebridean island of Berensay.

Below: "Caim Chaluim Chille chaoimh (The encompassing of Columba the kindly)" by Julie Fowlis, Éamon Doorley, Zoë Conway, and John McIntyre. The piece "is based on a text from Alexander Carmichael’s Carmina Gadelica, a multi-volume collection of Gaelic prayers, incantations, charms and songs collected in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland over one hundred years ago. The musicians have also woven into the text some words from a blessing from the Middle-Irish period. Their composition bridges the Sea of Moyle and generations of tradition in a contemporary and layered arrangement using voices, guitar, bouzouki, violin and oboe to commemorate the remarkable Columba -- a man who left an indelible mark on the life, literature and landscape of both Ireland and Scotland. In the video they have made to accompany their composition, the four musicians and singers have invited artist Ellis O’Connor to respond in paint, inspired by the music they have created."

For a previous post on Columba and other "peregrini" of the northern islands go here.

From ''The Seal Children'' by Jackie Morris

The art today is from The Seal Children by Jackie Morris (Frances Lincoln Children's Books, 2005, & Otter-Barry Books, revised edition, 2016), which I highly recommend. And speaking of seal and selkie tales, there's been a discussion on Twitter recently on just how good Margo Lanagan's selkie novel The Brides of Rollrock Island is. 


Happy Birthday, Tilly!

Woods

Our girl turns 12 years old today, and she has a birthday treat in store: Howard will back from Cornwall again tonight, and she'll be over the moon! (He's doing puppetry at the Eden Project, so he's been away a lot this summer.)

For those who have been kindly asking about Tilly's health: she's making steady progress. I admit there were nights earlier this month when Howard and I both feared the worst -- but thanks to our local vet practice, to the right medications at the right time, and to her own irrepressible spirit, she's back on her (slight wobbly) feet again, and we couldn't be more grateful.

Hill

She still can't manage our usual morning rambles: she limps and tires easily, and has to be helped up hills and over walls. Short and simple walks are best, with plenty of stops to sit and rest. As someone who has had to convalesce frequently myself over the years, there's something very poignant about helping our old hound do the same.

Leat

We've been visiting some of her favourite spots within close distance of the house: the woods, the hill, the leat, the field, the meadow bench and others. Her joy upon reaching and re-claiming each one is a thing to see.

Meadow

It's hard to believe 12 years have passed since the day she chose to come home with us. Our lives have been changed, enlarged, and even healed by her gentle presence. 

8 weeks old

Someday our long morning rambles may resume...but until then, it's enough that she's still here. She's older, slower, and whiskery now. Wiser. Stubborner. Sillier too. Happy Birthday, sweet companion. Little black shadow. Our family's heart.

12 years old