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November 2014

Living in grace

Tilly & the old oak

"The shape of my life today starts with a family. I have a husband, five children and a home just beyond the suburbs of New York. I have also a craft, writing, and therefore work I want to pursue. The shape of my life is, of course, determined by many other things; my background and childhood, my mind and its education, my conscience and its pressures, my heart and its desires. I want to give and take from my children and husband, to share with friends and community, to carry out my obligations to man and to the world, as a woman, as an artist, as a citizen. But I want first of all -- in fact, as an end to these other desires -- to be at peace with myself.

"I want a singleness of eye, a purity of intention, a central core to my life that will enable me to carry out these obligations and activities as well as I can. I want, in fact -- to borrow from the languages of the saints -- to live 'in grace' as much of the time as possible. I am not using this term in a strictly theological sense. By grace I mean an inner harmony, essentially spiritual, which can be translated into outward harmony. I am seeking perhaps what Socrates asked for in the prayer from Phaedrus when he said, 'May the outward and the inward man be at one.' " 

- Anne Morrow Lindbergh (Gift from the Sea)

Oak leaves after rain

"The things we want are transformative, and we don’t know or only think we know what is on the other side of that transformation. Love, wisdom, grace, inspiration -- how do you go about finding these things that are in some ways about extending the boundaries of the self into unknown territory, about becoming someone else?"  - Rebecca Solnit (A Field Guide to Getting Lost)

"[The Navjo concept of] hózhó means ‘beauty’ or ‘beautiful conditions,’ but this term also expresses the intellectual notion of order, the emotional state of happiness, the physical state of health, the moral condition of good, and the aesthetic dimension of harmony. The Navajo do not look for beauty; they…find themselves engulfed in it. When it is disrupted, they restore it; when it is lost or diminished, they renew it; when it is present, they celebrate it."  - Gary Witherspoon ("Dynamic Symmetry & Holistic Asymmetry in Navajo Art & Cosmology)

Reading on an autumn morning

"Theologians talk about a prevenient grace that precedes grace itself and allows us to accept it. I think there must also be a prevenient courage that allows us to be brave -- that is, to acknowledge that there is more beauty than our eyes can bear, that precious things have been put into our hands and to do nothing to honor them is to do great harm. And therefore, this courage allows us, as the old men said, to make ourselves useful. It allows us to be generous, which is another way of saying exactly the same thing." - Marilynne Robinson (Gilead)

"We should never be at the mercy of Providence if only we understood that we ourselves are Providence."  - Vera Brittain (The Testament of Youth)

Oak in autumn

Autumn fairies by Arthur RackhamAutumn leaf fairies by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939)

Embracing uncertainty

The edge of the woods

From Carl Jung's "Memories," an autobiographic work written in his eighties, published posthumously in Memories, Dreams, Reflections:

"I am astonished, disappointed, pleased with myself. I am depressed, distressed, rapturous. I am all these things at once and cannot add up the sum. I am incapable of determining ultimate worth or worthlessness; I have no judgement about my life. There is nothing I am quite sure about.

Merlin in the woods by Alan Lee"The world into which we are born is brutal and cruel, and at the same time of divine beauty. Which element we think outweighs the other, whether meaninglessness or meaning, is a matter of temperament. Probably, as in all meta- physical questions, both are true: Life is, or has, meaning and meaninglessness. I cherish the anxious hope that meaning with preponderate and win the battle.

"When Lao-tzu says: 'All are clear, I alone am clouded,' he is expressing what I now feel in advanced old age. Lao-tzu is an example of a man with superior insight who has seen and experienced worth and worthlessness, and who at the end of his life desires to return into his own being, into the eternal unknowable meaning. At every level of intelligence this type appears, and its lineaments are always the same, whether it be an old peasant or a great philosopher like Lao-tzu. This, too, is my experience of old age, a letting go of life-long certainties. Yet as they go there is much that fills me: plants, animals, clouds, day and night, and the eternal in ourselves. The more uncertain I have felt about myself, the more there has grown up in me a feeling of kinship with all things."

Border patrol

''The range of the human mind, the scale and depth of the metaphors the mind is capable of manufacturing as it grapples with the universe, stand in stunning contrast to the belief that there is only one reality, which is man's, or worse, that only one culture among the many on earth possesses the truth. To allow mystery, which is to say to yourself, 'There could be more, there could be things we don't understand,' is not to damn knowledge. It is to take a wider view. It is to permit yourself an extraordinary freedom: someone else does not have to be wrong in order that you may be right.''

- Barry Lopez (Of Wolves and Men)

''When Don Quixote went out into the world, that world turned into a mystery before his eyes. That is the legacy of the first European novel to the entire subsequent history of the novel. The novel teaches us to comprehend the world as a question. There is wisdom and tolerance in that attitude.''

- Milan Kundera (The Book of Laughter and Forgetting)

"I try to remember that the job -- as well as the plight, and the unexpected joy -- of the artist is to embrace uncertainty, to be sharpened and honed by it." 

- Dani Shapiro (Still Writing: The Perils & Pleasures of a Creative Life)

Beech leaves in autumn

"There are, it seems, two muses: the Muse of  Woodland spirit by Alan LeeInspiration, who gives us inarticulate visions and desires, and the Muse of Realization, who returns again and again to say 'It is yet more difficult than you thought.'  This is the muse of form.

"It may be then that form serves us best when it works as an obstruction, to baffle us and deflect our intended course. It may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work and when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey."

 - Wendell Berry (Standing by Words)

Woodland spirit

So let us embrace baffflement and uncertainty for the role it plays in all our lives -- a role that can be alarming, but also filled with creative potential. We don't ever really know where we're going; and for artists that's a very good thing. In the tension between certainty and doubt (or, to use yesterday's language, between hope and despair), we often find, strangely, that our best work is born....sometimes out of the very situations that seemed to threaten our ability to work the most.

As Mary Oliver says in her poem  "Yes, Mysteries" (which is worth reading in full):

  Bird fairies by Alan Lee            Let me keep my distance, always, from those
              who think they have the answers.

              Let me keep company always with those who say
              'Look!' and laugh in astonishment,
              and bow their heads.

Fallen beech leaves

The art above is "Merlin in the Woods," "Woodland Maiden," and "Bird Fairies" by my Devon neighbor Alan Lee. According to ancient Celtic texts, Merlin (the wise and wily magician of King Arthur's court) autumn leafwent mad after the disastrous Battle of Arderydd and fled into the forest, where he lived like the wild boars and the wolves, eating roots and berries, sleeping in the rain. In the Welsh Black Book of Carmarthen, Merlin says: "Ten years and two score have I been moving along through twenty bouts of madness with wild ones in the wild...only lack keeps me company now." Through his period of shamanic madness, Merlin learned the speech of animals and the secrets of wood and stone. By the time he emerged from the forest, he'd come fully into his magical powers.

Hope and despair

Nattadon Hill 1

Late autumn in Devon. Tilly and I travel the winding pathways of the dying year: through yellow leaves and rust red hills and green grass fields turned white with frost, through trees that seem to flame and wither between one heartbeat and the next.

I am wrapped in a warm and threadbare coat, skirt snagged by brambles, boots caked in mud, my steps unsteady, moving slowly through the quiet landscape of fragile health and recovery. It is not a straight trail. The pathway dips and rises, loops back, moves forward, then turns back again. My destination lies somewhere ahead: I can smell the wood smoke of  its welcoming fire, see the golden glow of the back porch light, guiding me toward stability, certainty, strength of body, mind, and spirit. I'll get there. I am getting there. But the journey is my life right now: the taste of wind and sound of water and the damp grass slippery underfoot. The journey has its necessities, its lessons...its pleasures too, if I am open to them. If I am present on the trail and not putting life and art on hold until that moment of arrival.

Nattadon Hill 2

There's nothing like the slow and tedious progression through an illness to bring to mind the words "hope" and "despair,"  although one's own tiny drop of discomfort seems so damn small, so insignificant when measured against the wounded world around us. I'm reminded daily of that old alchemical principal: As above, then so below. We harm the natural world; our bodies are nature; and we are not immune from ecological disruption, echoed in our blood and bones.

Nattadon Hill 3

How do we balance hope and despair when daily life, or health, or work, or engagement with the world puts us on the narrow path between them? How do we avoid despair's passivity, or false hope's blindness to the challenges ahead? The ecological writer Joanna Macy suggests that despair and hope are not oppositional, but two sides of the same coin:

"By honoring our despair," she says, "and not trying to suppress it or pave over it as some personal pathology, we open a gateway into our full vitality and to our connection with all of life. Beneath what I call our 'pain for the world,' which includes sorrow and outrage and dread, is the instinct for the preservation of life. When we are unafraid of the suffering of our world, and brave enough to sustain the gaze and speak out, there is a redemptive sanity at work.

"The other side of that pain for our world is a love for our world. That love is bigger than you would ever guess from what our consumer society conditions us to want. It's a love so raw, so ancient, so deep that if you get in touch with it, you can just ride it; you can just be there and it doesn't matter. Then nothing can stop you. But to get to that, you have to stop being afraid of hurting. The price of reaching that is tears and outrage, because the tears and the power to keep on going, they come from the same source."

Nattadon Hill 4

Nattadon Hill 6

The transformation of despair into hope is alchemical work, creative work. And what all transformations have in common, writes Rebecca Solnit, is that they begin in the imagination.

"To hope is to gamble," she says. "It's to bet on the future, on your desires, on the possibility that an open heart and uncertainty are better than gloom and safety. To hope is dangerous, and yet it is the opposite of fear, for to live is to risk. I say all this to you because hope is not like a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. I say this because hope is an ax you break down doors with in an emergency; because hope should shove you out the door, because it will take everything you have to steer the future away from endless war, from annihilation of the earth's treasures and the grinding down of the poor and marginal. Hope just means another world might be possible, not promised, not guaranteed. Hope calls for action; action is impossible without hope."

Nattadon Hill 5

Gorse blossoms

The trail dips down, rises again. Tilly dances ahead, a four-footed embodiment of exuberance and joy; and I follow after, taking courage from the stalwart gorse blossoms, bright among the thorns.  I have known despair, we have all known despair, but on this beautiful morning I am chosing hope. I am chosing movement, action, transformation. Art is the "ax" I carry: sharp and not too heavy, fit to the strength I have. And stories are the lights that guide me, the golden porch light that will lead me home.

Nattadon Hill 7The Joanna Macy quote above is from "Women Reimagining the World" (in Moonrise, edited by Nina Simons, 2010); the Rebecca Solnit quote is from her book Hope in the Dark (2004).

Tunes for a Monday Morning

It's a misty early morning here on Dartmoor, so here's some bright alt-folk music to call to the sun and brush the cobwebs away....

The tunes above and below are by Bad Anna, a wonderful band that grew out of the award-winning Welsh folk trio Uiscedwr -- consisting of Cormac Byrne (percussion), Anna Esslemont (fiddle, vocals), Jenny Esslemont (backing vocals), Stuart McCallum (guitar), and Nick Waldock (bass). The group was short-lived, but a dazzling performance was recorded at the Shrewsbury Folk Festival in 2011.

The songs here were all composed by band's violinist, Anna Esslemont, written in the aftermath of a bone marrow transplant and a six year battle with rare auto-immune disease Aplastic Anaemia.

Above is "The Warning," about a particularly malevolent kind of witch; and below is "Broken," a powerful song about physical disability. The latter song gets me in the gut every time.


"The Stranger," a poignant song about...well, about bone marrow transplants.

And last:

An earlier recording of Esslemont, Byrne, and Waldock in their Uiscedwr days, performing in Germany 2010. The song is their version of Julie Miller's "Forever My Beloved." 

And the music must be working, because here comes the sun at last...

Here comes the sun.

If you'd like a little more this morning, try "Mantra for the Lost," another gorgeous song about illness by Anna Esslemont (a.k.a. Anna Rebel) on Soundcloud.