Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Being the Mountain

I have not been very well recently, so this winter season, so far, has not been as productive as I had hoped it would be. Instead of being full to bursting with words and ideas, I am empty, bereft. I thought that there would be story-seeds planted in the ground, readying themselves to sprout within me, but there has been barely a peep.

All I have, at present, is my own story.

It is at difficult times in the past that I have imagined myself to be a mountain (or an ancient, gnarled tree), solid and enduring, and able to withstand whatever storms come. As a mountain, I can sit, deeply rooted, substantial and strong and completely still, as the winds buffet my flanks, or the rain wears lines of erosion into my skin. I can allow my emotional weather to pass over me as I remain at peace. An occasional earthquake may shatter the stillness, but I move with it, in synchrony with the earth. I ride it out, with patience and acceptance.

All the same, I do start to question myself sometimes. Perhaps I am doing something wrong to be feeling this way. I look to my diet and speculate about whether I should stop eating dairy again … yes, probably. I wonder if I should be meditating more often, with more commitment … it certainly wouldn’t hurt. Or whether my fortnightly yoga class is in fact too much for me, physically … it may well be, but giving up may be even more detrimental, just as I am starting to feel more comfortable in my body again.

I do what I can to take care of myself, but usually there are no clear answers to these questions, and I just end up lost and confused, not really knowing what to do. That is the reality of living with the ups and downs of a chronic illness. And so I must be the mountain, for as long as needed.

Sometimes I also wonder whether my lack of creative work is contributing to the way I feel. This is always a possibility, for I often do feel better when I am working, enlivened by words or images. That is when I get in touch with the wildness within me, and I love it.*

Yet if the energy and inspiration simply isn’t there, well, I cannot force it. That could result in more harm than good.

If I am unwell, I need to rest and re-centre myself. 

Though I am not writing (or doing anything much) as I would like, the upside is that I have been doing some other important things:
In addition to Ursula Le Guin’s extraordinary novel Always Coming Home, which I wrote of last week, I have been reading Bill Plotkin’s amazing book, Soulcraft: Crossing into the Mysteries of Nature and the Psyche (2003), described by David Abram (on the cover) as ‘an abundantly wise and carefully crafted survival guide for the wild soul currently dozing (or dying) at the heart of your civilized life’. It is reminding me that the spiritual journey is threefold, requiring the development of a healthy ego in the middle world, the ascent to Spirit in the upper world, and the descent to Soul in the lower world (underworld). This is a gentle and inspiring nudge back in the right direction, to refocus on my soul-seeking work in the deep, dark underworld realm (which is the particular concern of the book), though not to neglect my ego or my need to ascend and connect with Spirit either. I now have more ideas for furthering this aspect of my development.

I recently went to view a small exhibition by three women artists called Flight Print Stitch at Gallery ONE88 in Katoomba, and I have fallen in love with Jan Melville’s exquisite etchings and assemblages. With their focus on natural and spiritual themes—and birds!—they are just the kind of mythic art that I am attracted to and inspired by. I wasn’t able to take photographs in the gallery, but you can see some of her work by clicking here.
And the knitting of my ‘Braveheart’ jumper is coming along beautifully.

I am not writing stories, and it does bother me, this inability and lack, the feeling of hollowness inside; but I have been pointed in other directions, towards other occupations and influences, and this is good, necessary. Perhaps the stories are simply waiting for the spring, when they can break free of the ground with new vigour. 

Until then I will retreat into a dark cave in the mountain of me and bide my time.

*Writing this has helped.

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Always Coming Home

In her acceptance speech when awarded the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters in November 2014, Ursula Le Guin said:

Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need writers who can remember freedom – poets, visionaries – realists of a larger reality. (The Wind’s Twelve Quarters and the Compass Rose, 2015, ix)

Le Guin has been one of those visionary writers herself, and perhaps never more so than in her book Always Coming Home. Published in 1985 it is hardly recent, yet it imagines a future society—the Kesh—living in a radically altered world, long after the ‘hard times’ which are coming, and happening, now. As Le Guin writes, by way of explanation: ‘The people in this book might be going to have lived a long, long time from now in Northern California’. Thus, it was, and still is, a book ahead of its time.

I first learned about Always Coming Home in an article by Sharon Blackie, in which she describes it as one of the few science-fiction, post-apocalyptic novels that tells of a society that she would willingly live in, because ‘it offered a world that was built on strong, caring community’ (What Comes After Civilisation? – The Wild Women Versus the Wild Men). Reading this, and because I already love and admire the work of Le Guin, I knew I had to get my hands on a copy.

Perhaps what struck me most about the book was the animistic relationship the Kesh have with the land around them, conveyed most eloquently through their language, and their unique perception of the world (which is clearly inspired in part by Native American culture and philosophy, but also contains Le Guin’s own distinctive form of wisdom). For instance, to the Kesh the word ‘people’ is applied to nonhumans as much as to humans; so there are quail people, coyote people, woodrat people, oak people, and so on. (If we saw all creatures as people, we would treat them differently, no?)

Most beautifully, they call death ‘Going Westward to the Sunrise’, and a series of songs are sung for the dead or dying, to send them on their way; when a child is born it is said that the girl/boy made so and so their parents, not that so and so had a girl/boy; feathers are considered to be words, and therefore accepted with reverence as gifts or messages from the birds; and when a person is in the presence of something holy, or that fills them with awe, they say (and often repeat) the sacred word: ‘Heya’.

Names are also of great significance to the Kesh, and most of them have a number of names throughout their lives. Names that are not just given by parents, but that come to them, or are found, due to life experiences, happenings, or visions. As a person grows and changes, so does their name. The character of the main story, Stone Telling, says:

In [the town of] Sinshan babies’ names often come from birds, since they are messengers. In the month before my mother bore me, an owl came every night to the oak trees called Gairga outside the windows of High Porch House, on the north side, and sang the owl’s song there; so my first name was North Owl. (7)

If you are familiar with Le Guin’s Earthsea series, then you will know that names are of vital importance in those books too. In that world people have an everyday, ‘use name’ (which is the name their parents give them, or a nickname they acquire, known to everyone), as well as a ‘true name’, given to them in adolescence by a witch or wizard skilled in naming (known to the namer, the named, and perhaps never disclosed to anyone else, unless they are truly trusted). This true name usually reveals something about the character or qualities of the person, and therefore fits them (perhaps you could call it a soul name). A true name is also a word in the Old Speech and therefore contains great power. Wizards can control someone or something if they know their or its true name; this is the basis of all magic in the world of Earthsea. 

I love the way the Kesh imbue meaning in their names, many of which are related to the natural world. To be called something that embodies some aspect of yourself or your life, or indeed, the wider world—to be Morning Star, Flicker, Lark Rising or Mooncarder—seems so much more authentic than the way we generally use names.

Further, Kesh culture, being animistic, is shamanistic, which I find fascinating. They practice vision quests, drumming, trance dancing, fasting, dreamwork, speaking with nonhumans, and use song and chanting for healing (alongside more conventional medicines)—all spiritual practices that are common in nature-based societies, and that we need to relearn in our own culture. 

Also in common with most nature-based societies, they define wealth by how much is given, not how much is gained or accumulated; to be wealthy is to be generous—a moral position quite foreign in our modern world.

The culture that Le Guin has created in Always Coming Home is indeed extraordinary, and does provide an example of an alternative way of being, a strong, soulful community in close relationship with the natural world, embracing the great mystery that is life, and for this it is truly inspiring. Like Sharon Blackie, I too would willingly live in the world of the Kesh.

To end, I wish to share with you a few wise quotes that particularly resonated with me, all taken from Stone Telling’s story, which is told in three parts throughout the book, surrounded by poems, songs, myths, histories and other cultural lore.  

On authenticity and the true self:

As a kitten does what all other kittens do, so a child wants to do what other children do, with a wanting that is as powerful as it is mindless. Since we human beings have to learn what we do, we have to start out that way, but human mindfulness begins where that wish to be the same leaves off. (29)

On knowing and unknowing:

We have to learn what we can, but remain mindful that our knowledge not close the circle, closing out the void, so that we forget that what we do not know remains boundless, without limit or bottom, and that what we know may have to share the quality of being known with what denies it. What is seen with one eye has no depth. (29)

On the importance of using our hands in collaboration with our minds:

Nothing we do is better than the work of handmind. When mind uses itself without the hands it runs the circle and may go too fast; even speech using the voice only may go too fast. The hand that shapes the mind into clay or written word slows thought to the gait of things and lets it be subject to accident and time.  (175)

The cover illustration above is by Mike van Houten; the beautiful illustrations from within the book are by Margaret Chodos.

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Ghost Stories

A rough little ‘story sketch’ of mine called Bird has just been published on the Blue Mountains Library’s writers’ blog, Writers in the Mist, showcasing some of the work by members of my writers’ group.

The stories were all written from the same prompt, which I provided at our meeting in April, which was to:

Write a story about a ghost 
In order to avoid writing something clichéd or overly traditional, there are two rules: 
1. You must not use the following words: pale, white, sheet, spirit, or fluttering
2. You must use at least five of the following ten words: button, farm, clouds, ears, footprint, satchel, corner, ducks, flag, bilberries (I took these words more or less at random from the novel Thursbitch by Alan Garner)

This is an interesting example of our working methods, and reveals how different our outcomes (and styles) can be, even when presented with the same prompt (and some limitations, with those ten words to keep in mind).

So please do go and visit Writers in the Mist by clicking hereand have a read of our ghost stories.

Thursday, 7 July 2016

A Poem: Wedding

I have never been much enamoured with the idea of traditional marriage and its attendant white weddings—though each to their own, of course.

This poem describes what marriage is, or should be, from my point of view. No outside authority is required to officiate, for it is the two people themselves, and them alone, who have the power to speak their vows truly, to make them real. They are responsible for creating and upholding their marriage, which I think of in terms of the secondary definition of the word ‘marry’: join together; combine harmoniously (or similarly, ‘wed’: combine). Further, it is the natural world, rather than human beings, that witnesses the vows. 

Quite simply, it is a wild wedding.


We are on a hill, 
beneath a tree,
under white light
bursting into every colour.
There is no white here,
only the purity 
of green leaf,
brown earth,
blue sky,
red love.

We are wedded wildly
away from eyes that pry, 
singing our own song,  
walking our own way.
A bird witnesses our vows,
and without ceremony
we exchange hearts,
not rings,
for the Earth is round 
and is all we need
to bind us together— 
two vines 
growing entwined
and blossoming
in time.

Wedding, 2016
I’ve been trying to remember where the inspiration for this poem came from, and I think a small part of it may have stemmed from Alan Garner’s novel, Thursbitch, in which Jack Turner and Nan Sarah (who is ‘teeming’, that is, pregnant), wed themselves in an elaborate pagan ritual. It takes place at certain significant stones in the valley where they live, and involves offerings of honeycomb, a button from Jack’s shirt, and strips cut from the edge of his britches and her petticoat. Jack speaks aloud to the hills, and the landscape, it would seem, speaks back, blessing their union, for in the sky above them a shooting star falls. (Having recently reread this book, I can recommend it as a particularly haunting story, as is the case with most of Garner’s books.) 

In Ireland in pre-Christian times, weddings were indeed held under the most sacred of trees: oaks (and I suspect that similar, nature-based customs were held elsewhere too). I did not know this before I wrote ‘Wedding’, so I was very pleased to discover it—though perhaps I did know it intuitively, for it feels right, at heart. To have written of this truth, without realising, is magical, and lends even more meaning to the poem.

In the theme of ‘Wedding’ there is something of a correspondence (which I only recently became aware of—yes, sometimes I am very slow) with the other poem that I have shared here, ‘Tree Woman’in which I spoke of another kind of marriage: ‘A euphoric union / in the sun and shade, / wind and rain.’ This is the marriage, or more simply, the (re)connection, between human and the more-than-human, between human and Nature (in all its—or her—diverse and wondrous forms, both breathing and non-breathing). This is what we sorely need to bring meaning and enchantment back to our lives.

Further, the notion of a wild wedding, or wild love, and the importance of the natural world in the witnessing (and blessing) of the relationship calls to mind a D. H. Lawrence quote I found in Sharon Blackie’s powerful book, If Women Rose Rooted: The Power of the Celtic Woman:  

Oh what a catastrophe, what a maiming of love when it was made a personal, merely personal feeling, taken away from the rising and setting of the sun, and cut off from the magic connection of the solstice and equinox. This is what is the matter with us. We are bleeding at the roots, because we are cut off from the earth and sun and stars, and love is a grinning mockery, because, poor blossom, we plucked it from its stem on the tree of Life, and expected it to keep on blooming in our civilised vase on the table. (2)

Yes, indeed.

This is also the first time that I have intentionally created an artwork to illustrate a piece of my own writing. As I am very out of practice, art-wise, I decided to keep the image simple, very small (only 12 x 12 cm), and to try my best to embrace imperfections as they came. So in my humble painting above is that poetic tree-topped hill, and the watching bird, ringed in gold and twining vines. 

The soundtrack as I painted on this occasion was Vashti Bunyan’s Heartleap (2014). Perhaps some of her lovely whimsy rubbed off on me as I worked.
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