Seeking the Form, Following the Thread

Some years ago, I took a week-long intensive Storytelling class that shifted and widened my angle of perception & that continues to nourish my spirit. Our teacher, Luisah Teish (author, artist-activist, and Oshun chief in the Yoruba Lucumi tradition) helped us engage our bodies, minds, and hearts as we brought into consciousness & into our lives the power of the stories we tell, the names we choose. At the start of the course, she told us that whenever we begin a new endeavor — especially one of a ritual nature — we must be careful to set a clear Intention. Any beginning is a Crossroads, she cautioned, and that is precisely where Trickster likes to lurk, just waiting to lead you astray.

Apparently the intentions I set when I started this blog were still pretty fuzzy, and Trickster has been happy to appoint himself tour guide, tugging at my sleeve saying “This way… No, this way… Or how about that way…”. And, as always, he howls with delight as he watches me stumble in dizzying circles.

Is this blog about the nature of Story or about telling the stories themselves? About spinning a tale or spinning yarn? About weaving words into thoughts or thoughts into words or wool into fabric? About something else entirely? With everything in the Cosmos interconnected and interacting with everything else, what is one to do?

My life tends to be odd scraps of paper & snippets of thought & loose wisps of assorted fibers, just waiting to take part in some mischief or other. Needless to say, I spend a lot of time simply rummaging about, wondering “Where did I put this, that, or the other?” Sometimes, the chaotic juxtapositions lead to discovery: “Oh! Look how interestingly these two disparate fragments can fit together.” Or simply, “I wonder…”

Then every so often, one bit of writing or yarn will simply pop — literally — to the surface of the heap & say, “Look at me!”

That happened today when I came across this beautiful & particularly apt quote from Wendell Berry:

“There are, it seems, two muses:
the Muse of Inspiration, 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 which way to go, we have begun our real journey.

The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.”


And so, I continue to seek Form(s):

On the left, Thalassa’s world is slowly taking shape. In the back, a small mask tries out a relationship with some wool I’d dyed with acorns & walnuts. And the red on the right is a shawl I’d woven long ago with an idea for a Raven design, only to find once again that grand ideas don’t always translate well into physical form. After some struggling with various possibilties, I’d shoved it up on a high closet shelf in disgust & put it out of my mind for years. But this week, when I stretched up to grab else, the shawl fell out softly onto my head, which immediately filled with new possibilities. I wonder….
Too many intriguing thoughts & magical words …. I wonder….

It is easy to get lost.

Fortunately, as William Stafford assures us:

"There's a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn't change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can't get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time's unfolding.
You don't ever let the thread go."
The Thread — accordion book MCK

With love & all the blessings of this almost-Solstice day
from your perpetually baffled friend, Margery

Fire and Trickster Dance On

In the dawn-light, I am weaving a basket to hold the stories.
In the sunlight,
In the twilight,
In the starlight,
In the moonlight,
In the dark,
I am weaving a basket to hold the stories.

With my hands I am weaving.
With my voice I am weaving.
With my heart I am weaving.
- Here, now -
I am weaving a basket to hold all the stories.

                  [MCK]
            

I can imagine the Old Ones sitting around a fire, telling stories. The fire in their hearth must have been a welcome and precious guest in the cold, in the dark. They tended it, fed it, watched it move & breath, carefully tended coals overnight to prevent its dying. They told stories of adventures & dreams. And of course they told stories about Fire itself.

Usually, Fire was sacred. Fire was how the god or gods revealed themselves. It was the medium through which they received sacrifices. It was a means by which they showed their divine anger. Because of its inherent power, Fire was – in the stories of a great many cultures — jealously guarded by a divine being. Most often, it took a Trickster (Prometheus in Greece, Maui in Polynesia, Coyote in the Great Plains of Turtle Island, Raven in the Pacific Northwest, Nanabozho in the Eastern Woodlands on Turtle Island, etc.) to trick the ones who hoarded the fire, to steal it, and to bring it back to the People.

In the southeastern part of what is now called the United States, tribes such as the Cherokee and Choctaw had a variety of stories about the theft of Fire that featured a different kind of thief. There have been many retellings, oral and written. One goes something like this:

In the dark times, in the cold times, the People shivered. They all suffered — the winged ones & the legged ones, those that slithered on their bellies and those that swam in the waters. They suffered so greatly that a great council was called, and all the People came. Someone spoke: “I have heard that the Great One has hidden Fire away in a tree stump on an island to the east. Who will go to steal some Fire for us that we may live?”

Immediately a great clamor arose from the crowd of People who had gathered, many boasting that they were the ones who could succeed. Finally Buzzard’s voice rang out above the others. He spread his wings and said: “I can fly far, I can soar high, I can cross to the island and steal some Fire.” “How will you carry it?” asked a voice from the edge of the crowd. “Oh,” said Buzzard, vainly displaying the great plume of feathers that grew on his head, “I can easily hide it in my beautiful crown of feathers.” And off he flew with a rapid flapping of wings, and he did get to island, and he did take some fire. But as he flew proudly away with a coal nestled in his feathery crown, he began to cry “Ow! Ow!” and he shook the bright ember out of his flaming crown, and it & the ashes of his crowning feathers fell into water and were lost. He returned to the council, hanging his bare burnt head in shame.

Next came the possum proudly waving his bushy tail high in the air. “My fur is stronger than mere feathers,” he bragged. “I will swim to the island and bring back some Fire.” And so he swam quickly, and so he hid a warm coal in his bushy tail, and so he set out to cross back to his People. But the ember was hot, and hotter, and “Ow! Ow!” he cried and plunged his tail into the cool waters. The Fire was gone and so was the fur on his tail. And possum, trying to hide his bare pink tail from sight, slunk back to the Council and shook his head.

There was silence. Now, no one wanted to risk the trip.Then a tiny voice spoke up — so small, so quiet that it could barely be heard. “I will go,” said Grandmother Water Spider. “I will bring back some Fire.”

Everyone began to mutter…”You’re too small… You’re too old… You’re only a woman….”

But, distracted by neither the negative clamor nor the shaking of heads, Grandmother Water Spider quietly spun a basket, placed it on her back, and began taking her dainty strides across the surface of the water. It took her a long time. As she approached the island, she heard a great hullabaloo. Voices cried, “Someone has dared to violate the island. Look, someone has been poking at the Fire; someone has stolen an ember or two!” The guardians of the Fire had noticed the tracks of Buzzard & Possum and were rushing around, brandishing weapons, looking for the intruders. But Grandmother Spider didn’t hesitate to come ashore. She was so tiny that no one even noticed her. Calmly she picked up an ember, calmly she put it in her basket, calmly she clamped the lid tight shut to hide the glow, and calmly she set out for home.

When she arrived, the People were overjoyed to see the ember and immediately kindled a blaze that leapt to the sky. They celebrated loudly with singing and dancing and feasting and drumming. And Grandmother Spider walked quietly away from the hubbub and calmly returned to her work of spinning and weaving.

Ah, Grandmother Spider may not be a Trickster but, like Trickster, she goes her own way. (And as Sharon Blackie has pointed out in another context, an Old Crone does contain a lot of Trickster energy.)

Anyway, as an old woman and as a weaver, I found that this version of the coming of Fire immediately spoke to me and lodged itself in my heart.

In general, I am not a fiery person. Except in the case of ecological, political, and social injustice, I am more likely to smolder than flame. But even so, I am alive – so the fire is there.

About 15 years ago, the carefully banked coals within me flared unexpectedly into a poem:

		FIRE

Having been deemed clumsy and
banned at three from ballet class,
she never danced another step.  
Wallflower, unable even to waltz-- 
until at seventy, 
she took up flamenco.

The first time she stamped her feet and clapped her hands, 
it set the smoke detector howling.
The second, it set off every fire alarm on the street.
The neighbors shook their heads.  The fire chief complained.  
The judge took one look at her arched back, high chin, imperious eyes
and forbade dancing after 5 p.m. on weekdays.

That very day, she found a cabin in the forest
and, gathering up cats and castanets,
flounced out of town.

It still happens, now and then, 
that a passing motorist from elsewhere
calls 911 to report a column of smoke 
at the cottage near the crossroads.
The volunteer firemen are required by law to respond
but they all know what to expect.
Arriving on scene, they nod their heads and radio dispatch:
“It’s OK.  
The usual.  
A controlled burn.”


No, I didn’t learn how to dance the flamenco [alas] but, in letting the words flow through me, I felt my fire grow stronger. The story fed the flames.

And then last year, this weaving. In my fiber work, I tend to use the colors of earth and sea, but suddenly I needed Red. I didn’t know why or where it would go, but as I entered into conversation with colors & textures, I felt the fire flickering through my fingers, and I came alive. The work kindled the flame:

Ember Dreaming Flame – Weaving, spinning, crochet, knitting, stitching; Wool, silk, mixed fibers.

EMBER DREAMING FLAME - detail

EMBER DREAMING FLAME — detail

May the Fire that moves through our voices, our hands, our hearts, and our lives be always in service of Life….

*********

Some day, after we have mastered the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness … the energies of love. Then for the second time in the history of the world, we will have discovered fire.

— Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

Fire and Trickster

This week I wanted to write about Fire. Like Trickster, Fire is a certainly a boundary-crosser and transformer, one that is insatiably hunger. Like Trickster, Fire destroys, creates, and reveals.

Although we don’t know when humans learned to make fire, archaeologists have found that we have used it (perhaps treasuring embers from lightning strikes) for perhaps as much as 1.6 million years. Human involvement with fire has been intertwined with our physical, social, and technological development.

Some scholars believe that the ability to cook food with fire — thereby releasing more usable calories than are available to our bodies through the consumption of raw foods — was an important milestone on our evolutionary path, making possible the development of our larger brains.

Others focus more on the social aspects of our learning to manage fire. They conjecture that, as we sat around the fire that cooked our supper and provided warmth & light to see each others’ faces and scare away predators, we must have developed language, told each other what we’d done & learned that day, given birth to Story. And certainly Story — especially as enacted in ritual and cultural forms — has shaped what it is to be human.

And then technology — pottery, metal, and more — from a simple flame warming a family to engines warming the entire planet and setting it alight.

And, of course, Trickster has been involved all along!

This week Trickster has been especially active throughout my days — creating havoc as only Trickster can — so the post I’d hoped to share with you will have to wait until next Friday. Instead, I offer you a beautiful & thought-provoking musing I encountered in my explorations this week: Fire in the mind: changing understandings of fire in Western civilization by Stephen J. Pyne . https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4874404/

Abstract – For most of human history, fire has been a pervasive presence in human life, and so also in human thought. This essay examines the ways in which fire has functioned intellectually in Western civilization as mythology, as religion, as natural philosophy and as modern science. The great phase change occurred with the development of industrial combustion; fire faded from quotidian life, which also removed it from the world of informing ideas. Beginning with the discovery of oxygen, fire as an organizing concept fragmented into various subdisciplines of natural science and forestry. The Anthropocene, however, may revive the intellectual role of fire as an informing idea or at least a narrative conceit.”

I’d love to hear your thoughts about & your relationship with fire. Please put any you’d like to share in the comment section.

Ehsan Habashi

Notes on Trying to Trap Trickster

Well, this past week Trickster has been laughing and whooping and generally congratulating himself on his wit — and I must admit, I’ve been chuckling & shaking my head, too. In last week’s post, I wanted to let Coyote’s tracks run free at the end of the post as a final comment on Wildness, but the WordPress format kept them in a box. Finally, a dear one hacked the code and, he said, got rid of the box. However, when I checked later on my computer, the confining box was still there. So I sighed, resigned myself to WP’s restriction, and added some comments about boxes & tracks. …. Then, folks began reporting that they hadn’t seen the box I’d mentioned. Well, I thought, it must have been that WordPress knows my computer & makes the box show up on it even when I bypass my personal link with them & reach my posts directly through the internet. So Friday afternoon, I tried viewing the post through my phone (number unknown to WP) — and the darn box was still there hedging in the tracks for me even on a different device! Hmmmm…. Maybe Trickster is trying to make a point, to deliver a personal message to me. Maybe I need to be less resigned to those in power, to get out of my own box & be wilder…?

To make things funnier for me, last week I began rummaging through a box of old papers & notes, dating from ca. 20 years ago. At that point in my life, Trickster had already set up a stubborn presence in my mind and my heart. I was doing a lot of reading about him — tales from around the world, anthropology, psychology. But, although I’d been an anthropology major in college, 35 years had elapsed since graduation and I needed someone to introduce me to newer anthropological sources & concepts, someone to help me focus, someone with whom to share discoveries and bounce around ideas. Dr. Claudia Chang, professor of Anthropology at Sweet Briar College, kindly agreed to take me on as a “non-matriculating, auditing student” for an Independent Study class. [Thank you, Claudia! I was and still am so grateful.] Apparently, the college required a topic/name for our work together and, according to the heading on the proposed bibliography I just unearthed, I chose “Trying to Trap the Trickster.” When I found that piece of paper, I just had to smile . One of the things I have learned (and am still learning) is that “trapping” Trickster is, at best, a mirage. Even back then, I should have recognized that I was the one being trapped!

So, trapped as I am in Trickster’s world, it seemed best to pay attention to his message this week & leap outside of my box and make some tracks of my own!

Over the years, I have thought & written a lot about Words as Tracks, but this week my wildest tracks fled the page and became fiber. The half-woven mask that had been waiting far too long on my loom, told me I must finish her, must let her stop being an idea & become real. Almost as soon as she was off the loom and she & I were beginning the sacred work of shifting her from flat to shaped, of exploring her depths, I knew her name was Thalassa. OK, I thought, I know that Thalassa means “sea” and this creation is woven of ocean colors. It makes sense.

Then I looked more deeply into the name.

I wasn’t able to find much firm information. [How fitting for a sea goddess, the watery essence, the ever-changing!] Wikipedia says “In Greek mythology, Thalassa (/θəˈlæsə/; Greek: Θάλασσα, translit. Thálassa, lit. “sea”) was the primeval spirit of the sea, whose name may be of Pre-Greek origin.” The Greeks gave her a human form and fit her into their pantheon, giving her parents, siblings, offspring — all of which vary from one source to the next, probably changing over time. She seems to have been of lasting interest. In the 5th century CE, a Roman mosaic depicts her wearing crab claws like horns, and holding an oar in one hand and a porpoise in the other — perhaps an intermediary between human and oceanic worlds? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thalassa#/media/File:Hatay_thalassa.jpg

But it is her earliest role as the actual embodiment of the waters, the sea itself — specifically the Mediterranean — that intrigues me. I wish I could know her earliest stories, but these were oral tales & though spoken words certainly leave tracks, they are often difficult to discern, well hidden, faded, lost to us. …. In any case, it is Thalassa’s primeval aspect that calls me & that has turned the making of this mask into an offering of gratitude for a particular gift I received from the Mediterranean Sea 50 years ago.

It has been fun to find that as Thalassa comes into being, long-forgotten yarns & fibers have started pouring out of boxes and drawers, offering themselves as part of the feast of colors & textures, part of the sea of being & becoming. I find myself immersed in a wild process of discovery & learning and am eager to experience what emerges!

Thalassa in process, becoming herself

T.S. Eliot, from “Dry Salvages” in Four Quartets:

I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river 
Is a strong brown god--sullen, untamed and intractable,
Patient to some degree...

  The river is within us, the sea is all about us;
The sea is the land's edge also, the granite
Into which it reaches, the beaches where it tosses
Its hints of earlier and other creation:
The starfish, the horseshoe crab, the whale's backbone;
The pools where it offers to our curiosity
The more delicate algae and the sea anemone.
It tosses up our losses, the torn seine,
The shattered lobsterpot, the broken oar
And the gear of foreign dead men. The sea has many
     voices,
Many gods and many voices.
                          The salt is on the briar rose,
The fog is in the fir trees.  ....

Savage Grace, Trickster Spirit

On Tuesday morning, I began to jot down thoughts for this week’s post. And then………. On Tuesday afternoon, I began to read Savage Grace by Jay Griffiths and was swept clear out of my chair and into the wild & wonderful Wind of Being.

The notes I’d made will have to wait. I must share with you some of Griffiths’ opening pages — words that are alive, a vision that conjures up a sense of Trickster Spirit:

Absolute Truancy. I felt its urgent demand in the blood. I could hear its call. Its whistling disturbed me by day and its howl woke me in the night. I heard the drum of the sun. Every path was a calling cadence, the flight of every bird a beckoning, the colour of ice an invitation: come. The forest was a fiddler, wickedly good, eyes intense and shining with a fast dance. Every leaf in every breeze was a toe, tapping out the same rhythm, and every mountain top lifting out of cloud intrigued my mind, for the wind at the peaks was the flautist, licking his lips, dangerously mesmerizing me with the inaudible melodies which I strained to hear, my ears yearning for the horizon of sound. This was the calling, the vehement, irresistible demand of the feral angel–take flight. All that is wild is winged –life, mind and language– and knows the feel of air in soaring flight. ….

I was looking for the will of the wild. I was looking for how that will expressed itself in elemental vitality, in savage grace. Wildness is resolute for life: it cannot be otherwise for it will die in captivity. It is elemental: pure freedom, pure passion, pure hunger. It is its own manifesto. ….

I was, in fact, homesick for wildness, and when I found it I knew how intimately –how resonantly– I belonged there. We are charged with this. All of us. For the human spirit has a primal allegiance to wildness, to really live, to snatch the fruit and suck it, to spill the juice. We may think we are domesticated, but we are not. …..

Jay Griffiths, Savage Grace (Berkeley CA: Counterpoint, 2015) pp. 1-2.

Although Jay Griffiths is here describing her personal longings, her words definitely conjure up the universal Trickster Spirit. The typical American use of the word “Trickster” — meaning some kind of con-man seeking money and power or a mere prankster — has not only missed the point but has attempted to limit that which by nature is limitless, to reduce Trickster into something comprehensible to our culture’s everyday sensibilities. Of course Trickster, in whatever culture he happens to be residing, will try to cheat others for personal gain & to pull pranks just for the hell of it. But that is only one of his many facets, not his total nature. Above all, Trickster Spirit is wildness, possibility, and creativity — the Life essence –personified.

Jay Griffiths grew up in Britain but her experience (poignantly described further in detail on p.5) is typical of many in the Western consumer-capitalist/Enlightenment cultures.

I know this chloroform world, she writes, where human nature is well-schooled, tamed from childhood on, where the radiators are permanently on mild and the windows are permanently closed…..

Trickster Spirit moves freely in the Larger-Than-Human World and, because (whether we acknowledge it or not) we dwell within & are an integral part of that larger world, Trickster even transgresses the oh-so-well-defended walls of our human cultures, our received ideas, our “chloroform world.” Trickster is Wild.

Lewis Hyde — in his delightful, must-read book Trickster Makes This Worldstates :

In short, trickster is a boundary-crosser. Every group has its edge, its sense of in and out, and trickster is always there, at the gates of the city and the gates of life, making sure there is commerce. He also attends the internal boundaries by which groups articulate their social life. We constantly distinguish — right and wrong, sacred and profane, clean and dirty, male and female, young and old, living and dead — and in every case trickster will cross the line and confuse the distinction. …. Trickster is the mythic embodiment of ambiguity and ambivalence, doubleness and duplicity, contradiction and paradox. …. [T]he best way to describe trickster is to say simply that the boundary is where he will be found — sometimes drawing the line, sometimes crossing it, sometimes erasing or moving it, but always there, the god of the threshold in all its forms.

If you look at the bottom of this post, you will see coyote tracks meandering inside a frame, a box. Apparently, WordPress has decreed that every image must be so contained & I have not yet found a way to undermine this wall. But note that coyote (that old trickster) has left vibrant black marks, while the border, the boundary, the edge, the separating line is a pale ghostly gray. Which feels more real? Which is wilder? Which one enlivens you?

ROOTS

by Lucille Clifton

call it our craziness even,
call it anything.
it is the life thing in us
that will not let us die.
even in death’s hand
we fold the fingers up
and call them greens and
grow on them,
we hum them and make music.
call it our wildness then,
we are lost from the field
of flowers, we become
a field of flowers.
call it our craziness
our wildness
call it our roots,
it is the light in us
it is the light of us
it is the light, call it
whatever you have to,
call it anything.


~~ May Poem of the Month from gratefulness.org : From How to Carry Water: Selected Poems

Learning to Converse

“In the Amazon, people refer to the forest as a speaking world, relating, talking, communicating. People can be inter-intelligent with their lands; the languages being formed from the land, and then people in turn singing up their land. The roots of “intelligent” are inter and legere which means both “read” and “gather”—people could gather plants and words from their lands. To gather, of course, itself means both “to collect” (for example, fruits) and “to understand.” So we gather.”
….
“All languages have long aspired to echo the wild world which gave them growth…. According to phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty, language ‘is the very voice of the trees, the waves, and the forests.'”

—Jay Griffiths, Savage Grace: A Journey in Wildness

From 2014-2016, I participated in the Inner Life of the Child in Nature program at the Center for Education, Imagination, and the Natural World in Greensboro, NC. https://www.beholdnature.org/ As part of our practice, we each focused on deep, sacred listening to the forest and its beings. Listening is perhaps the most fundamentally receptive — one might say, passive — of the senses. How different it is from our restlessly darting staring seaching gaze, from our touching grasping manipulating hands.

I had been listening to the larger-than-human world since early childhood, so I was comfortable with my silence. Still, as I practiced with more clarity and intention, I learned to “listen” more and more closely with my whole self — not only with my ears, but also with my eyes and nose, skin and heart — eager to hear what the natural world would volunteer to say when neither questionsed directly nor bullied into relinquishing its secrets. Simply listening alertly, respectfully, lovingly — as at the feet of a wise elder — seemed appropriate kfor an adult of our all too often arrogant and domineering culture.

Little by little, I began to understand that the beings of the forest were not only speaking to me, but listening to me as well. I knew, of course, that my animal kin — birds, deer, rabbits, coyote, bear — were aware of and responding, often unseen, to my presence. But the trees too were listening to me, waiting. And after a time, I became aware of some deeper, more comprehensive listening taking place. It was the Forest herself, waiting for me to speak.

I had been chatting with trees, frogs, stones and other beings all my life. But it seemed that now something more was being asked of me. I remembered the theologian Nelle Morton’s wonderful phrase “hearing one another into speech.” I felt that I was asked to accept my full role in the conversation. I was being “heard into speech.”

To be a full participant in this Universe, I must bring not only my listening heart but also my unique voice. I must engage in the conversation of the cosmos, neither dominating nor withholding… That is what it means to be a member of what Thomas Berry calls “a communion of subjects.” It is unmediated intimacy: that which I behold also beholds me, that which I come to know also knows me; that which I hear also hears me; that which I encourage to speak also encourages me to speak.

The forest says “Speak.”
What shall I speak?

Rooted in and spun out of mystery,
we all belong to each other.
What shall I speak but gratitude?
What shall I sing but praise?

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“Sound: a body’s way of making itself known.
Silence: a way of knowing.”

— Diana Khoi Nguyen

Conversing with Forest, Becoming Tree — weaving & felting; wool, silk

Our Experiences, Our Stories, and Our Truths

Yesterday I read Ursula LeGuin’s 1986 commencement address at Bryn Mawr. (You can find it and many other interesting essays in her book Dancing at the Edge of the World.) Her address includes an extended discussion of the different ways language can be used — to separate and to exert power-over [which LeGuin calls the “father tongue”] or to connect [her “mother tongue”]. I was struck by an anecdote she related:

“Early this spring I met a musician, the composer Pauline Oliveros, a beautiful woman like a grey rock in a streambed; and a group of us, women, who were beginning to quarrel over theories in abstract, objective language–and I with my splendid Eastern-women’s-college training in the father tongue was in the thick of the fight and going in for the kill– to us, Pauline, who is sparing with words, said after clearing her throat, ‘Offer your experience as your truth.’ There was a short silence. When we started talking again, we didn’t talk objectively, and we didn’t fight. We went back to feeling our way into ideas, using the whole intellect not half of it, talking to one another, which involves listening. Not claiming something: offering something.

“How, after all,” LeGuin asks, “can one experience deny, negate, disprove, another experience? …. People can’t contradict each other, only words can: words separated from experience for use as weapons, words that make the wound, the split between subject and object, exposing and exploiting the object but disguising and defending the subject

“People crave objectivity because to be subjective is to be embodied, to be a body, vulnerable, violable.”

*********

To be able to “offer our experience as our truth” and to be able to hear another person’s experience as their truth… To listen deeply to both — to find compassion for both our experience and the experience of our “adversary”…. How different would our conversations be? How different would our world be?

I was reminded of Marilyn Frye’s description of the way the Arrogant Eye objectifies its world while the Loving Eye is situated firmly in its own living body, a participating aspect of the whole living universe. [See For the Earth, posted 4/22] How do we learn to see ourselves & each other with both eyes?

I was also reminded of how difficult it can be for many of us to trust our own experience/truth rather than that which has been scripted for us by family, teachers, society, culture. And, once we do manage to claim our truth, how difficult it can be to find the words that would let us offer it to others.

Nearly 30 years ago, the amazing poet Mary Oliver was Writer-in-Residence at Sweet Briar College, a women’s college just down the highway a piece from where I was living at the time. I was fortunate & privileged to take a semester-long writing class with her. She was a wise person and an excellent teacher. And it was wonderful for me — then at ca. 50 years — to have talented, vibrant, and remarkable young women as colleagues in this learning experience. One day we were given an assignment for a prose poem about how it would be, after a long time alone in a lifeboat, to approach an island.

When we read our poems aloud in the next class, I was struck by the discovery that although the responses were as diverse as the writers, they all had one point in common. So, instead of revising my poem for the next class, I went home and wrote about that.

TRUE STORY

On Tuesday our teacher said, Write a poem. Make it like this: Your ship has sunk; you have been long in the lifeboat alone; you see an island. And we women went home, our heads filled with islands.

Mine was stern– a cliff without path, a face closed against me. I could not be sure that death on the surface might not be simpler than a frozen flailing towards shore or final rejection by the rock. When I showed the lines to my husband, he said, Why don’t you paddle around the island? Check it out? I can’t, I replied, I have no oars. Paddle with your hands, he urged. I can’t; the wind is pushing me past.

On Thursday we went over our writings, told how we had seen, with exquisite clarity, our various ways through the storm and into a calm of words. Our islands rose fiercely or gently; we sighed with anguish or relief; we moved forward into disaster or salvation– but always oarless.

Had we been men, we’d have written different poems–equipped ourselves with oars of oak; rigged Gortex anoraks into sails, taken from the emergency kit our freeze-dried chocolate ice cream. Sisters, shall we write again? Shall we supply ourselves with strong alloy paddles and waterproof battery-operated radio locators?

Dare me to speak more truthfully. Dare me to tell how I rose from the raft and, with many falls and bruises, learned to dance daily on the slick shifting waves. Dare me to tell how I bared by breasts to the moon, sprouted a silver tail, and slipped deep into this lucent world.

MCK

…………………………

P.S. Comments & responses to these Friday posts are welcome!

Wandering

I have had trouble getting started on this week’s post. Having recently extolled the virtue of Story as Healer, it seemed only right that I present a balanced view — warning about the Dangers of Story. [Though all of you who read the current headlines about conspiracy theories, Big Lies, etc. have probably already figured out how much damage can be done by manipulating story.]

But then — to be logical — maybe I should first talk about the source of Story’s power….. Why does Story make a difference in the world? And how? And I suddenly realized that I was trying to turn what had started out as an exuberant posting of random thoughts into some sort of coherent Pedagogical Treatise. I could hear my old inner “Recovering-Academic” butting in with his loud authoritative voice: “And just to be safe, remember to include narrow definitions, and counter-arguments, and documentation, and explanatory footnotes, and….”

Hmm…. That’s just the kind of default thought process whose tentacles I am, in the midst of my 8th decade, trying to escape, to outgrow. I can hear Trickster standing behind me, snickering, “Some folks never learn!” And I find myself turning and shouting back in my ugliest playground voice, “Look who’s talking! Takes one to know one!” ….And after that, what’s left to do, but laugh at myself!

Neitzsche reminds us:

"You must have chaos within you 
 to give birth to a dancing star." 

To be honest, I have never found chaos to be out of reach. Maybe that’s why Trickster likes to hang out with me.

My computer is in even greater disarray than my hopelessly heaped desk and overflowing book shelves. I’m still trying intermittently to figure out “files” and “folds” and create some sort of order. Several months ago, my screen began to cover itself with little thumbnails images of random documents, new ones popping up occasionally like mushrooms in the damp autumn woods. This morning I happened to notice one of the stray toadstools peering out from behind a screenful of world news. “Coyote Howls” it announced in miniature print. Coyote, of course, shows up in many of my titles but this one seemed unfamiliar so I double-clicked.

It turned out to be a “free-writing exercise” from a workshop I’d taken 7 or so years ago while we still lived in the woods. In “free-writing,” one is given a prompt [this one must have been “Coyote Howled”] and told to write for a designated amount of time [I don’t remember how long the facilitator gave us] without stopping our pencil or pausing to plan. Just let words flow…. It’s always fun to see what emerges.

So, Hooray! Back to exuberance! ….at least for this moment….

THE COYOTE HOWLS

Coyotes howled on the ridge again last night — Their songs lifting and flaming out in colors that my language cannot name.  How do I express my own coyote joy in this world?

Coyote dances just out of reach, just beyond the edge of my vision.  I try to follow his steps and stumble.  

Somewhere beyond the horizon I hear him laughing.  

“It took me a thousand thousand years to discern my dance,” he howls.  “First you must dance your own dance.  Then we can dance together.”

My dance is made of words dropped like stones in a river — sometimes too slippery for firm footing.  If I fear falling, I will stay out of the cool waters, play on the safe sandy shore.

Sometimes just one rock can change the river’s course or change the note of its song.

“This is how I play,” says Coyote tossing a stick to catch it again, then dropping it to sniff some scat.  “How do you play?” he asks.

As a child I did not hesitate to engage with river and rocks, did not fear that the pebbles I piled up in the waters might wash away or ruin the river.  Tadpoles came to nibble my fingers and a crawdad scuttled away across the silty creek bottom.  My wrists and ankles cooled on hot August afternoons.  My fingers and tee shirt were splashed and striped and smeared with holy mud.

The blessing of water.  In Loveland CO, my friend Pam is not allowed to put out a rain-barrel to catch bounty for her garden.  The rain belongs to the river and the river belongs to the men with papers to prove their ownership of water monitored, divided, sold to the highest bidder.

“Owning” water — oxymoron.  Surely it is not the humans…!

And who owns the stories?  Who owns the words?

What water police patrol my desk to keep me from writing?

I will put out a rain barrel and listen as it fills with mercy and kindness like gentle rain.  I will hear the plunk of downpour and watch the great crackling electricity riding the clouds.

I will cup my fevered hands and reach in to take a drink, feeling the water splash down my chin, fill my mouth, cool my scratchy throat, join the pulse of my blood.

I will invite the neighbors.  I will carry a jug of water to the old old woman who sits among her bundles in the empty doorway.

I shall learn to share my words as joyfully as Coyote shares his song.

Then I’ll go dancing.

P.S. I’m posting every Friday. I hope you are finding something to enjoy in the posts and lots to keep you curious & full of wonder at the amazing world of which we are a part.

For the Earth

THOUGHTS FOR EARTH DAY 2021

Today I am remembering a story that is widespread among the various tribe of North America’s plains and deserts. The details vary slightly from tribe to tribe and from telling to telling, but the story itself is remarkably consistent over a huge area. So, as many indigenous storytellers would say, “I don’t know if this is exactly how it happened, but I can promised it is true.”

My telling here is adapted from the Cheyenne story as recorded in Barry Lopez’s book, Giving Birth to Thunder, Sleeping with His Daughter: Coyote Builds North America (NY: Avon Books, 1977).

When I was in high school, I was privileged to spend a summer on the Northern Cheyenne reservation in Montana. It was a time whose reverberations are still active in my life, so perhaps I’ll write more about it later. Although I did not learn this story while I was there, it is still within that particular landscape that I envision its events. Please picture it with me — some low pine-clad hills rising behind the village, but mostly flat plains stretched widely out to the horizon. It is summer. Hot, dry. Clear blue sky, relentless sun. Few trees , rare patches of shade. There is a strong scent of sagebrush, with the underlying smell of ancient windblown dust. A hawk circling overhead has an unobstructed view for miles and miles and miles.

*****************

So. Coyote was walking along and as he went, he saw someone doing the strangest thing. That person said “Eyes, go out!” & his eyes flew right out of his head and hung from the tallest tree. Then, after he had looked all around and seen everything, that person called “Eyes, come back!” & his eyes flew right back into his head.

“Oh,” said Coyote to himself. “I want to do that!” Coyote sidled up to that person and asked sweetly. “Mister, you are so smart. Please teach me how to do that thing with my eyes.” And that person shrugged and said, “It’s not hard. Just speak in a firm tone and say ‘Eyes, go out!’ When you have seen all that you need to see, call ‘Eyes, come back!’

“Yes, yes,” interrupted Coyote, bouncing up and down with excitement. “I can do that.”

“But,” said that person in a stern voice, “there is one thing you must remember. Never ever do it more than 4 times in one day.”

“Yes, yes,” muttered Coyote impatiently. “Never more than four.” And the strange person left and went on his way.

“Now,” said Coyote, with a big grin. “Eyes, go out!” & sure enough, his eyes flew right out of his head and hung from a branch way up in the tallest tree. Coyote could see everything! He looked and looked, but after awhile he got a little worried and he called “Eyes, come back!” Sure enough, his eyes flew right back into his head!

“Well, that was easy,” said Coyote. “Nothing to it!” And again he called, “Eyes, go out!” And up they went to the highest branch of the tree. He looked and looked. When he saw a rabbit nibbling on a clump of grass—way off in the distance—Coyote began to feel hungry. He called, “Eyes, come back!’ & back they flew & off Coyote ran to get his breakfast. After he had eaten, Coyote thought to himself, “I’m thirsty. But I’m afraid Old Man Mountain Lion might be resting by the creek.” He thought a bit and a 3rd time he called “Eyes, go out!” He looked and looked. There was nobody by the creek, so he called “Eyes, come back!” & ran off to drink the cool clear water.

It was so easy. Coyote was full without having spent the whole morning searching for food and water. He sat down. After awhile, he felt bored. Coyote began to wonder what Fox and his wife were up to. A 4th time he called “Eyes, go out!” Coyote looked and looked. He grinned, he chuckled, he began to laugh. “Ha!” Coyote said to himself. “I’ll have to tease Fox about that next time we meet.” Then “Eyes, come back!” & back they came.

Coyote sat. And he sat. He scratched his ear. He stretched. He was bored. It was too early for lunch but, all the same, he began to wonder whether the fat prairie dogs had come out of their burrows to enjoy the morning sun. “Eyes, go out!” Coyote called. Up they flew and hung from the tree. Coyote looked and looked. Sure enough, he could see a town of unsuspecting prairie dogs way off to the east. “Eyes, come back!” Coyote called.

Nothing happened. “Eyes, come back!” But those eyes just stayed up in the highest branch of the tree. Coyote demanded, Coyote pleaded, Coyote made promises. Still, his eyes just hung up there in that tree. The sun beat down and shriveled those eyes. The flies gathered and walked all over them. And Coyote couldn’t see a thing.

At last, Coyote lay down and dozed a bit. Suddenly he woke to a tickle, tickle, tickle on his cheek. It was Mouse, who had come to cut some hair from that dead Coyote to line his nest. Quick as could be, Coyote opened his jaws and caught Mouse’s tail between his teeth. “Help! Help!” Mouse cried. “Please let me go. I saw that you had lost your eyes & I thought you were dead. I’m sorry.” But Coyote kept his teeth clamped tight together.

“Can you see my eyes up in the tree?” he asked Mouse.
“Yes,” said Mouse. “They are all blackened and shriveled from the sun. Would you like me to climb up and bring them down to you?”

Coyote thought. If they were blackened and shriveled, would his eyes be any good? And if he let go of Mouse, would Mouse just run away? “No,” Coyote answered. “I want you to give me one of your eyes.”

Mouse thought. He thought of his wife and children waiting at home. He thought about Coyote’s sharp teeth. Mouse took out one of his bright, beady little eyes and placed it in Coyote’s left eye socket. Coyote could see! Not much. Just a little. But it was better than being blind. Coyote opened his mouth in a big sigh of relief — and Mouse darted away.

Coyote got up and went along. But that eye was so tiny, he had to keep tilting his head so it didn’t fall out. Buffalo saw Coyote staggering past and called, “Coyote, what’s wrong?”

Coyote answered, “I’ve lost my eyes and this Mouse eye is too small. Please give me one of yours.”

And Buffalo, whose heart is great, took out one of his eyes and placed it in Coyote’s right eye socket. But that Buffalo eye was so big and heavy. It pulled Coyote’s head down—and then the Mouse eye began to roll out and Coyote had to tilt his nose back up to keep it in. And so… off Coyote lurched along wearily, off into the world.

*************

Well, it may not be, for us, a very satisfying story.
It doesn’t have the neat “happily-ever-after” resolution that Disney and the advertising empires have taught us to expect. It sounds a bit too much like …. Life.

And there’s something else that troubles me about that story. A nagging itch, like a flea behind a coyote’s ear…. What is it? … I think it’s a sense of recognition — self-recognition — as if I were looking into a clear mirror and beholding myself and my Western Enlightenment culture.

“Eyes, go out!” I think first of the unmanned drones the U.S. seems to send so casually into the Middle East — peering into neighborhoods to see whether they will choose to rain down death. “Eyes, go out!” Spy satellites, radar, surveillance cameras, subsurface seismic prospecting to find needed ground water or locate yet more new oil fields. You can name more. For good or for ill. I admit to being very fond of the Hubble Space Telescope that has allowed us to look back almost to the beginnings of the universe.

And then, at the other end of the spectrum, electron microscopes, robotized photo-equipped miniature probes, the tracking of subatomic particles — laying bare the workings of things too small to imagine. No doubt there are positive results (I have personally benefited from the many ways of looking into the unopened or minimally opened human body) but these “eyes” have also allowed us — with great Coyote-like enthusiasm and impatience — to create and distribute new chemicals & to manipulate genes and nano-particles before we’ve even begun to consider the possible consequences.

“Eyes, go out!”

The feminist philosopher Marilyn Frye talks about the Arrogant Eye — the disembodied eye of the intellect that has forgotten its context and interconnections. The Arrogant Eye considers only itself to be real, to be worthy of respect. Everything else exists for its benefit. It believes the observer is completely separate from the observed.

In Western culture, the Arrogant Eye has become dominant. What can we find that will satisfy our needs, increase our bank accounts, give us the illusion of control? “Eyes, go out!”

Largely as a result of human actions, Earth is now in the midst of major climate disruption and mass extinction. Both human and other-than-human lives are threatened by our choices, but the Arrogant Eye — whether out in space, in a laboratory, or up in a tree — has forgotten that the eye is itself a part of the body.

Fortunately, we can change our visions, our actions, our hearts.

The antidote to the Arrogant Eye is the Loving Eye, the eye situated within — not apart from — the world it sees. The Loving Eye knows that Earth’s others have needs and purposes of their own, inextricably enmeshed with but distinct from ours and as worthy of respect. (For further details, ask the deer who has been eating your prized flowers. Ask the silt piling up behind the dam or the violet blooming out of a crack in the sidewalk. Ask a volcano.)

Let’s remember the second part of the instructions: “Eyes, come back!” Let our eyes remember and feel at home in our bodies, aware of all the intertwined bodies and forces of Earth. Taste, see, smell, touch, listen…. Only then, firmly in our bodies, will we retain and nourish the Loving Eye needed if we are to use our seeings — far and near — wisely, compassionately.

What would it be like if we could approach our Earth-kin in a multi-sensory and respectful way? What would it be like if we realized the limits of the Arrogant Eye and came back —literally— to our bodies, to our senses?

“Love is the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real. Love…is the discovery of reality.”
— Iris Murdoch

(Photo by Eden Reforestation Projects) https://gratefulness.org/

“Gratitude is most powerful as a response to the Earth because it provides an opening to reciprocity, to the act of giving back, to living in a way that the Earth will be grateful for us.”
  —  Robin Wall Kimmerer

Healing: Transforming through Story

“Stories contain the hidden secrets of transformation, the alchemist’s formulas for turning lead into gold.”

~~ Dr. Lewis Mehl-Madrona, MD., PhD., Coyote Wisdom, 2005

The stories we tell about ourselves are powerful. Story is the domain of Trickster — a place of shape-shifting, transformation, wildness, change. Sometimes a story can be — or, as circumstances change, can become — a cage or a windowless room or a festering wound. Nonetheless, we often lug these old stories around with us and defend them against any perceived threats, believing them to be fundamental to our identity and the world as we know it. And, indeed, that fear is justified. What if we encounter — as I did with Raven Brings the Sun — a new exuberant story to replace an old one of fear and hiding? We may find the new story creating windows, opening doors, changing the shapes of our dwelling-places and of our understandings of self and others. Or what if we ourselves re-tell our old story in a new way that opens our heart, deepens and widens our sense of self and of others, and brings us healing and empowerment?

Many years ago, I sat down to write about an old betrayal that was still baffling me at times, shards of its desiccated residue still needling occasionally beneath my skin. I had no preconceived idea where the words would take me. I was just along for the ride. And a wild ride it was! When I finished & reread the story, I felt a sudden sense of strength and closure. I had freed myself, acknowledged my strength. I was healed, made whole once again:

STORY FOR A STORMY NIGHT

Once upon a time--long ago and far away--
I was the princess glad and golden; you,
the prince.  It had to be so; I knew
how these things were supposed to go.

And off we danced into velvet nights
and secret bowers where you were
the prince who kissed me asleep:
Through dimming eyes, I saw your feet grow
webbed, your mouth widen, your back
hump down under slick green skin.
And off you hopped to other wells, spilling
from your waistcoat pocket, broken
promises, broken heart--seeds
cracking open in the dark.

Out and up sprang vines and briars--
catching twisting--thick and deep. Quickly
I buttoned my skin tight over the tangle
and no one knew.  And all the blossoms 
were hidden.  And all the blossoms were
the color of blood.

But fierce things thrive in wilderness--
weasel, wolf, and wolverine--and I,
year by year in my spiked cocoon,
slept more wildly, dreamed more wise.
I woke myself when it was time.

Then, what else could I do with a lifetime of
ivy, creeper, and kudzu,
honeysuckle and bramblerose?
I have pulled it, peeled it,
soaked it, chewed it, made it 
pliable enough to plait.  I have woven
baskets for bread, baskets for brides,
wicker cradles, caskets, coffers.  I have
hawked my wares from door to door.  I have grown
singular and shrill.

Now I weave one last basket,
round and tight as any coracle flung
by crazed Celtic monks into Atlantic brine.
I climb into my craft and fly,
like Baba Yaga, along the seams of nightmares.
I ride the currents of your lies, the windsheer
just beyond the edges of your eyes.  I have
woven well; I fly high enough.

Don't be afraid, old frog, when my cape
feathers out into wings and I plunge--
hook-beaked and taloned--down and down.
It is not your soft body I want:  I will 
rip flesh off one old corpse, I will lay
bare the bones of the matter.  These are 
my bones.  I claim them:  picked clean,
they shine.
                             ~~MCK

Georgia O’Keeffe
Georgia O’Keeffe, Pelvis with Moon