Thanks-Giving

In the United States, we celebrated Thanksgiving yesterday (the 4th Thursday of November). I hope each of you, wherever you are, had a good day with much to be thankful for.

Thanksgiving, among other things, celebrates the day in 1621 when about 90 people — native Wampanoags & the Puritan settlers, who had recently arrived from England & needed the help of the local people — gathered together to share food & celebrate the harvest. Since childhood, I have been buoyed up by the image of two very different peoples coming together in a spirit of friendship and sharing. Later, of course, I learned that such a spirit was quickly dissolved as the settlers attacked the indigenous people and stole their land. Still, I like to focus on the image of that moment sharing across divisions.

I am reminded, too, of the Hindu woman in India who received a relief package of rice during hard times. She meticulously counted out the kernels and gave half to her Muslim neighbor. Such caring & sharing is something beautiful that holds the world together. I am thankful for the possibility of this way of being.

Today (Friday) is Native American Heritage Day. This is a time for the indigenous people of Turtle Island to celebrate their traditions, including the ways they have learned to care for the land that sustains them. It is a time for those Americans whose ancestors came from other lands to give thanks for the wisdom that Native Americans have developed over millennia as they have lived with & cared for this land. And it is a time to give thanks for their willingness to share that wisdom now as we all confront the damage that the dominant “settler” mindset has created during the last 5 centuries and that we must now confront together.

This wisdom is embodied in the Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address, which is proclaimed at the beginning of every solemn gathering. After each short section of the address is recited, all the people present affirm their unity and their gratitude by saying “Now our minds are one.

May we all now affirm our praise and gratitude to the Earth community!

I’ve printed the Haudenosaunee Address below.

You can also find a lovely illustrated & more meditative copy of the Address at https://danceforallpeople.com/haudenosaunee-thanksgiving-address/haudenosaunee-thanksgiving-address-1/

And at https://grateful.org/resource/thanksgiving-address-haudenosaunee/ You can see a video of native people explaining what the Address means to them. On that page, also, Robin Wall Kimmerer is quoted:

“You can’t listen to the Thanksgiving Address without feeling wealthy. And, while expressing gratitude seems innocent enough, it is a revolutionary idea. In a consumer society, contentment is a radical proposition. Recognizing abundance rather than scarcity undermines an economy that thrives by creating unmet desires…The Thanksgiving Address reminds you that you already have everything you need… That’s good medicine for land and people alike.”

— Robin Wall Kimmerer, from braiding Sweetgrass

*******

Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address:
Greetings to the Natural World

The People
Today we have gathered and we see that the cycles of life continue. We have been given the duty to live in balance and harmony with each other and all living things. So now, we bring our minds together as one as we give greetings and thanks to each other as people.

Now our minds are one.

The Earth Mother
We are all thankful to our Mother, the Earth, for she gives us all that we need for life. She supports our feet as we walk about upon her. It gives us joy that she continues to care for us as she has from the beginning of time. To our mother, we send greetings and thanks.

Now our minds are one.

The Waters
We give thanks to all the waters of the world for quenching our thirst and providing us with strength. Water is life. We know its power in many forms- waterfalls and rain, mists and
streams, rivers and oceans. With one mind, we send greetings and thanks to the spirit of Water.

Now our minds are one.

The Fish
We turn our minds to the all the Fish life in the water. They were instructed to cleanse and purify the water. They also give themselves to us as food. We are grateful that we can still find pure water. So, we turn now to the Fish and send our greetings and thanks.

Now our minds are one.

The Plants
Now we turn toward the vast fields of Plant life. As far as the eye can see, the Plants grow, working many wonders. They sustain many life forms. With our minds gathered together, we give thanks and look forward to seeing Plant life for many generations to come.

Now our minds are one.

The Food Plants
With one mind, we turn to honor and thank all the Food Plants we harvest from the garden.  Since the beginning of time, the grains, vegetables, beans and berries have helped the people survive. Many other living things draw strength from them too. We gather all the Plant Foods together as one and send them a greeting of thanks.

Now our minds are one.

The Medicine Herbs
Now we turn to all the Medicine herbs of the world. From the beginning they were instructed to take away sickness. They are always waiting and ready to heal us. We are happy there are still among us those special few who remember how to use these plants for healing. With one mind, we send greetings and thanks to the Medicines and to the keepers of the Medicines.

Now our minds are one.

The Animals
We gather our minds together to send greetings and thanks to all the Animal life in the world. They have many things to teach us as people. We are honored by them when they give up their lives so we may use their bodies as food for our people. We see them near our homes and in the deep forests. We are glad they are still here and we hope that it will always be so.

Now our minds are one.

The Trees
We now turn our thoughts to the Trees. The Earth has many families of Trees who have their own instructions and uses. Some provide us with shelter and shade, others with fruit, beauty and other useful things. Many people of the world use a Tree as a symbol of peace and strength. With one mind, we greet and thank the Tree life.

Now our minds are one.

The Birds
We put our minds together as one and thank all the Birds who move and fly about over our heads. The Creator gave them beautiful songs. Each day they remind us to enjoy and
appreciate life. The Eagle was chosen to be their leader. To all the Birds-from the smallest to the largest-we send our joyful greetings and thanks.

Now our minds are one.

The Four Winds
We are all thankful to the powers we know as the Four Winds. We hear their voices in the moving air as they refresh us and purify the air we breathe. They help us to bring the change of seasons. From the four directions they come, bringing us messages and giving us strength.
With one mind, we send our greetings and thanks to the Four Winds.

Now our minds are one.

The Thunderers
Now we turn to the west where our grandfathers, the Thunder Beings, live. With lightning and thundering voices, they bring with them the water that renews life. We are thankful that they keep those evil things made by Okwiseres underground. We bring our minds together as one
to send greetings and thanks to our Grandfathers, the Thunderers. 

Now our minds are one.

The Sun
We now send greetings and thanks to our eldest Brother, the Sun. Each day without fail he travels the sky from east to west, bringing the light of a new day. He is the source of all the fires of life. With one mind, we send greetings and thanks to our Brother, the Sun.

Now our minds are one.

Grandmother Moon
We put our minds together to give thanks to our oldest Grandmother, the Moon, who lights the night-time sky. She is the leader of woman all over the world, and she governs the movement of the ocean tides. By her changing face we measure time, and it is the Moon who watches over the arrival of children here on Earth. With one mind, we send greetings and thanks to our Grandmother, the Moon.

Now our minds are one.

The Stars
We give thanks to the Stars who are spread across the sky like jewelry. We see them in the night, helping the Moon to light the darkness and bringing dew to the gardens and growing things. When we travel at night, they guide us home. With our minds gathered together as one, we send greetings and thanks to the Stars.

Now our minds are one.

The Enlightened Teachers
We gather our minds to greet and thank the enlightened Teachers who have come to help throughout the ages. When we forget how to live in harmony, they remind us of the way we were instructed to live as people. With one mind, we send greetings and thanks to these caring teachers.

Now our minds are one.

The Creator
Now we turn our thoughts to the Creator, or Great Spirit, and send greetings and thanks for all the gifts of Creation. Everything we need to live a good life is here on this Mother Earth. For all the love that is still around us, we gather our minds together as one and send our choicest words of greetings and thanks to the Creator.

Now our minds are one.

Closing Words
We have now arrived at the place where we end our words. Of all the things we have named, it was not our intention to leave anything out. If something was forgotten, we leave it to each individual to send such greetings and thanks in their own way.

Now our minds are one.
This translation of the Mohawk version of the Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address was
developed, published in 1993, and provided, courtesy of: 
Six Nations Indian Museum and the
Tracking Project All rights reserved.

Thanksgiving Address: Greetings to the Natural World 
English version: John Stokes and Kanawahienton (David Benedict, Turtle Clan/Mohawk) 
Mohawk version: Rokwaho (DanThompson, Wolf Clan/Mohawk) 
Original inspiration: Tekaronianekon (Jake Swamp, WolfClan/Mohawk) 
https://americanindian.si.edu/environment/pdf/01_02_Thanksgiving_Address.pdf 

********

Giving thanks today to the woodland community that has sheltered so many:

Thanksgiving Day walk in the Guilford College Woods near our house — once an important part of the Underground Railroad

Committing, Working, Learning — Coming Alive & Giving Thanks

I’m sure many of you have encountered the creative-confidence prompt that asks you to confront all the negative voices in your past. Yesterday I heard someone asking about all the kind voices that we have heard. I am fortunate that there have been many of those throughout my life — though, at the time, I lacked the secure sense of self needed to take them seriously, often experiencing them as pressure (which may have been true of some, but not all). However, when I heard the question about kind voices yesterday, the first thing that popped into my mind was all of you. Thank you so much for your encouragement and, most of all, your companionship on the way.

*******

Lat week, when I made a commitment to the current mask, it didn’t mean I’d adopted a plan or a map. After all, the way changes as we walk. Neither was it an act of determination and will-power — a promise to plunge ahead no matter what. It was something much lighter — simply an agreement to spend time in deep conversation with the materials that are showing me how to create the mask & with the spirit that is seeking to emerge. And since conversation is a co-operative process (not “all on me”), it was enjoyable — not a duty but a privilege. Learning, and learning again!

As so often, I tended to over-complicate things & my conversation partners chuckles as they reminded me of the rule of KISS (keep it simple, sweetie).

For example, after all my fussing, fretting, and late-night spinning to make a warp that could turn into glorious hair for the mask, she told me, “No hair.” This is not the first time I’ve confronted a mask’s resistance to some Great Idea of mine — and all I can do is laugh!

Because I used a wool/silk mixture for several layers of the felted context, it turned out thinner than I’d expected, which — combined with its irregular shape — will make hanging it a challenge. I’ve got some ideas & am curious to see how it goes.

I haven’t yet sewn the mask onto (into?) its context. There are still details to work out. But here’s the way she looks at the moment, perched on the felt in what may or may not be her final place. It’s all an adventure! Working with her has made me come alive. I am grateful to her.

“Don’t ask what the world needs. 
Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. 
Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

― Howard Thurman 

The yellow-crowned night-heron continues to make visits to the pond. Five deer in our yard this morning. Finches, cardinals, and what I think is a hairy woodpecker (maybe a downy?) at the feeder today…. These creatures are definitely alive! And to witness them wakes me up. Their lively presence is a gift of enlivenment for me too. Every day I give thanks for their being.

"If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life 
is thank you, 
it is enough.

                                          -- Meister Eckhardt

Trickster’s Tracks

Looking back over the last week or so — no matter what the topic or level of experience & meaning — I see Trickster’s tracks weaving in and out and over my own tracks, sometimes almost obliterating them. I feel flummoxed and frustrated and have wanted to raise a fist & shout “Enough Already!” …..But, of course, it isn’t enough; otherwise he’d skip away to other business. Trickster is summoned into existence by many things — inattention, indecision, distraction, lack of perception & imbalance, and hyper-seriousness, to name just a few. They all seem to describe the sort of funk I’ve been in. Trickster is my eternal teacher, usually advising me to praise paradox more loudly & to dance through this journey more lightly, more joyfully.

*********

– – – – – – And, since writing those words yesterday, since naming Trickster’s message, I’ve found myself turning a corner, choosing a path, no longer stuck in indecision and useless lamentation at the crossroads. I continue to be amazed by the power of words. Preoccupation with words — or with a lack of them — may occasionally cause me to stumble into some deep crevasse … but words can also provide the handholds & footholds I need to climb back out and continue the journey!

Of course, many feelings and experiences are way beyond words & need to be protected from attempts to nail them down & cage them with language. Trickster himself is one of those beings/experiences. This is why poetry, metaphor, story are the linguistic vehicles we use when trying to share the deepest truths. And there are non-linguistic ways as well — image, music, dance….

I love nonverbal communication. Still, words are strong — and, like Story, potentially dangerous. Many indigenous cultures (including the Navajo and the ancient Hebrews) have taken language seriously, recognizing that spoken words create or shift reality. For me, writing, saying, or just thinking a word, metaphor, or story can sometimes be a prayer, both a source of clarification & a kind of commitment. Such commitment is essential before undertaking true work. (My teacher Luisah Teisch teaches that Trickster sits at the Crossroads and, if you lack clear intention & commitment, he is more than happy to lead you astray.)

William Hutchinson Murray (1913-1996), Scottish mountaineer & writer, reminds us:

“Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.”

And so I am, once more, beginning — remembering the words of St. Benedict:

“Always we begin again.”

I have finally begun to put into words for myself a paradox that, especially in light of political struggles here in the U.S. & around the world, has been drifting in a cloud around me like a swarm of gnats, bothering me incessantly. Somewhere earlier on this blog I said (no doubt, many times) that the power of Story is stronger than we’ve imagined and can be harnessed for healing or for harm. But when I read definitions of Story, I hear little that distinguishes these 2 possibilities from each other, little to explain the difference and how to identify & avoid or overcome the latter. Why/how is one story “better” or more “true” than another? After wallowing unhappily in my puzzlement for far too long, I feel like someone who’s been drowning in shallow water and suddenly — simply — puts her feet down on the bottom and rises up above the waves. [This reminds me of the saying — highlighting the stunted growth of trees in the cold of Iceland — that advises: “If you are lost in a forest in Iceland, stand up!”]

Well, more on those thoughts as they develop….

I’ve also been dithering for weeks about the colors for my next weaving. As I’ve pulled out more & more possible (or impossible) fibers and yarns from my stash, my studio came to resemble the messy, unstructured, hodge-podge nest of a mourning dove — though the mourning dove is definitely more minimalist than I am in the collection of building materials. (I once read about a mourning dove who constructed her nest of just five poorly arranged twigs.)

Two days ago, I came across words written by Maeve Brenan to her friend Tillie Olsen:

“You are all your work has. It has nobody else and never had anybody else. If you deny it hands and a voice, it will continue as it is, alive, but speechless and without hands. You know it has eyes and can see you, and you know how hopefully it watches you.”

Hooray for synchronicity & serendipity! This was just the reminder, the wake-up call, I needed. “... and you know how hopefully it watches you.” How much longer will the work be patient? There have been times when, faced with my endless wavering, it finally gave up on me and went off to look for someone else.

So — I finally pulled out some fluffy gray wool & slick hand-dyed mohair and began to spin yarn for the mask’s warp (which will become the hair). Yesterday I plied the two uneven yarns together loosely & washed the skein to set the twist. …… Ha! The power of commitment took hold! When I couldn’t sleep last night, I got up & found the yarn to be dry. I cut the lengths and warped the loom — and returned to bed for a few hours of satisfied & restful sleep. First thing this morning, I began playing with a variety of wefts on the edge of the warp, anxious to see some of the possibilities emerge before unraveling them all & beginning to weave the form in earnest. (Warp colors are not bright pastel than shown — more subdued & subtle.)

Throw Yourself Like Seed ~~ by Miguel de Unamuno

“Shake off this sadness, and recover your spirit;
sluggish you will never see the wheel of fate
that brushes your heel as it turns going by,
the man who wants to live is the man in whom life is abundant.

Now you are only giving food to that final pain
which is slowly winding you in the nets of death,
but to live is to work, and the only thing which lasts
is the work; start then, turn to the work.

Throw yourself like seed as you walk, and into your own field,
don’t turn your face for that would be to turn it to death,
and do not let the past weigh down your motion.

Leave what’s alive in the furrow, what’s dead in yourself,
for life does not move in the same way as a group of clouds;
from your work you will be able one day to gather yourself.” 

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

In the meantime, the other-than-human world continues to offer its multiplicity of gifts. A Yellow-crowned Night-Heron has visited the neighboring pond (drained during a construction project but now refilling) a number of times this week — Such a magical creature!

And Old Oak continues to shed leaves & let go of overt growth so that she can find a deeper life in the darkness of winter — a time when, though the part of her I see above ground will appear dead & dormant, deep underground her roots will continue to grow & to gather water and nutrients — storing them to propel her sudden burst of life in the spring.

I love how her bones are beginning to show: the form, the strength, the scaffolding on which her life and the lives of many other beings depend.

Of what am I currently letting go? 
What is the shape of my own scaffolding? 
And what, I wonder, will my roots be doing this winter?

In the meantime, I’ll leave us all to ponder the advice of Osho:

"Don't move the way fear makes you move.
Move the way love makes you move.
Move the way joy makes you move."

Thinking about the Thin Places

This week — in order to postpone some color decisions I have to make for my next project — I’ve been experimenting with making felt vessels. Many mistakes, much learning — and much more to learn!

Mostly, though I’ve been immersed in this magical time of year when the land where I live transitions into a different way of being. There are, in many European traditions, times and places where the veils — between this world & other worlds; between the living & the dead; between past, present, and future — become thin, porous, or dissolve entirely, allowing us to step through from one world to another. This time of the year is a tipping point from the halcyon early autumn days into the first biting intimations of ice and frost, from sunlit world to the growing dark. It seems natural that many holidays mark this thinning of boundaries just as October slips into November: the Celtic season of Samhain, with its remnants lingering in American Halloween (although the name of the holiday here is a bow towards the Christian church: All Hallows Eve); Slavic Dziady; Scandinavian Álfablót (Elven sacrifice); Christian All Souls Day; the Mexican Day of the Dead….

So I have been thinking a lot this past week about “thin places” and have realized how, when we truly pay attention in this world, we can — at any time — thin the veils, boundaries, walls that our western industrialized culture has placed between human and other-than-human lives. Our perspective can shift, we can learn from from the Other, we can expand our constricted views & relax into our place in the Cosmos: we can step into another way of being/seeing.

Journal Entry — May 5, 2004, Trinity Center, Salter Path, NC:

I know something of the spider webs in the Appalachian woods and buildings I call home: dew-whitened handkerchiefs spread out across morning fields, strong cables strung across forest paths at precisely face height, glorious orbs adorning gates and barn doors, the seemingly disorganized constructions of myriad dust-loving spiders that inhabit the cracks and crannies of our house. Today, however, I am contemplating different webs in a different place.

9 a.m – The woods behind the beach dunes here are low and narrow, filled with gnarled live oak, holly, and other trees whose names I do not know. After two days of severe storm, the sun came out yesterday. As the breeze shifts leaves and light, webs of many kinds began to wink in and out of sight, as if in and out of existence. Sometimes a pale green caterpillar little more than an inch long appears to float above the path. I watch several such creatures apparently gathering the thread from which they dangle (visible only when the leaves move to let through light) into tiny white balls on their chests, reeling themselves up once more to the twigs from which they must have come. It takes them about half an hour to climb the 4 feet back up to the tree. To what purpose? I wonder. I watch one caterpillar regain his perch on a twig, hoping to discern his intentions. He simply moves slowly from one leaf to the next—testing his route with feet and snout—before disappearing from my sight. I feel patient curiosity and respect for his precise labor. There is only a slight intrusion of my own agenda when I find myself hoping he’ll launch again or begin to spin a cocoon – somehow revealing his story within a time-frame cut to my convenience.

I am endlessly fascinated by the way the caterpillar webs flicker in and out of my perceptual world—brilliantly lit and obvious one moment; simply “gone” the next.


4 p.m. – A brown ovoid leaf—shiny mahogany on one side, matte beige on the other — twists and pirouettes in the wind. Never falling, it is a testament to the strength of some invisible thread. [As I watch its dance, I experience in my body a kindred sense of restriction, of being leashed against gravity and the normal process of letting go. What sticky threads have I extruded in my life? What detritus do my webs hold in thrall, turning in place—pulling my attention and energy back again and again to the futile twirling?]

As I watch, I remember reading that some spiders’ webs are stronger than any human-contrived filaments. Scientists are experimenting with splicing spider genes into goats in order to create milk with a chemical to be used in cables. Can that be right?

4:15 p.m. – A breath of air ruffles the leaves, once again changing the configuration of shadow. The thread on which the leaf dangles is suddenly delineated in silver. Like a pointer, it leads my eye straight down to a glowing horizontal orb web—about 9” in diameter and 15” above the ground—bellying like a sail in the wind. A tiny grey-brown spider with a bright red spot on its back rests perfectly still in the center, riding the web’s undulations with legs extended front and back. I have, for the last quarter hour or so, been standing less than a foot from it—completely unaware!

Again light and shadows of the forest move, and the web disappears. Only the spider is still visible — its glowing spot, a good marker. But if I glance away to jot a note or simply rest my eyes, I am hard-pressed to find it again. I inevitably look down between a flimsy briar and a tentative shrub—the only obvious anchors for the web. But that is too low. I must let my eyes slide softly out of focus, undistracted by the definitive forms of stems and leaves. Then the spider pops back into my sight. How can its web be so high? There seem to be no nearby posts for support. The anchoring threads must be longer than I imagine. Again, I am drawn to contemplate what I cannot see.

Sun through the forest’s canopy brings brief visibility. A large insect bumps the web slightly but is not caught. I seem to feel the jarring stretch of filament, the twang of departure. The spider waits a space of two breaths (mine), then pivots, pats the web to check for damage, and — apparently satisfied that no repairs are required — returns to its east-facing posture.

Again, in late afternoon shade, the spider seems to ride on air. What is firm to the spider can only be inferred by me. [On what unseen structure do I rest? Do I—like the spider—respond to its vibrations, calmly check it, repair it as needed and return to alert waiting? Do others sense the web’s firmness under the heavy abdomen and many legs of my being?]

As the sun descends, the web I am contemplating remains invisible, but I am getting better at finding the spider after glancing away. I am learning how to read what is right before me. At the same time, I notice how the surrounding stems, leaves, and forest debris take on greater clarity as well. Leaves on each stalk are distinctly individual—slight variations of shape, partially eaten away or whole. Attention to what I cannot see has somehow sharpened my perceptions of and delight in the visible. My eyes feel newly washed.

Meanwhile, the small brown leaf dances on its tether — as it has been doing since I first noticed it 7 hours earlier on my morning walk. The dead leaf above so frenetic; the living spider below so still. The web holding each is known to me, in the darkening woods, only by the presence of its interaction with something else. [What illuminates the threads of my life just as the ray of sun glints, for a moment, on these forest webs? What demarcates the threads when there is no sun? I think of the importance of that first brief silvery glimpse of the web — enough to keep me attentive, alert to reality moving beyond my senses.]

5 p.m. – I rise to leave, pausing to check out one more fat green caterpillar reeling himself upward. When I look back, the spider seems to have vanished. I cannot recover the proper perspective. But, just as I decide to give up, a puff of wind shifts the web over a lighter leaf on the forest floor. I am immensely happy to have that farewell glimpse – and immensely happy to know that the forest is full of beings (and ways of being) that I do not see. I write in my notebook: “Focus is everything!” — meaning “convergence” and remembering that “focus” comes from Latin for “hearth” – the center, the heart of the fire. I could just as well have written (for I felt) that Relationship is everything. Not one thing extracted from the community, but in dynamic relation to all…

Not unlike the spider on its billowing web, I rested for a while–content and vigilant—in the invisible and ever changing interlacement of sun, wind, and beach-forest community. In some strange way, as the focus of my attention became narrower and more precise, the edges of my own being faded, opened, embraced a larger and larger community, until I felt the web of Being (seen and unseen) without limit.
When I return the next morning, I find no trace of web or spider or the dangling leaf (released—“at last”? or “in its own good time”?). There are stories here that I will never know, and I am strangely content—upheld even—by my un-knowing.

UNSEEN   by mck

Within Creation's pulsing heart --
             strange attractor,
             dark matter,
             black holes and all
                            we do not know --
the un-seen is the larger part
of what sustains our cosmic round.

              More than fleshly hands,
                            the fervent clasping;
              More than lightning flash,
                            the ions dancing.

Daily our lives proceed along
              not such paths as we suppose but
              -- flaring forth into flame and out --
threads of
              (Shall I name it gravity? allurement?)
                            -- perhaps it is --
simply love.

Whether we perceive it or not,
the bush is always burning, unconsumed;
the ground, always holy.           

Silence

"Secretly we spoke,
That wise one and me.

I said, Tell me the secrets of the world.

He said, Sh…Let silence

Tell you the secrets of the world."

                                             ~~~ Rumi

Keeping Quiet  ~~~ Pablo Neruda
  		

"Now we will count to twelve
 and we will all keep still
 for once on the face of the earth,
 let's not speak in any language;
 let's stop for a second,
 and not move our arms so much.

 It would be an exotic moment
 without rush, without engines;
 we would all be together
 in a sudden strangeness.

 Fishermen in the cold sea
 would not harm whales
 and the man gathering salt
 would not look at his hurt hands.

 Those who prepare green wars,
 wars with gas, wars with fire,
 victories with no survivors,
 would put on clean clothes
 and walk about with their brothers
 in the shade, doing nothing.

 What I want should not be confused
 with total inactivity.

 Life is what it is about...

 If we were not so single-minded
 about keeping our lives moving,
 and for once could do nothing,
 perhaps a huge silence
 might interrupt this sadness
 of never understanding ourselves
 and of threatening ourselves with
 death.

 Now I'll count up to twelve
 and you keep quiet and I will go."

Learning from the Tree Elders

I love the amazing surprises of serendipity & synchronicity. I’d planned to write today about the ways the Old Oak I greet every day is gently teaching me. The age of the oak is important. Not technically “old growth, I suppose — not part of an old growth forest — but definitely an Elder, a survivor through all that life has thrown at it for who knows how many years — long living as a lone tree in a cow pasture …. withstanding construction that changed the shape of the land & now living on a steep slope at the edge of a small — but still blessedly wild — urban woodland. An Elder.

Certainly we need to learn from the teachings of our human Elders, who understand that humans are an integral part of nature — not something “separate” & “superior” as modern industrial/technological culture would have it. But to become aware of our embedded-ness, we humans also — and perhaps even more — desperately need to remember how to listen to & learn from our other-than-human Elders, wtih reverence and respect.

Then, this morning, as I was dutifully scanning the NY Times headlines, I encountered an exquisite photograph of ancient bristle cone pines introducing a fine essay entitled What The World Will Lose If Ancient Trees Die Out.

The author is Dr. Jared Farmer, a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of “Elderflora: A Modern History of Ancient Trees.” I hope you can access & read the whole article. I especially love the way he speaks not only of the ancient trees’ importance to their ecosystems and the whole web of life but also of the immeasurable gifts they give us just by being:

“Ancient trees provide services too, but really, they are gift givers. Of all their gifts, the greatest are temporal and ethical. [emphasis added] They inspire long-term thinking and encourage us to be sapient. They engage our deepest faculties: to revere, analyze and meditate. If we can recognize how they call upon our ethical imperative to care for them, then we should slow down climate change now, and pay forward to people who will need a future planet with chronodiversity as well as biodiversity.”

Among plants, there are ephemerals, annuals, biennials, perennials — and beyond them all a category I call “perdurables.” Perdurance is resilience over time. Humans can recultivate this attribute by caring for old trees and the old-to-be. Sustaining long-term relationships with long-lived plants is a rejection of The End, an affirmation that there will be — must be — tomorrow. That is a gift.”

LEARNING FROM THE OLD OAK: RESILIENCE

PRAYER ~~~ by David Abrams

May a good vision catch me

May a benevolent vision take hold of me, and move me

May a deep and full vision come over me, and burst open around me

May a luminous vision enfold me.

May I awaken into the story that surrounds,

May I awaken into the beautiful story.

May the wondrous story find me;

May the wildness that makes beauty arise between two lovers

arise beautifully between my body and the body of this land,

between my flesh and the flesh of this earth,

here and now,

on this day,

May I taste something sacred.

Trickster Times

Hello, dear ones. My body has been out of balance all week, so I’m officially giving myself a “leave of absence” for this week. [Can bloggers do that???] However, I do want to share the words of others that have been rattling insistently around in me.

The first is a beloved statement by Ben Okri that I’ve shared before:

“The earliest storytellers were magi, seers, bards, griots, shamans. They were, it would seem, as old as time, and as terrifying to gaze upon as the mysteries with which they wrestled. They wrestled with mysteries and transformed them into myths which coded the world and helped the community to live through one more darkness, with eyes wide open and hearts set alight.”

”And I think that now, in our age, in the mid-ocean of our days, with certainties collapsing around us, and with no beliefs by which to steer our way through the dark descending nights ahead — I think that now we need those fictional old bards and fearless storytellers, those seers. We need their magic, their courage, their love, and their fire more than ever before. It is precisely in a fractured, broken age that we need mystery and a reawoken sense of wonder. We need them to be whole again.”

– Ben Okri

The next quotes are from Sharon Blackie’s remarkable new book Hagitude (pp. 188-189 & pp.193-196), which I am currently in the midst of reading. (I expect more references to this book will come along — She has much to say about the Old Woman in myth & story, including Trickster aspects & the role of the fiber arts in old stories.)

Writing about the work of René Guénon (Symbols of Sacred Science, 1962), Dr. Blackie says Guénon

“… argued that we now live in ‘degenerate times,’ at the end of a long era during which important spiritual truths have been forgotten, the ancient centres of wisdom have been destroyed, and the guardians of that wisdom are long gone. However, he suggested, the safest repository for such old truths has always been folklore. He believed that knowledge which is in danger of being lost can be translated into the symbolic code of a folk tale, and then passed on through the storytelling tradition. [….] Then, in better times, people might once again appear who understand the code, and who will penetrate the symbolic disguise and uncover the wider meaning behind. … It’s incumbent on us to tell the old stories — and to use those stories, when necessary, to hold the culture to acount.”

Later, Dr. Blackie describes Trickster beautifully:

“…Trickster is above all a disruptor of the established order, upsetting it so that necessary change might come about. Trickster happens along when something urgently needs to shift, sweeping out the old, arid and useless to make way for the new.”

“…Trickster holds up a mirror to all that is dysfunctional, hypocritical and perverse in us or in our culture, and challenges our deepest assumptions about our own nature, or the nature of the world around us.”

“The Trickster, then, in all her [or his] diverse forms, is the character who breezes in and breaks something in an attempt to wake us up, revealing to us the shakier truth which underlies a seemingly stable situation. And so Trickster can also be thought of as an archetype of the apocalypse — in the original sense of that Greek word, which means revelation: [quoting Richard Goswiller] ‘an unveiling or unfolding of things not previously known and which could not be known apart from the unveiling’.”

“What follows after Trickster’s intervention, of course, depends on many things — among them, the specific qualities of the Trickster who happens along in the story we are living through. And although we don’t always get the Trickster we imagine we might want, we mostly get the Trickster we deserve….”

It seems to me that we are really in the midst of major Trickster times on a global scale. Certainly we’re having to face “all that is dysfunctional, hypocritical and perverse in us or in our culture” & are being fiercely challenged on some of our “deepest assumptions about our own nature, or the nature of the world around us.” What do you & I see when we look in Trickster’s Mirror? And how & which of the old Stories can be of help? What & how am I (are we) telling stories? …These aren’t just “rhetorical questions.” I’m really pondering all this, thinking of my actions.

Anyway, I have to smile as I frequently repeat to myself what the Hunter’s Horse said in the story posted Sept. 23 : “Fear not — the worst is yet to come.” Don’t fear, don’t weep, the Horse says again & again. Step into the next part of the Story & deal with what you find. You might be surprised!

And, of course, we’re not alone. The Earth community in all its embodied forms is speaking to us all the time. Nowadays birds & deer are bringing me Stories. The Old Tree behind our house (or, I should say — in front of which our house has been planted) teaches me & shares her Stories every day. Who else is telling the Stories I/we need to hear? What are the Stories that need to be shared — in language and in a myriad of other ways? How does my fiber work speak? Much to contemplate…. and then to embody, to enact as a participant in this on-going story.

The Old One –10/13/2022

Autumn Thoughts

Fires, floods, hurricanes — natural processes that have been magnified by our human folly. This week I’ve been thinking about Hurricane Ian, as I’m sure many of you have — the devastation of both human & other-than-human habitats…. I have wondered about the hummingbirds that fed hungrily outside our window before setting, off a week or two ago, on their annual journey to Central America.

Here in central NC, we missed the worst of the storm. We really had only one day of strong winds & driving rain. Many branches & some trees down but no widespread damage. And, after the storm, the arrival of true autumn weather, with beautiful cooler days & chilly nights. The leaves are just beginning to change color.

I am definitely a 4-season person. I love the on-going changes as Earth makes her way around the sun. I treasure all the seasons for their distinctive gifts, but Autumn is my favorite — for the end of sultry summer heat & for the gorgeous colors of trees — also, since I was so long tied to the academic calendar, for my feeling of beginning, of stepping into new possibilities — a feeling more commonly associated with Spring.

Like each season, Autumn holds more than one kind of movement:

There’s the exuberance and abundance of harvest time, the rich tapestry woven over the Summer by the Earth community — both in human fields and in the woodlands as squirrels gather nuts, bears forage and fatten for their long rest, and birds feast among the ripened seeds as they prepare to fly south or to hunker down for the winter here.

Then, gradually, as Autumn progresses, the movement shifts from celebration to letting go. The fruits have fallen, flowers withered, the leaves that have delighted us with their spectrum of fiery colors are dimming, drifting dry and crumbling to the ground. So many poems associate these Autumnal changes with death.

But I have learned that this isn’t the final curtain on the year’s last drama. For instance, the fallen leaf hasn’t simply died & left the tree bereft. The tree is protecting itself against the hard weather ahead by absorbing the nourishment contained in each leaf back into its main body, separating itself from the dead leaf, and then healing each tiny scar so that new buds are possible in the spring. Last summer’s leaves begin new journeys — becoming & strengthening the soil with, perhaps, a stop along the way to line a nest or den, participating in the flow of life. And all the while, hidden from us, the trees are still sharing the sweetness of the sunshine that their leaves harvested during the summer, literally feeding each other & associated life-forms through an incredible mycorrhizal network underground.The flowers, too, that seem to us to have died — drying up & withering away — are becoming part of the soil into which they have cast their seeds — feeding their offspring & ensuring next Spring’s colorful carpet.

I love Mary Oliver’s playful imaginings about the so-called “loss” that’s often associated — amid much melancholy — with Autumn:

Song for Autumn by Mary Oliver

"In the deep fall
 don’t you imagine the leaves think how
 comfortable it will be to touch
 the earth instead of the
 nothingness of air and the endless
 freshets of wind? And don’t you think
 the trees themselves, especially those with mossy,
 warm caves, begin to think
 of the birds that will come – six, a dozen – to sleep
 inside their bodies? And don’t you hear
 the goldenrod whispering goodbye,
 the everlasting being crowned with the first
 tuffets of snow? The pond
 vanishes, and the white field over which
 the fox runs so quickly brings out
 its blue shadows. And the wind pumps its
 bellows. And at evening especially,
 the piled firewood shifts a little,
 longing to be on its way."

Then, in the last days of Autumn, new kinds of beauty — quietly austere rather than overwhelmingly lush — emerge. As the green fades, as the bright leaves fall, much that was hidden can now be more clearly seen — the unique shape of each tree, for instance, becomes apparent, as do the curves & ridges, the bones of the land….

This is the sacred unraveling of threads, the making of space for a different weaving; letting-go of the old so that the unknown can emerge… as it always does.

 Fall Song by Mary Oliver

"Another year gone, leaving everywhere
 its rich spiced residues: vines, leaves,

 the uneaten fruits crumbling damply
 in the shadows, unmattering back

 from the particular island
 of this summer, this NOW, that now is nowhere

 except underfoot, moldering
 in that black subterranean castle

 of unobservable mysteries - roots and sealed seeds
 and the wanderings of water. This

 I try to remember when time's measure
 painfully chafes, for instance when autumn

 flares out at the last, boisterous and like us longing
 to stay - how everything lives, shifting

 from one bright vision to another, forever
 in these momentary pastures."

Autumn is a crossroads — both a celebration of what has been & a plunge into the unknown — a dreaming towards newness, not death but transfiguration…. Autumn opens us to questions, more than to answers:

Will the fallen acorn feed a chipmunk and become part of that quick chattering animal life? Will it crack and disintegrate and become part of the rich soil that feeds the forest plants? Will it sprout in the spring? — and will that sprout become a snack for a grateful winter-thin deer or perhaps grow eventually into another wide-branched oak?

Life embraces these changes & shifts in its form as necessary. A reminder to us humans: What needs to be celebrated? Of what must we let go? And how does that relinquishment provide not only space for but also a strengthening of the yet-to-come? How do we step & dream our way into the next seasons of our personal & collective being?

*******

In the studio, too, a pondering of possible configurations — playing with the idea of leaves…. on the branch? around the face? The leaves in the photo are just cut-outs. I need to experiment with different ways to felt interesting leaves. Or — who knows…? No end to the explorations!

3 Old Women

A spider has been building orb webs in the upper corner of our porch. (She reminds me of another spider who companioned me at an important juncture — but that’s another story for another time.) I am happy to have her company, for I have been thinking about the Old Woman who, in myth, weaves the world into being and, in times of change, takes out the threads and weaves anew.

This isn’t just because I now am an old woman. I have long been drawn to the Old Weaver & to other manifestations of the Wise Old Woman who appears so often in Story & Myth — fierce, independent, on the edges of society, close to both the natural & the other worlds…

Of course, I knew Her from many of the folk tales of my childhood — not always a wicked witch but sometimes a helper & healer. She truly took root in my imaginal realm when I was an 18-year old freshman in college. Several years ago, I wrote of that memorable encounter, trying to puzzle out why a teenager might have been so permanently imprinted with a positive image of old age & death:

	ANTHRO 101

December, and late afternoon sun
edges wearily through half-basement windows,
into chalk-dusty air redolent of
camphor, ancient leather, and bone in the museum above.
Students scribble in spiral notebooks while
the professor drones on about Arctic cultures.

“Conditions were harsh,” he notes, "but if a woman did grow old,
she might spend her final years commandeering young men 
to take her visiting village to village --- until,
no longer able to sew a seam or spin a tale, 
she walked out onto the sea ice alone.”

As he speaks, an unseen door opens,
caribou-hide covering sweeps aside, and
an old woman enters the room --
hood of her sealskin parka thrown back
to reveal braids gray as late winter ice.
“Who has called me?” she asks.

The professor lectures on without lifting his eyes;
students write, doodle, or doze in their seats.
“Who calls?” she repeats.

	Did I turn a little to the half-heard voice,
	lifting my eyes to meet hers, bright
	and merry amid the wrinkled terrain of age?

For sixty years I have carried her 
-- silent and light as eagle down --
along the northern margins of my mind;
I have pulled her forward as steadily as 
a team of huskies heading for home;
I have nourished her in equal share with everything 
I have hunted for myself.

Of late, we have begun to converse more freely,
to sit and sew and spin stories together.

The ice is melting.
When it is time, where will we go?
                                                          --- MCK

*****

Then, in 1973, in Yugoslavia, I met an old woman as she walked, spinning yarn, along a country road. We talked — with no language in common but lots of gestures & laughter. She couldn’t believe that neither my friend nor I knew how to spin — grown women though we were! Several years later, I found that she, too, had entered my imaginal realm — becoming stronger within me as I learned to spin and weave.

*****

As my 50th birthday approached, the Old Woman moved to the forefront of my imagination. I read myths & stories, getting to now her many ways of being in many different cultures. I looked forward to growing “older & wiser” and began searching diligently for my first gray hairs (which, alas, still haven’t appeared).

About that time, I discovered that the word “Crone” was derived from a older word meaning “a carcass” or “an old & worthless ewe.” I responded by writing a triumphal Crone poem:

CRONE

is my favorite word these days.
Wonderful sound of 

crow:	  old shape-shifter, one-eyed seer into future, or
	          verb of exultation.

drone:	  the steady throb of dulcimer or bagpipe—not melody but
	         the tone that holds it all together.
	
bone:	  the hard, the lasting.

CRONE —	you beautiful word, you have been mistreated,
		manhandled by makers of linguistic lists,

		linked to “carrion: putrefying flesh” or
		“old ewe with broken teeth to be culled from the flock.”

		Why not tied to “chronios: long-lasting” like CRONY?
		Why, old long-time woman—ancient buddy— why not?

You, CRONE, are a feisty fiddle upon which life has been playing
in all tempos, all weathers, for a long long time.
No shiny new penny whistle can sing with such depth.

CRONE, you are ragged and straggled
with elf-locks in the wind
and a belly laugh that sends
muscle-proud lads scurrying for cover.
Old Baubo, you raise your skirts and
show them what they fear.

CRONE, you are as beautiful as the last apple
on the tree in November, the final apple 
in the barrel come March:  No young face holds
such terrible beauty as the face of one who
knows that she knows the truth of her days.

CRONE:	I chant you as mantra,
		I chase your whirlwind,
		I dream hooked beak and vulture wings.

I’m coming, I’m coming—not far behind you.
Save me a place at the old crones’ feast.

*****

The 3rd old woman to take root in my imaginal realm was Jouška, who arrived during a delightful & insightful experimental workshop on “Art & Character” led by the artist Roz Casey . We engaged not only with art-making and writing, but also with some imaginative experiential prompts — for example, walk down a familiar path sensing it in the ways that your character would. As I took my favorite walk through the wooded acres across the road, sensing my surroundings as Jouška might have done, I was amazed how deeply the place and its beings came alive for me. I have always been aware of the natural world, learning from it and sending my love in return for its many gifts — but my habitual awareness felt superficial compared the awareness revealed through Jouška — an old woman living about 1,500 years ago in the depths of the boreal forest of Karelia (home of the Kalevala mythology & now straddling the Finnish/Russian border). This Old Woman continues to walk within and beside me.

Lately I have realized that as I converse now with the Shaman figure, trying to learn who she is & who she wants to be, it is Jouška‘s voice that I hear guiding me. I dug deeper into my stash last week & found more leather and the remnants of a old, old fox-fur hood. I used my old walnut dye to color the wooden base & the leather that covers it. Here is the Shaman in one of her possible be-comings — for she is still and always coming more & more into Being, just as we all are.

As I age, I realize that I have apprenticed myself to these 3 Old Women. They have taught and continue to teach me in so many ways. Learning from them, stepping with them into the Unknown, what shall I discover next?

******

” …. ‘Tell me one thing,’ said the eldest Princess to the Old Woman…, ‘Tell me one thing. Was that you ahead of me on the road, in such a hurry?’

‘There is always an old woman ahead of you on a journey, and there is always an old woman behind you too, and they are not always the same, and may be fearful or kindly, dangerous or delightful, as the road shifts, and you speed along it. Certainly I was ahead of you, and behind you too, but not only I, and not only as I am now.’ ….”

[A.S. Byatt, “The Story of the Eldest Princess,” in The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye]

A Story for Our Times

This week the Shaman/Lady of the Forest and I [see previous post] have been engaged in a long and deep conversation. Like all good conversations, once expectations & preconceptions have been released, this conversation has taken many interesting twists and turns, and needs to continue a bit longer.

*******

The story I want to share with you today is based on an old Slavic tale. I first heard it several weeks ago from the storyteller, Audrey di Mola. I was enthralled and immediately thought: “This is the story we need to hear now, in these perilous times.” I’ve listened again and found other tellings — each unique. And, as I listened & read, I saw more and more shiny threads in the story’s tapestry — the same threads that are being woven into our on-going story today. So I offer it to you with gratitude to the Old Ones who first told the story and to Audrey and other storytellers that have kept it alive through the ages. It’s a long tale, so settle in comfortably and listen for what the story wants you — in all your uniqueness — to hear. This is my telling for this day. I don’t know if this is exactly how it happened, but I know that it is true.

Once Upon a Time — yes, that time; or this time; or any time — Once upon a time, there lived a handsome hunter and his beloved horse, just at the edge of the deep dark forest. Every day the hunter and his companion would set off into the forest to look for deer or bears or even small creatures with which to sustain themselves by selling the extra meat and fur in the village market. And so it was that one day, like any other day, the hunter and his horse walked into the forest to follow the trails that animals had made. But this day, as they walked, the hunter saw something shining on the path — not a paw print, not a stray feather from a nearby bird, but a feather that glowed and seemed to burn in its own light. ….. It was a feather from the Firebird.

The hunter bent down and started to reach for it when his horse said firmly, “Do not pick up that feather. If you do, you will have great troubles.” The hunter heard his horse. He hesitated …. but he felt the call of the feather pulling him forward. “Oh,” thought the hunter, “if I take this precious feather to the Tsar, surely he will reward me with great riches.”

The hunter picked up the feather. He marveled at its flaming colors. He felt its warmth in his hand. … And so they set off to the great palace of the Tsar. It was a long journey, but the feather stayed bright & warm in the hunter’s hand, flickering with the brilliant light of its inner flame The horse walked beside him, shaking his head all the way.

After a time, they neared the palace, with its many stone turrets & gleaming golden domes. With some trepidation, the hunter knocked at the great gate. Once. Twice. Three times. …. And finally the gate — creaking slowly with almost a moan — opened before them.

When the guard saw the Firebird’s feather in the hunter’s hand, he stared for a long minute…. And then, after asking someone to take the horse to the stables, he led the hunter straight to the throne room.

The hunter paused a moment, taking in all the glitter & gold & rich brocades. He had never seen such wealth before. For a moment he longed to be back in his familiar forest, but he gathered his courage and spoke to the Tsar. “Your majesty,” he said, “I have come to give you this feather of the Firebird.”

The Tsar took the feather from the hunter’s hand. For a moment the Tsar’s face radiated wonder & delight. But soon his face changed and he spoke. “You are a great hunter to find such a treasure. Surely, next you can bring me the Firebird itself and I will reward you with riches beyond your dreams.” The hunter started to shake his head, but the Tsar, pulling his sword from its embroidered velvet-covered scabbard, continued. “But do you see this fine sharp blade on my sword? … If you fail, it will slice your head from your body.”

Trembling, the hunter left the throne room and sought his horse in the palace stables. He threw his arms around the horse’s solid warm neck & told him of the Tsar’s order. The horse nuzzled him and then said, “Fear not…The worst is still to come!”

The hunter began to weep, but his horse continued, “Ask the Tsar for oats & wheat & barley & rye from his great granaries — enough to fill a dozen large wagons. Then we will catch the Firebird.”

The hunter returned to the Tsar and made his request. “Of course,” said the Tsar. “This is a rich realm and I have grain to spare!”

That evening the hunter & his horse took the grain to a beautiful field and spread it all around, leaving enticing piles of grain here and there. They waited. Night fell. Their eyelids felt heavy. Still — with eyes wide open, they waited and waited until, at last, down from the sky swooped that Firebird in all his glory. The Firebird ruffled his feathers — sending sparks like stars into the dark — and he began to gobble the grain.

The hunter hid behind the horse. Slowly, slowly, forward they crept. The horse proceeded step by step in a roundabout route, keeping his head low, pausing now & then to innocently eat of the golden grain, but always drawing nearer to the Bird.

After a time, they found themselves next to the Firebird, whose head was still bent to the grain. … And … in less than a blink of an eye … the horse raised his foot and — down it went! Right onto the tail of the Firebird! The hunter rushed in and bound the beautiful bird with ropes. He picked him up and felt flames leaping into his heart. He felt awe and wonder as he gazed upon the feathers of gold and crimson and shimmering copper. The Firebird did not thrash or call out, but just answered his gaze with a proud glare. Oh, it seemed wrong to bind such a free spirit! For a moment, the hunter hesitated.

But then he remembered the reward the Tsar had promised and, with his horse, hurried back to the palace.

When the Tsar saw the Firebird in the hunter’s arms, he gave the bird a fleeting glance of admiration. But then, stuffing the bird into a bejeweled cage of gold, the Tsar’s face changed. He looked from the bird to the hunter. “Oh, my boy,” said the Tsar. “You are a brave and clever hunter indeed. A man such as you can surely bring back the one thing I most desire. The beautiful Princess Vasilisa lives in a far kingdom. She shines like the sun, the most beautiful of all the women in the world. She must be mine! Bring back Vasilisa and I will give you riches — heaps of gold so high you will not see their top. ….. But if you fail, I will throw you into the moat. It is filled with ravenous beasts. And if you somehow survive their teeth, their tentacles, their claws, their ugly tusks — if you are able to lift your head out of the water –” The King paused and drew his sword. “There is still this blade to separate your head from your shoulders. Do you understand?”

The hunter trembled. He nodded once — then turned to go out to find his horse. When the horse saw the hunter’s face wet with tears, he asked “Now what?” And the hunter hung his head and replied, “Now I must bring back the Princess Vasilisa from a faraway kingdom. And if I fail, not only the blade, but teeth & tentacles, claws & tusks…. What shall I do? What shall I do?”

And the horse answered, “Fear not! … The worst is still to come! …. Go to the Tsar and ask for pack horses laden with gilded pavilions, ask for the best meats and wine, parquet tables and soft pillows for reclining. And tell the Tsar he must send with you his best singers and musicians.”

Still shaking, the hunter repeated this request to the Tsar. “Of course, my boy! Anything you want! But you must bring me the beautiful Vasilisa — or….”

And so it was. Early the next morning the hunter and his horse set off with all they had requested. It was a long, long journey. There were flooding rivers to cross, rocky cliffs to climb, deep dark valleys where wolves & thieves lurked.

I do not know how long they traveled or how many adventures they had along the way, but late one afternoon they reached a lake. Far out upon the still blue waters, a lady rowed a golden boat with silver oars. And even from such a distance, they could see her beauty, her proud straight back, her flowing ebony hair. Surely this was the Princess Vasilisa.

Quickly, they set up camp. They raised the pavilions and decorated them with fine rugs and soft pillows of silk and velvet. They spread out the meats & fruits & bread & wine upon fine silver trays and set them on the polished parquet tables.

Then, just as the sun was dipping low in the sky, sending its last rays to set the silvery flags and the golden tent tops ablaze in beauty, the musicians began to play and the lady reached the shore.

Gallantly the hunter held out his hand to help her up from the boat. He bowed low. “Princess Vasilisa, it is getting late. Will you join us for supper?”

Vasilisa smiled and nodded her head, and the hunter led her into grandest pavilion.

I do not know exactly what transpired, but I do know that the hunter and Vasilisa talked and ate and drank and laughed. They fell into a long conversation and their heads were close together and finally, in the dark, they fell asleep on plump pillows under quilts of embroidered silk.

In the morning, they rose and smiled at each other. “Will you come with me,” he asked, “to the court of the Tsar?”

Vasilisa agreed, so off they went. And it was a long, long journey. I do not know exactly what happened, but the hunter felt himself changing with each mile they traveled. And Vasilisa smiled.

At last, Vasilisa and the hunter stood in the throne room and faced the Tsar. At once, the Tsar sprang from his throne and stood before the beautiful Princess Vasilisa. Seeing her dark eyes, her fine straight nose, her hair as black as a raven’s wing, & her shapely supple young body, the King crowed, “At last you are mine! I will marry you and you shall be mine forever.”

The Princess Vasilisa took a step back and, holding her head high, spoke to the King. Her voice was pure music, but her tone & her words were firm and strong.

“Your Highness,” she declared, “I cannot marry until I have my wedding dress.”

“Oh, never mind about that,” the Tsar said quickly. “I will give you a wedding dress of lace embroidered with gold and encrusted with jewels — far more elegant than any old dress you might have.”

“No.” Again Vasilisa spoke slowly and carefully. “I will not marry without my own wedding dress. Better than jewels or rich embroidery or lace, my wedding dress is covered with the words wisdom spoken by my mother & sisters & aunts, and by their mothers & sisters & aunts, and by their mothers, and their mothers, and their mothers, and on back to the wisdom of the Old Woman of the World. This precious dress is under a granite rock deep, deep, at the bottom of the sea. I will not wed without it.”

In a flash, the Tsar turned to the hunter. “You heard her,” shouted the Tsar. “You must go and bring back her dress. And if you fail, I shall hang you high and then cut off your head and throw your meat into the moat so that the ravenous beasts can dine at their leisure.”

The hunter moved to the door and, sobbing, went out to find his horse. The horse listened patiently to the hunter’s woeful tale. Then, shaking his mane, the horse said, “Fear Not! The worst is still to come!” and said no more. The hunter, still weeping, asked what he should request from the Tsar. “Nothing. You need nothing the Tsar has to offer,” said the horse. So off they went together, seeking the sea at the edge of the world.

I do not know how far they journeyed. I do not know how many tall mountains they climbed, how many deep valleys they crossed, how many fierce wolves & thieves they met in the dark forests. But I do know that it was only after many days and twice as many adventures that they reached the sea at the edge of the world.

The wind blew and the sea tossed. White-crested waves rose above them. Still, pausing only to kiss his horse, the hunter stripped off his ragged clothes and plunged into the icy depths. Down he swam. And down and down until at last he could dimly see, far below, a gigantic granite boulder. Down he swam. Beneath the great rock, the hunter glimpsed what might be a corner of white fabric — but, push though he did, the hunter could not budge the boulder. His lungs were bursting, he had to breath…. The hunter struggled upward through the wild waters until, gasping & gurgling, his head rose into clear air and he swam to the shore.

The hunter was startled to see his horse talking to a large lumpy bumpy creature who appeared to wear a circlet of silver about his hard, shell-bound brow. His horse introduced the King of the Crabs. The hunter bowed and then told the tale of his dive into the deep. When he finished, he turned to the gigantic Crab King and asked, “Can you help me?”

The King of the Crabs replied haughtily, “Why should I help a two-legged one like you?” The hunter answered, “I shall give you…” he reached into his pack. Nothing. He shook it upside-down…once…twice…. On the third shake, a small crust of dry bread fell out of the very bottom of the pack.

Ashamed, the hunter hung his head. He held out the bit of bread. Without hope, he said, “Your majesty, I can give you this.”

The King of the Crabs raised his great claws and placed them on the hunter’s shoulders. The hunter’s heart thudded with fear. But the Crab King spoke gently. “My child,” he said. “It is enough. I will help you find that which you seek.”

The Crab King gave a shrill whistle and the waves seemed to calm. He whistled once more and the water began to churn not with wind or tide but with the motion unseen creatures. When he whistled a third time, all the crabs in the sea crawled up on the beach to listen to their King. “My beloved brothers & sisters,” said the King, “this hunter seeks a wedding dress hidden beneath the biggest boulder in the sea. I ask you please to roll the rock aside and bring him what he desires.” And so they did.

With the white linen dress folded carefully in his arms, the hunter and his horse set off once more — over hill and dale, through strange villages and dark forests — to reach the palace of the Tsar. Their adventures were too many to tell, but every mile the hunter felt a change within himself as what had been too soft grew firm & strong and what had been too hard softened & relaxed. And on they went to the gleaming palace of the Tsar.

Entering the throne room, the hunter handed the dress to Vasilisa. “Here, as you asked, my lady, is your dress inscribed with the wisdom of all the women of the world.”

“Quick,” ordered the Tsar. “Prepare the wedding feast and the royal chamber, for tonight I sleep with my new wife, Vasilisa!”

Then Vasalisa held up her hand for him to stop. “No,” she said. “There is yet one more thing I require. I require this man to jump into a cauldron of boiling water.” She pointed to the hunter.

“No problem,” said the Tsar. Quickly he summoned his servants to build a huge hot fire, and soon a big cauldron of water was bubbling & the air above it was clouded with steam. “Now,” said the Tsar, turning to the hunter. “Do it!”

Once again the hunter trembled with fear and hot tears slid down his cheeks. He remembered all the journeys, all the trials & tests, all the adventures ….. and he remembered his horse.

“Sire,” he said. “May I first take a moment to say farewell to my faithful friend?”

“Oh, all right,” huffed the Tsar. “But make it quick! The sun is falling low in the sky. Vasilisa must be my wife before tonight’s feast begins.”

Yet again, the hunter went out and leaned his head against the horse’s warm neck. But even the soft comforting snorts of the horse &the tickling of his mane could not stop the hunter’s tears. “Goodbye, my dear friend,” the hunter said, and told of the fire, the cauldron, the boiling water.

The horse shook his head. “I will not say goodbye. Just remember our adventures & gather together all the pieces of yourself, all your changes over the miles. Remember what we did, but most of all look into your heart. Cherish what has grown bold & strong. Cherish what has softened & opened. Then run, as fast as you can, and jump into the cauldron.”

The hunter kissed his horse and returned to the throne room to be greeted by roaring blaze & bubbling cauldron. He looked around and saw the Tsar grinning from ear to ear. He saw Vasilisa, standing steadfast & calm. He saw all the courtiers that had gathered to witness the horrifying spectacle. Then the hunter paused and breathed deeply. He looked into his heart. He remembered his journeys. He remembered his changes. He gathered together all the pieces of himself. And he ran straight to the cauldron — and leaped in!

Amongst the crowd there were shocked gasps & nervous titters, but from the cauldron ……. only silence. The crowd waited. They waited for screams. They waited for bits of charred bone to rise to the top. They waited…..

The Tsar turned triumphantly toward Vasalisa and reached out his hungry hand. But … just at that very moment … a roar went up from the crowd — a roar that rattled the stained glass windows & shook the great timber beams above!

All eyes — even the eyes of the Tsar — turned toward the cauldron as — up & out — sprang the young hunter. Oh, he had been handsome before, but now he seemed to shine. His strong muscles rippled beneath his shirt & his eyes glowed with new fire. He turned towards Vasilisa. They both smiled.

Enraged, the Tsar screeched, “I am the Tsar! I am richer than the hunter, and I can become even more handsome than he!” And the Tsar turned to this servants and ordered, “Help me into the cauldron.” And so they did. And so the Tsar tumbled head over heels into the cauldron. ……. And he was never seen again, though a gray scum of fat rose to the surface briefly before sinking again.

The hunter and Vasilisa looked at each other and went to the golden cage that hung next to the throne. Together, they pulled open the jeweled door and freed the Firebird. With feathers flaming brightly once again, the Firebird rose and circled once, twice, thrice above them in gratitude & blessing before flying out the window and home to his nest, where he remains to this day.

Then the hunter and Vasilisa went out to the courtyard where the horse stood, and they bent their heads humbly, and they thanked thanked him.

So the hunter and Vasilisa were married and they lived, as we all do, day by day. And whether they ruled as King & Queen or whether they returned to the hunter’s hut or whether they set off on marvelous journeys I do not know…… But I do know that their adventures were many and the horse was always at their side…..

And so my tale ends. Make of it what you will.

Artist unknown — found in an article by Timothy Judd

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"The truth about stories is that that's all we are."
                                                                  --- Thomas King