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

Trickster in the Skull

“There are ways in which stories create themselves, bring themselves into being, for their own inscrutable reasons, one of which is to laugh at humanity’s attempt to hide from its own clay. …[S]tories choose us to bring them into being for the profound needs of humankind. We do not choose them.

~~~ Ben Okri, A Way of Being Free

        PRAYER 
"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 inform me, 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 make beauty arise between two lovers,
 between my flesh and the flesh of the this earth,
 here and now,
 on this day,
 May I taste something sacred."

                              David Abram, https://wildethics.org/
I received this copy of Winter-Telling Stories on my 5th birthday, an early introduction to Trickster. In the lower right, you can see the Kiowa Trickster (Saynday) trapped in the buffalo skull.

~~~ The following is based on a Kiowa story collected by Alice Marriott (Winter-Telling Stories, William Sloane Associates, Inc, NY, 1947) & a Winnebago story collected by Paul Radin (The Trickster, Schocken Books, NY, 1956). ~~~

That one was coming along, and as he came, he heard a drumming sound. “My,” he said to himself, “I wonder where that drumming is coming from?” And as he walked, he looked around to see if there was a village nearby, but there was no village. And he looked up to see if it was thunder, but there was not a cloud in the sky. That drumming sound seemed to be coming from down near the earth. “What can that be?” he wondered. “Well, whatever it is, I’m going to find out.”

That one walked on and on, and the drumming became louder and louder. On the ground, he saw the scattered bones of some large animal, bleached white by years in the sun. “Oh,” he said, “That’s too bad. No meat at all left for me to gnaw.” And he stepped among the bones, crushing some the little ones under his feet. On he walked until, suddenly, he saw a skull lying on the ground. And the drumming was coming from inside the skull! In fact, the drumming was so loud it shook the skull until that skull seemed to bounce along the ground like a living thing.

“Well,” that one said to himself, “That’s some powerful medicine.” And he bent down and peered in through the eye socket.

Inside there were ants — a whole tribe of little red ants — and the drummers were drumming and the singers were singing, and he could see that they were having a sacred sun dance.

When the ants saw his big yellow eye peering in, two of the elders came over to that eye socket and asked, “What do you want?”

“Oh,” said that one, “You are doing such important things. You are thanking the Earth. You are making things better. I want to help, too. How can I come in?”

“Go in through the neck,” they replied. “That’s how we do it.”

And that one went around to the neck hole, but it was too small.

“Help! Help!” he cried. “The neck is too small for me to come in.”

The elders turned around. They spoke to that one. “Well,” they said, “Say to the neck-hole “Become large” and it will get big enough for you to enter. That is how we do it.”

And that’s exactly what that one did. “Become large!” he ordered. And the hole opened up, and he stuck in his head and looked around. And he heard the ants drumming their sacred songs and singing their sacred songs. And he saw the ants dancing their sacred dance. It was amazing. And he just sighed a big sigh of amazement.

And that sigh blew all the ants, and all their drums, and all their regalia and fragrant sage and sacred pole right out along the skull’s jaw where the tongue used to be, right out through the skull’s teeth where it used to gnash and chew, right out into the deepening dusk and gone.

And the neck-hole clamped back, tight around that one’s neck.
“Become large!” that one ordered. But the skull kept its grip.

“Let go! Let go!” he cried. But the skull stayed tight.

And that one’s eyes did not match the eye sockets of the skull. He could not see. And he stumbled about on the rough, rough ground — bumping into thorny bushes, twisting his ankle on loose stones — stumbling, tumbling here and there.

That skull stayed right on his head. The one inside couldn’t eat; he couldn’t drink. He promised this and he promised that, but still that old skull wouldn’t budge.
…………………

And so it was. I followed Trickster right into that empty skull. I stuck my head where it didn’t belong, into other people’s stories, into other people’s ways, into thoughts too big for words. And all my researching and cogitating and theorizing and long-winded explaining about Trickster got me nowhere. So here I am, like Trickster in the skull, heavy-headed, blind, lost, and weary.

I know the stories. In Marriott’s Kiowa story– rewritten for children — Trickster feels his way from tree to tree until he falls in the river and floats home to his village, where his neighbors pry off the skull and set him free. In Radin’s Winnebago tale, the trapped Trickster pretends to be Elk Spirit and convinces passers-by to bring him lavish offerings and then to look for good medicine inside the skull, setting him free in the process. And though Trickster kept their gifts, though he laughed uproariously, that one did at least keep his promise:

“‘For whatsoever be purpose for which you use this head, that purpose will be accomplished.’ So then they made themselves various medicinal instruments and afterwards found that they were efficacious. Then Trickster left and continued wandering.” [Radin, p.35]

And me? Neither family nor friends can seem to liberate me from the Trickster obsession that holds me as fast as any magic skull. And I doubt that I could, like the Winnabago Trickster, convince any hapless bystanders that I am an Elk Spirit to whom they should bring rich offerings –”red feathers, white deer skin, and red-yarn belts…in great quantities”. [Radin, p.34] Still, like Winnebago Trickster, I can promise that there is efficacious medicine available in here, just waiting to be shared. Maybe I can find another way through my dilemma. Maybe I can shape-shift the story’s ending just a little….

……………………..

And after a long long time, after that one was black and blue from all his falling and faint with hunger and thirst, after he had begun to feel his life draining away, after he had begun to feel his own skull as worn out as that dried-up old one in which he was stuck, he panted to the skull that held him captive, “If you let me go, I’ll tell you a story.” And though –to start with– the skull stayed tight as ever around that one’s neck, slowly – as it listened – its jaws began relax. First, that one could see a little light between the teeth. Then, that one could smell fresh air. Then, that one could take in a little sip of water. And so the Story began……

What good story has been following you around lately — asking to be told, asking to be lived?

Unlearning To Not Speak

I believe that the title of today’s post – unlearning to not speak – is a phrase used in an article by Ursula LeGuin.

SELF-DOUBT

Dear doubt, old companion,
you hold both my hands in yours
chafing them lightly as if to warm.
But, beneath crumpled papery skin,
your glacial muscles tense and
slowly your fingers slide
around my wrists, snap shut.
You lean in close, counseling
caution, whispering a cold wind
from your throat to mine, stilling
my breath, numbing my tongue.
We sit for hours knee to knee
rigid as startled rabbits.
If for a moment you loosened your grip
I could brush back your stray locks,
trace the labyrinth timelines carved in your cheek.
I could cradle and rock you until
no longer afraid, we might tell ourselves
new stories, give ourselves new names.

                  - MCK

KINDS OF SILENCE

There are times when silence is helpful and healing.

There are times when silence invites listening.

There are times when silence invites speaking.

There are times when silence is used to punish others.

There are times when silence signals assent and complicity.

There are times when remaining silent poisons your body, mind, spirit.

*******

Audre Lourde, excerpts from “Transformation of Silence into Language and Action” from Sister Outsider:

“I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood.”

“…what I have regretted most have been my silences. Of what have I ever been afraid?”

“And I began to recognize a source of power within myself that comes from the knowledge that while it is most desirable not to be afraid, learning to put fear into perspective gave me great strength. I was going to die, if not sooner then later, whether or not I had ever spoken myself. My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you.”

“What are the words you do not yet have? What do you need to say? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you sicken and die of them, still in silence?”

“And of course I am afraid, because the transformation of silence into language and action is an act of self-revelation, and that always seems fraught with danger. [….] …we fear the visibility without which we cannot truly live. [….] And that visibility which makes us most vulnerable is that which also is the source of our greatest strength. Because the machine will try to grind you into dust anyway, whether or not we speak. We can sit in our corners mute forever while our sisters and ourselves are wasted, while our children are distorted and destroyed, while our earth is poisoned; we can sit in our safe corners as mute as bottles, and we will still be no less afraid.”

*******

Giving Tongue to Truth (To Be Read Aloud)

If we are to speak in tongues --
tongues of flesh and not yet fire --
do not give me the sympathetic tongue of dog
who gently licks slash and abrasion,
assuaging that which is meant to wake me.
 
Give me not the slippery tongue of snake,
forever tasting, calculating 
proximity of predator and prey,
forked and flickering, prudently testing the air
to see which way the wind blows.

By no means give me the seductive tip
of lover's tongue, the lunge to oblivion.

Give me the tongue of a cat -- the rasp,
the hooked spines serrated -- separating,
capable of scraping fat from bone.

The time has come to sound the tocsin,
to give a tongue-lashing to the toxin-
spewing habits of our days.
If the cat's got your tongue,
insist she give you hers.

The tongue manipulates food
for mastication but if
what you are being fed
proves too hard to swallow:
       Spit it out.
If it is bitter, your tongue tells you:
       Spit it out.

Don't bite your tongue any longer.
The hotter it is, the longer a dog's tongue.  
It is already too hot
to control the heat
with a soft tongue hung
out of your mouth.
Out of the mouth of babes....

Give me the tongue of the tiger.

                                  - MCK

“Our strategy should be not only to confront empire but to lay siege to it. To deprived it of oxygen. To shame it. To mock it. With our art, our music, our literature, our stubbornness, our joy, our brilliance, our sheer relentlessness–and our ability to tell our own stories.”

Arundhati Roy

The Earth is calling out to us, inviting us to join the work.

How shall we each proceed?

What silences do we need?

What words do we need?

“To tell the truth is to become beautiful, to begin to love yourself, value yourself. And that is political, in its most profound way.”

— June Jordan, Caribbean-American poet

— Insima

Wondering About Words

When we were children, we chanted, “Sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me.” Even then, we knew it wasn’t true. Words Matter. They become incarnated in emotion and deeds. Depending on context, tone, and intent (and sometimes even without intent), words can inflict pain upon another person. Our words can be used to incite ourselves and others to violent action.

And yet, words can also be used intentionally to clarify the truth or to create and weave new and more generous worlds for ourselves and for others.

We can refuse to speak in order to protect others. We can also refuse to speak to protect ourselves. As I have learned, words spoken or words refused –hidden and repressed– because of our fears can cripple us. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., has said, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

What happens to all our words, spoken and unspoken?

At a Journey Into Wholeness gathering about 20 years ago, I met the artist & poet Martha Grant. We talked about how we were hesitant to speak up in group discussions and about the ways in which our mothers, too, had hidden so many feelings and words silently within. When she got home from the gathering, Martha sent me this poem she’d written — and which is included here with her kind permission:

ALL THOSE WORDS IN HER   by Martha Grant
What if she died with all those words in her?
How would we know who she was if she hadn't told us?
We would gather at her gravesite and speculate,
arguing among ourselves over who knew her best,
and in which milieu,
and find discrepancies,
while back at the funeral home
an embalmer would be wringing his hands
over what to do with all these words
that had come flooding from her body
when he'd cut into her.
All his years of embalming school
hadn't prepared him for this.
He scooped them into wastebaskets and file drawers,
old lunch bags, any receptacle he could grab,
and still they kept coming,
while he ran to the back door and called in
the homeless from the streets,
those who'd lost their own voices,
and passed words among them
like doling our Christmas turkeys,
for which the silent ones were just as grateful.
Funny, her drivers license hadn't listed her
as an organ donor.

What do you choose to do with your own words?

Christos Georghiou

Raven Steals the Sun

Dear ones,

Thank you for your encouragement! As one who loves language, I can’t help but remember that the root of ‘encouragement’ is the Latin “cor,” meaning ‘heart.’ Also related to ‘core’ – the heart or essence of the matter. You all are helping to strengthen my heart, essence. Thank you. I hope I may also encourage you.

Several folks have asked about Subscriptions. l’d like to add that option for those who’d find it more convenient than checking out the website on Fridays, but it turns out that it’s less straight-forward than I (with my computer ignorance & naivety) realized. I’m working on it.

There’s also been an enquiry about a “Comment” button. Once again, it’s complex. Since this blog is in many ways a practice of discovering & sharing Voice, I would very much like to have it offer a place where the voice is not restricted to my own! In my dream, I would find a way to make it possible for folks not only to comment on or respond to my words but ultimately to respond to & converse with each other, encouraging & enlivening one another. But, as you all know, communication via internet is not the same as face-to-face sharing. There are many wrinkles. I’ll keep dreaming, as well as doing some more exploration of realistic possibilities.

I do hope to add links for further information and perhaps an ever-expanding list of some of my (our?) favorite resources. And….

…Sometimes I feel like Trickster, who is forever (literally or figuratively) biting off more than he can chew – – – – always with unexpected results!

But ….
….today, I promised you a Story.

These days many of us think of “stories” as escapes from life, or ways to lull ourselves, or others, into sleep. But Stories are wild & meant not only to comfort us but also to wake us up! Today’s Story and others like it have certainly led me — sometimes, jolted me — to new places, new understandings of myself and of the larger world …..

“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, A Way of Being Free

Like Trickster himself, Stories are shape-shifters. Since the time they were first told, stories have been, again like Trickster, travelers – always “going along…” Like Trickster, they leap boundaries of geography, culture and ownership, and in the leaping they change to fit their new home. Often as they travel and transform, stories and their tellers begin to violate the original sacred practices and social norms — much as Trickster in many of his own Stories crosses forbidden boundaries and violates the rules of the storyteller’s culture. And still the Stories go about their work in the world. In fact, it can be said the Trick is in the Telling.

Cattalina

RAVEN STEALS THE SUN

With gratitude to the Haida storytellers who shared their story and to all those of many cultures who have told & retold this and similar stories over the centuries.
This is my retelling for this day. Because there are so many versions, I cannot promise that this is exactly how it happened, but I can assure you that it holds truth.
~Margery Knott

Raven was going along and as he went he found himself stumbling and bumbling and bumping into unknown objects in the dark.

It was uncomfortable. It was undignified. “Ouch!” said the voice of Beaver. “Watch where you’re treading.” And “Ouch!” cried Raven himself as he tripped over Porcupine.

But there was no light— No light to be seen anywhere in the whole world, in the whole universe. All the light was hidden away where no one could find it.

Raven was tired of stumbling and bumbling and bumping in the dark. He said to the Wind, “O Wind, you go all around the world. Tell me — where is the Light hidden?” But Wind just flapped her many hands and ran away laughing. Even Raven could not fly fast enough to catch her.

Raven went down to the shore where Sea splashed and spilled against the rocks. “Sea,” croaked Raven in his sweetest voice. “O Sea, you are mighty indeed. You cover the world from edge to edge. Surely, you can tell me. Where is the Light hidden?” But Sea just laughed and pulled back its tide.

Now Raven was angry. He was tired of the dark. He wanted the Light. He wanted to gather it up and keep it for himself. “Sea!” he cried. “If you don’t tell me, I will begin to drink. I will drink and drink and drink you dry!”

Sea thought and thought. Sea knew that Raven was angry. Sea knew that Raven was powerful. Sea sent his tides back to tickle Raven’s toes and whisper, “Deep deep below my waves lives Old Man Under Sea. I have seen the faintest gleam seeping from his house. Look within.”

Raven thought. Raven planned. Raven dove deep deep deep and swam to the house where Old Man Under Sea lived with his daughter. He looked in the window. It was too dark to see Old Man. It was too dark to see his daughter. But Raven thought he could see just the faintest gleam of light in a far corner.

Raven knocked politely at the door. Old Man did not unfasten the lock. Old Man did not open the door. “Go away,” said Old Man. “There is nothing here.”

“Old Man, Old Man,” replied the Raven in his most humble voice. “I come to ask you to share your wisdom.”

Old Man Under Sea had just woken from a nap. He was sleepy; his head was not clear. “No!” he shouted. “You have come for my daughter, who may be as beautiful as the first fallen snow or as ugly as an octopus. But who can know — not even I —as long as the Light stays safe in my box. In any case, you cannot have her.”
And Raven could hear him turning away and stomping back to the fireside.

Raven stayed still. He stayed still for a long while. And after a day and a night and a day and a week, a shadowy figure emerged from the house, and though there was no Light, Raven could tell by the rhythm of her steps and how her hips set the world to humming that this was Old Man Under Sea’s daughter.

Raven followed her to the freshwater spring. He heard the splash as her tightly-woven basket hit the surface and the slurp of water as it sank down. That Raven turned himself into a fir needle. That fir needle floated on the water. That fir needle was gathered into the basket. And when the Daughter took a drink of the beautiful fresh water, that fir needle slid down her throat!

Old Man Under Sea’s daughter was pregnant. Inside her belly, Raven was growing and growing into a beautiful baby boy.

When the baby was born, Old Man Under Sea cradled him in his arms and said, “I cannot see you. You may be as beautiful as the first snow or as ugly as an octopus but you are my grandson and I love you.”

That baby grew and grew. He saw a tiny hint of Light gleaming from a carved cedar box half-hidden under a pile of otter pelts in the corner. He crawled over and tried to open it. He began to cry. “Want, want!” he cried in his tiny baby voice. “Want, want!” And louder and louder!

“No,” said Old Man. “No. That is not for you.”
“Want, want!” screamed the baby.
And after hours and hours of this crying, the grandfather opened the box and gave his grandson the box within.

Raven tried to open the box. He tried and tried. “Want! Want!” he cried and cried. And after hours and hours, his grandfather opened the box for him and gave to the baby the next box within. And each time, the gleam of Light from under the lid got a little stronger.

And so it went. And so it went. Down to the 7th carved cedar box. “Oh,” said Grandfather Old Man Under Sea, “oh, how loudly my wonderful grandson does cry. But still the Light is safe in its box. It won’t hurt to let this baby touch the box.”

But there in the dark where no one could see, Raven changed. Raven’s beak was strong. Raven pecked and pecked at the beautiful little carved cedar box. The lid sprang open! And Raven scooped the ball of Light into his beak and flew up and up and out through the smoke hole. He flew and he flew up through the sea. And as he flew up into the sky, rays from the Light struck the eye of Eagle and roused him from his slumber.

Eagle looked. Eagle saw a fat juicy bird flying through the sky illuminated by something in his beak.

Eagle had not been able to hunt in the dark. Eagle was hungry. Eagle flew. Eagle flew faster.

Raven could see Eagle behind him, getting closer and closer. Raven flew as fast as he could but it was not fast enough. Raven opened his beak wide to gulp in more air.

And out fell the Light!

Eagle veered away from the sudden brightness. Raven tried to catch the Light but it shattered and scattered into a great ball of flame in the east and a pale ball of silver in the west and a million million points of light in-between.
Old Man Under Sea rose up to look. Behind him, his daughter came to look , and sure enough, she was as beautiful as new fallen snow. And all the beings — the rooted ones and rock ones and the ones with scales and the ones with fur and the ones with feathers — opened their eyes to a colorful world and gave thanks.

And the Light shone.

And Raven continued on his way, going about his business in this shining world.

Ilya Shalkov