War, Peace, Story, Language, Art

I have been doing my small work of making this week. The mask that I showed you a couple weeks ago (2/11), having already declared herself a Spirit of the Betwixt and Between, has suggested that she would be most comfortable in a forest at twilight. Easier said than done, but I’m trying. And Dreaming Towards Dawn (1/28) has also clarified her requests. Next week I’ll say more & send pictures, but today I want to share the art of an award-winning Ukrainian poet and of a Ukrainian painter.

On February 18 & 24, the CBC (Canadian public radio) spoke with the poet Lyuba Yakimchuk (still in Kyiv) and with the Ukrainian-American poet and scholar Oksana Maksymchuk & her husband, Max Rosochinsky, who have translated Yakimchuk’s poetry. You can hear the broadcast & read an accompanying summary at https://www.cbc.ca/radio/ideas/ukrainian-poet-lyuba-yakimchuk-reflects-on-war-and-the-burden-of-a-motherland-1.6364864

Lyuba Yakimchuk is no stranger to armed conflict. She grew up in a small town in the eastern part of Ukraine where separatists began armed conflict after the Ukrainian Revolution of 2014. Her parent still lived in that region & refused to leave. They planted potatoes & they slept on their harvest in the basement during the shelling. Yakimchuk wrote the poem excerpted here:

prayer

"Our Father, who art in heaven
of the full moon
and the hollow sun

shield from death my parents
whose house stands in the line of fire 
and who won't abandon it
like a tomb....
[....]
our daily bread give to the hungry
and let them stop devouring one another

our light give to the deceived
and let them gain clarity 

and forgive us our destroyed cities 
even though we do not forgive for them our enemies

and lead us not into temptation
to go down with this rotting world 
but deliver us from evil 
to get rid of the burden of a Motherland - 
heavy and hardly useful

shield from me 
my husband, my parents
my child and my Motherland"

For the past 5 years, a sniper has occupied the poet’s childhood home.

Yakimchuk speaks of Story and of Language during war time. The meanings of words are not the same in regions at war and those at peace. In her poems, she demonstrates how war deconstructs not only cities and individuals but also language itself. In the interview, she states that “Language is as beautiful as the world. So when someone destroys your world, language reflects that.” In her poem “Decomposition,” Yakimchuk writes:

"...there’s no poetry about war
     just decomposition
    only letters remain
    and they all make a single sound — rrr ..."

And stories — Both Yakimchuk & her translators speak of the ways that “a nation is narration.” Russia and the Ukraine have differing narratives about Nation & about The Golden Age. In the former, history has been rewritten to accommodate the narrative of Mother Russia.

Yakimchuk also describes the dangers of the traditional Ukrainian stories that say heroes are to be found only among the dead. [This reminds me of Trump’s comment that McCain shouldn’t be considered a hero because he had been captured, not killed….] From the article accompanying the CBC interview:

“War is also a story maker,” said Yakimchuk. “There are damaging narratives in every country — in Ukraine as well … Ukrainians believe that the heroes are dead people. According to [this narrative], a person who managed to stay alive, to survive isn’t a hero. And this idea is very dangerous when war is here.”

She points out that it is the survivors who can shape the stories and the future.

Yakichuk says succinctly [again from the CBC article]:

“I believe culture can program people for behavioral models, and that is what I mean when [I write about] a ‘burden of the motherland,'” said Yakimchuk. “It’s our burden, which in the end we should cope with. And we should invent new stories to tell ourselves. If we don’t, our enemies tell them for us.”

The poet and her translators all point out the difference between praying for Victory or for Peace. Words have meaning, words matter — Does one pray to achieve a success which still carries the seeds of on-going war or to change the narrative to something new and completely different? Perhaps this is something we all need to think about, not only in the political sphere but also in the depths of our own lives.

And still, in spite of everything, her translators point out that Yakimchuk’s poetry includes a sense of playfulness, an affirmation of the small everyday joys of life and the little acts of kindness that bind us together. May we, too, remember all that is good in life and build upon that foundation.

from Song of Peace:

     "To Death, said the enemy
       and we said, To Life!
       New life stirred in us
           new pride.
       To Death beat his bullets,
       Lechayim, earth cried
       after the holocaust --
       bursting into bloom.
      To Life, greetings fly
      as field salutes field...
   ...The sun fills up
      the earth's green cup
     Lechayim! Lechayim!
                            To Life!"

…..

We tell stories & share insights not only with words, but through all our creativity, including the visual arts. In her newsletter a few days ago, Julia Fehrenbacher posted this painting by the Ukrainian artist Olesya Hudyma — “Angel of Peace for the Ukraine,” painted in 2015 just after the revolution and during the fighting in the Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine (Donbas) where she had grown up and where her parents still lived. In the midst of turmoil this vision is a prayer for and affirmation of Peace:

“Angel of Peace for Ukraine XII,” 2015 – Olesya Hudyma
https://www.olesyahudyma.com

[I hope you will check out her website olesyahudyma.com to enjoy her beautiful artwork. So many of her paintings are filled with exuberant brushstrokes and color and with details (especially in her Fantasies) that capture the spirit of the Ukraine and its traditional folk arts & tales.]

Remembering the people of the Ukraine
and all the humans and other beings of this Earth community,
let us sing a song of Peace.

Song of Peace

My focus in this blog has been & will continue to be on Story & Creativity. However, today, Trickster has decreed that I must speak of something different, though — when you stop to think about it — intimately related.

In 1969, I took a job teaching in the American school in Tripoli, Libya. I arrived more than a week before school started and enjoyed preparing my classroom & beginning to learn about this part of the North African coast. When I stepped out of the house on Monday, September 1, thinking happily of the students I was about to meet, a neighbor called over the wall [we had no phones]: “No school today. There’s been a revolution.” “Oh,” I responded cheerfully, “I’ll bet you tell all the new teachers that!” No, came his response, this is real. And it was.

Muammar Gaddafi had staged the coup d’etat that put him in power for the next 42 years. I continued to live and teach in Tripoli for 5 years. To keep this short, I will just say that during those years I experienced good times and amazing adventures. I also experienced, besides any normal ups-and-downs of life, some traumatic times, large and small.

I am deeply saddened by the Russian invasion of the Ukraine. Living under a dictator is a matter of life and death.

These deaths include not only those that are not physical but also mental & spiritual, gradually approached through cumulative wounds. For example, one day the school where I taught was notified that all references to Israel must be removed from our library and all teaching materials, including encyclopedias, atlases, and globes. To cover up words with a black marker — to censor — is just such a wound. (Needless to say — but still worth saying — recent moves in the U.S. to selectively ban books and the teaching of history in schools has re-opened that old wound & made me fearful for us and for the children.)

During the recent rise of authoritarian movements (here in the U.S. and around the globe), these past experiences have been vivid & active in my being. I wonder about where this story will go and about how Storytelling and Creativity will fare — how they will be perverted and how they will be used to heal & to open new and better possibilities.

The following litanies & pictures are taken from a thin, not widely-published booklet from 1959 called Song of Peace. It is one that I have treasured since high school, when the optimism of youth made disarmament and peace seem both plain common sense & just over the horizon. The block-prints are by Anton Refregier. I believe that the litanies I quote are by Walter Lowenfels:

"For people to live long
 for farmers to have plenty of milk
 for fish never to dry up in the river
     in my village or yours
          I sing a song of peace."

"For your child not to go pale
     at seeing the Big Birds
 nor tremble before soldiers
     anytime it does something naughty
          I sing a song of peace."

"For lovers to dance
     and to love
 and a mother to rock her child
     in a cradle of her own
          I sing a song of peace."

"That the lilac of the sky
          shouldn't turn into
 a parachute of an assassin
          I sing a song of peace."

"For the fisherman's adventures
 for the bright berries of children's eyes
 for the magic mirror of unexpected birds
     and swallows chirping in the eaves
          I sing a song of peace."


"...On all pages anyone ever read
 on all ... pages
     made of stone
          blood
               papers
                    or cinders
                         I write your name.
 On jungles
     on deserts
 on eagle's nests
     on echoes of my childhood
           I write your name.    .....
  On the springboard of my door
      on every common object
           on the top flame of the fire
               I write your name.
On my each body I love
     on my friends' foreheads
          on every outstretched hand
               I write your name.  .....
 On absence without loving
     on loneliness behind bars
          on the stairway to death
               I write your name.
 On health won back
     on danger passed
          on baseless hope
               I write your name.
 And by the weight of one word
     I start my life over again
 I was born to know you
     and to call you by your name
                PEACE!"

May it be so.

Stories as Living Beings

This morning (Thursday) I read Amy Codjoe’s remarkable and sensitive short essay, “This Land Was Made: Considering the soil that bears witness to Americahttps://orionmagazine.org/article/this-land-was-made/?mc_cid=fe57d0b1c4&mc_eid=db8c698749. The essay is a moving contemplation of her African American heritage and its relationship to the land. Many things in it struck deep chords of meaning that are still resonating within me — too many, too much to try to explicate in this space. That would be like trying to summarize a poem. You need to experience it yourself — and I hope you will take the time to do so.

But here, because of other things that have been percolating in my mind over the past weeks, I do want to think about her beautiful use of the words “altered” & “altared.” She writes:

“The soil of this land has been altered—altared—by blood, sweat, and tears falling from black and brown bodies. Even when I am not aware of this, I am aware of this.”

And again:

“We altar the land. We create sites of mourning and remembrance on street corners and paint portraits of our murdered in mural-bright colors. We use our green thumbs to …. cultivate a plot of city garden, or kitchen herbs, or acres and acres of farmland.

We pull weeds, again and again. Clean the dirt from under our nails. We begin to act as if what we know is true. As if we’re running out of time.”

ALTER = change; ALTAR = “place which serves as a center of worship or ritual,” …”often used figuratively to describe a thing given great or undue precedence or value especially at the cost of something else” (MerriamWebster)

One way to think of rituals is as myths or stories enacted within a sacred space or in order to create a sacred space — to recognize or to make an altar. I’ve spoken about the rising of myth & story from the land itself in indigenous cultures around the world. Myth/Story, Ritual, and Daily Life are inseparable from the Land, which is not only altered but also altared by the living Earth community of which humans are an integral part.

And here I am in North America, born to this land for generations and still a descendant of immigrants who were driven by a variety of circumstances from their native lands in Europe, where their ancestors had learned the myths and stories that had arisen from those particular places, had altered and altared the land over centuries or millennia. What did it mean to them to leave behind the places that held their stories?

We all know many of the ways in which immigrants may alter — and be altered by — the new lands in which they find themselves. Here, in the part of North America where I am now living, the alterations to the land are obvious — swamps drained; forests clear-cut; mountain-tops removed and dumped so that they fill surrounding valleys & bury the streams; soils depleted by unmindful agriculture or scraped away to accommodate buildings…. Living land entombed beneath asphalt & concrete….. We can see that the Land (which includes its geological features and its community of life) has been altered. But have we altared it? If so, what is the meaning of those “altars” evoked by our alterations? For what purpose have they been created? For the well-being of the all-encompassing Earth community or for personal convenience, comfort, profit? I think these are important questions to contemplate.

How do we gently and meaningfully altar (or re-altar) the place where we find ourselves now — in this precise moment of being?

We can do it through our actions. To me, the flooding of fields to make them hospitable to the birds who have flown to the now-missing swamps winter upon winter beyond counting is a making of altar. So is the thoughtful re-introduction of elk and red wolves to the places that gave them birth. And many of us consciously do this altaring of place through our creative work whether our materials are garden soil & native plants, clay, cloth, words, metal, paints, or unspoken dreams….

Sharon Blackie has, in all her written work & oral teachings, stressed the important interconnections among the threads of Story/Myth, Place (in all its aspects), and Human well-being. She often speaks of an original compact of mutual care that must exist among Land, Culture, and “the Otherworld” (however you experience & name the Life Force or Divinity or Mystery). Stories known from many (all?) cultures tell of the wasteland that results from the cutting or the mindless tangling & distortion of these three essential threads of our existence. Dr. Blackie speaks movingly of the need to “re-mythologize” the Land, which is another way of altaring it.

The task of “re-mythologizing” becomes more and more urgent in this time of increasing alienation “– alienation from ourselves, our fellow human beings, and the world we live in. In a 2016 [UK Office for National Statistics] report, around 40 per cent of adults reported that they did not feel a sense of belonging to the places where they lived, and in people under twenty-four the figure rose to a remarkable 50 per cent.” (Blackie, The Enchanted Life)

In her essay “Belonging to the Land’s Dreaming” — https://www.humansandnature.org/belonging-to-the-lands-dreaming — Dr. Blackie writes:

“When I try to explain to people the essence of my relationship to place, I usually call myself a “serial rooter.” I’ve lived in many places during my life, but I’ve rooted deeply in almost all of them. …… [A]t the very deepest level, place makes us who we are. We think that we imagine the land, but perhaps the land imagines us, and in its imaginings, it shapes us. The exterior landscape interacts with our interior landscape, and in the resulting entanglements, we become something more than we otherwise could ever hope to be.”

“…. For many of us today, though, our relationship with place has become demythologised—a fact which is both an explanation for and a consequence of our sense of alienation from the world around us. Remythologising our places, then, is not just an interesting intellectual exercise, but an act of radical belonging. Like any other species on this planet, we badly need to be grounded; we need to find our anchor in place, wherever we might happen to live. Stories can be our anchors.”

“We’ve forgotten much of the old dreaming; it’s time to scrabble amidst the rubble, and see what stories we can unearth. But even more important is the need to participate in the process of its never-ending becoming. If the stories of a place are alive and transforming, then so is the soul of the world as it expresses itself in that place. And so are we, held within it. Because it’s acts of imagining, ultimately, which keep the world alive and thriving. The land is waiting for those who know how to watch and listen; for those who are open and know how to dream. It’s time to dream along with it.” 

Speaking of the Hudson River Valley, the bioregion in which he then dwelt, Thomas Berry [early explorer of deep ecology & theologian — or, as he preferred, “Geologian”] wrote in The Dream of the Earth:

“Tell me a story, a story that will be my story as well as the story of everyone and everything about me, the story that brings us together in a valley community, a story that brings together the human community with every living being in the valley, a story that brings us together under the arc of the great blue sky in the day and the starry heavens at night, a story that will drench us with rain and dry us in the wind, a story told by humans to one another that will also be the story that the wood thrush sings in the thicket, the story that the river recites in its downward journey, the story that Storm King Mountain images forth in the fullness of its grandeur.”

Have you learned the old stories told by those indigenous to the place where you live? Have you discovered new stories that can help heal the wounds in this unique place, in its life community, in ourselves? Here is a photo of some roots along the road I walked this afternoon. How many stories are embodied here? How many myths are being called forth?

movement towards form

Writer's Block:  Advice to Myself

I.

Follow the words.
Trust their pathfinding ways.
Like mountain goats, they have
hoofs -- sharp and narrow --
sure to find and pursue
the faintest ripple on 
a sheer rock face.

II.

If the words fold their arms and turn their backs,
remember 
they learned that posture from you.

Look to the spaces.
Slip between.
No matter how sullen they seem,
words are curious beasts.
If you are lucky, they will
follow you,
peek over your shoulder,
dart at last under your arm, rushing ahead to run
questing fingers and eyes over
this country of which they have not
yet dreamed.

III.

If you are stubbing your toe on words,
pick them up and place them in the midst of
anything that flows.
Remember it is stones that set
the rivers singing.

IV.

Words are angels:
So they won't take you soaring tonight?
Don't pout.
Reach out.
Grab hold,
Wrestle.

True words won't fight by Queensberry rules.
Your wounds will be real.
So will your blessing.

                                                            MCK

**********

And, without words,
Moving towards form:

The Land Speaks in Swans….

Tired of all who come with words, words but no language
I went to the snow-covered island.
The wild does not have words.
The unwritten pages spread themselves in all directions!
I come across the marks of roe-deer's hooves in the snow.
Language, but no words.

— Tomas Tranströmer

I love this poem by the Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer. It always reminds me of the summer of 1964, which I spent in Kenya and Tanzania as an undergraduate research assistant studying baboon behavior with Dr. Irven DeVore. In addition to the required reports of my observations, I’d planned to keep a personal journal of my own feelings & experiences — but I couldn’t. For these, I had no words.

Those were the days when, for example, it was OK for a scientist to talk about struggles for “dominance” among animals or about “instinctive bonding,” but any mention of emotional relationships or personal preferences among animals was met with outraged cries of “Oh No! Anthropomorphizing! Not Science!” [And, of course, that’s still true in some circles today.] I had to record the notes needed for the research project in the typical scientific language that pretends to be devoid of personal perspective, emotion, or judgement. And, of course, the constraints of this scientific language we used to translate our observations & experiences created the illusion of distance from the actual bio-scape in which we were, in fact, not some disembodied & unconnected “observers” but active participants.

For the deeper experience of spending whole days alone with a multitude of diverse other-than-human species, I found I could construct no adequate English sentences. I complained to myself about the “limits of language” but, of course, I was surrounded by a multitude of aural & visual languages akin to the “the marks of roe-deer’s hooves” — some of which I did learn. “Language” itself was not the problem. It was my own native English language — with its inherent tendency to separate & depersonalize — that led to my frustration. I imagined that the original languages of peoples native to & woven into that place — human languages that had arisen in close attunement to the languages of the land & its other inhabitants — might include not only a vocabulary but also a grammar through which I could have found ways to express my feelings and experiences of relationship. [I have since learned that this is true of Native American languages.]

My husband & I encountered the same problem years later, when we lived on a farm in the woods near the Blue Ridge Mountains. We could not find English words to use as a short-hand to describe our relationship with the clear mountain river that ran near our house. To say “our” river suggested an “ownership” that did not exist & which would have completely contradicted the nature of our relationship. We were not the “possessors” of the magical river. It was relationship, not possession. Respect, love, admiration, and humility….

Even terms like “nature” (meaning “other” than human) and “environment” (that which “surrounds” — i.e., is distinct from — something) cut us English-speaking humans off from our true kinship with Earth community. Trying to describe my experience of being with the swans this past week presents a similar sort of conundrum….

The time at the refuges was beautiful — overflowing with beauty … both the beauty of the swans and other creatures themselves & the beauty of my own comprehension of kinship with them… and so much more.

This was not the completely immersive experience we’d had with the great migrating flocks at Chincoteague, a refuge established in my birth year of 1943 & bearing fewer obvious marks of human control. Many of the swans we saw here in North Carolina were dispersed in small groups on fields that had been specially flooded after the harvest. We did see one large gathering of tundra swans (hundreds, thousands?) on the far side of Pocosin Lake. At one point, something must have disturbed them for they all rose together, filling the air with the loud music of both wings & voices as they swept in one coherent cloud around and around the lake before settling down again on the water. Majestic, awe-inspiring, far beyond words…

And I had the good fortune of watching from only yards away as otters swam and hunted under the water. Two rose separately to the surface, each with a big fish in his or her mouth, and galumphed off into the woods on opposite sides of the drainage ditch. One had to cross the dirt road where we were standing. I’ve seen otters swimming and playing — sliding on ice on the river near our old home — but I’d never seen one moving on land. Like the swans, so graceful in their water element but more awkward-seeming in their land-bound movements. Again, beauty….

Another blessing was my encounter with the land itself. Flat, flat, completely flat. [I’ll never again complain that the land around Greensboro is too flat!] I quickly became aware of all the drainage ditches & dikes that, over the hundreds of years since the European incursion, have turned the land from a variety of biologically rich swamps into fields for industrialized agricultural production. Not until the mid-1980s were national wildlife refuges established in this area of eastern North Carolina to at least partially restore some of the wetlands & to offer some protection to native plants and animals, including the great flocks of migrating birds. Current “management” includes such programs as on-going research, soil & water supervision, prescribed burning, and cooperative farming — a complex response to a complex situation.

It reminded me of our recent trip to the elk restoration project in the Appalachian mountains of southwestern Virginia and Kentucky. Ironically, the elk restoration was located on the “restored” land that remained after mountaintop-removal mining. At least it seemed an acknowledgement or gesture, though small, of restitution for human destruction of our kin. Needless to say, my response there, as it was last week, was mixed — grief for the destruction of irreplaceable Earth communities, hope for the efforts that are being made to mitigate the devastation & move into a more compassionate future.

Anyway, my husband & I were much restored in mind, body, and spirit by last week’s encounters. And my curiosity was also set aflame with many wonderings — about the land and its history, about the “official” human relationships with animals (e.g., the discontinued red wolf recovery project may soon be re-instated), and about the tundra swans themselves & their incredible annual migrations. How can the swans fly round-trip every year from Alaska & northern Canada to the mid-Atlantic seaboard of the U.S.?!

Our individual inner well-being, like our physical health, cannot be separated from the well-being of Earth community — from the well-being of all our relations. As always, the poets say it best:

Ah, not to be cut off, 
not through the slightest partition 
shut out from the law of the stars. 
The inner -- what is it? 
if not intensified sky, 
hurled through with birds and deep with the winds of homecoming.

— Rainer Maria Rilke

photo from Pixnio

Gone Looking for Swans

Mythtelling assumes that the stories already exist in nature, waiting to be overheard by humans who will listen for them…a myth is the power of place speaking.

Sean Kane, wisdom of the mythtellers

David Abrams, Sharon Blackie, and many others speak of the relationship between Story and Place. Keith H. Basso devotes his book Wisdom Sits in Places to the relationship of landscape, language, and story among the Western Apache. As was it told to him:

“Wisdom sits in places. It’s like water that never dries up. You need to drink water to stay alive, don’t you? Well, you also need to drink from places. You must remember everything about them. You must learn their names. You must remember what happened at them long ago. You must think about it and keep thinking about it. Then your mind will become smoother and smoother.”

For the past few months, I’ve been contemplating the meaning of Place. We’ve lived here for 6 years. Although I have begun to put down roots, they have not yet deepened as I long for them to do here in North Carolina. Since I’ll live here the last years of my life, I keep the process alive. The big old oaks and the animals in our neighborhood (owls, hawks, crows, possums, a beautiful fox — and, I’m told, also a racoon) all help me grow roots. Seeing wild swans here in NC feels just like what I need now to be totally Here.

Living in Virginia at the edge of the ancient Appalachians and in the midst of woods filled with a wonderful assortment of wildlife, including a doe nesting near the house, bears that came to eat our pears, & herons nesting by and guarding the clear Tye River, I easily took root. Cris & I took 2 winter trips up to Chincoteague just to hang out for a while with the flocks of birds that had made their yearly trip down from the north. That felt so real and so magical! It enlarged my sense of place. But, now that I long to see a tundra swan again, Chicoteague is too far.

Googling has led me to a cluster of National Wildlife Refuges near the shore — just 2 and 1/2 hours from here — with overwintering birds and even some red wolves that are part of the re-wilding program there. So — we’re off this week to be with the birds for a few days! Though I doubt if we’ll see any wolves, it will be so good to know that we are in the woods with them, and they may be seeing us.

I’m being very careful about Covid, but since we found a place to stay with its own kitchen, I feel safe enough to go. We’ll be back Friday, the 28th, and next week I’ll let you know how it went.

In the meantime, I spent some time this weekend working with fiber. My intuition was right: Clearing space through gifting has led to an amazing upsurge of creative energy. My re-engagement with a partially completed project led me around in some circles until I realized a significant change in direction was required. Sometimes working/making with fiber or words seems like putting together a 1,000-piece jigsaw with no image of the completed picture to guide me. But then, that’s the fun — the discovery, at the end, of what the materials and I have co-created! I am continually surprised!

When I finished this particular mask, I thought “he” might be the Spirit of Ochre, but as I tried to entice “him” into possible ochre-y cave-like contexts, she shook her head firmly and said “No, I am a dream of Sunrise.” OK. I wove this for her & now she seems satisfied and settled. I’ll fiddle some more with hair and fringe, sew in the loose ends, line the mask, and put it together when we get home.

Dream Towards Sunrise (wool, alpaca, silk) MCK

In the meantime, while I thought I was heading in that direction, I became fascinated by Ochre — painted on cave walls and on bodies around the world, sculptured on hair in Africa, used as protection from insects & sunburn & as a dietary supplement, and in prehistoric times a key ingredient in an adhesive used to attach stone points of arrows & spears to their shafts. Ochre is a form of earth sacred to humans. It is believed by some to have been instrumental in the spread of our ancient ancestors and possibly in their physical development. So, here is my current heap of inspiring colors & textures, including some samples I over-dyed with walnut and iron to tone down the too-bright terracotta. (The colors are more subtle, not as bright as in the photo.) We’ll see where it goes….?….!

Love & blessings, Margery (Tuesday, January 5)

A Circle of Swans: Story as Healing, Story as Wings

About a week ago, someone mentioned stars and their stories and — for whatever reason — I suddenly remembered an essay I’d written 15 years ago as a post-paper several weeks after taking the course “Introduction to Indigenous Mind” with Dr. Apela Colorado (Oneida) at the University of Creation Spirituality in California.

Have you ever encountered something you’ve written or made or done — but not thought about for a long, long time — and said “How could I have been so wise?!” That happened to me when I read this paper (followed, unfortunately, by the question “And how can I have forgotten so much?”). In fact, in a number of ways, it felt like my paper had been written to address some of my current questionings & pondering about place, story, and the rootlessness stemming from histories of colonization and modern industrial culture.

There is so much I would like to share with you from this paper I entitled “A Circle of Swans: Story as Healing, Story as Wings,” but it’s too long — a full essay + 2 photos and, as an appendix, a story I’ll share with you another time. So I’ll content myself (and, I hope, not bore you too much) with several lengthy excerpts.

After an introductory page describing my intentions as I started the class and my actual arrival for the 1st class on a misty morning when the neighboring Lake Merritt was alive with geese and ducks & a flotilla of majestic pelicans suddenly swooped down out of the fog, I wrote:

*******

Given my intentions, I was not surprised to find that our Indigenous Mind gathering was to be held as ceremony rather than seminar. Still, I was not prepared for the forceful bodily shock of recognition I received that first morning when [something I could barely catch] was said linking “Swan” and “European ancestors.” It was as if my heart had been torn open. Of the experience, I wrote in my journal: “If I came here for no other reason than that, it is enough.”

And I immediately remembered several other “swan messages” in my life: the small antique felted swan handed down through my mother’s German family, my three or four encounters during recent months with a profound swan poem by Rilke, […] my life-long identification with the first part of Hans Christian Anderson’s “Ugly Duckling Tale”….

That same afternoon, in Kaleo Ching’s mask-making class, we worked with partners, learning to feel each others energy. My partner asked to share the image that she had felt leaping from my heart. “First,” she said, ” I heard a loud trumpet sound, and then I saw a golden trumpet. Then from out of the trumpet flew a white bird, followed by a golden sunburst opening and expanding.” I was stunned. I am a quiet sort, not a “trumpet-person” I think. What could it mean?

It was not until the next day that I began to put the emerging white bird together with the compelling Swan of my ancestors. Then, on Wednesday, Apela blew the auroch’s horn for the calling of the ancestors — and again, I was stunned, opened to and for something powerful and unknown. Only now, after having learned of Swan’s [liminal nature and] associations with Sun and music, am I beginning to glimpse ever fuller meanings and further responsibilities. [In her comments here, Apela notes that “SZAN (Sanskrit) is the mythological transference of pure light into sound.”]

[Swan symbolism abounds in stories and art going back to prehistoric times and is found in many lands. Swans are associated with transformation in its many forms, including rebirth. After looking at swan-symbolism & story through the ages, the paper then focuses on one type of tale: the Swan Maiden stories.]

Seemingly sprung from more ancient roots than the Swan-Knight stories and found throughout northern lands, the Swan-Maiden story appears in many guises. Among some northern peoples (Inuit and western Scots, for instance), the central figure [of such stories] is a Seal-maiden [Selkie] rather than a swan, but the Swan-maiden is most common.

In the simplest telling of the Swan-maiden, a hunter spies on several beautiful swans who have flown down and removed their Swan-skins to bathe as beautiful women. Being lonely, the hunter hides one of the Swan-skins, thereby trapping the creature in human form, and takes her as his wife. After living with her husband for many years and bearing his children, the Swan is fading and failing until at last she finds her hidden Swan-skin — or one of her children does. She dons the skin, renewed, and flies away.

[There are many different versions, with different endings depending on the time and culture in which they were told. Later versions often include endings in which the hunter “rescues” his “enchanted” bride], demonizing the animal form and glorifying the male hero-quest, speaking volumes about the kind of changes occurring European cultures during the last millenium….

As I read the Swan-maiden tales, I found myself growing sadder and sadder — gripped by the flat “either/or” choices of the story’s frame. Either wildness or domesticity, either freedom or love, either soaring flight or stable family, either spirit or society…. These stories portray a fatal splitting of the soul, of reality itself — as if such dualism is inevitable, as if there can be no bridge between worlds and ways of being, no way that the paradox can be sustained.

There are many ways to hear an ancient story. We can focus on classifying it according to folkloric “type.” We can analyze its “structure.” We can hold it at scientific arm’s length and try to view it through an anthropological or literary lens. Or we can embrace the story, and — more important — let it embrace us.

The Jungian analyst Barry Williams says that we do not need to solve the puzzle of our dreams; rather, the dreams come to “solve us.” Rabbi Lawrence Kushner has suggested that myth and sacred text are the dreams of a culture and should be approached as such. And so I ask myself, how are these Swan-maiden stories coming now to “solve” — to heal — some hurt in my heart, some wound in my culture? I sit with the small felted figure of a mute swan in my hand and think of my mother — a woman who, in many ways, laid aside her Swan-garment and ceased to fly. I think of myself and the ways in which my own life has been lived or unlived. I consider how — in an amazing Art-As-Meditation class three and a half years ago — when Luisah Teish asked us to find a new name for ourselves and to “tell the story of how we were given that name,” I told (without knowing what it was or what it meant) a sort of Swan-maiden story — a story of the recovery of my wings.

And then I opened a book and read one more Swan-maiden story.

Now, to offer a mere summary of a story is to commit a kind of murder, but once again, for the sake of this paper and its limits, I present the bare bones, knowing that, with a teller’s sweet breath, they can rise dancing and cloaked again in beautiful living flesh. This one is the Irish Celtic myth of Aonghus (Angus) Og, the god of dreams and love, of beauty and poetry — a god of delight who is followed everywhere by birds circling his head like kisses and sweet laughter:

Night after night Aonghus is visited in his dreams by a beautiful woman but, though he falls ill with longing, she refuses to stay with him into the day. Lovesick, Aonghus will not eat and — hoping to prevent his death — those who love him set out to find the strange woman. After long searching and many setbacks, the lovely Caer Imbormeith is discovered at last — one of a flock of swans who spend alternate years in human form.

And does Aonghus steal Caer’s swan-skin to trap her in human form? Does he catch her and force her to make a choice? Of course not! Aonghus himself takes the form of a swan and flies off with Caer to consummate their love as swans.

And so it is that Aongus and Caer dwell together alternating years — Samhain to Samhain — as swans and as human in their home, Bru Na Boinne. And their singing is so sweet that those who hear it are blessed with three days and three nights of enchanted sleep.

Swans still swim near Bru Na Boinne — now known as Newgrange, built more than 5000 years ago — on the Boyne River, named for Aonghus’s mother Boann. … [A shaft of light stills enters the dark interior of Newgrange on the Winter Solstice and] researchers Anthony Murphy and Richard Moore have also linked the orientation and construction of Newgrange’s passages to the stars in the swan constellation Cygnus.

[Here I briefly discuss some of the] deliciously long and tangled threads of connection [this story has with other symbols and myths, but go on to say that] For now I want to rest with Aonghus and Caer in their home at Newgrange, basking in the possibilities they open for our world. When I first saw Aonghus turn swan to join Caer, rising on great silver wings, something old and heavy unclenched in my soul, as if a fist had relaxed into an open and generous hand. Not either/or but both/and! Not “masculine vs. feminine,’ but wholly human. Not “man against nature,” but “humans as an integral part of Earth.” Not “freedom vs. affiliation” or “individuality vs. community,” but compassion, …compassion, …compassion….

*******

Several days after returning home from that class, I went — on pure impulse — to a small lake near my home. I had seen geese and ducks there on previous visits. But this time, there was something different: a single swam floating in the center of the lake.

my family’s old felted swan, resting with a feather and in a shell found at Chincoteague in the winter where snow geese, tundra swans, and ducks of many kinds were flocking in their thousands during the cold months when their northern breeding grounds were frozen

With Love to All Those Who Have Rekindled My Inner Fire

This week, in an online discussion group, someone posted a quote from Albert Schweitzer that would have fit perfectly in my 12/24 blog:

“In everyone’s life, at sometime, our inner fire goes out. It is then rekindled by an encounter with another human being. We should all be thankful for those people who have rekindled our inner spirit.”

Albert Schweitzer

As I look back over my life I am amazed by how very many times my own inner light has flickered or seemed to go out, only to be rekindled even more brightly by an encounter with the needed teacher. That teacher may have appeared in any form. It might have been as a wise tutor, a student, a friend, a family member, or a stranger…. It might have been as a story or a poem, an animal, a tree or a forest, a river or lake or ocean, a rock, some ice crystals glinting in late afternoon sun, a garden, the way tall grass speaks when the wind passes, the smell of soil after a rain, or…… I wish I could name all those teachers that have rekindled my spirit when I have forgotten to feed my fire or have hidden it so completely that — starving for air — it has been smothered, extinguished by my own reluctance. Fortunately, our true teachers — the beings who help us rekindle and replenish the fires of our hearts — are everywhere. They find us when we stay open to at least the possibility that a flame could be offered to help us keep burning brightly.

How many times has the smell of hay or even old landscaping straw pulled me out of dark thoughts & taken me back to the times when I have been in deep relationship with horses and their wisdom & spirit?!

Certainly Trickster Stories have held out their torches again & again — patiently offering their lessons until I finally peek out from behind my shield of fears & realize that they approach with their wild flames not to burn down my house but to keep its hearth alive with fire.

And I will never forget what happened during a difficult time when I lived in Lynchburg, VA. I was feeling both overwhelmed by & disconnected from my life, and my inner light was quickly fading. I longed hopelessly for the kind of companionship and encouragement that I seem to find so easily in deep wilderness. Then one morning, while I was walking my beloved Siberian husky in the park across the street from my apartment, I saw three vultures feasting on something on the sidewalk just ahead. As I approached, one of the vultures flew to the top of an adjacent chain-link fence, looked at me in exasperation, put her hands on her hips, and said firmly, ” You ARE in the midst of it!” Immediately I was filled with joy & awe, my feet were once again gripping the earth, and my body wanted to do a “vulture dance” – even though I didn’t know exactly what that meant.

Indeed, wherever we are, we are in the midst of Life, in the midst of the Mystery. I didn’t need reminders of that during the two decades I lived on our llama farm in the woods — or, perhaps I should say, the reminders there were omnipresent! Now, in my more urban location, the old oaks remind me, and I am reminded every time one of the neighborhood hawks or owls comes to visit, or when I’m lucky enough to be looking out the kitchen window as a possum scuttles out from under the workshop in back & hurries off into the deepening dusk. A recent unexpected glimpse of a fox just a block from our house reminded & delighted me:

In my heart I am sending a love letter to each of the multitude of people & other beings (some long gone, some forgotten or unnoticed at the time) who have so touched me and kept me truly alive. 

I imagine there may be people who have always tended and enlarged their own inner fire, but I think I am not the only one who can look back at flickerings and fadings that were rekindled just in the nick of time by just the right teacher. It might be fun to look back and trace the fortunes of your own bright spirit. Who were the helpers that reached out to reignite your flame if/when it dwindled?

*******

PostScript to last week: I was so happy to send out the Raven shawl & 3 masks this week. I received a 2nd request for one of the masks shown in the post, so ended up sending out a different but related mask that I still wanted to clutch close to me & so hadn’t listed. Apparently, my masks are less reticent about showing up in the world than I am! There are more teachers here, with many lessons for me to learn, unlearn, or relearn! Ember Dreaming Flame, Waking Lion Spirit, and Desert Dreaming are still available — ready to fly off as gifts to you or to someone you know.

Still Thinking about Gifts…

While re-reading Lewis Hyde’s The Gift, I especially enjoyed his use of folktales to demonstrate old ways of understanding the nature of gift. I thought about Raven Steals the Sun (3/19/2021) and Raven Steals the Water (10/15/2021). These stories focus not on the giving of gifts, but on the irreverence and immorality of hoarding. The gift is only dispersed – as it should be – when a single individual (Raven) finds it too large to be selfishly contained.

For several months, I’ve had trouble focusing on my mask projects. I cleaned my studio & cleared off my work surfaces, but that didn’t solve the problem. The walls are crowded with finished pieces and I can’t help feeling two things: Although I am still learning from looking at them, I feel the masks are getting tired of looking at me. And new masks seem reluctant to come until there is space for them to exist…. Then, recently, I re-read Charles de Lint’s fantasy novel Memory & Dream. In this story, the subjects of oil portraits beg their painter to release them into the wider world. This fits perfectly both with my intuition & with comments in The Gift. Hyde reminds us:

“An essential portion of an artist’s labor is not creation so much as invocation. …[We must create] within ourselves that ‘begging bowl’ to which the gift is drawn.”

“Bestowal creates that empty space into which new energy may follow.”

“Passing the gift along is the act of gratitude that completes the labor.”

I’ve long known the necessity of letting one’s work fly free. My poetry, for example, flows freely when I am part of a mutually-sharing writers group where it is read and heard by others. On the other hand, when I just shut away my writings in a drawer or a file, that creative spark soon flickers and fades away.

But I haven’t known what to do about the accumulating masks. They seem too specific, somehow intrusive to give as Christmas or birthday gifts — as I’ve done with scarves, shawls, handmade books, etc. It has been suggested that I sell them. However, having sold — & then stopped selling — one-of-a-kind shawls whose making had always felt to me more like bestowing hugs than manufacturing articles of clothing — I have no idea how I would comfortably go about organizing that. Anyway, the masks feel more like prayers than commodities & I do have the luxury/privilege of being able to just let them go.

So, I’ve put pictures of several of my older pieces here. I’m hoping that some of you may find that one of them calls to you. If so, please contact me with your address at margery@trickstershoard.com . They are so eager to meet new people & places!

So I

The Season of Giving

Three Muses for the year to come (MCK)

Mid-Winter & Festivals of Light are in many traditions a time for gift-giving. Nowadays the idea of Gift is so commercialized & fraught with emotional baggage of one kind or another that it is easy to lose track of the deeper nature of Gift as a sacred movement of energy between people. I have been thinking a lot about the nature of gifts. Each day is a gift. Each breath of air is a gift. As Lewis Hyde says in his excellent book The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property, “I think a gift…is a mystery.”

Certainly all of you have been a real gift to me during the months since Spring Equinox. Thank you. I tried to think of what I could give in return, but as Fra Giovanni has said so eloquently:

“I have nothing I can give you which you have not, but there is much, very much, that while I cannot give it, you can take. No heaven can come to us unless our hearts find rest in today. Take Heaven! No peace lies in the future which is not hidden in this present instant. Take Peace! The gloom of the world is but a shadow, behind it, yet within reach is joy. Take Joy! There is a radiance and glory in the darkness, could we but see, and to see, we have only to look. I beseech you to look! Life is so generous a giver, but we, judging its gifts by their covering, cast them away as ugly, or heavy, or hard. Remove the covering, and you will find beneath it a living splendor woven of love, by wisdom, with power. Welcome it, grasp it! …. And so at this time, I greet you. Not quite as the world sends greetings but with profound esteem and with the prayer that for you, now and forever, the day breaks and the shadows flee away.”

And then, too, Neil Gaiman’s blessing for a New Year:

"May your coming year be filled 
with magic and dreams and good madness.  
I hope you read some fine books and kiss someone who thinks you're wonderful.
And don't forget to make some art -
write or draw or build or sing or live as only you can.
And I hope, somewhere in the next year,
you surprise yourself."

Sending you love & all best wishes for a year where your curiosity burns bright and you make discoveries that fill you with awe & joy – – –

Margery Knott