Writer's Block: Advice to Myself
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.
If the words fold their arms and turn their backs,
they learned that posture from you.
Look to the spaces.
No matter how sullen they seem,
words are curious beasts.
If you are lucky, they will
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
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.
Words are angels:
So they won't take you soaring tonight?
True words won't fight by Queensberry rules.
Your wounds will be real.
So will your blessing.
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.
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.
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….?….!
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 ofteninclude endings in which the hunter “rescues” his “enchanted” bride], demonizing the animal form and glorifying themale 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.
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.”
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org . They are so eager to meet new people & places!
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 – – –
Winter Solstice — the shortest day & longest night of the year in the northern hemisphere, the turn of the Earth towards lengthening days — occurred last Tuesday. Since earliest times, humans all over the world have noticed, felt, and expressed the significance of the shifts in light atboth the solstices and equinoxes. For the most part, we can only guess at the earliest myths and rituals associated with these points in the dance of Sun & Earth. Fortunately, at least since Neolithic times, people in a number of places around the globe have built both simple and more elaborate & labor-intensive places to mark the movement of the life-giving Sun.
One of the oldest and most well-known of these sites is Newgrange (Brú na Bóinne) in Ireland, the mythic home of The Dagda (god of Wisdom & Fertility) and his son Aenghus (the god of Love & Dreams). Built ca. 5200 years ago, this massive Neolithic complex of underground passages and chambers, whose stone walls are covered with intricate carvings, was constructed so that only at the Solstice would a ray of sunlight, falling through an opening above the entrance, penetrate all the way through the darkness to light the main chamber. Can you imagine what it must have been like to be deep inside the dark and to watch the light coming in to meet you?
Today, as always, many of us continue to celebrate, in both story and ritual, the return of the Light and retreat of the Dark, whether understood literally or metaphorically — expressing our joy at this cosmic turning through festivals of light such as Diwali, Hanukkah, Christmas, and many other spiritual practices, both old & new. And, everywhere, a symbol for this turning towards a positive Mystery is the Candle. So I’ve been thinking about candles.
At this time, we in the northern hemisphere can count on the lengthening of days, the literal increase in life-giving sunlight. But, in so many ways & on so many levels, Earth and her community (including humans) are going through some metaphorically dark times. I won’t enumerate the many dire challenges we face. You all know them. But the question is: How can we each help facilitate a turning away from destruction and into a place of light, joy, peace?
Have you ever attended a gathering of people standing in the dark, each holding an unlit candle? There are no words to capture the awe that begins as one candle is lit. And the awe expands as the first candle lights another candle & each of those light others & on and on, spreading the illumination outward until every single candle burns with its own lively dancing flame.
Is it possible to do something similar with our own inner light?
The poet Rumi reminds us:
"Being a candle
Is not easy.
In order to give
light one must
I ask myself, Am I willing to light my candle? What will it take? And how can I pass along its loving flame?
One candle is a small thing.
But many, gathered together, can illuminate the world!
Wishing you all peace and joy — now & always…..
Photo credits: Irish Examiner, Geralt, Myriams-Fotos, Mike Labrum
Now the earth slides faster down the long dark days towards Solstice. We’ve been flung almost too far from the center, skidding violently along the curve of space.
The pace presses me flat against the rocks, among the dried debris of summer. Blackberry canes snarl my hair; faded petals or leaves, compressed beyond recognition, cling to my lips and eyes.
Oh, it’s a long slide down to the Solstice.
tugged sunward at last on gravity’s leash:
We’ll hit the corner flying and careen round into who knows what great wind of passage.
may be blown clear out of this cave, clean
onto my feet.
Lifting my arms to
layer upon layer of translucent
color cupped to Earth’s curve,
I’ll feel the thrust of the planet
beneath my feet.
Gulping air straight
from Arctic floes,
I’ll raise my face to
the icy stab of Orion’s sword and
Eighteen years ago I was fortunate to take a life-changing course entitled “The New Cosmology,” taught by Dr. Larry Edwards. It was a week-long intensive class with lots of reading & a paper before the gathering and more reading & a longer paper due a month afterwards. We looked briefly at the origin stories told not only by our Western cultures but also by other cultures around the wold, and considered how different origin stories were both creators of & products of the cultures in which they were found. We looked at the current scientific explanations/stories of cosmic evolution, Earth’s evolution, the evolution of Life, and finally — within the context of these larger patterns — human evolution. We considered the ways that the various species of plants and animals in an ecosystem help shape each other’s evolution, creating distinct traits and skills that interlock. And the human? What is our special trait? Perhaps, Dr. Edwards suggested, it is our ability to become fascinated by what we encounter, to wonder, to simply stop & gawk. One of my classmates added the word “saunter.” That’s it we decided: What makes us human is not simply our physiology or our technical achievements — it is our delight in sauntering & gawking — and then making up stories (whether scientific explanations or extended reflections) about what we’ve encountered.
“Saunter & Gawk!” That pretty much sums up my life this past week. Even in my fiber work, I’ve been doing a sort of saunter-and-gawk as I spend time in the company of some poorly-prepared llama and angora rabbit fibers — trying to understand the nature and “desires” of these tangled fibers. I’ve also been sauntering & gawking with delight in the natural world that surrounds me here and in the written world of ideas & discoveries & the records of unique personal experiences.
A brief question from my brother about a current forest fire here in North Carolina led to questions of geology, and I began saunter (and/or stumble) through information about the geology of this place in which I now find myself living. So much to learn! Much of what I encountered was beyond my comprehension, but I did stop to gawk at some wonderful surprises. I’d sort of assumed that the Piedmont where I live was mostly a result of the erosion of the Appalachian Mountains to the west. Who’d have guessed that this place was — before that — a chain of volcanic islands that were eventually squished between colliding tectonic plates?! Somehow seeing that deeper story of the land upon which I walk daily delights me and makes me feel more at home here.
“‘Alright, Dr. Abram, I understand when you say that we humans are completely embedded within a more-than-human world, and I understand your claim that many other animals, plants, and landforms are at least as necessary as humans are to the ongoing flourishing of the biosphere. But despite the attention and praise that you bestow upon other species, surely you must admit that humankind is something utterly unique in the earthly world?’“
After musing about that question and his responses over the years, Abram goes on to say:
“And after puzzling and pondering the matter, over and again, sussing out the signature traits of our species, I began to feel my way toward a fresh answer, one that rang true to me even as it seemed to satisfy my challengers—or at least to give them pause.“
“For if there’s something exceptional about us two-leggeds, it seems to reside in our ability to become interested in—even fascinated by—well, pretty much anything. Diverse other creatures, as I watch them go about their days, seem to stay fairly focused on a range of matters that concern their own well-being, indulging in other whims and curiosities now and then, but rarely ranging very far afield, with their sustained attention, from the sort of things that seem to grab others of their kind. But we humans have a peculiar proclivity to become fascinated and enthralled by the most incommensurable matters. Among even my close friends, there’s a person who closely studies the antler patterns of moose, another whose hobby involves documenting the life cycle of various lichens, and another whose expertise lies in throwing and baking the perfect Neapolitan pizza. That same baker is also a fine gardener who spends much of her week wooing various butterflies down from the skies to alight on the plants that she’s carefully cultivated for their delectation. There are people who steep themselves in the long-dead languages of lost cultures, and others who listen in on and try to decipher the long-distance utterances of humpback whales. Still others decline to consider those calls as linguistic, but concentrate their talents on playing music with whale songs….
So perhaps there is, indeed, something uniquely unique about our species. Yet we defy this uniqueness when we strive to assert what is most unique about humankind.Whenever we focus so exclusively upon ourselves, training our attention day after day upon the specialness of our species, then we are no longer enacting the very trait that most exemplifies our humanity. ”
Finally, Abrams — after contemplating the linguistic relationships among the words ‘human’ & ‘humus’ & ‘humility’ — counsels humans to remember their intrinsic interdependence with the larger community of other earth-beings and to act, therefore, with appropriate humility.
As I’ve been thinking about saunter-and-gawk, I’ve come round once again to Trickster, for that is what Trickster loves to do — to ramble along, to see something & to get curious about it. But then, thinking only of himself and his desires, Trickster stops looking and just jumps into the situation head first — only to find himself, time and again, in dreadful trouble. Humility is not to be found in Trickster’s vocabulary or in his actions!
Can there by any doubt about what message Trickster stories have for us these days?
We are humans. Who are we?
We are listeners, listening to the song of the Land.
And we are one of the many voices to which the Land listens.
We are spinners, spinning wild fleece into Meaning. And we are the fleece being spun into Meaning by others.
We are weavers, weaving radiant colors into Story. And we are the colors, being woven into others’ Stories.
We are children standing in awe of Cosmic beauty. And we are the Cosmos reflecting on Itself.
And when we sing praise songs, sing songs of gratitude,
Then we become a part of the Song.