Living Into the Mystery

These days, we seem to have been set adrift by all the violence of the environmental, political, cultural turmoil in which we are living. Even the regular circling of the seasons — which has always been a way for me to ground myself — has been changing. Last year, here in central North Carolina, the weather at Winter Solstice was still so mild it felt like late October. Some daffodils and even a few cherry trees bloomed in January and February. This spring, even before the end of May, we have experienced high temperatures that I would normally associate with late July or August. And if I find this disorienting, it can only be more so for the plants and the animals.

In the midst of all this, It is easy to despair, to self-isolate, to hide from the chaos. “What next?” seems to be the lament of the day.

Yesterday, by delightful serendipity, I discovered an excellent article in Emergence Magazine, by the writer, wilderness teacher, mythologist & storyteller Martin Shaw.

It is filled with the reminders I needed just then to help me out of the all-too-easy swamp of dismay and gloom & back onto the path, into the play of Life.

This very rich and, for me, nourishing essay is filled with examples from folktale and myth & concludes by offering four areas in which we may, if we choose, begin the Work of navigating Mystery. You can read — or listen to Shaw read — his full essay at https://emergencemagazine.org/essay/navigating-the-mysteries/ . Here I offer a some excerpts [lengthier than I’d expected] that speak, I think, to the heart of his message.

Illustration by moonassi

Excerpts from “Navigating the Mysteries”

by Martin Shaw

The correct response to uncertainty is mythmaking. It always was. Not punditry, allegory, or mandate, but mythmaking. The creation of stories. We are tuned to do so, right down to our bones. The bewilderment, vivacity, and downright slog of life requires it. And such emerging art forms are not to cure or even resolve uncertainty but to deepen into it. There’s no solving uncertainty. Mythmaking is an imaginative labor not a frantic attempt to shift the mood to steadier ground. There isn’t any.

But—a major but—maybe there’s useful and un-useful uncertainty. The un-useful is the skittish, fatiguing dimension. The surface of the condition. The useful is the invitation to depth that myth always offers. Because if there’s uncertainty, then we are no longer sure quite what’s the right way to behave. And there’s potential in that, an openness to new forms. We are susceptible to what I call sacred transgression. Not straight-up theft but a recalibrating of taboo to further the making of culture. [sounds to me like the Trickster spirit!]

…..

What if we reframed “living with uncertainty” to “navigating mystery”? There’s more energy in that phrase. The hum of imaginative voltage. And is our life not a mystery school, a seat of earthy instruction?

There are few tales worth remembering that don’t have uncertainty woven into them. Without uncertainty we have mission statements not myth. We have polemic not poetry, sign not symbol. There’s no depth when we are already floating above true human experience. And true human experience has always involved ambiguity, paradox, and eventually the need for sheer pluck. Uncertainty doesn’t feel sexy, I admit. It can derail confidence, make us neurotic, doubt ourselves. But mythic intelligence suggests we have to negotiate such terrain for a story of worth to surround us. I don’t say this lightly; it has real testing attached.

…..

But to navigate mystery is not the same thing as living with uncertainty. It doesn’t contain the hallmarks of manic overconfidence or gnawing anxiety. It’s the blue feather in the magpie’s tale [sic]. Hard to glimpse without attention. There’s no franchise or hashtag attached. Navigating mystery humbles us, reminds us with every step that we don’t know everything, are not, in fact, the masters of all.

As humans we’ve long been forged on the anvil of the mysteries: Why are we here? Why do we die? What is love? We are tuned like a cello to vibrate with such questions. What is entirely new is the amount of information we are receiving from all over the planet. So we don’t just receive stress on a localized, human level, we mainline it from a huge, abstract, conceptual perspective. Perpetual availability to both creates a nervous wreck.

The old stories say, enough; that one day we have to walk our questions, our yearnings, our longings. We have to set out into those mysteries, even with the uncertainty. Especially with the uncertainty. Make it magnificent. We take the adventure. Not naively but knowing this is what a grown-up does. We embark. Let your children see you do it. Set sail, take the wing, commit to the stomp. Evoke a playful boldness that makes even angels swoon. There’s likely something tremendous waiting.

…..

I haven’t got a damn thing to say about living on Mars with Elon Musk. The essential ingredients of mythmaking are down here on our tangly planet, species whispering and muttering about each other. Really good gossip across species becomes a story and eventually a myth. So what are the stories that will come from the mysteries of our present moment?

[Two years ago, Martin Shaw spent 101 days visiting a local forest — “primarily to listen.”] I have become more eccentric since my time in the forest, clearer and occasionally kinder. Life doesn’t feel certain, but it feels succulent. Life doesn’t feel assured, but it feels vivacious.

It doesn’t feel safe, but it feels pregnant with possibility. And, like every human before me, I’m going to have to make my peace with that arrangement. To repeat, it was always like this.

*******

The creative act of making something new always brings us face to face with uncertainty: What will happen if I plant these seeds in this part of my garden? What will happen if I change all the herbs and spices in this recipe? What will happen if I add a diagonal line to this design? Or –for fussbudgets like me — What will happen to the meaning and clarity of this sentence if I take out the comma?

A month or so ago, while I was just starting to grapple with the weaving and felting of “Transitions” [documented in earlier posts & shown in last week’s blog], I assembled this assortment of fibers & yarns from my stash and — having a clear idea, I thought, of how I would work with them — I put them in a bag to be considered after I’d finished my current project.

The “finishing” of Transitions turned into a longer — and more interesting — story than I’d first imagined. But finally, earlier this week, I opened the bag. I am still interested in the colors, but they seem darker than I’d remembered. In most lights, much darker than this photo! In particular, the deep teal fiber [center] I’d fallen in love with & planned to use as a major part of the felted context seemed almost black in ordinary room lighting. Fortunately, the making of “Transitions” gifted me with an ever-needed reminder that plans may (sometimes must) change, that we dwell in uncertainty & becoming. Suddenly seeing these fibers with surprised eyes was no different.

After days of staring at & occasionally rearranging the pile, I still had no idea where I would go with it. I was stuck in and disempowered by my uncertainty. The answer to this situation, I have learned, is to take action. But always there follows the potentially paralyzing question: How to begin?

I realized I could keep butting my head against my “problem” or I could enter it slantwise. As Shaw says, “Set sail, take the wing, commit to the stomp. Evoke a playful boldness that makes even angels swoon.

So — I decided to weave a doll using some of these colors to discover what they would say to each other & what they could teach me about themselves and about myself.

I am using the doll pattern taught by my teacher & mentor Susan Barrett Merrill. In her book Weaving a Life, Susan says “The doll is the symbol of the soul. It is a small spark of the greater Self. …. The doll is an imaginal form realized, and carries with it insight into the meaning and nature of our journey.

For example, my “3 Muses for the New Year” (posted 12/31/2021)

Since I have limited left-over amounts of most of the yarns I might use for the still-hypothetical mask, it took me a long time to decide which I could spare for the doll’s warp — but, finally, decide I did & warped my loom. Marking the center of a warp helps with the execution of the pattern. But it can do much more. Susan teaches us to use a red thread in the center of our warp:

Red is the color of life. The center thread is your core truth alongside which all other values lie. …. This is your own center thread.”

Because the warp becomes the hair of a mask, I have tended to mark the center in other ways. But for the doll, red feels essential. This is, after all, an exploration of myself as well as of the colors. I knew I wanted to remember — with every pass of the weft — to find my center.

The main color of the doll is the same as the deep teal in the center of the earlier photo — showing its darker side here.

As always, I’m curious about what will happen next. For me (as for Trickster), curiosity is a fundamental way of being. And — it suddenly occurs to me — without uncertainty, curiosity is meaningless. Hmmmm……

    "Today, like every other day, we wake up empty
     and frightened. Don’t open the door to the study
     and begin reading. Take down a musical instrument.

     Let the beauty we love be what we do.
     There are a hundred ways to kneel and kiss the ground.

                                                                                        — Rumi

Thinking of Edges

I’ve been having trouble placing the 2 masks on the context I showed last week. Finally I’ve realized that the problem is that the masks didn’t want to be placed on the land, but wanted to emerge from the land.

I did a couple small samples to figure out how that could happen. The best way is to place, before felting, a resist under the top layer in the area where the mask will emerge. After felting, the area above the resist can be opened so the mask can go beneath the surface to rest on the separately-felted space below. Then parts of the separated surface layer can be needle-felted onto the mask so that it is an integral part of its context. In the case of my current making, the context has already been thoroughly felted — too late for that solution!

It is possible to simply cut out a mask-shaped hole, put in the mask, and needle-felt some more fibers like those in the surface layer to join the mask to its context. But that cutting of a hole seemed to violate the idea of “emergence” — and besides, in the current case, I don’t have enough of the context fiber left to do a good job of hiding the separation between mask & context.

So — for now — a pause on this piece……….

And — for future explorations/makings — some exciting new possibilities!

All this work has set me to thinking once again about “edges” and “boundaries,” about how things can be separate but also part of a whole, about Trickster the boundary-crosser, and about permeability & liminality.

I’ve thought about what the living world teaches us about Edges. The amazing diversity that exists at Edges — for example, the teeming life of intertidal zones or the cultural richness and cross-fertilization found at gatherings such as those along the Silk Road.

Fungi, lichen, and moss are all wonderful creatures of edges and transitional zones. Mosses fascinate me both with their beauty and with their special adaptions to the boundary layer between air & land. [Do read Robin Wall Kimmerer’s lovely book Gathering Moss for much, much more!]

I see this, and several similar areas, every day on one of my walks — a wonderful meditation on Edges & Emergence & the power of Community.

Tree roots pushing aside the asphalt. Lichens & mosses making homes both on the bark of that tree and on the asphalt it has broken. Together, the mosses begin to create new humus with nutrition for more forms of life. If there is no interference, the arbitrary asphalt will once again join the larger, living land.

In the Coyote story I told May 6, No Song lived at the extreme edges of his village. It was there that he met Coyote — the primordial Edge dweller, transformer, holder of liminal space — who gave him a Song. But when the newly-named Sings Wonderfully was pulled too much away from the Edges (where, for example, rituals dwell) and back into the center of cultural hustle-bustle and self-aggrandizement, Coyote took his Song away.

Edges & transitional zones can places of nourishment, growth, and inspiration.

“I think we could make a case that most of the world’s great religions, philosophies, artforms, even political systems and ideologies were initiated by marginal figures. There is a reason for that: sometimes you have to go to the edges to get some perspective on the turmoil at the heart of things. Doing so is not an abnegation of public responsibility: it is a form of it. In the old stories, people from the edges of things brought ideas and understandings from the forest back in to the kingdom which the kingdom could not generate by itself.”

— Martin Shaw, storyteller

I’ve been thinking about what Shaw’s words mean in terms of the stories and art and imagining we need now in these times of political/cultural & environmental upheaval……

…. Also wondering how often I really listen deeply to what the Earth is saying…

*******

If you’d like an exuberant reminder of how we can listen to Earth, here’s a joyful, rollicking song/chant & affirmation:

Put Your Roots Down — Thrive Choir

Weaving, Stitching, Felting, Dreaming — Loving the Connections

I spent our days in the mountains enjoying the in-gathering of place & soul and letting my old body recover from the activity, stress, and excitement of the previous weeks. Our house is under contract, but we are allowed to stay in it until we move into the Friends [Quaker] Homes continuing-care community on August 9. An odd in-between space….

Oh, and when we got home from the Blue Ridge, I found that my healthy, thriving, tall Hopi sunflower plants had been decimated — almost every leaf eaten & some of the tall stalks broken. The upper leaves were definitely too high for our resident groundhog so, at first, I thought “birds.” It may be so, but last night I dreamed it was a raccoon enjoying them, just as the raccoons on our farm enjoyed attacking the stalks & taking the corn on the day before it was just ripe enough to pick. Alas for my dreams of purple dye from the seeds…… But I do know there are raccoons in the neighborhood & I can’t help but admire their wild ways of surviving in an urban environment. Several years ago, when our previous dog kept eating all the new sunflower shoots, I learned that sunflower leaves are especially nutritious. No dye for me, but healthy raccoons! I end up smiling….. and remembering Linda Hogan‘s poem:

 The Way In

"Sometimes the way to milk and honey is through the body.
 Sometimes the way in is a song.
 But there are three ways in the world: dangerous, wounding,
 and beauty.
 To enter stone, be water.
 To rise through hard earth, be plant
 desiring sunlight, believing in water.
 To enter fire, be dry.
 To enter life, be food."

*******

The engagement with my current fiber endeavor continues to be a fascinating adventure. As I have been struggling to understand how the 3 pieces (a female spirit/mask + a male spirit/mask + the land of which they are a part) could co-create/co-evolve with each other, I have had a lot of time to think about how these processes actually have happened and are still happening at all levels within Earth Community as a whole and within each of her individual elements/beings/selves. The beautiful on-going flows of energy and matter in & out & between & among….The growing, blooming, ripening, being eaten, & sprouting again in a wholly new form…. So much to contemplate. So much to love.

When I finished felting this home/context for the masks just before going to the Blue Ridge, I fell in love with it & didn’t want to put anything on it. I thought maybe I should make a different setting for the masks.

But, of course, the felted piece is not a mere “setting” and the spirit masks cry out, “We, too, are a part of this one whole — neither the felted piece nor either of the us would have come into being as we are without the other two. We are all one thing evolving together.” And I, too, am a part of this evolution — also changing and growing in many ways. I’m curious about what will happen next.

In preparation for their placement, I have finally been sewing in the loose yarn ends on the backs of the two masks. Usually sewing or weaving-in any loose ends is a straight-forward, simple activity. But because I was working only with yarns & fibers I had on hand, I found myself mixing a variety of mismatched yarns — two or three being worked together in different combinations to form the weft. So — so many ends!

I wish I’d thought to take a photo before I started. At least I can give you a glimpse of the final unfinished corner of the second mask. Imagine the whole inside of the mask as a snarl of yarns with no interest in being tidied up…. As an introvert, the dense & wild interior was very familiar — but occasionally, as with my own inner tangle, rather annoying.

I think it must have been these days of finicky work that suddenly brought to mind a wonderful poem by Pattiann Rogers that I hadn’t thought of for years. I am delighted to share it here.

By Pattiann Rogers, from her collection of poems 
Song of the World Becoming
"God Is In The Details," Says Mathematician Freeman Dyson

"This is why grandmother takes such tiny
stitches, one stitch for each dust mote
of moon on the Serengeti at night, and one half
one stitch for each salt-fetch fog
following the geometries of eelgrasses
in fields along the beach.

And this is why she changes the brief threads
in her glass needle to often--metallic bronze
for the halo around the thrasher's eye,
ruby diaphanous for the antenna tips
of the May beetle, transparent silk
for dry-rain fragrances blowing
through burr sages before rain.

She inserts her needle
through the center of each elementary
particle, as if it were a circling sequin
of blue, loops it to its orbit, sewing thus,
again and again, the reckless sapphire sea,
a whipping flag of tall summer sky.

Sometimes she takes in her hands
two slight breaths of needles at once,
needles so thin they almost burn
her fingers like splinters of light.
She crochets with them around each microscopic
void, invents, thereby, an ice tapestry
of winter on the window, creates a lace
of peeper shrillings through flooded
sweet gale, secures a blank jot of sight
in the knitting of each red flea
of zooplankton skittering mid-lake.

God's most minute exuberance is founded
in the way she sews with needles
as assertive as the sun-sharp loblolly
that she sees with her eyes closed:
in the way she knots stitches
as interlocked as the cries of veery,
peewee, black-capped chickadee and jay
that she hears with her ears stopped;
in the way she whispers to her work,
recites to her work, spooling every least
spider and air trifid, every hue
and rising act of her own hands. Try
to escape now, it reads, just try."

Coyote Speaks

Coyote (and all Trickster energy) speaks to us in so many ways, at so many moments. Sometimes, Coyote speaks with words, sometimes with actions, sometimes through pure synchronicity.

I am a participant in the Mythic Imagination Community convened by Dr. Sharon Blackie, sharonblackie.net/ . It is a lively group & I have thoroughly enjoyed the many opportunities to hear, consider, and discuss stories from many sources. Last week I wrote to you about my falling out of right relationship with the materials, tools, and process with which I was engaged in weaving a new mask. Imagine my delight when, in an on-line gathering, the storyteller Audrey di Mola told a story that totally explained the dilemma into which I’d stumbled. Audrey does not pre-plan the stories she will tell, but listens & listens to hear which ones want to be told in that particular moment, to the particular ones who have gathered. So I found it stunning that she began with this Coyote tale. Like all stories, this one has traveled, but it probably originated [if stories really ever have a point of origin….?] among the Paiute who have traditionally lived in the Great Basin area of what is now the western U.S.

As always, I give gratitude to the first tellers and to all the tellers who have gone before me, keeping this story alive with their heart-felt breath. This is my telling for this moment, recognizing that writing is not the same as speaking but is still an act of homage to the story itself. And I don’t know if this is exactly how it happened, but I know it is true!

*******

In that time that is before time and outside of time and right now, there was a village. And the people of that village gathered together in ceremonies where everyone offered their own gift of song to weave the community together. There were long songs, short songs, fast and slow songs — and each was beautiful and each was offered as a gift to all.

But in that village, there was one man who had no song to offer to the gatherings. He hung around the edges of the village, silent at the time of ceremony & offering, and the villagers named him No Song.

As time passed, No Song spent more hours, then days, then weeks away from the village, wandering in the great forest beyond. As he wandered, he began to learn the plants in all their kinds & the animals in all their different kinds. With respect for all the plant people, No Song wove a basket & began to gather herbs. With respect for all the animal people, he took up a bow and began to hunt. And his skills grew.

One day, No Song decided to make a stew of all the abundance he had gathered. He stirred and stirred, adding herbs and grains and meat to the pot in a skillful way, so that soon a wonderful aroma began to arise from this cooking and floated off through the forest.

After awhile, No Song looked up from his stirring. And who should he see leaning against a nearby tree, but that Old Man Coyote — and Coyote’s nose was twitching as he inhaled that delicious aroma.

“Oh,” said Coyote,”oh, that stew smells so good & I am so hungry. Please, will you give me the stew?”

No Song thought & Coyote watched him thinking. Finally, No Song said, “Yes, I can give you a bowl of stew.”

“Not enough!” replied Coyote. “I am so hungry & that stew smells so delicious — I want the whole thing!”

No Song thought & once again Coyote watched him thinking, and Coyote thought too. “I know,” said Coyote, “we will make a bargain. You give me all your stew & I will give you your heart’s desire.”

No Song’s eyes grew large. He felt hope swell in his heart. “Can you give me a beautiful song? a song I can offer in the village ceremonies? the most beautiful song?”

Coyote nodded. “No problem. I can give you the most beautiful song in the world. But,” he added as No Song began to jump for joy, “there is a 2nd part to the bargain. You must sing your song only at the right times, in the right places, in the right way — or I will take it away.”

No Song was so excited, he didn’t even need to stop & think. “Of course,” he said. “Of course, I would never ever think of singing my song at the wrong time, in the wrong place, in a wrong way! Never ever! I’m sure! Now the stew is all yours & you give me my Song!”

Coyote stepped forward and, with a huge slurp, he swallowed all the stew. Then Coyote stuck his head right into that pot and licked round & round. And as soon as that pot was was really and truly empty, Coyote vanished.

It all happened so fast, before No Song could say a word. No Song opened his mouth to call after Coyote — and out came a Song, an amazing song, a song that was as enchanting as the birds’ chorus on a spring dawn, that was a radiant as the rising sun & as lustrous as a full moon, that contained all the sounds of the forest on a gentle day, and even the roar of a stormy wind. It was, indeed, a beautiful song. And No Song started back toward the village.

When he arrived at last, No Song found that a ceremony had begun in the center of the village, a ceremony in which all the villagers were singing their songs for the weaving of community & the healing of the world. At first, No Song hung back at the edges as was his way. But as he listened to the songs rising and falling to bless the gathering & to bless all the Earth, his heart filled & he stepped forward and opened his mouth to sing.

Everyone turned. They could scarcely believe what they heard & saw — there was No Song singing a Song & not just any song, but a Song that seemed to gather together the hearts of all the villagers and of all the animal & plant & rock people in the surrounding forest. No Song sang & sang. “Again,” cried the villagers, and No Song sang again. And again.

And when the ceremony was completed, everyone gathered around No Song — talking all at once, telling him what a wonderful Song he had, asking him if he could sing it here, there, everywhere. They renamed him Sings Wonderfully. Overwhelmed by their attention, he promised to sing for them whenever they were having a family celebration or a feast or just to pass the hours of a long dark winter’s night. And so he did. He traveled around singing the Song, smiling at the praise.

Then, one night — when Sings Wonderfully was getting ready to sing for a rather rowdy party — he looked out at the crowd and saw, leaning against a tree just outside the circle of firelight, Old Man Coyote. “Hello,” cried Sings Wonderfully, “I’m so glad you came to hear me sing!” Coyote just shrugged his shoulders and shook his head. “Well, I see you have forgotten…” Then Coyote melted away into the crowd, and when Sings Wonderfully opened his mouth to begin ….. the Song was gone.

*******

Make of this telling what you will...
Could it be that stories may not have either beginnings or endings?
How does this story speak to you as you hear it now?  
And even more,
as the storyteller Martin Shaw often asks his listeners, what will you do with it?

In the meantime, my dance with fiber & with Trickster continues. More than once I’ve wanted to make a dash to the yarn store to see if I could find a “perfect solution” to whatever issue of color or texture has arisen. But I decided at the start to use only the fibers & yarns I had on hand. That’s how Trickster works, incorporating whatever comes to hand in some marvelous feat of bricolage as he makes the world. And isn’t that how cosmological, geological, and biological evolution work, too — just trying out might be done with whatever is around in the circumstance of that moment?

The mask whose I showed you last week is now off the loom — still in need of some final shaping and the sewing in of yarn ends, etc., but already very much itself.

When I first began putting that warp on the loom, I was obsessed with hair, about the way the warp should provide lovely flowing hair to integrate the completed mask/being into the environment. Well, as soon as I took this mask off the loom and placed it on the still-evolving background/context, I saw right away that he was a masculine spirit with no interest at all in long hair. Instead, what he requested — politely but firmly — was a consort.

She is beginning to emerge.

And who knows what will happen to the environment/context once the 2 spirit beings begin to settle in…?!

I wanted to include a photo, but everything is in flux — both in this making & in my life in general as we prepare to sell the house. [The first showings are May 11, next Wednesday. I hope Cris will get back from his week-long bicycle ride on Saturday to help with last minute stuff, but the weather where he is in Maryland isn’t looking good…. He’s riding the C&O Canal trail with a guy he met on his ride to the Midwest a couple years ago. They’re having great fun.]

And so this story goes on….. Always evolving — weaving & un-weaving & re-weaving — each thing changing in response to changes in its companions, as the fibers & I continue to dance together. I am curious about where our dance, our story, will lead us — both in this individual making and, even more, in the larger, troubling story that engulfs us all in its movements today.

I find hope in Pádraig Ó Tuama’s poem Narrative theology #1 which concludes:

"The answer is in a story
and the story isn't finished."

“What we are creating is creating us.”

(today’s title is a quote from Adah Parris)

In my 4/15 post, I lamented the “problems” I was having with my current project. Later, re-reading what I had written, I began to recognize that the situations I encountered & named “problems” weren’t problems with the fibers but problems with me! I had forgotten to maintain respect for all the partners in this co-evolution/co-creation — fibers, loom, and self. I had apparently forgotten that respect means respect not only for the gifts but also for the limits of each participant. In my mind, I can easily conjure up all sorts of exquisite possibilities — and I was spending too much time in my mind. Feeling some sort of need to hurry, I seem to have forgotten that only with relaxed awareness and respect can loom & fibers & self be woven together in the dialog through which the mask emerges. I’d forgotten the words of my teacher Luisa Teish: “Before you begin a new venture — especially before beginning a ritual — be sure to set a clear Intention. Every beginning is a crossroads where Trickster waits. If you have no clear Intention, Trickster will be happy to choose a path for you…. You may find you’re not happy with his choice.”

For me, work with fiber is a kind of ritual to bring blessings into the world. But, when I began this project, I had an idea rather than an Intention. And, sure enough, Trickster sent me down a path where I found myself seeking control, trying to force the fibers to comply with my grand idea. The further I went, the more muddled I became. Finally, I was completely immobilized by the knots into which I’d twisted both the fibers & myself. I was forced to pause and catch my breath — and as I began to breathe, I began to remember. I remembered and renewed my Intention of blessing through making. I remembered to respect all participants in the process & the process itself. I remembered to offer common courtesy both to the fibers & to myself. The tangles & snarls & knots fell away and a new path opened.

As I pondered this more deeply, I realized that I’d been unwittingly replicating some of the current cultural norms that I despise: I was effectively treating the fibers not as respected individuals but as “resources” that I could force to conform to the grandiose picture in my mind, to do what I wanted. Somehow feeling hurried & trying to push myself beyond my inherent limits, I was sliding into an arrogance akin to that of the culture that is currently engaged in the destruction of Earth community (including both human and more-than-human).

It is no coincidence that “Trickster” was the name used by more than one indigenous tribe to refer to the invading colonists, who — like the Tricksters of story & myth — ignored or willfully violated the limits/boundaries of the world as it existed (and who continue to do so today). I had refused to respect limits and had approached this particular act of making as Trickster might have done, so — just like Trickster — I got thoroughly entangled in the mess I’d made.

And yet, as Lewis Hyde says, “Trickster is the mythic embodiment of ambiguity and ambivalence, doubleness and duplicity, contradiction and paradox.” For all his trouble-making ways, “Trickster the culture hero is always present … to keep our world lively and to give it the flexibility to endure.” As the title of Hyde’s book says, “Trickster Makes This World.”

Having once more found a balanced relationship among materials, process, and self — having set out at last on my Intended path — I am now thoroughly enjoying the few hours I’ve found this week for making. It is once again not work but play. And the games the fibers & I are now playing with each other and the dances we’re inventing — while Trickster plays his flute! — are, for me, joyful times of growing, learning, and (dare I hope?) serving. Life just doesn’t get much better than that! And I can’t help but laugh with Trickster at the rough path he slyly pointed out as I began my current journey, because it — with all its aggravations — eventually lead me to deeper understandings & to possibilities I wouldn’t have imagined for myself. That old trickster!

In Beauty
the world is begun.

It is woven on the loom
of the Cosmos,
while Trickster
plays a song upon the warp,
tangles weft threads into
new configurations,
ties unexpected knots,
enlivens the simple surface 
with his rowdy dance.

In Beauty
it is begun.

In Beauty
it is woven.

In Beauty
it shall be finished.

“In and out, up and down, over and over, she wove her strands of life together, patching hole after hole. Eventually she saw it was much more than the threads that gave her strength; it was in the very act of weaving itself that she became strong.”

~ author unknown ~

Transgression, Possibility, and New Beginnings

April 1st — Happy April Fool’s Day!

I thought of just leaving this post blank as my April Fool’s prank, but I can’t think of April Fool’s Day without a deep (even reverent?) bow to Trickster. Although Trickster is, as I’ve no doubt said too many times already, much much more than a mere April-prankster or con-artist, the three do have one thing in common: Transgression. Whether it is the Haida Raven trying to hoard Water & Light, or a 10-year old surreptitiously taping a “Kick Me” sign on a classmate’s back, or a phone scammer asking for your social security number — all are transgressing cultural norms, all of them shaking things up. The difference, of course, is the intended result. The scammer is no doubt greedy for money & doesn’t care about how that may shake things up for the victims. Who knows what the school-age prankster wants? It depends on the kids involved & the context — but the aim is probably some sort of perceived personal enhancement. The teller of Raven’s tale is — among many other things, including entertainment — demonstrating the futility of hoarding & strengthening the case for sharing as a culturally-defined necessity. Is the trick for the good of one or for the good of many…..?

Still, it is the shaking up & cracking open caused by Trickster’s exploits that intrigues me — the Trickster’s jumping over boundaries which (whether he lands on his feet or on his head) makes new things Possible. As Barre Toelken’s Navaho informant [and brother-in-law through Navaho adoption] Yellowman explained, Coyote, “unlike all others, experiences everything; he is, in brief, the exponent of all possibilities.” That’s the kind of “transgressing” I’d like to do — to make other ways of living possible in our confused human world. What boundaries might we need to leap these days? How can we do it gracefully enough to make positive new things possible without landing us all, as Trickster sometimes does, in some dire new predicament?

This year, April 1 is also a New Moon — a time that is traditionally associated with new beginnings, the response to new possibilities. I seem to be experiencing quite a few “new beginnings” right now.

Here where I live, Spring has truly taken hold. Migrating birds began arriving in earnest a week or so ago and are now establishing territories in earnest, many looking for mates, and all singing & singing. It’s planting time in the garden. This weekend I’ll have the fun of scattering a chaos of wildflower seeds to grow for the pollinators. This assortment of flowers was a big hit last year with hummingbirds, butterflies, and others. Such a delight visually & ecologically! Although I was late planting, lettuce & kale are starting up & now it’s time to plant the beans. Outside — in garden and woodland — new possibilities of nurture & beauty are emerging every moment.

And then, there’s the onset of really serious downsizing in preparation for a move. I am reluctant to leave this quirky old house, this garden, this friendly old neighborhood with its big oaks. Still, it’s probably a wise step and I see it as an adventure, an opening of possibilities as yet unglimpsed.

We’re not actually moving until early August but, since the real estate market here is hot at the moment, our realtor wants to put our house on the market by the beginning of May. Yikes! I am suffering from decision-making overload. An inability to choose has been a theme of my life….

Letting go of some of my books and memory-packed possessions is painful, although I do love to picture them flying out into the hands of others who will enjoy and perhaps treasure them as I have. I’m still looking for the perfect place to donate the big tub of supplies left over from my workshop-teaching days. And then, as I go through my stash of natural objects [most collected originally for teaching] and all my yarn & fiber, I can think of nothing but exciting Possibilities. Can I finally accept that, though I haven’t run out of ideas, I am running out of years in which to embody those great ideas? Biggest question: How will I keep working on my beloved fiber projects & still make my workroom look like it could be a perfect bedroom for potential buyers? Hmmm… Wish me luck!

In the meantime, Trickster has apparently been playing in my fiber stash. I had so much fun making the little scarf for the Spirit of the Betwixt and Between that I thought it would be fun to make a bunch of human-sized, almost sheer, “cobweb” felted scarves, something I haven’t done for years.

I got out this gorgeous soft fleece of merino and silk (hand-dyed by MyButterflyGreen in Ireland) and looked. It would make a lovely scarf or two.

But then, I turned it over to check the colors on the other side and encountered something more chaotic, something more compelling — Wilder!

I immediately saw not scarves but possibilities for a land where the wind might blow freely…. I remembered the turquoise Mediterranean Sea meeting the ancient sands of the Sahara on the Libyan coast. I remembered the desert wind, sometimes gently sculpting the dunes and sometimes whipping up clouds of sand and dust that could travel as far north as Europe. So — beautifully shaken up by the amazing fibers and by the winds of my imagination — I began to wonder. What spirit mask might want to dwell in such a place?

Who knows? Maybe I’ll have enough of the fleece to do both a felt “painting” and a scarf too. I’m so curious….

“Always we begin again….”

Benedict of Nursia

What Story Do You Choose?

Lukas Nelson & Family have a lovely song entitled “Turn Off the News and Build a Garden”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MPrPtDoaB3s&list=RDMPrPtDoaB3s&index=1 I am working as I can to build a variety of gardens — with seeds, with fiber, with words, with love for Earth & all she includes. However, I can’t just turn off the news. I have learned to restrict my intake, reading just enough to stay abreast of the news but, of course, I am still saddened and distracted by all the violence & destruction & pain. I think a lot about all the different stories & myths being enacted and encountering each other — sometimes finding ways to cooperate with or even to enrich each other, sometimes locked in the kind of vicious clashes we are now seeing in Russia and the Ukraine. I wonder about the stories to which nations, cultures, & peoples have given over their lives and souls. What, for instance, are the stories which men like Putin have created and absorbed so completely that the stories themselves have taken charge of their thoughts and actions? In her book The Faraway Nearby, Rebecca Solnit asks the same question of us all:

“What’s your story? It’s all in the telling. Stories are compasses and architecture; we navigate by them, we build our sanctuaries and our prisons out of them, and to be without a story is to be lost in the vastness of a world that spreads in all directions like arctic tundra or sea ice…. [….] We tell ourselves stories in order to live, or to justify taking lives, even our own, by violence or by numbness and the failure to live; tell ourselves stories that save us and stories that are the quicksand in which we thrash and the well within which we drown…. [….] Sometimes the story collapses, and it demands that we recognize we’ve been lost, or terrible, or ridiculous, or just stuck; sometimes change arrives like an ambulance or a supply drop.”

“We think we tell stories, but stories often tell us, tell us to love or to hate, to see or to be blind. Often, too often, stories saddle us, ride us, whip us onward, tell us what to do, and we do it without questioning. The task of learning to be free requires learning to hear them, question them, to pause and hear silence, to name them, and then to become the storyteller.

Because we are humans, we are all saddled as we grow by the family and cultural stories that surround us and by other stories that we encounter along our life journey. If, as Solnit suggests, we become aware of our stories and how they steer us, we are more and more able choose which stories we keep or change or discard — though we must be vigilant because even the stories we thought we’d discarded may occasionally rise as echos or ghosts that try to slip under the radar and affect our perceptions. It’s interesting to look back at the ways our individual stories about ourselves and the world have come, gone, or morphed over the years. For instance, I grew up in a culture in which the human was seen as naturally dominant & in a subculture where the rational mind was venerated, often to the exclusion of physical or emotional or heart-centered ways of knowing and doing. It was a story in which the players believed they could also be uninvolved & unbiased observers and narrators. These are no longer the stories by which I live. It’s easy to say this, but changing these and other personal stories has been an on-going, life-long work

A guiding story for me is the one recent research has suggested on the origin and evolution of the Universe — this expanding, diversifying, and complexifying Universe in which all that exists is interrelated, is kin tracing back to a single beginning. As John Muir famously said, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” That includes each of us. We may never see the consequences but we can be sure that the stories we tell ourselves and others are — through thoughts, words, and actions — radiating outward like the rippling rings of water when a pebble is thrown in, having some tiny or even some larger consequences as they move through the Cosmos.

For now I am focusing on making, working with fiber and words and my love of the Earth and all her community — never sure of the consequences for me or for the fibers & words themselves or for the larger world — but trying to think and act in ways that will bring life rather than death. And hoping…

Several weeks ago, I thought I had finished with the Dreaming Towards Dawn mask, but she continued to seem unsettled, to want more. I tried this; I tried that…. Then last week I dreamed of her wearing a crown or headband of coral beads. When I woke up, I remembered the simple little necklace of coral beads I’d gotten in Mobasa, Kenya, in 1964. Its thread had broken many years ago and I always meant to restring it, but…. the beads ended up in a little box somewhere. And when I dug out that box, I found it under another little box containing small earrings I’d purchased in 1968 from a Tuareg woman near Tamanrasset in the Algerian central Sahara. They were enameled, with tiny coral beads set in the pattern. So — still not “done” (whatever that means) but getting to what will be the stopping point.

And after the Spirit of The Betwixt and Between asked to live in a twilight forest (see last week), I set out to make one for her. Then it seemed she needed some sort of wrap, so — after much experimenting — I made her a scarf. I still need to decide whether to use it and if so how. I almost see it as taking her to a whole new context (though that may be a thought for another mask & another time). In any case, she herself needs some further shaping. Oh, I discover so much as I go along with the flow! Great fun — and this is a good (though rather sobering) time to contemplate the meaning of Between-ness as I work.

In the meantime, I continue my primary work, which has been so beautifully described by Mary Oliver:

       Messenger

My work is loving the world. 
Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird — 
equal seekers of sweetness. 
Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums. 
Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.

Are my boots old? Is my coat torn? 
Am I no longer young, and still not half-perfect? Let me 
keep my mind on what matters, 
which is my work,

which is mostly standing still and learning to be 
astonished. 
The phoebe, the delphinium. 
The sheep in the pasture, and the pasture. 
Which is mostly rejoicing, since all ingredients are here,

which is gratitude, to be given a mind and a heart 
and these body-clothes, 
a mouth with which to give shouts of joy 
to the moth and the wren, to the sleepy dug-up clam, 
telling them all, over and over, how it is 
that we live forever.
 
~ Mary Oliver ~

To Be Remembered in the Darkness

The last month or so have been, for me, a difficult convergence of multiple medical issues and my on-going grief for so much ecological, cultural, social & political devastation. I know that Trickster loves stirring things up to make room for new possibilities but — once nightly insomnia joined my list of playmates in the downward spiral — I ran out of energy for the dance. I am fortunate to be one of those privileged few in the world with access to good medical care — so medical problems are being addressed and, as insomnia begins to fade away, I am once more alive to my self and to the world. Still, there is my grief at what I & my kind have destroyed & are still destroying.

A conversation several days ago reminded me of several poems by Rainer Maria Rilke (translated by Joanna Macy & Anita Barrows). In many of his works, Rilke writes beautifully of the embrace of darkness. Today, I want to share 3 of them. [Actually I’d like to share a dozen, but I’m becoming a “realist”…..]:

“You, darkness, of whom I am born —

I love you more than the flame
that limits the world
to the circle it illumines
and excludes all the rest.

But darkness embraces everything:

shapes and shadows, creatures and me,

people, nations — just as they are.

It lets me imagine a great presence is moving near me.

I believe in the night.”

~~~~~~

“How surely gravity’s law,
strong as an ocean current,
takes hold of even the smallest thing
and pulls it toward the heart of the world.

Each thing —
each stone, blossom, child —
is held in place.
Only we, in our arrogance,
push out beyond what we each belong to
for some empty freedom.

If we surrendered
to earth’s intelligence
we could rise up rooted, like trees.

Instead we entangle ourselves
in knots of our own making
and struggle, lonely and confused.

So, like children, we must begin again
to learn from the things,
because they are in God’s heart;
they have never left him.

This is what the things can teach us:
to fall,
patiently to trust our heaviness.
Even a bird has to do that
before he can fly.”

~~~~~

“Quiet friend who has come so far,

feel how your breathing makes more space around you.
Let this darkness be a bell tower
and you the bell. As you ring,

what batters you becomes your strength.
Move back and forth into the change.
What is it like, such intensity of pain?
If the drink is bitter, turn yourself to wine.

In this uncontainable night,
be the mystery at the crossroads of your senses,
the meaning discovered there.

And if the world has ceased to hear you,
say to the silent earth: I flow.
To the rushing water, speak: I am.”

~~~~~~

On the fiber front, I finally had enough energy to play a bit in the studio yesterday — making various small felt samples to try out different textures. I came up with some I liked & with many more ideas to try before making decisions. Unfortunately, I can’t seem to get a good photo of black on black felt. [And no, the color has nothing to do with my past few weeks! It is more a case of rebirth & growth as I once again work on a Raven shawl I’d woven 15 years ago & pushed to the back of the closet — given up as “hopeless.”] I’ll keep playing & hope to have the shawl completed to show you soon.

In his poem “East Coker,” T.S. Eliot wrote:

“I said to my soul, be still and wait without hope, for hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love, for love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith, but the faith and the love are all in the waiting. Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought: So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.”

What is a Story?

Dear Ones, After a month or more of profound insomnia, my brain is on strike. I’m filled with questions, but as soon as I start to formulate one, a dozen new questions arise from it like a flock of crows and fly off in all directions, stealing all the meat from the few bony words I’d managed to arrange in my mind or on the page.

Today I have been pondering the definition, the concept, the limits of Story — but, like Trickster, Story’s meaning resists such cages, slips out between the bars or wastes away in captivity. Perhaps for me, “Story,” like “Trickster,” can only be approached as a koan.

We’ve all heard the Zen koan “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”

“…in the beginning a monk first thinks a kōan is an inert object upon which to focus attention; after a long period of consecutive repetition, one realizes that the kōan is also a dynamic activity, the very activity of seeking an answer to the kōan. The kōan is both the object being sought and the relentless seeking itself. In a kōan, the self sees the self not directly but under the guise of the kōan…When one realizes (“makes real”) this identity, then two hands have become one. The practitioner becomes the kōan that he or she is trying to understand. That is the sound of one hand.”

— G. Victor Sogen Hori, Translating the Zen Phrase Book

Linda Hogan, Chicksaw poet & writer, has simply said:

“To open our eyes, to see with our inner fire and light, is what saves us. Even if it makes us vulnerable. Opening the eyes is the job of storytellers, witnesses, and the keepers of accounts. The stories we know and tell are reservoirs of light and fire that brighten and illuminate the darkness of human night, the unseen.”

That which opens our eyes to “reservoirs of light and fire”….. There are many ways to open our eyes.

In a recent blog, Jude Hill https://clothwhispering.com/2021/06/18/it-comes-together-by-being/ describes her stitching of cloth as the telling of stories:

I do believe that artistic expression is rooted in witnessing the world around us and the need to understand and communicate, with ourselves and then with others. In order to do this, we choose a medium and I have chosen cloth. I like to use the word cloth because unlike textile or fabric, cloth most often refers to a finished piece of fabric that can be used for a purpose. And part of the purpose can be to communicate and that is where we find the story.

All my cloths are stories. They could be stories about the people I make them for, or stories about me. Or simply stories about life’s journey or nature or color or shape (this year it is the square). I consider stitching a cloth to be a sort of documentary, a time line of thought and process, no matter how long it takes. Telling a story is a way to share what you have learned through experience…and that is ultimately who you are. Story cloth may take many forms. It might be a story generated as the answer to a question, like “what is trees had feathers??? It could focus on a single word or thought like a magic feather which you might think about a lot until it becomes a personal symbol. Or, my favorite, a story cloth can be the story of the cloth making itself. Even a sampler is a story, a story of a little time spent on a specific technique, or a collection of wonderful memories stitched together into something useful. Even a beautiful piece of fabric has a story in it waiting to be told.”

  > Here I'd love to include examples of Jude's wonderful cloths but am defeated by technology 
-- hers or mine or some combination of the two.  
Please check out her work at 
https://www.instagram.com/spiritcloth/ 

How many ways can stories be told?

I tend to tell stories through written words, though I believe oral stories are far richer than printed ones. I guess I am also telling stories through my work with fiber (weaving, felting, etc.) but it really feels more like engaging in conversation. Indeed, if stories are being told, it is usually the fiber that is doing the telling! Sometimes in my work with both words & fiber I feel more like listener than teller. (Are the two separate?) In any case, in such engagements, my eyes are being opened to the reservoirs of fire and light Linda Hogan describes, and sometimes also to the ashes of fires past or to the shadows behind the flames — which are, in their own ways, sources of illumination as well.

How do you tell your stories?

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts & your stories about Story.

There is a Thread…..

2 postscripts to last week’s blog:

> I’d forgotten that I’d made a follow-the-thread book for my son, but after he saw last Friday’s post he sent a photo. Here, as in last week’s book, between ‘Dream’ and ‘Dare,’ ‘Decide’ is printed in many different & enticing fonts — hidden behind double doors because, as you’ve no doubt figured out, deciding between all the wonderful possibilities can be a block to my process, a weak point in my thread. Then, at the end, ‘Depart’ opens to reveal ‘Dream’ because completion & letting go open up space for new dreams to appear & unfold. I’m posting his photo here because I like this book better than the one posted last week & because it includes Raven, that old Trickster who is an embodiment of human Creativity (for good or for ill) & who seems to keep popping up in my life

> I also want to share a bit of serendipity. Last week, I wrote of my struggle with choice & form. So imagine my chuckle Friday morning when I opened Jude Hill’s blog https://clothwhispering.com/2021/06/18/it-comes-together-by-being/  and saw her title, which seems to simply bypass my quandary: “it comes together by being.” And then her first two sentences provided me with a wonderful new mantra: “Today I am composed. I am the Composition.” Such reassurance — just what I needed!

Here, once again — for those of you who missed it last week and just because I like it & keep finding more to ponder in it — is William Stafford’s poem:

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

I have been thinking a lot this week about “thread.”

What is a “thread”? Although the terms are often used interchangeably in common speech, “thread” and “filament” are distinct. A filament is a single continuous untwisted strand, like a spider’s web or the strand we pull from a silkworm’s cocoon. A thread, on the other hand, is created by twisting together a number of long filaments (like silk) or shorter fibers (like wool or cotton) to create a new unity, drawn out into one continuous, three-dimensional line.

The ability to make thread goes far back in our human story. It has been hypothesized that the twisting of thread was one on our earliest technologies. Archaeological data about the most ancient threads is hard to find, for threads are made of organic materials that don’t survive time and change as easily as do bones and stones. Recently, through, thread remnants dating back to around 41,000 to 52,000 years ago were discovered in southern France in a rock shelter that had been inhabited by Neanderthals — those distant cousins who lived at the same time and in the same places as the Homo Sapiens who had emerged from Africa, the two groups interacting in ways that we are just beginning to understand. These particular ancient strands of thread were found wrapped around a stone tool, probably used to attach it firmly to its haft. https://www.npr.org/2020/04/10/828400733/the-oldest-string-ever-found-may-have-been-made-by-neanderthals

Joining — filaments twisted together to make thread which was in turn twisted around stone & wood or bone to join unlike elements, to create something new, an axe perhaps or a spear. I think, too, about how Neanderthal DNA has been found in much Homo Sapien DNA — twisting together, part of the spinning of our ancestral thread. Joining…

The root of our English word “thread” is the proto-Germanic word for “twist.” In many ways, the Key to a Thread is in the Twist.

The Strength is in the Twist. Loosely twisted, fibers separate easily & the thread breaks apart when subjected to even slight stress.. Tightly twisted, the thread holds firm against increased force.

A thread is not a separate simple and singular entity but an interactive community. And when the community is large enough, when many threads are twisted together, the new thread gains in strength. Even grass can become strong enough to make a functioning bridge if enough fibers are twisted together. Communities of thread joining together communities of humans ….

When I think about the Thread in Stafford’s poem, I realize that mine is not a single filament, but a twisting together of many diverse longings and curiosities. (Silk, wool, llama fiber, cotton, linen — let’s see what else we can add to this strange thread!) As Stafford says, it is hard to explain to others, but it it real & it is strong. I’m still finding out out where this thread will take me, and I am spinning it as I go.

We speak of “spinning a yarn,” telling a tale. Can we think of Stories as Threads?

Alix E. Harrow writes that stories “are the red threads that we may follow out of the labyrinth.” That is true, in my experience, of many stories — as it is also true that other stories, other threads have led me deeper into labyrinths of mind & spirit or even created labyrinths of their own.

Trickster is certainly a thread, a paradoxical twisting together of incompatible concepts/behaviors/ways of being, who has joined in the twist of my inner Thread.

Today I am thinking especially about the notion of “Joining,” of how metaphors and stories twist together various fibers to form new concepts, feelings, insights. And I am thinking about how stories grow and change as they meet and interact with other stories. I am wondering how strong a community might become if its stories twisted together many disparate threads into one thread.

“Everything is held together with stories. That is all that is holding us together, stories and compassion.”

— Barry Lopez