Some years ago, I took a week-long intensive Storytelling class that shifted and widened my angle of perception & that continues to nourish my spirit. Our teacher, Luisah Teish (author, artist-activist, and Oshun chief in the Yoruba Lucumi tradition) helped us engage our bodies, minds, and hearts as we brought into consciousness & into our lives the power of the stories we tell, the names we choose. At the start of the course, she told us that whenever we begin a new endeavor — especially one of a ritual nature — we must be careful to set a clear Intention. Any beginning is a Crossroads, she cautioned, and that is precisely where Trickster likes to lurk, just waiting to lead you astray.
Apparently the intentions I set when I started this blog were still pretty fuzzy, and Trickster has been happy to appoint himself tour guide, tugging at my sleeve saying “This way… No, this way… Or how about that way…”. And, as always, he howls with delight as he watches me stumble in dizzying circles.
Is this blog about the nature of Story or about telling the stories themselves? About spinning a tale or spinning yarn? About weaving words into thoughts or thoughts into words or wool into fabric? About something else entirely? With everything in the Cosmos interconnected and interacting with everything else, what is one to do?
My life tends to be odd scraps of paper & snippets of thought & loose wisps of assorted fibers, just waiting to take part in some mischief or other. Needless to say, I spend a lot of time simply rummaging about, wondering “Where did I put this, that, or the other?” Sometimes, the chaotic juxtapositions lead to discovery: “Oh! Look how interestingly these two disparate fragments can fit together.” Or simply, “I wonder…”
Then every so often, one bit of writing or yarn will simply pop — literally — to the surface of the heap & say, “Look at me!”
That happened today when I came across this beautiful & particularly apt quote from Wendell Berry:
“There are, it seems, two muses:
the Muse of Inspiration, who gives us inarticulate visions and desires,
the Muse of Realization, who returns again and again to say,
‘It is yet more difficult than you thought.’
This is the muse of form.
It may be then that form serves us best when it works as an obstruction,
to baffle us and deflect our intended course.
It may be that when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey.
The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.”
And so, I continue to seek Form(s):
It is easy to get lost.
Fortunately, as William Stafford assures us:
"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."
With love & all the blessings of this almost-Solstice day from your perpetually baffled friend, Margery
In the dawn-light, I am weaving a basket to hold the stories.
In the sunlight,
In the twilight,
In the starlight,
In the moonlight,
In the dark,
I am weaving a basket to hold the stories.
With my hands I am weaving.
With my voice I am weaving.
With my heart I am weaving.
- Here, now -
I am weaving a basket to hold all the stories.
I can imagine the Old Ones sitting around a fire, telling stories. The fire in their hearth must have been a welcome and precious guest in the cold, in the dark. They tended it, fed it, watched it move & breath, carefully tended coals overnight to prevent its dying. They told stories of adventures & dreams. And of course they told stories about Fire itself.
Fire was sacred. Fire was how the god or gods revealed themselves. It was the medium through which they received sacrifices. It was a means by which they showed their divine anger. Because of its inherent power, Fire was – in the stories of a great many cultures — jealously guarded by a divine being. Most often, it took a Trickster (Prometheus in Greece, Maui in Polynesia, Coyote in the Great Plains of Turtle Island, Raven in the Pacific Northwest, Nanabozho in the Eastern Woodlands on Turtle Island, etc.) to trick the ones who hoarded the fire, to steal it, and to bring it to the People.
In the southeastern part of what is now called the United States, tribes such as the Cherokee and Choctaw had a variety of stories about the theft of Fire that featured a different kind of thief. There have been many retellings, oral and written.
I would love to tell it to you aloud, to bring it to life. Today, though my telling is reduced to writing, I am glad to share at least the bones of the story — with gratitude always to the first tellers and to those whose voices have kept this story alive:
In the dark times, in the cold times, the People shivered. They all suffered — the winged ones & the legged ones, those that slithered on their bellies and those that swam in the waters. They suffered so greatly that a great council was called, and all the People came. Someone spoke: “I have heard that the Great One has hidden Fire away in a tree stump on an island to the east. Who will go to steal some Fire for us that we may live?”
Immediately a great clamor arose from the crowd of People who had gathered, many boasting that they were the ones who could succeed. Finally Buzzard’s voice rang out above the others. He spread his wings and said: “I can fly far, I can soar high, I can cross to the island and steal some Fire.”
“How will you carry it?” asked a voice from the edge of the crowd. “Oh,” replied Buzzard, displaying the great plume of feathers that grew on his head, “I can easily hide it in my beautiful crown of feathers.”
And off he flew with a rapid flapping of wings. Buzzard quickly reached the island, and quickly plucked on glowing ember from the fire. But as he flew proudly away with the coal nestled in his feathery crown, he began to cry “Ow! Ow!” and he shook the bright ember out of his flaming crown. Down, down fell the bright ember, and the gray ashes of his proud crown followed the fire into the water — lost. Buzzard returned to the council, hanging his bare burnt head in shame.
Next came the possum proudly waving his bushy tail high in the air. “My fur is stronger than mere feathers,” he bragged. “I will swim to the island and bring back some Fire.”
And so Possum swam quickly, and so he hid a warm coal in his bushy tail, and so he set out to cross back to his People. But the ember was hot, and hotter, and “Ow! Ow!” he cried and plunged his tail into the cool waters. The Fire was gone, and so was the fur on his tail. And possum, trying to hide his bare pink tail from sight, slunk back to the Council and shook his head.
There was silence. Now, no one wanted to risk the trip. Finally, a tiny voice spoke up — so small, so quiet that it could barely be heard. “I will go,” said Grandmother Water Spider. “I will bring back some Fire.”
Everyone began to mutter…”You’re too small… You’re too old… You’re only a woman….”
But, distracted by neither the negative clamor nor the shaking of heads, Grandmother Water Spider quietly spun a basket, placed it on her back, and began taking her dainty strides across the surface of the water. It took her a long time. As she approached the island, she heard a great hullabaloo. Voices cried, “Someone has dared to violate the island. Look, someone has been poking at the Fire; someone has stolen an ember or two!” The guardians of the Fire had just noticed the tracks of Buzzard & Possum and were rushing around, brandishing weapons, looking for the intruders. But Grandmother Spider didn’t hesitate to come ashore. She was so tiny that no one even noticed her. Calmly she picked up an ember, calmly she put it in her basket, calmly she clamped the lid tight shut to hide the glow, and calmly she set out for home.
When she arrived, the People were overjoyed to see the ember and immediately kindled a blaze that leapt to the sky. They celebrated loudly with singing and dancing and feasting and drumming. And Grandmother Spider walked quietly away from the hubbub and calmly returned to her work of spinning and weaving.
Ah, Grandmother Spider may not be a Trickster but, like Trickster, she goes her own way. (And as Sharon Blackie has pointed out in another context, an Old Crone does contain a lot of Trickster energy.)
Anyway, as an old woman and as a weaver, I found that this version of the coming of Fire immediately spoke to me and lodged itself in my heart.
In general, I am not a fiery person. Except in the case of ecological, political, and social injustice, I am more likely to smolder than flame. But even so, I am alive – so the fire is there.
About 15 years ago, the carefully banked coals within me flared unexpectedly into a poem:
Having been deemed clumsy and
banned at three from ballet class,
she never danced another step.
Wallflower, unable even to waltz--
until at seventy,
she took up flamenco.
The first time she stamped her feet and clapped her hands,
it set the smoke detector howling.
The second, it set off every fire alarm on the street.
The neighbors shook their heads. The fire chief complained.
The judge took one look at her arched back, high chin, imperious eyes
and forbade dancing after 5 p.m. on weekdays.
That very day, she found a cabin in the forest
and, gathering up cats and castanets,
flounced out of town.
It still happens, now and then,
that a passing motorist from elsewhere
calls 911 to report a column of smoke
at the cottage near the crossroads.
The volunteer firemen are required by law to respond
but they all know what to expect.
Arriving on scene, they nod their heads and radio dispatch:
A controlled burn.”
No, I didn’t learn how to dance the flamenco [alas] but, in letting the words flow through me, I felt my fire grow stronger. The story fed the flames.
And then last year, this weaving. In my fiber work, I tend to use the colors of earth and sea, but suddenly I needed Red. I didn’t know why or where it would go, but as I entered into conversation with colors & textures, I felt the fire flickering through my fingers, and I came alive. The work kindled the flame:
May the Fire that moves through our voices, our hands, our hearts, and our lives be always in service of Life….
“Some day, after we have mastered the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness … the energies of love. Then for the second time in the history of the world, we will have discovered fire.”
Well, this past week Trickster has been laughing and whooping and generally congratulating himself on his wit — and I must admit, I’ve been chuckling & shaking my head, too. In last week’s post, I wanted to let Coyote’s tracks run free at the end of the post as a final comment on Wildness, but the WordPress format kept them in a box. Finally, a dear one hacked the code and, he said, got rid of the box. However, when I checked later on my computer, the confining box was still there. So I sighed, resigned myself to WP’s restriction, and added some comments about boxes & tracks. …. Then, folks began reporting that they hadn’t seen the box I’d mentioned. Well, I thought, it must have been that WordPress knows my computer & makes the box show up on it even when I bypass my personal link with them & reach my posts directly through the internet. So Friday afternoon, I tried viewing the post through my phone (number unknown to WP) — and the darn box was still there hedging in the tracks for me even on a different device! Hmmmm…. Maybe Trickster is trying to make a point, to deliver a personal message to me. Maybe I need to be less resigned to those in power, to get out of my own box & be wilder…?
To make things funnier for me, last week I began rummaging through a box of old papers & notes, dating from ca. 20 years ago. At that point in my life, Trickster had already set up a stubborn presence in my mind and my heart. I was doing a lot of reading about him — tales from around the world, anthropology, psychology. But, although I’d been an anthropology major in college, 35 years had elapsed since graduation and I needed someone to introduce me to newer anthropological sources & concepts, someone to help me focus, someone with whom to share discoveries and bounce around ideas. Dr. Claudia Chang, professor of Anthropology at Sweet Briar College, kindly agreed to take me on as a “non-matriculating, auditing student” for an Independent Study class. [Thank you, Claudia! I was and still am so grateful.] Apparently, the college required a topic/name for our work together and, according to the heading on the proposed bibliography I just unearthed, I chose “Trying to Trap the Trickster.” When I found that piece of paper, I just had to smile . One of the things I have learned (and am still learning) is that “trapping” Trickster is, at best, a mirage. Even back then, I should have recognized that I was the one being trapped!
So, trapped as I am in Trickster’s world, it seemed best to pay attention to his message this week & leap outside of my box and make some tracks of my own!
Over the years, I have thought & written a lot about Words as Tracks, but this week my wildest tracks fled the page and became fiber. The half-woven mask that had been waiting far too long on my loom, told me I must finish her, must let her stop being an idea & become real. Almost as soon as she was off the loom and she & I were beginning the sacred work of shifting her from flat to shaped, of exploring her depths, I knew her name was Thalassa. OK, I thought, I know that Thalassa means “sea” and this creation is woven of ocean colors. It makes sense.
Then I looked more deeply into the name.
I wasn’t able to find much firm information. [How fitting for a sea goddess, the watery essence, the ever-changing!] Wikipedia says “In Greek mythology, Thalassa (/θəˈlæsə/; Greek: Θάλασσα, translit.Thálassa, lit. “sea”) was the primeval spirit of the sea, whose name may be of Pre-Greek origin.” The Greeks gave her a human form and fit her into their pantheon, giving her parents, siblings, offspring — all of which vary from one source to the next, probably changing over time. She seems to have been of lasting interest. In the 5th century CE, a Roman mosaic depicts her wearing crab claws like horns, and holding an oar in one hand and a porpoise in the other — perhaps an intermediary between human and oceanic worlds? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thalassa#/media/File:Hatay_thalassa.jpg
But it is her earliest role as the actual embodiment of the waters, the sea itself — specifically the Mediterranean — that intrigues me. I wish I could know her earliest stories, but these were oral tales & though spoken words certainly leave tracks, they are often difficult to discern, well hidden, faded, lost to us. …. In any case, it is Thalassa’s primeval aspect that calls me & that has turned the making of this mask into an offering of gratitude for a particular gift I received from the Mediterranean Sea 50 years ago.
It has been fun to find that as Thalassa comes into being, long-forgotten yarns & fibers have started pouring out of boxes and drawers, offering themselves as part of the feast of colors & textures, part of the sea of being & becoming. I find myself immersed in a wild process of discovery & learning and am eager to experience what emerges!
T.S. Eliot, from “Dry Salvages” in Four Quartets:
I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river
Is a strong brown god--sullen, untamed and intractable,
Patient to some degree...
The river is within us, the sea is all about us;
The sea is the land's edge also, the granite
Into which it reaches, the beaches where it tosses
Its hints of earlier and other creation:
The starfish, the horseshoe crab, the whale's backbone;
The pools where it offers to our curiosity
The more delicate algae and the sea anemone.
It tosses up our losses, the torn seine,
The shattered lobsterpot, the broken oar
And the gear of foreign dead men. The sea has many
Many gods and many voices.
The salt is on the briar rose,
The fog is in the fir trees. ....