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.
Usually, 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 back 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. One goes something like this:
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,” said Buzzard, vainly 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, and he did get to island, and he did take some fire. But as he flew proudly away with a coal nestled in his feathery crown, he began to cry “Ow! Ow!” and he shook the bright ember out of his flaming crown, and it & the ashes of his crowning feathers fell into water and were lost. He 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 he 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.Then 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 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.”
On Tuesday morning, I began to jot down thoughts for this week’s post. And then………. On Tuesday afternoon, I began to read Savage Grace byJay Griffithsand was swept clear out of my chair and into the wild & wonderful Wind of Being.
The notes I’d made will have to wait. Imust share with you some of Griffiths’ opening pages — words that are alive, a vision that conjures up a sense of Trickster Spirit:
“Absolute Truancy. I felt its urgent demand in the blood. I could hear its call. Its whistling disturbed me by day and its howl woke me in the night. I heard the drum of the sun. Every path was a calling cadence, the flight of every bird a beckoning, the colour of ice an invitation: come. The forest was a fiddler, wickedly good, eyes intense and shining with a fast dance. Every leaf in every breeze was a toe, tapping out the same rhythm, and every mountain top lifting out of cloud intrigued my mind, for the wind at the peaks was the flautist, licking his lips, dangerously mesmerizing me with the inaudible melodies which I strained to hear, my ears yearning for the horizon of sound. This was the calling, the vehement, irresistible demand of the feral angel–take flight. All that is wild is winged –life, mind and language– and knows the feel of air in soaring flight.“ ….
“I was looking for the will of the wild. I was looking for how that will expressed itself in elemental vitality, in savage grace. Wildness is resolute for life: it cannot be otherwise for it will die in captivity. It is elemental: pure freedom, pure passion, pure hunger. It is its own manifesto.“ ….
“I was, in fact, homesick for wildness, and when I found it I knew how intimately –how resonantly– I belonged there. We are charged with this. All of us. For the human spirit has a primal allegiance to wildness, to really live, to snatch the fruit and suck it, to spill the juice. We may think we are domesticated, but we are not.“ …..
Jay Griffiths, Savage Grace (Berkeley CA: Counterpoint, 2015) pp. 1-2.
Although Jay Griffiths is here describing her personal longings, her words definitely conjure up the universal Trickster Spirit. The typical American use of the word “Trickster” — meaning some kind of con-man seeking money and power or a mere prankster — has not only missed the point but has attempted to limit that which by nature is limitless, to reduce Trickster into something comprehensible to our culture’s everyday sensibilities. Of course Trickster, in whatever culture he happens to be residing, will try to cheat others for personal gain & to pull pranks just for the hell of it. But that is only one of his many facets, not his total nature. Above all, Trickster Spirit is wildness, possibility, and creativity — the Life essence –personified.
Jay Griffiths grew up in Britain but her experience (poignantly described further in detail on p.5) is typical of many in the Western consumer-capitalist/Enlightenment cultures.
“I know this chloroform world,“she writes, “where human nature is well-schooled, tamed from childhood on, where the radiators are permanently on mild and the windows are permanently closed…..“
Trickster Spirit moves freely in the Larger-Than-Human World and, because (whether we acknowledge it or not) we dwell within & are an integral part of that larger world, Trickster even transgresses the oh-so-well-defended walls of our human cultures, our received ideas, our “chloroform world.” Trickster is Wild.
Lewis Hyde — in his delightful, must-read book Trickster Makes This World — states :
“In short, trickster is a boundary-crosser. Every group has its edge, its sense of in and out, and trickster is always there, at the gates of the city and the gates of life, making sure there is commerce. He also attends the internal boundaries by which groups articulate their social life. We constantly distinguish — right and wrong, sacred and profane, clean and dirty, male and female, young and old, living and dead — and in every case trickster will cross the line and confuse the distinction. …. Trickster is the mythic embodiment of ambiguity and ambivalence, doubleness and duplicity, contradiction and paradox. …. [T]he best way to describe trickster is to say simply that the boundary is where he will be found — sometimes drawing the line, sometimes crossing it, sometimes erasing or moving it, but always there, the god of the threshold in all its forms.“
If you look at the bottom of this post, you will see coyote tracks meandering inside a frame, a box. Apparently, WordPress has decreed that every image must be so contained & I have not yet found a way to undermine this wall. But note that coyote (that old trickster) has left vibrant black marks, while theborder, the boundary, the edge, the separating line is a pale ghostly gray.Which feels more real? Which is wilder? Which one enlivens you?
by Lucille Clifton
call it our craziness even, call it anything. it is the life thing in us that will not let us die. even in death’s hand we fold the fingers up and call them greens and grow on them, we hum them and make music. call it our wildness then, we are lost from the field of flowers, we become a field of flowers. call it our craziness our wildness call it our roots, it is the light in us it is the light of us it is the light, call it whatever you have to, call it anything.
~~ May Poem of the Month from gratefulness.org : From How to Carry Water: Selected Poems
Yesterday I read Ursula LeGuin’s 1986 commencement address at Bryn Mawr. (You can find it and many other interesting essays in her book Dancing at the Edge of the World.) Her address includes an extended discussion of the different ways language can be used — to separate and to exert power-over [which LeGuin calls the “father tongue”] or to connect [her “mother tongue”]. I was struck by an anecdote she related:
“Early this spring I met a musician, the composer Pauline Oliveros, a beautiful woman like a grey rock in a streambed; and a group of us, women, who were beginning to quarrel over theories in abstract, objective language–and I with my splendid Eastern-women’s-college training in the father tongue was in the thick of the fight and going in for the kill– to us, Pauline, who is sparing with words, said after clearing her throat, ‘Offer your experience as your truth.’ There was a short silence. When we started talking again, we didn’t talk objectively, and we didn’t fight. We went back to feeling our way into ideas, using the whole intellect not half of it, talking to one another, which involves listening. Not claiming something: offering something.
“How, after all,” LeGuin asks, “can one experience deny, negate, disprove, another experience? …. People can’t contradict each other, only words can: words separated from experience for use as weapons, words that make the wound, the split between subject and object, exposing and exploiting the object but disguising and defending the subject
“People crave objectivity because to be subjective is to be embodied, to be a body, vulnerable, violable.”
To be able to “offer our experience as our truth” and to be able to hear another person’s experience as their truth… To listen deeply to both — to find compassion for both our experience and the experience of our “adversary”…. How different would our conversations be? How different would our world be?
I was reminded of Marilyn Frye’s description of the way the Arrogant Eye objectifies its world while the Loving Eye is situated firmly in its own living body, a participating aspect of the whole living universe. [See For the Earth, posted 4/22] How do we learn to see ourselves & each other with both eyes?
I was also reminded of how difficult it can be for many of us to trust our own experience/truth rather than that which has been scripted for us by family, teachers, society, culture. And, once we do manage to claim our truth, how difficult it can be to find the words that would let us offer it to others.
Nearly 30 years ago, the amazing poet Mary Oliver was Writer-in-Residence at Sweet Briar College, a women’s college just down the highway a piece from where I was living at the time. I was fortunate & privileged to take a semester-long writing class with her. She was a wise person and an excellent teacher. And it was wonderful for me — then at ca. 50 years — to have talented, vibrant, and remarkable young women as colleagues in this learning experience. One day we were given an assignment for a prose poem about how it would be, after a long time alone in a lifeboat, to approach an island.
When we read our poems aloud in the next class, I was struck by the discovery that although the responses were as diverse as the writers, they all had one point in common. So, instead of revising my poem for the next class, I went home and wrote about that.
On Tuesday our teacher said, Write a poem. Make it like this: Your ship has sunk; you have been long in the lifeboat alone; you see an island. And we women went home, our heads filled with islands.
Mine was stern– a cliff without path, a face closed against me. I could not be sure that death on the surface might not be simpler than a frozen flailing towards shore or final rejection by the rock. When I showed the lines to my husband, he said, Why don’t you paddle around the island? Check it out? I can’t, I replied, I have no oars. Paddle with your hands, he urged. I can’t; the wind is pushing me past.
On Thursday we went over our writings, told how we had seen, with exquisite clarity, our various ways through the storm and into a calm of words. Our islands rose fiercely or gently; we sighed with anguish or relief; we moved forward into disaster or salvation– but always oarless.
Had we been men, we’d have written different poems–equipped ourselves with oars of oak; rigged Gortex anoraks into sails, taken from the emergency kit our freeze-dried chocolate ice cream. Sisters, shall we write again? Shall we supply ourselves with strong alloy paddles and waterproof battery-operated radio locators?
Dare me to speak more truthfully. Dare me to tell how I rose from the raft and, with many falls and bruises, learned to dance daily on the slick shifting waves. Dare me to tell how I bared by breasts to the moon, sprouted a silver tail, and slipped deep into this lucent world.
P.S. Comments & responses to these Friday posts are welcome!
“Stories contain the hidden secrets of transformation, the alchemist’s formulas for turning lead into gold.”
~~ Dr. Lewis Mehl-Madrona, MD., PhD., Coyote Wisdom, 2005
The stories we tell about ourselves are powerful. Story is the domain of Trickster — a place of shape-shifting, transformation, wildness, change. Sometimes a story can be — or, as circumstances change, can become — a cage or a windowless room or a festering wound. Nonetheless, we often lug these old stories around with us and defend them against any perceived threats, believing them to be fundamental to our identity and the world as we know it. And, indeed, that fear is justified. What if we encounter — as I did with Raven Brings the Sun — a new exuberant story to replace an old one of fear and hiding? We may find the new story creating windows, opening doors, changing the shapes of our dwelling-places and of our understandings of self and others. Or what if we ourselves re-tell our old story in a new way that opens our heart, deepens and widens our sense of self and of others, and brings us healing and empowerment?
Many years ago, I sat down to write about an old betrayal that was still baffling me at times, shards of its desiccated residue still needling occasionally beneath my skin. I had no preconceived idea where the words would take me. I was just along for the ride. And a wild ride it was! When I finished & reread the story, I felt a sudden sense of strength and closure. I had freed myself, acknowledged my strength. I was healed, made whole once again:
STORY FOR A STORMY NIGHT
Once upon a time--long ago and far away--
I was the princess glad and golden; you,
the prince. It had to be so; I knew
how these things were supposed to go.
And off we danced into velvet nights
and secret bowers where you were
the prince who kissed me asleep:
Through dimming eyes, I saw your feet grow
webbed, your mouth widen, your back
hump down under slick green skin.
And off you hopped to other wells, spilling
from your waistcoat pocket, broken
promises, broken heart--seeds
cracking open in the dark.
Out and up sprang vines and briars--
catching twisting--thick and deep. Quickly
I buttoned my skin tight over the tangle
and no one knew. And all the blossoms
were hidden. And all the blossoms were
the color of blood.
But fierce things thrive in wilderness--
weasel, wolf, and wolverine--and I,
year by year in my spiked cocoon,
slept more wildly, dreamed more wise.
I woke myself when it was time.
Then, what else could I do with a lifetime of
ivy, creeper, and kudzu,
honeysuckle and bramblerose?
I have pulled it, peeled it,
soaked it, chewed it, made it
pliable enough to plait. I have woven
baskets for bread, baskets for brides,
wicker cradles, caskets, coffers. I have
hawked my wares from door to door. I have grown
singular and shrill.
Now I weave one last basket,
round and tight as any coracle flung
by crazed Celtic monks into Atlantic brine.
I climb into my craft and fly,
like Baba Yaga, along the seams of nightmares.
I ride the currents of your lies, the windsheer
just beyond the edges of your eyes. I have
woven well; I fly high enough.
Don't be afraid, old frog, when my cape
feathers out into wings and I plunge--
hook-beaked and taloned--down and down.
It is not your soft body I want: I will
rip flesh off one old corpse, I will lay
bare the bones of the matter. These are
my bones. I claim them: picked clean,