3 Old Women

A spider has been building orb webs in the upper corner of our porch. (She reminds me of another spider who companioned me at an important juncture — but that’s another story for another time.) I am happy to have her company, for I have been thinking about the Old Woman who, in myth, weaves the world into being and, in times of change, takes out the threads and weaves anew.

This isn’t just because I now am an old woman. I have long been drawn to the Old Weaver & to other manifestations of the Wise Old Woman who appears so often in Story & Myth — fierce, independent, on the edges of society, close to both the natural & the other worlds…

Of course, I knew Her from many of the folk tales of my childhood — not always a wicked witch but sometimes a helper & healer. She truly took root in my imaginal realm when I was an 18-year old freshman in college. Several years ago, I wrote of that memorable encounter, trying to puzzle out why a teenager might have been so permanently imprinted with a positive image of old age & death:

	ANTHRO 101

December, and late afternoon sun
edges wearily through half-basement windows,
into chalk-dusty air redolent of
camphor, ancient leather, and bone in the museum above.
Students scribble in spiral notebooks while
the professor drones on about Arctic cultures.

“Conditions were harsh,” he notes, "but if a woman did grow old,
she might spend her final years commandeering young men 
to take her visiting village to village --- until,
no longer able to sew a seam or spin a tale, 
she walked out onto the sea ice alone.”

As he speaks, an unseen door opens,
caribou-hide covering sweeps aside, and
an old woman enters the room --
hood of her sealskin parka thrown back
to reveal braids gray as late winter ice.
“Who has called me?” she asks.

The professor lectures on without lifting his eyes;
students write, doodle, or doze in their seats.
“Who calls?” she repeats.

	Did I turn a little to the half-heard voice,
	lifting my eyes to meet hers, bright
	and merry amid the wrinkled terrain of age?

For sixty years I have carried her 
-- silent and light as eagle down --
along the northern margins of my mind;
I have pulled her forward as steadily as 
a team of huskies heading for home;
I have nourished her in equal share with everything 
I have hunted for myself.

Of late, we have begun to converse more freely,
to sit and sew and spin stories together.

The ice is melting.
When it is time, where will we go?
                                                          --- MCK

*****

Then, in 1973, in Yugoslavia, I met an old woman as she walked, spinning yarn, along a country road. We talked — with no language in common but lots of gestures & laughter. She couldn’t believe that neither my friend nor I knew how to spin — grown women though we were! Several years later, I found that she, too, had entered my imaginal realm — becoming stronger within me as I learned to spin and weave.

*****

As my 50th birthday approached, the Old Woman moved to the forefront of my imagination. I read myths & stories, getting to now her many ways of being in many different cultures. I looked forward to growing “older & wiser” and began searching diligently for my first gray hairs (which, alas, still haven’t appeared).

About that time, I discovered that the word “Crone” was derived from a older word meaning “a carcass” or “an old & worthless ewe.” I responded by writing a triumphal Crone poem:

CRONE

is my favorite word these days.
Wonderful sound of 

crow:	  old shape-shifter, one-eyed seer into future, or
	          verb of exultation.

drone:	  the steady throb of dulcimer or bagpipe—not melody but
	         the tone that holds it all together.
	
bone:	  the hard, the lasting.

CRONE —	you beautiful word, you have been mistreated,
		manhandled by makers of linguistic lists,

		linked to “carrion: putrefying flesh” or
		“old ewe with broken teeth to be culled from the flock.”

		Why not tied to “chronios: long-lasting” like CRONY?
		Why, old long-time woman—ancient buddy— why not?

You, CRONE, are a feisty fiddle upon which life has been playing
in all tempos, all weathers, for a long long time.
No shiny new penny whistle can sing with such depth.

CRONE, you are ragged and straggled
with elf-locks in the wind
and a belly laugh that sends
muscle-proud lads scurrying for cover.
Old Baubo, you raise your skirts and
show them what they fear.

CRONE, you are as beautiful as the last apple
on the tree in November, the final apple 
in the barrel come March:  No young face holds
such terrible beauty as the face of one who
knows that she knows the truth of her days.

CRONE:	I chant you as mantra,
		I chase your whirlwind,
		I dream hooked beak and vulture wings.

I’m coming, I’m coming—not far behind you.
Save me a place at the old crones’ feast.

*****

The 3rd old woman to take root in my imaginal realm was Jouška, who arrived during a delightful & insightful experimental workshop on “Art & Character” led by the artist Roz Casey . We engaged not only with art-making and writing, but also with some imaginative experiential prompts — for example, walk down a familiar path sensing it in the ways that your character would. As I took my favorite walk through the wooded acres across the road, sensing my surroundings as Jouška might have done, I was amazed how deeply the place and its beings came alive for me. I have always been aware of the natural world, learning from it and sending my love in return for its many gifts — but my habitual awareness felt superficial compared the awareness revealed through Jouška — an old woman living about 1,500 years ago in the depths of the boreal forest of Karelia (home of the Kalevala mythology & now straddling the Finnish/Russian border). This Old Woman continues to walk within and beside me.

Lately I have realized that as I converse now with the Shaman figure, trying to learn who she is & who she wants to be, it is Jouška‘s voice that I hear guiding me. I dug deeper into my stash last week & found more leather and the remnants of a old, old fox-fur hood. I used my old walnut dye to color the wooden base & the leather that covers it. Here is the Shaman in one of her possible be-comings — for she is still and always coming more & more into Being, just as we all are.

As I age, I realize that I have apprenticed myself to these 3 Old Women. They have taught and continue to teach me in so many ways. Learning from them, stepping with them into the Unknown, what shall I discover next?

******

” …. ‘Tell me one thing,’ said the eldest Princess to the Old Woman…, ‘Tell me one thing. Was that you ahead of me on the road, in such a hurry?’

‘There is always an old woman ahead of you on a journey, and there is always an old woman behind you too, and they are not always the same, and may be fearful or kindly, dangerous or delightful, as the road shifts, and you speed along it. Certainly I was ahead of you, and behind you too, but not only I, and not only as I am now.’ ….”

[A.S. Byatt, “The Story of the Eldest Princess,” in The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye]

Wildness: Both Turbulent & Still

This week I have been living in two very different but equally Wild places.

Two books I’ve been reading concurrently have tossed me into turbulent cascades of Wild energy:

In The Eye of the Wild, the French anthropologist Nastassja Martin recounts her interaction with a bear — violent on both sides — in the Siberian wilderness of Kamchatka & her struggles to recover and to come to terms with what had happened. Her journey is slow and painful — physically and mentally. Martin has lived with both the Gwich’in people of Alaska & the Even people of Kamchatka — peoples who dwell in areas where climate and culture are undergoing rapid changes. She has been particularly on Animism. Now she must learn for herself what that intimate near-death encounter with a bear meant, how it is to be — as the Even say — medka, half-human/half-bear.

The Man Who Could Move Clouds: A Memoir was written by a woman who grew up, amid the violence of Colombia in the 1980s and 90s, in a Mestizo family — a people who experience daily a life of inbetween, being neither fully Indigenous nor fully white. Having a grandfather who was a well-known curandero — a healer knowing the old secrets — Ingrid Rojas Contreras found her family to be set apart in still other ways. As an adult in the U.S., an accident leaves her with an extended bout of amnesia — a condition that, she learns, was experienced by her mother as a child. As she tells of her own experience of amnesia and as she digs deeper into the stories of her family’s past, Rojas Contreras reveals the complex cultural & personal legacies that shape her sense of reality.

Both books are true stories of metamorphosis and becoming, shape-shifting and transformation, stories in which Wild energies are freed & allowed to have their say in the unfolding narratives.

And then, yesterday, Audrey di Mola’s energetic & enlivening retelling of the story of King Arthur, Sir Gawain, and Dame Ragnelle (aka “The Loathly Lady”). Here we meet Ragnelle not merely as some unimaginably ugly hag, but as the feminine embodiment of the Wild & Shape-Shifting natural (more-than-human) world — an energy that demands sovereignty, agency, its own right to choose.

So….. books & story — written and spoken words dancing with and through overwhelming waves of primal energy, swirling movements, volcanic encounters between humans and the Wild.

But also this week, I’ve known many moment of deep Stillness. As T.S. Eliot has written:

"At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
 Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
 But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
 Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
 Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
 There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.
 I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say where.
 And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time.
 The inner freedom from the practical desire,
 The release from action and suffering, release from the inner
 And the outer compulsion, yet surrounded
 By a grace of sense...."                      

This Stillness, too, is a doorway to the Wild — Becoming so still that the birds at the feeder ignore my gradual approach. And with the evening deer by the bridge, becoming so still that even my rather excitable & frequently vocal little dog, after one low growl, sat quietly my side while the deer noted our presence but did not startle, cautiously returning to their grazing, then slowly gliding into the band of trees by the creek. This Stillness is a good place — less flamboyant & exuberant than the worlds I glimpsed this week through language & Story, but just as Wild, just as far from the constricting and life-sapping beliefs of the prevailing colonial-consumerist-capitalist-technocratic culture that now dominates more & more of the human world.

My making this week has followed two similar, seemingly divergent paths. On the one hand, the quiet contemplation of various ways to felt a leaf; on the other, a return to a wild making I began and abandoned nearly a dozen years ago:

I’m curious about what energies I will encounter or bring into being next week, about how I will live more & more into the Wildness of this life.

P.S. When my son read my mention of Stillness in the blog this morning, he said it reminded him of something that happened when he was about 10 years old. And oh yes! It is a perfect example of Stillness! He and I were on a rafting trip in southern Utah. The other passengers were a family with two children about his age. When we stopped to camp, the other children spotted small lizards & began trying to catch them. My son just stood still and watched. He was very, very Still…. and soon a little lizard ran up his leg and sat quietly on his shoulder. I remember the lizard staying there for a long long time … but who can discern time in the midst of such Stillness? It was a timeless moment filled with Beauty. My son named the lizard Turquoise. And Turquoise has remained with us.

LIFE IN AN EXPANDING UNIVERSE by Pattiann Rogers.

"It's not only all those cosmic
 pinwheels with their charging solar
 luminosities, the way they spin around
 like the paper kind tacked to a tree trunk,
 the way they expel matter and light
 like fields of dandelions throwing off
 waves of summer sparks in the wind,
 the way they speed outward,
 receding, creating new distances
 simply by soaring into them.

 But it's also how the noisy
 crow enlarges the territory
 above the landscape at dawn, making
 new multiple canyon spires in the sky
 by the sharp towers and ledges
 of its calling; and how the bighorn
 expand the alpine meadow by repeating
 inside their watching eyes every foil
 of columbine and bell rue, all
 the stretches of sedges, the candescences
 of jagged slopes and crevices existing there.

 And though there isn't a method
 to measure it yet, by finding
 a golden-banded skipper on a buttonbush,
 by seeing a blue whiptail streak
 through desert scrub, by looking up
 one night and imagining the fleeing
 motions of stars themselves, I know
 my presence must swell one flutter-width
 wider, accelerate one lizard-slip farther,
 descend many stellar-fathoms deeper
 than it ever was before."

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

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 ~

War, Peace, Story, Language, Art

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

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

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

prayer

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

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

our light give to the deceived
and let them gain clarity 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yakichuk says succinctly [again from the CBC article]:

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

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

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

from Song of Peace:

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

…..

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

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

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

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

Stories as Living Beings

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

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

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

And again:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fire and Trickster Dance On

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.

                  [MCK]
            

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:

		FIRE

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:
“It’s OK.  
The usual.  
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:

Ember Dreaming Flame – Weaving, spinning, crochet, knitting, stitching; Wool, silk, mixed fibers.

EMBER DREAMING FLAME - detail

EMBER DREAMING FLAME — detail

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.

— Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

Healing: Transforming through Story

“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,
they shine.
                             ~~MCK

Georgia O’Keeffe
Georgia O’Keeffe, Pelvis with Moon