Trickster’s Tracks

Looking back over the last week or so — no matter what the topic or level of experience & meaning — I see Trickster’s tracks weaving in and out and over my own tracks, sometimes almost obliterating them. I feel flummoxed and frustrated and have wanted to raise a fist & shout “Enough Already!” …..But, of course, it isn’t enough; otherwise he’d skip away to other business. Trickster is summoned into existence by many things — inattention, indecision, distraction, lack of perception & imbalance, and hyper-seriousness, to name just a few. They all seem to describe the sort of funk I’ve been in. Trickster is my eternal teacher, usually advising me to praise paradox more loudly & to dance through this journey more lightly, more joyfully.

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– – – – – – And, since writing those words yesterday, since naming Trickster’s message, I’ve found myself turning a corner, choosing a path, no longer stuck in indecision and useless lamentation at the crossroads. I continue to be amazed by the power of words. Preoccupation with words — or with a lack of them — may occasionally cause me to stumble into some deep crevasse … but words can also provide the handholds & footholds I need to climb back out and continue the journey!

Of course, many feelings and experiences are way beyond words & need to be protected from attempts to nail them down & cage them with language. Trickster himself is one of those beings/experiences. This is why poetry, metaphor, story are the linguistic vehicles we use when trying to share the deepest truths. And there are non-linguistic ways as well — image, music, dance….

I love nonverbal communication. Still, words are strong — and, like Story, potentially dangerous. Many indigenous cultures (including the Navajo and the ancient Hebrews) have taken language seriously, recognizing that spoken words create or shift reality. For me, writing, saying, or just thinking a word, metaphor, or story can sometimes be a prayer, both a source of clarification & a kind of commitment. Such commitment is essential before undertaking true work. (My teacher Luisah Teisch teaches that Trickster sits at the Crossroads and, if you lack clear intention & commitment, he is more than happy to lead you astray.)

William Hutchinson Murray (1913-1996), Scottish mountaineer & writer, reminds us:

“Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.”

And so I am, once more, beginning — remembering the words of St. Benedict:

“Always we begin again.”

I have finally begun to put into words for myself a paradox that, especially in light of political struggles here in the U.S. & around the world, has been drifting in a cloud around me like a swarm of gnats, bothering me incessantly. Somewhere earlier on this blog I said (no doubt, many times) that the power of Story is stronger than we’ve imagined and can be harnessed for healing or for harm. But when I read definitions of Story, I hear little that distinguishes these 2 possibilities from each other, little to explain the difference and how to identify & avoid or overcome the latter. Why/how is one story “better” or more “true” than another? After wallowing unhappily in my puzzlement for far too long, I feel like someone who’s been drowning in shallow water and suddenly — simply — puts her feet down on the bottom and rises up above the waves. [This reminds me of the saying — highlighting the stunted growth of trees in the cold of Iceland — that advises: “If you are lost in a forest in Iceland, stand up!”]

Well, more on those thoughts as they develop….

I’ve also been dithering for weeks about the colors for my next weaving. As I’ve pulled out more & more possible (or impossible) fibers and yarns from my stash, my studio came to resemble the messy, unstructured, hodge-podge nest of a mourning dove — though the mourning dove is definitely more minimalist than I am in the collection of building materials. (I once read about a mourning dove who constructed her nest of just five poorly arranged twigs.)

Two days ago, I came across words written by Maeve Brenan to her friend Tillie Olsen:

“You are all your work has. It has nobody else and never had anybody else. If you deny it hands and a voice, it will continue as it is, alive, but speechless and without hands. You know it has eyes and can see you, and you know how hopefully it watches you.”

Hooray for synchronicity & serendipity! This was just the reminder, the wake-up call, I needed. “... and you know how hopefully it watches you.” How much longer will the work be patient? There have been times when, faced with my endless wavering, it finally gave up on me and went off to look for someone else.

So — I finally pulled out some fluffy gray wool & slick hand-dyed mohair and began to spin yarn for the mask’s warp (which will become the hair). Yesterday I plied the two uneven yarns together loosely & washed the skein to set the twist. …… Ha! The power of commitment took hold! When I couldn’t sleep last night, I got up & found the yarn to be dry. I cut the lengths and warped the loom — and returned to bed for a few hours of satisfied & restful sleep. First thing this morning, I began playing with a variety of wefts on the edge of the warp, anxious to see some of the possibilities emerge before unraveling them all & beginning to weave the form in earnest. (Warp colors are not bright pastel than shown — more subdued & subtle.)

Throw Yourself Like Seed ~~ by Miguel de Unamuno

“Shake off this sadness, and recover your spirit;
sluggish you will never see the wheel of fate
that brushes your heel as it turns going by,
the man who wants to live is the man in whom life is abundant.

Now you are only giving food to that final pain
which is slowly winding you in the nets of death,
but to live is to work, and the only thing which lasts
is the work; start then, turn to the work.

Throw yourself like seed as you walk, and into your own field,
don’t turn your face for that would be to turn it to death,
and do not let the past weigh down your motion.

Leave what’s alive in the furrow, what’s dead in yourself,
for life does not move in the same way as a group of clouds;
from your work you will be able one day to gather yourself.” 

************

In the meantime, the other-than-human world continues to offer its multiplicity of gifts. A Yellow-crowned Night-Heron has visited the neighboring pond (drained during a construction project but now refilling) a number of times this week — Such a magical creature!

And Old Oak continues to shed leaves & let go of overt growth so that she can find a deeper life in the darkness of winter — a time when, though the part of her I see above ground will appear dead & dormant, deep underground her roots will continue to grow & to gather water and nutrients — storing them to propel her sudden burst of life in the spring.

I love how her bones are beginning to show: the form, the strength, the scaffolding on which her life and the lives of many other beings depend.

Of what am I currently letting go? 
What is the shape of my own scaffolding? 
And what, I wonder, will my roots be doing this winter?

In the meantime, I’ll leave us all to ponder the advice of Osho:

"Don't move the way fear makes you move.
Move the way love makes you move.
Move the way joy makes you move."

Trickster Times

Hello, dear ones. My body has been out of balance all week, so I’m officially giving myself a “leave of absence” for this week. [Can bloggers do that???] However, I do want to share the words of others that have been rattling insistently around in me.

The first is a beloved statement by Ben Okri that I’ve shared before:

“The earliest storytellers were magi, seers, bards, griots, shamans. They were, it would seem, as old as time, and as terrifying to gaze upon as the mysteries with which they wrestled. They wrestled with mysteries and transformed them into myths which coded the world and helped the community to live through one more darkness, with eyes wide open and hearts set alight.”

”And I think that now, in our age, in the mid-ocean of our days, with certainties collapsing around us, and with no beliefs by which to steer our way through the dark descending nights ahead — I think that now we need those fictional old bards and fearless storytellers, those seers. We need their magic, their courage, their love, and their fire more than ever before. It is precisely in a fractured, broken age that we need mystery and a reawoken sense of wonder. We need them to be whole again.”

– Ben Okri

The next quotes are from Sharon Blackie’s remarkable new book Hagitude (pp. 188-189 & pp.193-196), which I am currently in the midst of reading. (I expect more references to this book will come along — She has much to say about the Old Woman in myth & story, including Trickster aspects & the role of the fiber arts in old stories.)

Writing about the work of René Guénon (Symbols of Sacred Science, 1962), Dr. Blackie says Guénon

“… argued that we now live in ‘degenerate times,’ at the end of a long era during which important spiritual truths have been forgotten, the ancient centres of wisdom have been destroyed, and the guardians of that wisdom are long gone. However, he suggested, the safest repository for such old truths has always been folklore. He believed that knowledge which is in danger of being lost can be translated into the symbolic code of a folk tale, and then passed on through the storytelling tradition. [….] Then, in better times, people might once again appear who understand the code, and who will penetrate the symbolic disguise and uncover the wider meaning behind. … It’s incumbent on us to tell the old stories — and to use those stories, when necessary, to hold the culture to acount.”

Later, Dr. Blackie describes Trickster beautifully:

“…Trickster is above all a disruptor of the established order, upsetting it so that necessary change might come about. Trickster happens along when something urgently needs to shift, sweeping out the old, arid and useless to make way for the new.”

“…Trickster holds up a mirror to all that is dysfunctional, hypocritical and perverse in us or in our culture, and challenges our deepest assumptions about our own nature, or the nature of the world around us.”

“The Trickster, then, in all her [or his] diverse forms, is the character who breezes in and breaks something in an attempt to wake us up, revealing to us the shakier truth which underlies a seemingly stable situation. And so Trickster can also be thought of as an archetype of the apocalypse — in the original sense of that Greek word, which means revelation: [quoting Richard Goswiller] ‘an unveiling or unfolding of things not previously known and which could not be known apart from the unveiling’.”

“What follows after Trickster’s intervention, of course, depends on many things — among them, the specific qualities of the Trickster who happens along in the story we are living through. And although we don’t always get the Trickster we imagine we might want, we mostly get the Trickster we deserve….”

It seems to me that we are really in the midst of major Trickster times on a global scale. Certainly we’re having to face “all that is dysfunctional, hypocritical and perverse in us or in our culture” & are being fiercely challenged on some of our “deepest assumptions about our own nature, or the nature of the world around us.” What do you & I see when we look in Trickster’s Mirror? And how & which of the old Stories can be of help? What & how am I (are we) telling stories? …These aren’t just “rhetorical questions.” I’m really pondering all this, thinking of my actions.

Anyway, I have to smile as I frequently repeat to myself what the Hunter’s Horse said in the story posted Sept. 23 : “Fear not — the worst is yet to come.” Don’t fear, don’t weep, the Horse says again & again. Step into the next part of the Story & deal with what you find. You might be surprised!

And, of course, we’re not alone. The Earth community in all its embodied forms is speaking to us all the time. Nowadays birds & deer are bringing me Stories. The Old Tree behind our house (or, I should say — in front of which our house has been planted) teaches me & shares her Stories every day. Who else is telling the Stories I/we need to hear? What are the Stories that need to be shared — in language and in a myriad of other ways? How does my fiber work speak? Much to contemplate…. and then to embody, to enact as a participant in this on-going story.

The Old One –10/13/2022

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…

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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

Coyote Speaks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*******

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

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

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

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

She is beginning to emerge.

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

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

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

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

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

“What we are creating is creating us.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Beauty
the world is begun.

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

In Beauty
it is begun.

In Beauty
it is woven.

In Beauty
it shall be finished.

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

~ author unknown ~

Saunter & Gawk

Eighteen years ago I was fortunate to take a life-changing course entitled “The New Cosmology,” taught by Dr. Larry Edwards. It was a week-long intensive class with lots of reading & a paper before the gathering and more reading & a longer paper due a month afterwards. We looked briefly at the origin stories told not only by our Western cultures but also by other cultures around the wold, and considered how different origin stories were both creators of & products of the cultures in which they were found. We looked at the current scientific explanations/stories of cosmic evolution, Earth’s evolution, the evolution of Life, and finally — within the context of these larger patterns — human evolution. We considered the ways that the various species of plants and animals in an ecosystem help shape each other’s evolution, creating distinct traits and skills that interlock. And the human? What is our special trait? Perhaps, Dr. Edwards suggested, it is our ability to become fascinated by what we encounter, to wonder, to simply stop & gawk. One of my classmates added the word “saunter.” That’s it we decided: What makes us human is not simply our physiology or our technical achievements — it is our delight in sauntering & gawking — and then making up stories (whether scientific explanations or extended reflections) about what we’ve encountered.

“Saunter & Gawk!” That pretty much sums up my life this past week. Even in my fiber work, I’ve been doing a sort of saunter-and-gawk as I spend time in the company of some poorly-prepared llama and angora rabbit fibers — trying to understand the nature and “desires” of these tangled fibers. I’ve also been sauntering & gawking with delight in the natural world that surrounds me here and in the written world of ideas & discoveries & the records of unique personal experiences.

A brief question from my brother about a current forest fire here in North Carolina led to questions of geology, and I began saunter (and/or stumble) through information about the geology of this place in which I now find myself living. So much to learn! Much of what I encountered was beyond my comprehension, but I did stop to gawk at some wonderful surprises. I’d sort of assumed that the Piedmont where I live was mostly a result of the erosion of the Appalachian Mountains to the west. Who’d have guessed that this place was — before that — a chain of volcanic islands that were eventually squished between colliding tectonic plates?! Somehow seeing that deeper story of the land upon which I walk daily delights me and makes me feel more at home here.

Yesterday I came across an essay by David Abram which affirms our class’s “saunter-and-gawk” hypothesis. https://www.humansandnature.org/on-being-human-in-a-more-than-human-world In it, Abram begins by sharing the question that was inevitably asked every time he spoke about the human place in Earth ecology:

‘Alright, Dr. Abram, I understand when you say that we humans are completely embedded within a more-than-human world, and I understand your claim that many other animals, plants, and landforms are at least as necessary as humans are to the ongoing flourishing of the biosphere. But despite the attention and praise that you bestow upon other species, surely you must admit that humankind is something utterly unique in the earthly world?’

After musing about that question and his responses over the years, Abram goes on to say:

And after puzzling and pondering the matter, over and again, sussing out the signature traits of our species, I began to feel my way toward a fresh answer, one that rang true to me even as it seemed to satisfy my challengers—or at least to give them pause.

For if there’s something exceptional about us two-leggeds, it seems to reside in our ability to become interested in—even fascinated by—well, pretty much anything. Diverse other creatures, as I watch them go about their days, seem to stay fairly focused on a range of matters that concern their own well-being, indulging in other whims and curiosities now and then, but rarely ranging very far afield, with their sustained attention, from the sort of things that seem to grab others of their kind. But we humans have a peculiar proclivity to become fascinated and enthralled by the most incommensurable matters. Among even my close friends, there’s a person who closely studies the antler patterns of moose, another whose hobby involves documenting the life cycle of various lichens, and another whose expertise lies in throwing and baking the perfect Neapolitan pizza. That same baker is also a fine gardener who spends much of her week wooing various butterflies down from the skies to alight on the plants that she’s carefully cultivated for their delectation. There are people who steep themselves in the long-dead languages of lost cultures, and others who listen in on and try to decipher the long-distance utterances of humpback whales. Still others decline to consider those calls as linguistic, but concentrate their talents on playing music with whale songs….

So perhaps there is, indeed, something uniquely unique about our species. Yet we defy this uniqueness when we strive to assert what is most unique about humankind. Whenever we focus so exclusively upon ourselves, training our attention day after day upon the specialness of our species, then we are no longer enacting the very trait that most exemplifies our humanity. ”

Finally, Abrams — after contemplating the linguistic relationships among the words ‘human’ & ‘humus’ & ‘humility’ — counsels humans to remember their intrinsic interdependence with the larger community of other earth-beings and to act, therefore, with appropriate humility.

As I’ve been thinking about saunter-and-gawk, I’ve come round once again to Trickster, for that is what Trickster loves to do — to ramble along, to see something & to get curious about it. But then, thinking only of himself and his desires, Trickster stops looking and just jumps into the situation head first — only to find himself, time and again, in dreadful trouble. Humility is not to be found in Trickster’s vocabulary or in his actions!

Can there by any doubt about what message Trickster stories have for us these days?

*************

We are humans. Who are we?

We are listeners, listening to the song of the Land.
And we are one of the many voices to which the Land listens.
We are spinners, spinning wild fleece into Meaning.
And we are the fleece being spun into Meaning by others.
We are weavers, weaving radiant colors into Story.
And we are the colors, being woven into others’ Stories.
We are children standing in awe of Cosmic beauty.
And we are the Cosmos reflecting on Itself.
And when we sing praise songs, sing songs of gratitude,
Then we become a part of the Song.
photo by Noah Buscher
photo by Casey Horner

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

This week I wanted to write about Fire. Like Trickster, Fire is a certainly a boundary-crosser and transformer, one that is insatiably hunger. Like Trickster, Fire destroys, creates, and reveals.

Although we don’t know when humans learned to make fire, archaeologists have found that we have used it (perhaps treasuring embers from lightning strikes) for perhaps as much as 1.6 million years. Human involvement with fire has been intertwined with our physical, social, and technological development.

Some scholars believe that the ability to cook food with fire — thereby releasing more usable calories than are available to our bodies through the consumption of raw foods — was an important milestone on our evolutionary path, making possible the development of our larger brains.

Others focus more on the social aspects of our learning to manage fire. They conjecture that, as we sat around the fire that cooked our supper and provided warmth & light to see each others’ faces and scare away predators, we must have developed language, told each other what we’d done & learned that day, given birth to Story. And certainly Story — especially as enacted in ritual and cultural forms — has shaped what it is to be human.

And then technology — pottery, metal, and more — from a simple flame warming a family to engines warming the entire planet and setting it alight.

And, of course, Trickster has been involved all along!

This week Trickster has been especially active throughout my days — creating havoc as only Trickster can — so the post I’d hoped to share with you will have to wait until next Friday. Instead, I offer you a beautiful & thought-provoking musing I encountered in my explorations this week: Fire in the mind: changing understandings of fire in Western civilization by Stephen J. Pyne . https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4874404/

Abstract – For most of human history, fire has been a pervasive presence in human life, and so also in human thought. This essay examines the ways in which fire has functioned intellectually in Western civilization as mythology, as religion, as natural philosophy and as modern science. The great phase change occurred with the development of industrial combustion; fire faded from quotidian life, which also removed it from the world of informing ideas. Beginning with the discovery of oxygen, fire as an organizing concept fragmented into various subdisciplines of natural science and forestry. The Anthropocene, however, may revive the intellectual role of fire as an informing idea or at least a narrative conceit.”

I’d love to hear your thoughts about & your relationship with fire. Please put any you’d like to share in the comment section.

Ehsan Habashi

Notes on Trying to Trap Trickster

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!

Thalassa in process, becoming herself

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
     voices,
Many gods and many voices.
                          The salt is on the briar rose,
The fog is in the fir trees.  ....