Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Seeding the New Moon Heart (And Introducing Two New Story Projects!)

A small revolution has been recently taking place in my heart. A humble upheaval of an old order. Perhaps it is better to say that the revolution has taken place in my mind; my heart (all of our hearts) always knows, always has known, and has been doing its work despite certain aspects of my mind for many years. The revelation is really quite simple, but its effects on me have been rather profound.

Over the past few months it came to light in me that for a very long time--since I was a little girl, in fact--I've been using urgency and high stress to motivate myself to get things done. This is hardly news to any of us I'm sure, because this is the story of our culture. This IS the story of Western Capitalism, no doubt about it. A story of urgency, fight or flight panic, even competition over who is the most stressed out, the most burnt out, who gets the least sleep and never takes a weekend, etc. For some people, this model may work well enough; for others, like myself, it's actually quietly devastating. I'm a very stress-sensitive person; I've struggled with anxiety and panic since I was small. For a long time I've seen them as the other side of the coin of devoted creativity; two sides of one whole. As richly as I can spin a story onto paper, I can also spin off into obsessive panic about any number of worst case scenarios.

But recently, I've come to see that by following the story of the over-culture, I am helping to create conditions in which this kind of mindset can thrive. By using urgent stress to motivate, I create a landscape in which anxiousness and fear thrive. (Sound familiar? Sound like the world we see on the news?) It is not an inevitable state, nor is it even native to me. I don't have to claim stress as a birthright. I can see it as a product of the power of storytelling. It's funny, because I make my living, and feed my own spirit, by writing stories that grow taproots through the cement, that offer wild windows, old valleys and firesides full of hope, that attempt to give voice to the more-than-human world, to offer another set of narratives in which to view this place, this life, the problems at hand.

My heart is well versed in this way, devoted to it, and fiercely loving. When I am writing a story, I am deep in the heart of the pulse of things. Everything else falls away, and there is only this, the flow of words which is a flow of blood and wildwater and light through me. And yet crowding in around the work, when I step away from notebook and writing desk, are the tensions and conflicts of the overculture. I run my own business and make my own days and yet I find that the stories I am trying to subvert in my writing are still there in the narrative I tell myself as I work—a narrative of urgency, of stress, of strain. I've bought into the scarcity mentality our economic system feeds us, despite my every effort! This is rather funny, all of it, when I step back and look at it. Quite hilarious, and humbling too.

I know I am sharing more personal details than I normally do here, but I am doing so because I have a feeling that a lot of you out there know exactly what I mean; because I hope that sharing something of this struggle and the ways in which I am moving through it may be helpful, or galvanizing, to others, in addition to the hope that some of you may have wisdom or stories in this regard to share in the comments with all of us!

So, back to my revelation. It came while I was on my moon cycle last week. I think this is an important detail to share here in part because I will admit that it makes me slightly uncomfortable to do so, despite the passion I have around the deep feminine power of menstruation, the rage I feel at all the subtle and not so subtle stories we're told from a young age that make us feel shame and shyness and embarrassment around this most sacred of cycles. My slight discomfort is another example of an over-culture story that has deep roots in me, in so many of us.

Anyway, the revelation was really a synthesis of thoughts that had been stirring in me for a while, and amounts to this—let the heart, not the mind, be in charge. The heart is its own mind; let the brain-mind bow down before the way of the heart. Let beauty motivate you. Let the absolute astounding beauty of this life motivate everything you do. 

None of this, I daresay, sounds like news. In fact when I look at it, it sounds very obvious, like I've heard it five million times. But sometimes something shifts subtly in the way of the telling, and everything becomes clearer. In part this shift in perspective came from an interview I'd listened to earlier in the week, on Unlearn and Rewild, with Charles Eisenstein. In it, he discussed the "sickness" our culture has around time and efficiency. That it's an obsession with being efficient that makes us get things done (aka urgent stress). He suggested this alternative, to ask yourself--how can I create something in the most beautiful possible way? And this just astounded me. When the hostess, Ayana Young, asked him--well what about those environmental concerns which are really quite urgent, shouldn't we be efficient there?—his reply was: and how well has that been working for you so far?

And I just had to laugh, and laugh! Not well at all, of course! Not well at all on the cultural, global scale, nor on the individual level either! The mind balks at the idea of doing things with beauty alone as a motivation, fearing that nothing will get done. The mind balks at the idea of letting the heart really and truly lead the way. But perhaps what's really balking is an old story, hearing its death-knell. For there is a great, deep relief in the body at this idea too—what if I let beauty and heart lead me, truly? What if I trusted this wholly, every step of the way, not just with pen in hand? What if we all did? What would this world look like? Oh my.

The radio program Unlearn and Rewild describes the revelation occurring inside my mind rather well. Commitment to really unlearning the stories we are fed, not just the stories I see outside myself, but also the stories hiding within me despite my best efforts. Commitment to rewilding the body and the mind by letting the heart lead. Herbal healer and writer Stephen Harrod Buhner has written extensively on the neural networks that exist within the heart, and between the heart and brain; I think we all instinctively know that the heart "thinks," the heart knows things, before even the mind. It is the heart the speaks with the plants, animals and stones. Indigenous and pre-modern peoples the world over located the self not in the head but in the heart. If you think about it, the heart is a far, far more ancient organ than the human brain. The human brain, beautiful thing, is a troubled brain. The heart is the wilder of the two in the sense that it isn't very different from the heart of a rabbit or a doe or a fox. So by letting it have full rein—well, who knows what might come?

I would add that it's all well and good to come up with this kind of decision, to say oh yes of course, my heart is in charge, Let the Beauty You Love Be What You Do, etc. I've come to this decision many times before. What has changed this time is the realization that in order to change a story you have to tell yourself the new one all the time. Just as obsessively as you told yourself the old one. You have to practice telling it. You have to bow down to the heart, take the leap, putting your hand over your chest every time you forget, starting again each moment.

All of this leads me, in a very wordy fashion, to two new projects which I'm very excited to share with all of you. Both of them are as much medicine for me as I hope they will be for you—for in the end isn't this how the cycles of nature work? The berries are as much fed by being picked as they are food for the eater? And the creation of them as necessary to the plant as their consumption?

The first is called Morningstory. Here is its description from Wild Talewort.

For twenty-eight days, the number of days in a moon cycle, receive an illustrated story-vignette (500 words) in your email box, a cup of story to wake you into the wildness of your own body, to help re-story your morning, your afternoon, your night, your month, with the voices of the wildly human and more-than-human worlds.

In the face of the social, ecological and spiritual starvations and destructions of our time, we cannot hope for true transformation without also transforming the stories we tell ourselves and each other about our own hearts and our relationship with the more-than-human world—our belonging (t)here, and also our necessary humility in the face of so much robust, miraculous, diverse life and all the ways that it cradles us, from birth to death. We become the stories we tell, for good or for ill. May Morningstory be a cup of embers to fill your morning with, to warm you through the day, to help your soles stay wild, stay on the path of dust and elk-hoof and beauty, despite all attempts to sway you.

Every day, the culture we live in will try to steal you from yourself, says the inimitable Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés. Every night, she says, you must steal yourself back. Every morning, come sunrise, full of a skein of star-thick dreams, you are your own once more. The night has made you wild. Your heart has moved the rivers of your blood through every bit of you as you dreamed quietly under a changing moon. The earth has turned on her axis in the great black ember-bed of the galaxy and the sun has climbed up over her rim to feed every last thing the warmth and light it needs.

May Morningstory help to keep you stolen back every morning, back inside the great, feral cup of your own heart.

I've written a full sample Morningstory vignette, and it's available for you to read over in my shop! The first cycle will begin on the new moon of July, the 16th.

The second is a long awaited and deeply treasured collaboration, called Kith & Kin Medicine, with the wondrous medicine maker, writer and dreamer, Asia Suler, of One Willow Apothecaries. Back around the solstice, a dream fell into my mind—Asia's medicine is always so full of story, so full of her own potent dreaming (truly, this woman is amazing), so full of threads and lands that resonate deeply in me. A vision came to me of a project in which Asia, in her wildwood witch way, would brew up a special medicine whose ingredients she kept secret from me. I would then take the medicine and write a story based on the visions, paths and beings that arose in my imagination through it.

We decided to call it Kith & Kin in honor of our own storied connection, in honor of the kinship between stories and plant medicine (stories, after all, are one of the oldest medicines we have), in honor of the lands and all their inhabitants which we both love and are devoted to, me in northern California, Asia in the mountains of North Carolina. Originally, the term Kith referred to the living land, the countryside upon which one lived, and so the phrase "kith and kin" meant family, friends, and all the wider relations in the more-than-human world. Asia puts it beautifully: "Named Kith & Kin Medicine for the wild lands that gave it life and the kinship (between medicine and makers and dreamers alike) that it arose from." This is a deeply co-created project that blurs the lines between story, stone, root, petal and word.

Today the collaboration officially began, under the dark moon of June. I sat down at my desk, cleared my heart and mind, took several drops upon my tongue, and let the sensations and images begin to flow in. For several days, I will make no attempts to grab at stories; I will simply sit with the medicine, and see what tidbits, seeds and feathers come in. I will get to know it. More than that I will not yet share, for it is a secret place, the early stirrings in the creative heart. As the project evolves and matures, we will be sharing little peaks into the journey, here, for you to follow and see. In the spirit of intuition and wild-heartedness, we have no set release date yet, though rest assured it will be within the summer season.

The end result will be a story in the mail and this vial of Asia's extraordinary, earth-moving medicine, for you to follow into your own heart of hearts.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Off the Train, into the Gooseberry Patch

Well, I had meant to share with you my long, slow train journey down through the heart of California to visit a dear friend in Santa Barbara--photographs of burnished gold hills and lone oaks, thick riparian corridors full of cottonwoods, strawberry fields green contrasting dust dry ridges, oil rigs off the coast, oil being pumped on the coast, old train shacks and herons in drainage canals amid the subdivisions, accompanied by my train scribbled musings from my notebook, my rambling thoughts about the stories of an older California to be glimpsed between drought-gold grasses and leaning oaks, sloughs and fog banks and ranch houses out in the open without cover for miles. About the soothing pace of trains, as compared to planes or cars. But alas, I've just lost everything off my computer since last December, due to a mysterious software failure and my own carelessness at having not looked into why my external hard-drive wasn't backing things up properly... So my photographs out train windows of blue sea and kelp beds, graffiti at the train stops and the sudden hills of San Luis Obispo--well, they are all gone, poof! Which is all a very good reminder of the strange unreality of all the things that exist here, on the internet, inside our computers, and how we relate to them. How we can get sucked very deeply into this odd dream-machine, which does the dreaming for us; how things lost here don't feel like things lost in physical reality--a photo album, say, or a collection of vinyls. It reminds me of the general attitude of disposability we have in our world, which informs how we relate to so many things. 

The blue kelp filled sea, the drought-dead cliffs of Santa Barbara (photograph courtesy of Elsinore Smidth Carabetta)
Luckily, of course, all of my stories and the three novels I've written to date were safely stored in emails. Those lost would have been devastating; but it reminds me that much of what I do on this computer is somewhat disposable, and shouldn't that be a lesson? I know I can take dozens of photographs, hundreds, and so each individual image becomes less precious. When we can read snippets of ten wonderfully written articles or stories at once, and a hundred more just beyond the click of a mouse, their value shifts. I don't know what to do about all of this; I'm only noticing, and pondering, and sulkily wishing I could share that photo of the train snaking around a long curve through the mountains with you, or the hellish beauty of an oil field north of San Luis Obispo as the sun set, illuminating the pumpjacks ceaselessly hauling oil from their wells like terrible chained creatures desperately doing their duty, and desperately hating it. What it is that oil means in our culture and world (speaking of disposability) and how that one field knew the whole story. 

I've been listening voraciously to a series of podcasts called Unlearn and Rewild, and in one interview, the eloquent Zen Master Dr. Susan Murphy Roshi says something to the effect of—"we are addicted to the absolutely extraordinary energy of oil, all the many, many things that oil can produce for us." This struck me very deeply; how powerful, how seductive, oil is, this ancient, deep-buried, condensed energy straight from sun in the dead bodies of primordial plants and animals--how much its power thrills us, even as it destroys us, like staring too long at that great sun. How can we treat such a thing as disposable? My god, it's the blood of time, and yet look how we treat it! Perhaps this is because, like many of the things stored on our computers or found on the internet, we don't interact with any of it directly, with our bodily senses; all of it is somehow abstracted. Even when I pump gas into my car, and a little spills, that toxic smell; still I can't feel in my body what oil really is—dug up refined primordial sunshine. It's too far gone for me to know it, and my lungs reject the scent.

Well. Instead of these things, what I am left with is a handful of photographs my dear old friend Elsinore took. How we scrambled down a dry creekbed and found a patch of wild mint, growing with more vigor and health than the mint in my garden has ever managed. How we gathered pocket-loads of black sage, which smells of sun and peace. 

How in that creekbed we found the most beautiful, robust wild gooseberries I've ever seen, striped like hard candies from another time. How we popped one, just one, out of its spiny skin and sucked the flesh and seeds like the squirrels. How tart-sweet, how utterly delightful.

Ribes amarum (bitter gooseberry)
How the ocean was warmer down south, and calmer, and when the sun came out, a dark lapis blue, heady with kelp beds, so different from the paler green-gray-blue of the ocean up here.

Perhaps all of this is to say that it is the small, sweet and slow things that keep us sane. Feet in the tide, hands full of sage and mint, tongue tart with gooseberries from the creekbed. How we value and love the things we can take in directly with our bodies and hearts. These, we will not toss aside. In the end, it is the things we make roots for that we will stand to save. We cannot save the world, but we can each strive to save home, and after all, together a hundred hundred million homes (of human, of seal, of fox, of spider) make a world.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

To Ring A Bell

In our garden, the earliest south-facing peaches, the ones that live next to the beehives, are a ripe riot of velvet and sweet. It seems that this year, the bees managed to pollinate just about every single flower, so the boughs are heavy and a little too crowded with small but glorious fruits. 

Fruit is made to be enjoyed by the tastebuds of animals, just like flowers are made to be enjoyed by the tastebuds of bees and butterflies and other nectar-lovers. Fruit is made to evoke pleasure, to make the tongue curl with sweet giddiness. Plants offer fruits like a great ringing of wedding bells to the palates of birds and foxes, bears and squirrels, mice and coyotes and humans alike. All of us, seduced by that chiming sweetness, help the fruit by carrying its seed off into the world, into new soil. This is an ancient pact, a primordial relationship; the earliest original fruit trees shaped us as much as we then shaped them. 

Their sweetness—the way a handful of fresh blackberries or the first bite of a perfect apricot is almost indecently sensuous, erotic even—knows us, wants us to enjoy it. After all, as Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes tells us, the word erotic in its essence means to be in relationship with. This is the original wild wedding: between body, tongue and the fruit of the land.

Apricots, ripening
The taste of fruit rings bells in our bodies older than our species, as old as tongues and stomachs and mammalian milk. It is sometimes hard for me to believe that our bodies have changed very little in the last 200,000 years of our history as Homo Sapiens. Our bodies were made wedded to the land, in deep relationship with the fruiting of fruits, the blooming of blooms, the coming and going of seasons, the calls of birds, the births of fawns, because all of these things were wired deep into our survival. We carry the same bodies and the same brains as those created in such a context; it is no wonder we find ourselves in trouble these days--globally, culturally, individually, emotionally, spiritually, physically. It is also no wonder that certain things ring bells in us older than words; that sometimes we feel our blood or our hearts stirred far deeper than the knowings of this lifetime. 

Certain plants draw us in when we need them (like this collection of friends from a walk in Point Reyes did me last week, a most excellent tea: nettle, horsetail, california poppy, alder leaf, monkeyflower); our bodies know their medicine, even if we've never even learned their names. Certain places—the marshy edges of bays, with a thick cover of alders—make us feel safe though we've hardly spent any time in them. The experience of examining animal tracks in sand--gray fox, river otter, bobcat, vole--makes us feel almost giddy with excitement, not just with the newness of it all, but with the deep familiarity too. 

It makes me feel comforted, safer somehow in this big strange modern world, to know that these relationships are still available all around us; that even if our minds are clouded or forget, even if we are overly dependent on our light switches and sleek computers, our cars and running water and grocery stores, our bodies still, after all this time, have systems of little bells that ring ring ring when an old connection is made, an old friend encountered (poppy, robin, peach), when the primordial beauty of earthen things is near. 

This, I think, is what Dr. Estés means by the erotic. A relationship with the living world that sets the body's bells ringing with memories both near and very far, memories as new as yesterday and as old as the mammalian placenta, or even older-- the bird's egg, the snake's nest. 

A lady anna's hummingbird has made her nest in the bamboo outside our bathroom window. In it, she's laid two eggs. She sits diligently every day, her fuschia throat a tiny jewel. To watch her, to praise her; this rings an ancient bell, an almost painful bell, in the heart.

The black phoebes have had children, now fledged, who sit on fence posts all throughout the garden, looking somewhat confused and cheeping loudly for food. Two very harried parents dart around after bugs and try to keep their children, who flap very clumsily, out of the sights of the cooper's hawk who makes an appearance every afternoon. They ring bells too.

The garden is alive fruit, with eggs, with tiny babies hidden in spidersilk nests (and, I suspect, nests made with fluffy bits of Hawthorn's wool). Sometimes I sit under the apricot tree (whose fruits are still green), and for a moment get this overwhelming sense of the pulse of life, just in this one big garden. It's a great bell, ringing. How many bird families are being raised around me. How many precious blossoms are now on their way to fruit. How many bees.

Kiwi flowers
"When it's over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it's over, I don't want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don't want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don't want to end up simply having visited this world."

-Mary Oliver

And so, in honor of bells and fruiting and the wild marriage of humans and land, I introduce June's full moon Tinderbundle, Bell. When Catherine Sieck (the Marvelous Mistress of all paper cut art) first sent me her extraordinary cut, inspired by a series of conversations we'd had about the theme, I was, as usual, blown away. In reply I sent her these words, which seem to touch on something essential about this bundle, something loose and free:

We are the seed of the fruit, stitched with that sweetness, dangling from the vine, the fruit plucked somehow our own heart and hearth...And these dancing faces--- I see them as masks; I see a great dance of humans masked like the giddy spirits of the earth, honoring the harvest, honoring our own many faces, from maid to mother to crone and all the ones between, lover and jester, fool and fiend, fruiting and dying and fruiting again within us. Dancing round fires, wassailing the orchards in masks that blend the worlds. How there is a pear in the heart. The stars as sacred fruit. The monkeys in our own limbs, our fruiting primordial roots in trees. 

So. June's Full Moon Tinderbundle, Bell, is about what it means to be the bride or bridegroom of the living land. What it means to be part of this feral fecund marriage. What it means to give your heart to the world, and your body too, in honor of the sensuous long days of a fruiting summer, in honor of the bells of joy that live inside every single one of our bodies, that ring in sympathy with the bells of all life, when they are first alight and alive within us. In honor, too, of the dying back that necessarily follows the fruiting, that nourishes the next season, and what new, ringing seeds may root there. 

As such, Catherine and I decided to time this Bundle to arrive in time for the full moon of June (the 2nd), instead of the new moon of May-- since the great Strawberry (or Rose) Moon is, in its silver fullness, its own great Bell.

It will be a chiming invocation of the bells that ring in our bodies; it will be a celebration of fruit, of the tales that exist the world over of children born in the pits of peaches, the cores of pears; it will be a love song and an incantation both.

It will also be the last Tinderbundle. 

Don't fear! There are many more things on the horizon, but this will be the last Tinderbundle in this form and under this particular name. Catherine and I have other projects simmering away, similar but simpler; and I have a few collaborations coming up with some beautiful herbalist women this summer... New fruits are ripening on the trees of the imagination as the seasons shift and sway.

So if you'd like a Tinderbundle this June; if you've been thinking about purchasing one but haven't gotten around to it, now would be the time! This bundle will also include, besides a story/poem and two prints, a silk scarf dyed with loquat leaves, a tin of gardener's hand salve made with herbs from my garden, and a tiny bell....

There are only 20 Bell Tinderbundles left! So hurry along here for yours!

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Taking Elk Lines to the Elk Lines

Under the Beltane full moon, under the milk moon, I took the nearly completed manuscript of Elk Lines out to a little cabin on the Inverness Ridge, in Point Reyes, to walk it among the real elk lines of the land. It has been a wonderful and enlightening and sometimes challenging experience to send a novel out in parts every six weeks; it's the way Dickens and other Victorian novelists first wrote some of their own stories, and they too learned, long before me, that a novel written thus needs a good tighten once it's done. 

I edited with red pen on the shores of ocean and bay, hoping that I was leaving space, by carrying the manuscript out thus, for the land to have its say. To make sure my words do as much justice as they can to this place. 

There were flowers to be gathered on roadsides to honor the big old moon, and little clamshells to be treasured, for their humble history of nourishment.

The fog was in thick, so thick out on Tomales Point that it did indeed walk with elk hooves, holding everything in a damp palm.

I left bits of juniper from the Sierras in the pawprints of a gray fox I sat beside for an afternoon, pen scribbling away, tightening and cutting and smoothing the story into a new whole. It is a precious place, where a gray fox paw has touched the earth. 

The irises are still a riot of bloom. I don't know how they sustain their delicate purple petals under as much a sun as we've been having. They are so hardy.

I contemplated the three mile, ten foot tall elk fence which bisects the southern portion of Tomales Point, keeping the tule elk in. This fence was erected due to the fact that there are dairy ranches right on the other side, and a tenuous relationship between park land and dairy land, environmental interests and ranching interests... and elk, roaming totally free, eat the grass meant for cows! But something very sad has happened in the last three years, something I only learned in the past week. Over half the 500 tule elk on Tomales Point have died. That's 250 dead elk, in a span of three years. The reason is the drought, but it is a manmade reason-- since the elk can't leave to find year round streams, they're stuck with old cattle ponds that have since gone dry. So over three years, half the elk have slowly parched to death. This is really quiet cruel.  (Note also that the elk that roam free in the southern portions of Point Reyes, near Muddy Hollow and Limantour, have survived the drought in a more regular fashion, since they can travel to find water. In those areas, however, they come into frequent conflict with dairy farms, because they're good at jumping fences! It seems to me that the cows have more than enough room... I'm sure you can guess whose side I'm on here!)

People will argue-- oh, they don't have enough predators out there, some are bound to die in a drought, etc, etc. This may be true. But there's a deeper point--one of relationship, and of responsibility. We make the elk our responsibility by unnaturally fencing them in. And yet a cow, or a dog, would never be left to die of thirst. What does this say about the family of things, and attitude toward it? What is the "value" of an elk, and what is the "value" of a cow?

There is of course the even deeper issue-- who has the right to this land? Yikes. A big topic, a controversial topic. There is a lot of pride around the heritage of dairy farms throughout Point Reyes, and I respect and support this heritage, and all the families it has supported. However, cows may have been here for 200 years, but elk-- thousands, thousands, thousands. Who has the right to this land? It is a question that hurts in me; I love this place deeply, but I don't feel I have a right to it. If I could, I'd give it all back to the native people who cared for it best, people who are almost gone. But then, what would I love? Where would I settle down? It's an unanswerable riddle, but just airing it sometimes feels helpful. And it seems we can only earn our place somewhere if we love and respect all of the beings to whom it belongs, human interests only an equal slice in the pinwheel of needs and niches.

Anyway. I had a startling thought as I studied the elk fence from afar, noting the stark line of shorn grass on the cow side. I wondered if, a year ago when I visited this place with Asia Suler, the first stirrings of Elk Lines just beginning in me, when I first asked the place to guide my writing hand with whatever new project needed to come through-- I wondered if the elk, already dying of drought, had in some way spoken. Tell our story. Tell our story. Asia and I buried a quartz crystal in a patch of iris where we watched a herd of female elk and their calves graze. I knew with certainty on that day that my next story would be about elk. It became very clear. I thought of that quartz often as I wrote, hoping I was writing true. In my story, the elk are dying of disease, spread from the cows. I had no idea the elk of Point Reyes were truly dying in any unnatural way at all, until now. I wonder if this is partly why this story came.

I hope desperately I can do them justice in whatever humble way I can manage. Even if it is "all in the balance," and the "natural order of things," half the population here is dead. Brother elk, sister elk, son elk, mother elk.  Dead too fast. Don't think they do not mourn one another. It is dangerous, when we forget this. When we trick ourselves into thinking animals have no emotions, and therefore death by thirst is no big deal. I read once that when Bernie Krause, a soundscape ecologist, heard a father beaver discover that his dam with mate and babies inside had been destroyed, the keening sound he made long into the night, circling and circling, was the most heart breaking noise Krause had ever heard. It reduced him to tears. He instantly recognized, in the part of him that was no different than the beaver, the sound of animal grieving.

Monday, April 20, 2015

A Cup Full of Story

I've been thinking a lot recently about the old adage regarding cups and water-- is yours half empty, or half full?

It started with a rather violent spate of break-ins into my studio space, a little loft down by the train tracks which shook when the freight trains passed and smelled rather badly of tar certain days. A space which was nevertheless richly productive, a sanctuary for my writing and a little altar to the muse, a place to nurture the flow of words alone, away from internet and endless other distractions that come from keeping a home office (time to sweep? organize the spice drawer finally? shear the rabbit?).

I needn't go into the details, but suffice it to say a final break-in, which involved somebody coming and smashing and ravaging the whole space, led me to abandon the studio about a month ago. I was mostly shocked and rather confused by the situation, trying to make meaning out of what really amounted to bad luck. I kept thinking to myself, now what on earth is the silver lining here?

It took a little while (and I'll admit, a few rather sour days), but it turned up eventually, in the form of a dear old friend's street-level basement, up in the East Bay hills. I like sitting beside pieces of wood and a canvas building workshop (she is a painter). The light comes in the glass, and is peaceful in color. It is quiet, save the birds, and the fog loves to settle here, walking on silver feet all the way from the golden gate.

Sitting in the front garden, among lavender and black sage, I can watch it coming, wreathing that faraway red bridge, padding over the water. It took the smashing of one place to find this other, with its new unexpected gifts.

It's an obvious thing, you hear it all the time, how what you focus on, what you water, is the story you live, the plant that grows. The odds are stacked rather against us in this culture of ours, where strung-out-plugged-in-stress is rewarded and taking the time to savor, to drink in the smells of sage on a neighborhood walk, is called an indulgence. Where fighting for a sane schedule and a life of presence—there are always birds in the trees out the windows, there is always something up there in the sky to breathe in and notice, there are always plants, even little grasses in the cracks, to learn from in their essential presentness, their uncompromising and simple joy, just to be here, alive—is relegated to the back burner at best. Or deemed only something for the very privileged. Trying to do all of this while being a working artist, well, forget it. You must be a lazy good-for-nothing!

This is not what I believe, of course. (At least not most of the time--we all fall prey to the inner critics now and then!) I am merely reporting the worst of the internalized voices that I think we all carry to some degree from a young age, given to us not necessarily by individuals but by the whole context of our lives as modern day, 20th and 21st century Westernized human beings. That we'd better get that work done before we savor our lives. That we'd better not show our love for birds or trees in public. That to privilege peace and happiness in a life is unworthy, not rigorous enough, self-indulgent.

A cup half full, it would seem, is a sentimental cup. A romantic cup. When I look around at what is commonly praised as exceptional in literature, in art (in our collective stories) I see an aversion to that which might be considered sentimental, an aversion to the romantic rose tinted glass, to escapes through stained windows into other worlds, an aversion to happy endings of all varieties.

Why this cynicism, when we are all, in our real lives, also seeking a happy ending ourselves? This is not to say that the world, and life, are not complicated, full of true sorrows and terrible losses, heartbreak that seems to much to bear; that life itself sometimes seems the ultimate heartbreak, in its beauty and its fleetness. That everything will one day be lost. Every last thing.

And yet I been sitting often in the garden these days, at the base of this apricot tree. I've been trying to sit every morning, to dissolve for a while the part of myself that is "Sylvia," and simply be the other part, the bit that is essential and unwavering, the bit that is the same as the foxglove and the goldfinch, the cloud and the root. The part that the medieval Persian poet Rabia calls—

{...} a peaceful delegation in us 
that lobbies every moment
for contentment.

And I have her words to be true. I have found underneath worry and rush and the increasing sense in this plugged-in world of ours that there is never time, never time, never enough time that there is a part of me that truly does always lobby for contentment. That truly does understand itself to be the same, the very same, as the calendula bloom and the bee on the borage flower.

Why not water this story, this full-up cup? What do we gain by telling ourselves primarily stories of terror and heartbreak and loss? Why do we celebrate the tragic in our newspapers, in our most esteemed art? I understand that we live in a time of great loss. I understand that we shouldn't sugar coat what is truly awful. I'm not suggesting this. Trust me, I may post photographs of plants and birds and wool and wild, but this is partly because these things serve as my own balm in a sea of what can feel like overwhelming hopelessness. I don't know what to do with hopelessness except become depressed and therefore inactive.

I am put in mind of an excerpt from an essay that I read on Terri Windling's magnificent Myth & Moor (a very favorite internet wellspring) —"Fantasy literature of the high tradition is a song of hope. It whispers a simple message: as long as the spirit is intact, nothing is broken irreparably.  [....]  Gottfried von Strassburg, the 13th century author of Tristan, wrote of his work: ‘I have undertaken a labour, a labour out of love for the world, to comfort noble hearts.’ [...] Fantasy literature is often considered to be simply a form of escapist fiction. Firstly I do not feel that ‘escaping’ is necessarily valueless in itself. As anyone who needs a holiday will attest, escaping can be a form of psychological and psychic regeneration as necessary as sleep. But I would also maintain that anything which encourages dreams and aspirations of a better self or a better world, anything which ‘comforts noble hearts’, is hardly an escape from reality. Rather, it can be an aid to survival and a source of strength, as well as a possible vehicle for improvement. And, as Tolkien pointed out, ‘a living mythology can deepen rather than cloud our vision of reality.’ " --from Myth & History in Fantasy Literature, by O.R. Melling.

I am put also in mind of a fabulous essay by Ursula Le Guin, "All Happy Families," in which she rips up Tolstoy's very famous first sentence: All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. 

She counters: "I grew up in a family that on the whole seems to have been happier than most families; and yet I find it false—an intolerable cheapening of reality—simply to describe it as happy. The enormous cost and complexity of that 'happiness,' its dependence upon a whole substructure of sacrifices, repressions, suppressions, choices made or forgone, chances taken or lost, balancings of greater and lesser evils—the tears, the fears, the migraines, the injustices, the censorships, the quarrels, the lies, the angers, the cruelties it involved—is all that to be swept away, brushed under the carpet by the brisk broom of a silly phrase, 'a happy family?'

"And why? In order to imply that happiness is easy, shallow, ordinary; a common thing not worth writing a novel about? Whereas unhappiness is complex, deep, difficult to attain, unusual; unique indeed; and so a worthy subject for a great, unique novelist?

"Surely this is a silly idea. But silly or not, it has been imposingly influential among novelists and critics for decades. Many a novelist would wither in shame if the reviewers caught him writing about happy people, families like other families, people like other people; and indeed many critics are keenly on watch for happiness in novels in order to dismiss it as banal, sentimental, or (in other words) for women."

What does all of this amount to? This cup of words I am filling here before you? I am a hopeless romantic, a consummate day dreamer, always have been, head in the clouds, woolgathering both as escape and as a very necessary, very real sort of medicine to counter the other stories you cannot help but take in every single day.

A cup half full is a "comfort to noble hearts." How are we meant to go on, shedding as much light as possible, savoring as much of that light as possible too, like the calendula flowers (who despite everything live in an ecstasy of blooming, rooting and blooming again), without full cups, and water to spare?

There are already so many stories of sorrow in this world, so many empty and broken cups. What else is there to do, but fill ours as best we can, mend the breaks, and learn to change the endings? Or start them all over again? For the longer you tell a story, the more true it becomes, the more it is embodied in the world. Starting right here, with the cups in our hands.

P.S. In a rather different way, Rebecca Solnit gets at something similar in her  excellent "letter to my dismal allies on the US Left"