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"

Friday, April 3, 2015

Cloud Nomads

The word "cloud" is a poem, just like the clouds themselves are. I think they may be nearly impossible to gaze upon without resorting to metaphor, and metaphor is shapeshifting, and all of this the root and cause and point of poetry, at least in my mind. (A cloud is a herd of horses, a gathering of ice crystals. The act of relating one thing to others is the essential shape shifting that undergirds art.)

In Old English, cloud, or clud, meant a mass of rock or a hill. The original word for cloud was actually weolcan, while clud/cloud literally meant a lump of earth or clay, a mass of stone, also connected to the word clot, as in blood and cream. This metaphoric usage of clud to describe the great masses of nomadic air mountains in the sky (skie also originally meant cloud in Old Norse and Saxon) was so persuasive, it seems, that by the year 1300 it had travelled through Middle English and had become the official English word used to refer to those great mountains of air in the sky.

Wheat Field Behind Saint-Paul, Vincent Van Gogh 1889

I've been contemplating the clouds a lot recently--from where I sit every morning at the base of the apricot tree in the garden, observing the garden wake up (sun, bewick's wren, crows, squirrels, the pattern and direction of clouds and winds), and from the attic windows. I had one of those ding dong moments recently, wherein the clouds suddenly became alive, and real, when before they'd only been, well, clouds. I suddenly felt in my body, instead of just knowing with my mind, that the clouds are great behemoth nomads come from across oceans and mountains, made of water vapor and ice crystal, each form an almanac of winds, of weathers to come, of temperatures and times. That they are miraculous, almost too beautiful to bear.  

Leonardo Da Vinci cloud sketches
The clouds are such an obvious source of mystical and religious devotion that it's easy to forget about them, cluttered up as they can be in the collective imagination with pearly gates and Zeus with his thunderbolts, etc. And yet, if you pause to look, and reflect on what they are made of, and how, and why, the water cycle you may have learned about accompanied by a silly song as a child, as I did, will suddenly become a prayer, a hymn, a song to the nature of life and how we have never been separate from any of it, not for a moment. Even the minute beads of condensation in our breath when we exhale might one day become part of the clouds. They exemplify that old physics adage-- how energy is neither created nor destroyed, but only changes form. 

I wonder now if some of the earliest human storytelling and daydreaming came from cloud gazing, this act of looking up at the moving sky and using the imagination and metaphor to describe what was seen. For the clouds can seem to contain everything--people and cows and roosters and flowers and goats and whale spumes too.

Red Cow in the Yellow Sky, Marc Chagall

Above the Clouds, Georgia O'Keeffe, 1962-3

But above all things, clouds have been on my mind because of the drought. Day after day, week after week, our California sky is blue blue blue. Some people see this as cause for rejoicing-- an endless summer of 70 degrees! I find it quietly terrifying, even as I know there is nothing to do but surrender like the flowers are doing, and bloom early.  The big storms of my childhood, coming one after another week by week all through December to March, with spots of sun between, are no longer. Instead, when a cloud comes through the sky, I stop, I tip my head up, I adore it with my eyes. I think about how many more need to follow it to bring us rain. I am sad when it disappears.

The Navajo knew the clouds to be their ancestors. Polynesian sailors had names for every last wisp-shape, and divinations to go along with them. As with many of the most sacred things, we leave cloud-storying and its requisite woolgathering to children. Perhaps it has remained safe there, as the fairytales have, with them.

But I think we have to start looking up again, collectively, and dreaming new dreams. I think we have to look up together and face clearly that we are changing the very weather systems of our holy atmosphere, this sheath around our earth that allows us to live and breath at all. I think we have to dream together another way into the future, another path... because the way we're headed; it's not going to work. And the clouds know all about movement, all about changing, all about the great caravan routes of the sky.

All of this is the subject of April's Tinderbundle, CLOUD. I am collaborating again with the inimitable Catherine Sieck, whose paper cut artwork will accompany my tale. The bundle will include as well an herbal cloud-dreaming salve and a hand-felted & embroidered weather talisman.

Cloud, by Catherine Sieck 2015

As Catherine eloquently described this month's theme— "In the midst of this time of crisis for California-- parched by drought, fraught by a broken immigration system-- this month's Tinderbundle collaboration -CLOUD- has Sylvia and I looking to those ancient, nomadic water-carriers for inspiration. We believe in the power of storytelling to create space for imagining alternatives and opening dialogue."

The weather of the world is changing, whether it be by drought or flood, and sometimes the sorrow and anger this brings are too big to hold. The clouds carry all of this, and the old stories too, which told that great imbalances in weather meant that human beings had done something to offend the deities of earth and sky. Oh yes, indeed.

Danae and Her Son Perseus, Arthur Rackham 1903 
I don't know what to do in the face of forces as big as this, nor in the face of the sorrows that rise up, except to write, and share my stories. To dream up visions with others, as Catherine and I have been doing these past months, and see where that dreaming takes our minds, and souls, and where it might take the minds and souls of others. 

Wheat Field With Cypresses, Vincent Van Gogh, 1889
So if you'd like to come dream with us, there are Tinderbundles still left in the shop, but they are going quickly! They will arrive near the new moon of April, the 18th.

In the meanwhile, keep your eye to the clouds. There are always stories there, the kind that heal. 

Monday, March 23, 2015

A Song of Inverness

We spent the last week perched on the Inverness ridge, at eye level with the aerie of two courting osprey, the incoming fog, a sliver of Tomales Bay below. It is astounding, how much the human heart can love a place; an old ache, bigger than might seem possible. Some places, some journeys, are best kept close to the bone. Not everything needs be shared in this quick-to-share world. But I'd like to share with you a few notes from those precious days with nothing to do but sink into a kind of human baseline (for a bobcat baseline is an overstep walk...), with nothing to do but love the nettles, love the bay, love the fog, love the pine peaks and salt, love each other and this world. 

Taking the land into the body is a way of greeting, of saying thank you. These tea things were gathered from alder shade and coastal scrub, and a bouquet of wild radish as well (because beauty is medicine too).

The osprey, making a home, moving sticks and filling the air with kee kee kee. 

 Gold flecks in the sand at the shore of Tomales Bay. Maybe mica, maybe something else, chipped off old granite. They are a whirl of stars under bare toes.

A whole day drifting and paddling through the benevolent waters of Tomales Bay, that old mother fault zone, another world—an old kind of magic. To be, for a day, as buoyant as any loon.

From the view of osprey and hawk, Tomales Bay is a great blue ribbon, the boundary between two tectonic plates.

On secret shores, the dogwood was a red fire, the marsh grasses long and green, moving under the hands of the wind.

And the ceanothus hung down cliffs toward the bay, a blue hum of honey scent and bees.

On the Inverness ridge, the old granite spine of Point Reyes, made of the same granite as the Sierras long ago, the Douglas firs were constellations of new green tips. (So many cups of tea!)

Just before blooming, the cow parsnips were like the heads of medieval ladies, gleaming and wise, with many secrets and love poems tucked in their headdresses.

The starry solomon's plume opened on the day of the spring equinox, quiet and true.

And a morning walk to the bay shore, with tea and notebook,  a quick secret swim, is my idea of true bliss.

The great blue heron had the same idea for a peaceful morning as I. He flew away at my coming, but left his enormous prints, the size of my hands.

To sit with an iris, and learn some of her secrets: this to me is the same thing as prayer.

I'll leave you with a piece of a poem from my journal, iris inspired—

Meanwhile, in the meadows, on the ridges
the irises stand under the sun. Their bulbs
are ancient,  older than dairies, older than barns.
That's why they will tell you easily
vociferously, demanding you listen—
stand down out of your  own way,
so the purple gleam of Always,
that old ecstasy, may turn you
lush as this ridge, this bay, this matriarchy
of bulbs, all gleaming.

Kee kee, call the osprey.
Time for tea.

Friday, March 13, 2015

What is it About Grace

A little poem, written a moon ago, about grace, about life, about the land I love, Point Reyes. 

What is it about grace—
how it comes down upon you
in the form of a sunrise
over the green knuckles
of Black Mountain, a lick of peach

across the bay, then all at once
the whole star, balanced there
at the edge and rising, how in
that moment you know 
that you are watching the earth 

Yes. That should be enough to bring
you to your knees, but then there are
the woodpeckers, laughing, and
the robins, calling, and the light coming in
on the wooden walls, on the man you love,


but what is it about grace
which is also the silver body of a gray
squirrel at the bottom of the hill,
one leg crushed in the middle of
the road called Sir Francis Drake,
how she is staring from great black
eyes and writhing to get up
but you know she will never get up again,
and what is grace if not also mercy?
How can you leave her there in the road
to be flattened a dozen more times
before lunch? What is this world,
with the bodies of animals crushed
into its roads like old shoes?

It doesn’t feel like grace
when you, shaking, turn the car
around and come back
knowing it will be her swiftest death
knowing you have no knife, no hammer
to finish her fast. It doesn’t feel like grace,
the small thump under the wheel, how dying
her whole silver tail waves like a banner
three times before it’s still.

You roll her out of the road with two sticks.
Her body is perfect and limp, save the
red bloom of her head. She is silver and clean
as a moon, setting behind Black Mountain
in the daylight. You cover her in hanging moss
and wild vetch and say words
for her squirrel soul and it feels like grace
her final peace, that she suffered less
than she might have

and yet she stays there in you
later when, at the edge of the world
with the man you love, at the edge of the world
where you can see the gray whales
swimming south to Baja, there is a tiny beach
far below where mother elephant seals have come
and given birth to wrinkled babies, dark as
silt, with velvet skins that bunch up around their
necks, just like big coats.

They are lounging;
no other word for it
babies nosing their mother’s bellies for milk,
sweeping sand up on their bodies with their flippers
to cool down the sun which rose over
Black Mountain and will set in the sea.

Nothing can touch them here, only
the sun, and the edges of the
lace long tide, coming and going.

In all of this grace, and the whole impossible
span of the ocean, and the cliffs of Point Reyes
a great curving bowl, a great long arm,
the great journeys of elephant seal, and whale

there is also the gray squirrel,
who didn’t make it across the street
this morning
and how impossibly lustrous

her silver tail.

-Inverness, February 2015

Monday, March 2, 2015

Buried in Quilts of Pine Pollen Dreaming

In the places where ghosts might be sleeping, it is good to bring gifts. We brought bishop pine pollen and shook it, yellow veils that could turn anything to joy. 

I want to show you the pathway into my March Tinderbundle. The word is BURY. The word came out of a place, a day, a walk into a sleeping world protected in its dreams, in its brambles and tall grass, a day shared with a very special kindred spirit, whose artwork will grace this bundle instead of my watercolors this month— Catherine Sieck. This Tinderbundle is the secret alchemy between two adventuring wild-hearts (mine and Catherine's, bearing picnic foods and notebooks and one cup of chai between us) and a sleeping place with bones buried in its earth and benevolent spirits at its gables.

Catherine Sieck's incredible paper cut work! 

This is a sacred place. A place half-forgotten, protected in its forgottenness. I will keep its name in the earth for now.  I don't know the real one any way, the true one named thousands of years ago. The bishop pines dusted it all in pollen. Each one of these towers, these strange ladders of catkin, unfurled quilts of pollen when touched, silken. Initiating us into this descent into a brambled dream in a cove on the edge of Tomales Bay.

Quiet your eyes, and your mind. Pluck a hair from your head and leave it as a gift for the wind. You are entering a place out of time, pollen dusted, buried in vine. 

Step in through the world-round window, step in through the tin rippled door. 

A great bishop pine not giant fifty years ago watches over the ruined redwood cottages, veiling them in silken exhalations of pollen. For thousands of years Coast Miwok people lived in this cove. Without a doubt their bodies are buried here. There is a sense in the air of benevolent eyes, benevolent hands who love this land very, very dearly, who found joy here, despite all hardship. A sense that you must come here bearing love, or be chased away. In the late 1800's, a Coast Miwok family built the cottages here, working on ranches and as fishermen to stay afloat in a world utterly changed. It was no doubt a hard life, and yet unlike so many of their people, they were able to stay on their ancestral land. This land. They were not taken away. 

Later, in the 1960's, an artist of great and whimsical heart bought the abandoned cottages just before Point Reyes became National Seashore. He painted and built and dreamed here until 1996, when he died. His name was Clayton Lewis, and his was a happy place, and the ghosts who lived here before him liked him, I think; he saw beauty like they did. He honored it, his whole life here. You can feel it everywhere; how people have loved this place. 

I say these facts and names because it is good to honor the dead, those who came before; but also this is a place of no names, a place out of  time. The glass is blown out of the windows. The houses are drifting back into the arms of the land--ivy and eucalyptus and pine. Daffodils from some long ago garden bloom and so do calla lilies but the grass and hedgenettle are taller, fiercer. 

Birds fly down chimney pipes, and die, and make piles of bones.

Buried in green. It will all soon be buried in green. Asleep inside the thickets. And I am reminded of the Sleeping Beauty tale. Not the girl, nor the prince, nor the spindle, but the sleeping realm overgrown in thorns. The way the land heaves upward to protect, to bury, to hold, something precious. I find I agree with Ursula Le Guin, and Sylvia Townsend Warner, who lament that wakening kiss, who cry out that the heart of the story is this "still center," as Le Guin writes, "the silent house, the birdsong wilderness" (Sylvia Townsend Warner). (From Le Guin's essay "The Wilderness Within: The Sleeping Beauty and 'The Poacher'")

Asleep; Arthur is asleep on Avalon, his bones in earth; Mother Holle sleeps in the ground, in some great barrow; Snow White and Brynhild and Oisin sleep too. There are so many stories of sleeping queens and heroes whose bones protect a place, who will rise up at last when the land which sleeps with them is in need of their protection.

Asleep, this place dreams in green ladders and windows opened with vine.

It dreams in tiny sacred towers whose windows are air and eucalyptus naves, where the light ghosts through, blue.

It dreams in bobcat prints along the sandy bay shore, walking slow in the shading cypress trees, in the slip slap lap of salt water, the peering faces of harbor seals and mergansers in the rippling blue. 

To wake such a place-- this would mean tearing down or fixing up, bulldozers or tins of paint and hammers and a neatened pathway down, a sign marking the way. This is a thought almost physically painful for me to bear. There are too few places left in this world to the rhythms of simultaneous collapse and rebirth; too few places left in the quiet of kinglet and raven calls to dream. Too many places ripped out of their ancient sleep. I can only say--let it fall, let it fall, let it fall at the pace of this dreaming, no faster, no slower.

Catherine and I, we dreamed with it for a while, touching the wooden doorframes gently, with love, spilling out offerings of chai and strands of hair and soft words, because it is always good to give something in exchange. We spoke quietly, like we were in the homes of dreamers. We sat barefoot in sun like two cats and the word BURY came out of it all, a word whose root is bhergh, related to barrow and burrow, borough and burg and borrow, and, amazingly, the name of the goddess Brigid, the root meaning to protect, to defend, to preserve, as well as a dwelling, a hilltop place, defensible (barrows are also hills, after all...). Buried treasure. Buried seeds. Buried bones. Deep burrows, protecting moles from snakes. The ground the body of the mother, the earth, the goddess, protecting. Things buried rise again, when they are ready. 

What an enormous honor and joy it is to work with the wonderful Catherine
We gathered yarrow, green feathers standing up from the earth. I took them home and cut them up, poured oil over them, and buried the jar in my garden. An old world way to keep your medicine temperature controlled, dark, cool, but also, I think, to infuse it with the great old electric earth, protected entirely in her hands. 

And we gathered leaves and sticks and seedpods from the sleeping place itself. I laid them on raw silk and wrapped them to make an ecoprint, in the tradition of the incredible India Flint, then buried both bundles in the earth too.

The yarrow, the bundled fabric, they are dreaming now in the ground, treasure to be unearthed anew, and given to you. Along with a story, the story that this sheltered cove of  cottage and raven and kind spirits wants to tell. This is a secret, yet. A secret that will fly to your doorstep by the darkness of the moon, March 20th, when it is buried in the sun's shadow, if you so desire....