Friday, July 15, 2016

The Dark Country

Things in the world  have been growing darker and darker for a while now. But last night, upon hearing news of the Nice attack, something shifted inside of me. A new layer of horror, of sorrow, of fear—this is no longer becoming a reality. It is a reality. This unbounded, rampant hate. We opened Pandora's box a long time ago, and then forgot what it might mean. Now, I fear, we are remembering, and it is terrible. The level of uncontrollable hatred is reaching a mythic pitch, and I am taking solace, sips of hope and prayer, from the grounds of story. Today I came across a passage I'd read before in a wonderful 1983 essay by Ursula Le Guin ("A Left-Handed Commencement Address," given at Mills College, printed in her collection Dancing at the Edge of the World). It struck a new chord. This morning in bed I was thinking about how we will get nowhere fighting hate with hate. We never have. We will be stuck in a cycle of blood feuds and vengeance and sorrow forever. And yet no western power is going to turn now to the Middle East with any measure of compassion, or the question— what is it we have done to create such poison? What can we do to heal this terrible, terrible wound without more loss of life? 

The only way out of any of it, of all of it, seems to me to be the way we will not go as a society, the way of gentleness, of compassion, of the dark and nourishing earth... As Ursula writes: 

In our society, women have lived, and have been despised for living, the whole side of life that includes and takes responsibility for helplessness, weakness, and illness, for the irrational and the irreparable, for all that is obscure, passive, uncontrolled, animal, unclean—the valley of the shadow, the deep, the depths of life. All that the Warrior denies and refuses is left to us and the men who share it with us and therefore, like us, can't play doctor, only nurse, can't be warriors, only civilians, can't be chiefs, only indians. Well, so that is our country. The night side of our country. If there is a day side to it, high sierras, prairies of bright grass, we only know pioneer's tales about it, we haven't got there yet. We're never going to get there by imitating Machoman. We are only going to get there by going our own way, by living there, by living through the night in our own country. 

So what I hope for you is that you live there not as prisoners, ashamed of being women, consenting captives of a psychopathic social system, but as natives. That you will be at home there, keep house there, be your own mistress, with a room of your own. That you will do your work there, whatever you are good at, art or science or tech or running a company or sweeping under the beds, and when they tell you its's second-class work because a woman is doing it, I hope you tell them to go to hell and while they're going to give you equal pay for equal time. I hope you live without the need to dominate, and without the need to be dominated. I hope you are never victims, but I hope you have no power over other people. And when you fail, and are defeated, and in pain, and in the dark, then I hope you will remember that darkness is your country, where you live, where no wars are fought and no wars are won, but where the future is. Our roots are in the dark; the earth is our country. Why did we look up for blessing—instead of around and down? What hope we have lies there. Not in the sky full of orbiting spy-eyes and weaponry, but in the earth we have looked down upon. Not from above, but from below, Not in the light that blinds, but in the dark that nourishes, where human beings grow human souls.

For at least the last five thousand years, the western world has been wracked and wracked again by war, led by a patriarchy that settles conflicts and takes what it wants by force. This isn't going to work any more. Already we can see it isn't working. The question is, how can we walk, all of us, into the hope that lies in the roots in the earth and keep our torches aloft? Really, I have hardly a clue. All I can say is — may we find the wisdom of the dark and feminine country, of the earth that grows human souls, of the land where there is no war, before it is too late.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

A Green Language

In the end—through all the struggle and strangeness and beauty and sorrow of the world we navigate today—I think we are each of us just trying to create the story we truly want to live in. Not the story we think we should live in—our souls know better, and maybe that's what causes so much endless inner strife, disconnect, depression. Our souls (or hearts, or spirits, or true selves, whatever you want to call it) know what story fits them best. What lilt or drum or ship of language carries you swiftly to rest, to comfort, to home. What kind of garden, what kind of ecosystem, what kind of lover, what kind of weather, makes you come blinking and staring awake, to rejoice at the doorstep of your own contentment. 

An oak branch grows through the blue bedroom
in the little house of dreams where the artist
lived. Outside a plum tree is bending with fruit
Some places hold on to elsewhere like a good coat
Fog is bright on the edges of the mountain
You can make your story with words; with paint and wood and color; with touches, with kisses, with songs, with gifts given to others, with the way you approach Time. You can make the story of your life like that of a beauty-gleaner, out in the fields after everyone else thinks the harvest is in, doing your best for the sake of what gleams. But gods above, does the culture we live in these days make it hard. Hard to even hear the voice that knows the story that will bring you home to the hearth of your life, let alone follow it. 

You all know I'm a firm—perhaps even reckless—believer in the following of that voice. I believe in a different story than the one we currently inhabit. I believe in trying to do what you love at all costs, and I believe in defending what is wild, what is other, what is wise, in all beings. I believe that our natural rhythms have nothing to do with clocks or screens, that we are all deeply creative creatures, that we all need that creativity in our lives, and that we are all connected to the natural world, on every level of our selves, though we may go our whole lives without ever knowing it nor even stopping to really see a flower. I believe that being human, before all violence and greed and short-sightedness, means making—a pot, a basket, a soup, a child, a net, a fire—and it means telling— the stories of humanness, of time,  of land, of love, and how they interweave. 

What incredible little animals we are! And also, no wonder we are having a bit of trouble these days...

Downtown what was once said over coffee is saved
inside the flickers of screens

We only know who we are and where we stand in relationship to the world based on the stories we are told, and then tell ourselves.

 I find myself writing this over and over again. Mostly I think I repeat it because I am in desperate need of remembering my own words. Because despite everything I believe in and stand for with my work, it is not an easy path in the world today to simply be human. And how absurd! As David Whyte says, there is no other creature that can choose to be anything other than itself. And yet here we are doing our very best to be anything but. It's amazing how easily and fully we internalize stories of productivity, of success, of what is good enough, of what is worthy. And it is doubly amazing how vehemently we can berate ourselves for any perceived lack. When in fact it wasn't even the story we wanted to be living inside of to begin with, and our souls have been trying to send us news alerts to that effect since last spring! 

The men are talking investments and mergers
the cars have gotten bigger and there
are days in winter when it is illegal to
burn a fire in the hearth

I am here to tell you that I struggle with all of this just as much as the next person. That the devotion to beauty and story and old magics that you find here, and in all of my work, is my best self, my best offering, my best attempt to tell and fully live the story that feels like home. But I am such a young, green creature on this path, and frequently I find myself very lost indeed in the forest.

At the end of May I found myself in one such forest of the mind—and literally, in a very unceremonious and undignified heap on the floor of my little studio, weeping my eyes out. I think we've all been there in some form or another—fed up, confused, uncertain where to turn or what to do or how to make ends meet next month, terrified we are doing it all wrong, we made a mistake, we are terrible fools, this was a dreadful idea and why didn't we listen to all the people who warned us about the life of a writer? 

In that moment there really was nothing to do but cry, as crying sometimes is the first and best medicine, but after a while you have to stop, and pick yourself up, and go do something else for a while. Which, eventually, I did—a walk, or a meal, or a sit on the steps, I can't recall which. 

And yet not far by foot up only a few hills
and a few streets that wind the artist
who made his own dream to live inside

But in the midst of it all, something very beautiful happened. Something very beautiful reached down a hand and pulled me up, and out. That something was Poetry. I'd been listening to David Whyte. I'd been reading Rilke and discussing his Sonnets with a dear friend. I'd been carrying about W.S. Merwin's The Vixen. I'd been keeping a big black notebook where I wrote down all of my favorite poems, memorizing bits and pieces that called especially strong. 

he is there again with a bucket and mud
on his hands, determined to mend what ten years
and raccoons and rain have almost ruined.

In that moment I recalled something that Martin Shaw wrote on his blog  after the Brussels attack about the myth of Sedna—Let no day pass - especially the shattering, scary and super busy ones - where you do not spend a little while combing the lice from [Sedna'] locks. When I am tired, I allow the great soul-criers to do it for me, I read aloud from Anna Akhmatova, Pablo Neruda, Virginia Woolf, Galway Kinnell, Shakespeare. And again, look to the old stories, they’ve turned up perfectly on time.  

And something else, more recent, that Terri Windling shared on hers, a quote from Jane Yolen, who writes, the bottomest of lines is this: if you are a writer, you write. And you turn all of life's hiccups into poetry or prose. How lucky are we -- accidents, incidents, handicaps, heartbreaks all become research, become prompts. So don't ignore them, but use them. Every day. Every single glorious, bloody day.

It had been uncertain. Did it matter anymore,
the baroque clay molding the faces of angels 
painted in the old way in corners 
the red cupboards full of blue and white china
the winding stair the shutters blue as skies, now that
so many people had moved elsewhere and the world
had changed? Now that the dream which had
moved over the mountain and through him like mist
had gone quiet for a time?

All of this together—the books, the poems, the words, the writings of contemporary mythic artists who I admire—along with the way the trees were moving outside in the wind and the thrushes were singing the summer, opened a little gateway in me. Poetry is what came through, and pulled me out of myself and my self-pity. I started writing poems every morning, something I hadn't done since I was a teenager. I took Jane Yolen's advice, and I turned all the hiccups and all the flights of intensity and emotion that I was experiencing into poems. I made a vow of poiesis in my heart, to enact poetry in and through my life, as best I could. It is, after all, a verb (from the Greek)—to do or to make; a doing and a making aligned with the doing and making of the wiser, older, beyond-human world. Of the way things are. Of alder trees making leaves. Of rain making pools. Of thrushes making eggs. Of time and tectonics making stones.

But then summer started to ripen and we all know
that beauty and dreams have their own lives
and that we cannot resist them when they call us

As the poet Robert Bringhurst writes in his essay Poetry and Thinking, “When words do what blossoming apple trees do, and what stars do, poetry is what you read and hear.” And in his The Silence That is Not Poetry, “In writing a poem, as in building a boat or fixing an engine or mapping a river or treating a broken heart, we give ourselves to something else, which is not us. To do so helps to make us whole.” Poetry is beyond language, but it uses words to allow the embers of being to kindle through us, that we might gather them in our pockets and warm ourselves with the remembrance that all things are in us, and we are in all things. 

So he is out in the garden again at last
healing one room at a time with new paint
and the new decade in a season full of plums

When I write poetry, I feel the language of my own true home stirring inside me. Poetry, I am learning, is something you really can live by. Maybe not financially (except for the very few and fortunate), but in spirit. 

In honor of this movement in my life, this path of poiesis, and also as a way to keep myself accountable, to keep my feet on the trail, I created a poetry website called A Green Languagea term used among Renaissance alchemists and mystics to refer to the Language of Birds, which was thought to be a divine and mystical tongue in which all true knowledge could be articulated. My poems are by no means written in the divine tongue of all true knowledge (ha! that one's quite a long way off yet, and thank goodness); the name, rather, is a nod and a bow toward the beings that already live the poetry of being every moment, that don't know how to choose to be other than what they are-- the birds, the plants, the stones, the stars. The whole living world that holds us. 

After some deliberation, I decided to make the website private, open only to those who sign up for a very small subscription fee ($3.00 per month). I considered creating a Patreon page—because the idea is, after all, that as an artist I am reliant on the support, the patronage, of readers, and what a blessed thing that is. But Patreon didn't feel quite right, so I decided to do it on my own, to create this little private space, this Green Language where every week a new poem is posted. 

I know that so many things are free to read on the internet these days—and that's a wonderful thing. So much free knowledge—the stories, essays, poems, songs, photographs! And yet this is not always easy for artists. With this project I've tried to strike a balance—only a handful of pennies for a poem (around sixty-five pennies per poem, at four to five poems per month, to be more precise :) ), and yet that monetary value makes a difference. Because whether I like it or not, sometimes putting a monetary value on something changes its own value in my mind; it makes me more committed to the time and energy that it takes to listen for, sit with, and write down the poems of my days. It reminds me that such things really do have value to other people too. And of course it helps me with the daily financial realities of a working artist (all that tea...)

So—it would be an honor and a delight and a gift to see you there, around the hearth of my Green Language. So far there are seven poems (the latest of which you will find in the captions of these photographs) and a growing number of subscribers making the halls feel all the warmer with their presence.  

These poems are a doorway, a porthole, into a story of daily living that makes me feel like I've come home. I hope that some of the poems can offer a little bit of that homecoming to you. Or at least bring flashes of beauty and quiet to your days. You can read more, and subscribe, through this handy green button!

*The photographs in this post are of the beautiful hand-built house of my friend Steve, a truly wonderful old soul who lives in the hills of Mill Valley, where I grew up. He is a couple generations older than I am, and has walked and painted in that town his whole life. To me Steve embodies what it means to cleave close to the story you believe in, no matter how hard the path, to make it everywhere around you with your very hands, so that your soul might not only stay alive, but thrive. The accompanying poem is in his honor.