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.