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"


  1. Chiming with truths, as always, Sylvia. Yes! When did happen endings, triumph over hardship become so out of fashion. I, too, see it in film and literature. When did happiness, success, victory become cliché? I am for a Renaissance of Happy, it is sorely needed to balance often harsh reality. The plants are still giving us happiness in spite of the world; we should take a cue from them.

    On another note, I commend you for living your life in the present and often look to your words to help me do the same. I have come to realize that listening to the trees, or smelling the breeze, or weaving thoughts into a spider's web are valid, productive, important moments in our lives even when others cannot see it. Let the fools think otherwise. Congrats on your new studio space - hope it is a fecund, magical wellspring.

  2. Some mornings I make the mistake of checking Facebook early. And then I'm bombarded by political things and pictures of animals being hurt and things that make me angry, all before ever even having coffee. It's a horrible way to start the day and every time I do it my brain is in the background saying 'what the hell are you doing?!'.

    What I'm getting at is that this morning I clicked Feedly and this came up and I'm so very very glad to have started the day this way. And here's you, being the half-full cup in a world of facebook posts. It can only spread, you know...

  3. Thankyou for putting so beautifully into words, the hope and inspiration that lies in each day if only we look in the right places. x

  4. Dear Sylvia, I am so sorry to hear about the break-ins.
    Thank goodness for your beautiful words in this world. As John O'Donohue writes "Only in solitude can you discover a sense of your own beauty. The Divine Artist sent no-one here without the depth and light of divine beauty. This beauty is frequently concealed behind the dull facade of routine. Only in your solitude will you come upon your own beauty."
    I am more than happy you have found a new space and that you can continue to savour your life and encourage others to do the same... for what is more important. May the wool and word gathering continue, and may your cup always be half full. xxx

  5. Yes! Yes! Yes! At long last someone has written something truthful about the romantic heart, something of substance and radiance. Bless you my beautiful friend for being the romantic that you are, and if ever you are in need of some rose-tinted company, you know who to call. All my love from a spring evening in the Pacific North West, while rain falls upon cherry blossom and everything is sweet. LOVE, nao

  6. another voice of true reason! Thank you for this post. I am glad to know of another hopeful romantic.

  7. I remember reading one time about the cognitive biases humans have ~ one of them I believe was called the Negativity Bias. Apparently--due to millions of years of needing to pay more attention to the rustling in the nearby bushes than the beautiful Spring blooms--our brains developed a bias for negative news, seeing it as most important.

    I know what you mean, though. Just this year, I observed how cynicism has just become this sort of "fad" throughout America (and probably Europe, too) especially in the 20s-30s folk, it seems. I was almost pulled into it, which is easy to do once you grasp the terrors the Earth is enduring and begin to understand the root and cause...

    Yet, I delight. And I catch myself when I become cynical. And I'm glad there are others out there. A wonderful sharing of thoughts, Sylvia. Many thanks ~