Friday, December 23, 2016

To Claim the Wrentit as Clanswoman

Modern Rome; Campo Vacino, by J.M.W. Turner 1839

I wrote the following poem the morning of November 9th, sitting out in the bishop pine forest in Inverness, watching one of my favorite tiny birds, the wrentit, and taking what solace I could from their companionable cheeps and calls. I published it over on my subscription-based poetry journal, A Green Language. Despite its initial darkness, I wanted to share this poem today with all of you, in the heart of the yule season, in honor of what can be born of darkness, and care, and rooting deep in place. In the spirit of magic, in honor of the wrentits and all the other small plain animals we forget so often to see, may we make new maps together out of hope, and fallen twigs.


This morning, we woke to a truth:
we are Rome, at the end, afire
A man is ordering roadways
to be lined with the bodies of the dead
and a wall to keep out Others
the ones who clamoring for peace, for shelter
for a land that once was, long ago and wilder
Their women carry babies on their backs
They are dark as the earth forgotten
Their men carry axes and rope
Their fires line the perimeter
of the end of the world
where they are singing the songs
our ancestors knew

All that is left is that circle
where the fires gather
I don’t know which to light
or how to get there yet
only that it’s time to go
to flee the deadstrewn road, the wall
Not away, not a distant country
but down, under and in
To claim the wrentit as clanswoman
she who lives her whole
life eating spiders in the brush
where she was born
knowing every name
for every branch and leaf

There is a dark country* just below
your feet, just outside your window
where the roots live where the spiders spin
where our ancestors have gone
where they are lighting fires now
Every day and every fallen tree
is a threshold
There is nowhere to run but in, into
the dark country where warriors
cannot walk, but only we the humbled
we the strong, the keepers, tenders, lovers
who’ve lost the map
and now must make a new one out of twigs.

*The “dark country” is a phrase that came to me from a very inspiring essay by Ursula K. Le Guin. You can read an excerpt of it here.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Winter's Dark

Despite the dystopia America has awoken to in the past month, this is one of the most beautiful winter seasons I can remember here on the coast of California, where the fir trees find their southernmost range, and the black sages their northernmost. I have always loved winter in California, and by winter I mean the rainy season, which normally (in the past) starts in October and lasts until the end of March. I have loved it ferociously, almost desperately in recent years, when drought dried the grasses dead gray until January. I love it with the love and fear that loss entail. I do not know what our rapidly changing climate will do to California. If we will become a desert or a floodplain. But I do know that I love the specifics of winter in this bioregion, as I have known it since I was a little girl. Back then, I despised the sight of blue sky between storms. It made me sour, and a little bit depressed. I coveted my time by the fire with a book and my berry tea as it raged and rained outside. I rejoiced when the power went out and we had to light candles and shower in cold water. When the lights came back on suddenly and without warning, I was petulant, disappointed. I ran outside in the street or in the back garden in the heaviest rain, and when I was older, and falling in love, I walked the mountain's flanks and rejoiced in that drenching. 

You must remember that winter on the central coast of California is a mild, generous affair. Cold enough to warrant sweaters and wool underwear, certainly (we do have frosts, you know, despite what you might imagine!), but rarely below freezing in the daytime, and mostly well above. Winter is our season of renewal. In other places throughout the northern hemisphere, from whence we get our seasonal myths and expectations, it rains in the summer, and so the summer is thought of everywhere as green and fecund. Here, summer is a dry bone. High summer is a northern winter in terms resources for plants and animals, until the berries come in toward the end. But Winter, she carries the green in her darkling pockets.

Green is the color of winter, gold is the color of summer, here on the coast of California. It is a beautiful, unusual combination, and the Northern European myths of yule and solstice only match to a point, but not beyond. If you want to really understand the winter here, you have to imagine the feeling of the deep darkness of short days and long nights, and all the magic and old voices that darkness kindles, while all the while that feeling the way that darkness is itself making a basket full of green, and everywhere you walk through the shortening days, the grass is an iridescence along the pathways, the nettles are leaping up from the earth, the raptors and waterbirds that summer elsewhere are suddenly everywhere on the bays and the telephone lines. This is the place they come for gentleness, for shelter. White kites with kohl-rimmed eyes that hunt aloft like angels. Kestrels with poppy-orange feathers and coats of smoke.

Ours is a sheltering kind of winter, for this is a land of many gifts. But it is still a dark winter, and the nights are long, with very sharp stars. The kind of darkness that roots grow full in. The kind of darkness that allows the unseen world to dance at all the corners of your perception. This, I think, is why I love winter so fiercely. The other day, walking down through the rain-wet redwoods in the early dusk, I asked myself why is it that I love the winter and the darkness so? Immediately many external answers came to me— because of the green, because of the rain, because of the dark, because of the time to sit by fires, by candles, with books and food and good company, because of the fecundity of darkness and of wet, because stories and ideas spring up through me like so many mushrooms... Yes, I replied to myself, but why? Why this deep thrill at the early nights, the short golden light, the wet, the dark?

And then it came to me, a glimmer of new understanding. I think that in winter (and especially in this landscape where winter also means new growth) the unseen world—the spirits that dwell in trees, in stones, in waters, in birds, in stars, in us—is a little easier to see, because it seems to me that all things relating to Otherworlds, to Mysteries, to Magic, prefer the cover of darkness. They are not beings or forces that can be seen with your eyes in broad daylight. They do not, as John O'Donohue would say, appreciate the "neon culture" that surrounds us, the need to shine the bright lights of fact and reason into every gentle burrow or wounded valley of land and spirit. In winter, night holds the day in her cupping hands, encircling and informing it. Night, stars, and moon hold the ground we walk, and hold us too, and the beings that dwell only in the unseen corners of earth and consciousness surround us more closely, more often, so that we are more likely to glimpse them there, just before dawn, just after dusk. In rain, in wet, in cold and greening forests, in long nights full of dreams and firelight, everything that we cannot see but that we know is there, dancing in us and in the world, is there, very close, and something in the darkness helps us to believe in it all again, at least for a little while, despite everything we've been taught and told. 

Then, of course, I remembered this poem by the great mystic, Rainer Maria Rilke. 

You, Darkness

by Rainer Maria Rilke
translated by Robert Bly

You darkness, that I come from,
I love you more than all the fires
that fence in the world,
for the fire makes
a circle of light for everyone,
and then no one outside learns of you.

But the darkness pulls in everything:
shapes and fires, animals and myself,
how easily it gathers them! —
powers and people —
and it is possible a great energy
is moving near me.

I have faith in nights.

Our seasons are becoming so unpredictable. It is easy to spin out into anxiety, to worry about next year, or tomorrow, or January. But right now, it's pouring. The redwoods are winedark with rain. There is much in the human world to cause outrage, to demand action. But also, there is the shelter of this darkness, of rain's undeniable beauty, of the unseen world, so lonely, lately, for our quiet and loving attention. 

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

To My Future Granddaughters

Yesterday at dusk I lit two candles for the women and men protecting the waters at Standing Rock, standing up against all odds to the powers of greed and hunger and hate that are closing in upon this land. I prayed for the right words, any words that might do good and be of use. This story is what I wrote. I look at it now and fear it is too hopeful. I look at it now and fear it is not hopeful enough. I am a student of history, and long have been. I fear what has come before and the patterns we are repeating. I fear the way those patterns have always ended. We have gone through at least five thousand years of this. Such patterns are very, very hard to change. I am under no illusion that it could ever be easy. Some days I don't believe that it's possible at all.

And yet, I see so much fire and courage in the hearts of the people around me, and people across the world. So much awakeness gleaming in our eyes. Such fierce love of land and of each other. And so I hope, despite all hope, because hoping and loving and acting on our hope and on our love are the best and only things we can do.

And because I believe in dragons, and I believe in this good earth, who will bring down her own justice before it is too late. May it not become too late.

When Dragons Came

A Story

To my future granddaughters out there beyond the end of the world, where you are gathering laurel nuts and combing out the hair of dragons:

Let me tell you a story. About where the dragons came from. About what it was like when I was a young woman, before ever I carried a child. 

When I was a young woman a white dust had fallen across the land, and people gathered it in fistfuls, fighting each other to get the most, because its taste was unearthly sweet, and it brought on a euphoria that made what was real dissolve in favor of what was desired. A white sleep. Back then, people often loved the simulacra of Things more than the Things themselves, for it was easier to buy a Thing than it was to dig one from the earth. And because we were all afraid of death, so afraid we would swallow any measure of dust, any strength of oblivion, in order not to look there, until our loneliness and our animal despair were such that we forgot what we feared altogether, and turned to sleeping, calling it Life. 

Many of us tried not to breathe in or swallow that dust. And there was still beauty to be found. There always is. I loved many things then. The bay at high tide with a heron walking. Any number of stars. Gathering nuts from the autumn wood. Your grandfather and the warmth of his hand. Food shared with family, with mother and father and brother, with grandones and uncles and aunts. Music under a moon. A fire in the hearth, tea brewed, and wool. Rain. Always, forever, rain. You could still find such things, if you sought them, but you were often alone in the seeking, bumping into others there only as in a dark wood, each desperate for something whole and old and earthly that none of us could ever find entirely, or name. 

In those times, whatever was easiest was called best. And, as always, whatever served the ones who had the most possessions to lose. Not the most life to lose, but the most control over death. For it was not any of us alone, but Earth, who had the most life to lose, and lost it daily, hourly, under the thrall of that white dust, that sleep, that terrible need, and the howling loneliness that crouched behind it all, devouring. 

There came a day one autumn when we knew the world would end. Your grandfather and I were clearing the dying oaks from the land we loved, the land where we were making a new home, our round tent of felt and canvas and hearth to stand inside the changing. Votes came in. Everything we had feared, everything we had not believed, began to come to pass in the hands of one too white with dust to rule, and yet who ruled nonetheless, by the will of  people and their sorrow; and later, by a will only his own. 

No one believed in dragons then, because they had gone into the earth long, long before. There were stories, broken ones, in which dragons burned towns and men killed them for it. Nobody remembered that the older name for dragon was hidden inside the lava and inside the moon, and that bones kept it safe even unto our day, far down in the ground. 

We didn't know we were burning their blood to power our world, not then. We didn't know they might be as small as moths, or as large as the entire night sky, and that they could fly through the earth just as easily as the air. We didn't know because we had been afraid for a very long time, and asleep, and alone. All of this made it hard to see them, to hear them gathering far, far underground, in all the cavities and all the scars made by all the rigs and drills and blasts that had torn the earth, searching for what had always belonged to dragons and not humans, the hordes that should never have been taken away. 

This is how it happened.

In the middle of the country, in the middle of the end, on a great and sacred plain by a great and sacred river, the first people of that land stood a final stand against that white dust, against tanks and guns, against a hunger too dangerous to bear, against the digging up of sacred blood. Everywhere across the country people woke up at last, struggling, from the dust of their lives, They tried to shout their outrage to someone, tried to make it stop, tried to say what mattered, tried to end the long and unspoken war. But by then it was too late. 

An order was delivered. The drilling began. The tanks rolled in for the last time and surrounded the place where people were standing, where people were praying, where people were crying, where the antelope had been gathering and gathering for days, where all the white dust was gone from the ground, where everyone's eyes were open, were clear. 

They stood in peace, without fighting. They stood with fists raised to the sky and they stood with tears falling and falling and the antelope ringed them, ready to die for them. In the very middle of the people were three young woman with black lines painted on their chins. Three sisters holding hands. Three sisters whose beauty was as old as the world. 

The antelope began to stampede. Guns began to fire. And a hole opened in the ground where the three sisters stood. They fell in, and before anyone could follow, the earth closed again. Then it rocked and bucked and the tanks fells sideways and everyone ran for cover together as the river flooded its banks. 

For a time, after that, there was a standstill. Machinery had broken. Drilling was suspended. And all the while, the three sisters were inside the earth, learning the names of dragons, riding the backs of dragons, braiding their hair for battle. 

I knew none of this, then. Nobody did. Only three women inside the earth knew it, and the ones who had taken them there because of their beauty. Don't get me wrong for a moment that their beauty had anything to do with external appearances. Do you think dragons care for the faces of humans? It was the beauty of their souls they saw and took them for, beautiful as the fire at the beginning of the world. They had been waiting all that time for three such as they to stand in that place, in the name of the blood and the land, and not back down, and not turn away. 

This is not a story that ends with three men who went out searching, and the youngest who found them and killed the dragons and saved us all. No. Life went on much as before. A shrine was erected in the place where the sisters had been swallowed, and people brought jars of clear water to pour on that ground in grief. For the digging had begun again, and the smell of oil was in the air, and the taste of oil was in the water. 

A year and a day they were gone and mourned for dead. A miracle, but dead. A year and a day and through it the world's weather grew wild. The ones who ruled us called orders on the bodies of women, on the dark bodies of their brothers and sisters, on the bodies of men in love. They filled the ground and the sky with every imaginable poison, as if there was no end to the curve of the earth. They began work on a Wall. 

And then, all at once on an evening in winter when the stars were very sharp overhead, every light and every engine blew out at once. In that rain of light the air filled with dragons and with three beautiful women wielding battle axes made of fire, come to take back every last thing that had been stolen. The dragons had come to take those thefts back into their bodies and back into the ground. 

They laid the earth to rest that night as she had not rested for hundreds of years, in an ancient veil of green.

All we could see of it that night was auroras, those northern lights which had never danced so far south before. But by morning, the ground was covered with ash and with eggshells, the eggshells of the first animals to ever walk the earth. There they were, crouched in the trees and roofs and riverbeds, on the hoods of cars, the broken telephone wires, the abandoned mines, the quarries,  the sky-scrapers, the parking lots, the mountain tops. Not winged, not horned, not clawed, but older still, and stranger. 

Some people couldn't see them, not yet. Others could, and could not bear the sight. Still others wept, and knelt for joy. But no one, no matter how hard or how hungrily they searched could find a trace of that white dust again. Only ash, which by spring made the fields sprout as never before. Only air so clear and eyes so open we could see every crater on the face of the moon for weeks after. 

It will be long before we can see everything clearly again. Dragons take lifetimes to believe in once more. But you are women of dragons, now. You must gather the laurel nuts and the acorns like we could not. You must say the true name of the water, and wait for it to run clean. Forgive us, oh my granddaughters not yet born. I am so sorry, my dear ones, for we are waking the dragons that you must learn to ride. 

So may you be beautiful in soul. And may they come courting you. May they swallow you whole and make you theirs again, and keepers of that oldest justice: Hers. 

David Lupton's illustration for Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Tatterdemalion, Almost Born

From the beginning, Tatterdemalion has been its own creature, a being of instinct, of old mystery, of the magic lands that lie just beyond our dreams. All throughout its creation, I've been following a thread that I can hardly call my own. I followed it to England last autumn, where I met Rima in person at last, and found Unbound. This autumn I followed it again to Dartmoor, to the 2016 Dark Mountain gathering at Embercombe. There, we gathered by the Hedgespoken hearth to share fires and tea and words with friends now very dear.

Of a Friday evening that long September weekend, Rima and I, with the help of her Tom and my Simon, wove together a theatrical presentation of our Tatterdemalion, its first ever performance, on the Hedgespoken stage as the stars pressed out and the crowd gathered near on blankets. 

It was an evening that seemed to have walked right out of the book. The Hedgespoken stage a place of warmth and comfort and also deep transformation and vision. Kind faces clustered across a canvas, holding ciders and pieces of cake and cups of beer. A fire in a dish the only light besides the lanterns and the stars. The music of Crow Puppets before, and after our Tatterdemalion, a strange and wonderful Welsh gypsy tale told by Tom until the hours were close to turning small again. 

We dressed in clothing that felt ceremonial, with dark colored scarves covering our hair. I read by the light of a red lantern, and Rima played the accordion, and brought to life her puppet, threading those two hand-magics in and out of my words. Simon and Tom joined their voices to open the scene, and the music of a flute, coming from within a bell tent, lilted on in places of sorrow. When the reading was over, we removed our scarves, stepping out of that place of making, that landscape we both have walked in our different crafts, and talked with that kind and lovely audience a bit more about the making of the book.

The whole weekend, held by the lovingly-tended, generous land of Embercombe, with its rambling orchards and wet beech woods, and the brilliant Charlotte du Cann & Dougie Strang of Dark Mountain, was a kind of hearth fire. Base Camp, they called the gathering, and so it felt, especially in quiet, simple moments around nightfires with new friends, talking of the Northern Lights and listening to accordion and fiddle and flute, or during the rain with tea in the snug warmth of Hedgespoken, laughing over the sinister madness of American politics, and feeling the sheer medicine of good company and the simplicity of warm shelter that nevertheless lets the rain and wind quiver through. 

Amidst all of this, Tatterdemalion felt at home, even a sense of homecoming, as if it had always intended its first recitation to be here, amidst the ripe apples and hungry fires and longing hearts of many for something other, something older, something wiser and wilder and free. 

Something important transpired there, in the air, in the stars, by the dancing fire, by the warmth of big-hearted people, on that stage crafted of dreams, of dedication, of hard work and patience. Tatterdemalion was no longer a thing inside my own heart or pen, nor inside Rima's brush and canvas and dreaming. That performance was a ritual of sorts, the opening of a new door. The book went out into the world, spiritually. Into the hawthorn-daubed lane. Into the earth. A seed sown at the cusp of autumn. Finding a path for itself, ahead of its physical birth. 

But, hurrah! I'm rejoicing where I sit because at last it is time to tell you all that Tatterdemalion is almost ready to go to print! Layout, text, and cover design are all but complete! Tomorrow, Monday the 24th of October is your last day to get your name in the back of the book! These editions will reach subscribers around Christmas time. Otherwise, you will have to wait until June of 2017 to get your hands on a trade edition copy, which will be a beautiful book, but the subscriber edition is made to be something special. It will feature Rima's gorgeous endpapers, and a beautiful,  haunting dust-jacket of her cover painting, which you will be able to pin on your wall as a print if you so desire. 

And, speaking of which.... At last, at last! The Grand Cover Reveal is upon us! Rima has written all about the process of painting the Tatterdemalion cover right here. Below is but a glimpse... 

Follow here for the whole Making, and to get a book if you haven't already!

Rima and I await its official birth with much joy and inheld breath; this book has long been a thing of Dreams. Now it is close to real, and who knows where it will go or how it will fly? One thing we do know for certain is that sharing of it together on the Hedgespoken stage is a thing of great and heartening magic. Women's magic, its own and precious terrain. Our Dark Mountain performance was, I sense, the first of many. We are weaving plans for future Tatterdemalion shows—next year, at the end of spring, when the book is on the shelves of the world. 

For now, it is still in its blossoming-- the long, slow way of birthing books! So, come help it along, get your name in the back and wish it well as it wings off to the printer, and then to your wintry doorstep! 

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The Peace of Ruins

Looking north from a tower in the Byzantine citadel of Agios Giorgos, gone wild with capers and mullein and mint
"A spell of peace lives in the ruins of ancient Greek temples. As the traveller leans back among the fallen capitals and allows the hours to pass, it empties the mind of trembling thoughts and anxieties and slowly refills it, like a vessel that has been drained and scoured, with a quiet ecstasy. Nearly all that has happened fades to a limbo of shadows and insignificance that is painlessly replaced by an intimation of radiance, simplicity and calm which unties all knots and solves all riddles and seems to murmur a benevolent and unimperious suggestion that the whole of life, if it were allowed to unfold without hindrance or compulsion or search for alien solutions, might be endlessly happy."  (From Patrick Leigh Fermor's brilliant Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese, page 120.)

The old wall of the citadel of Agios Giorgos, looking east toward Mt. Ainos of ancient pine-clad fame
I have been filled and refilled over and again by our time here on Kefalonia, reminded of the simplicity of contentment. There is much to write, so many threads of kermes red and cyclamen-pink, of all the shades of sea and olive leaf and thunder, family and food and slow starred nights. 

The sea toward Zakynthos
Many words are gathering in skeins of story and essay and poem in my notebook, like the baskets of wool beside The Odyssey'queens, violet and yellow and mauve. But they aren't ready to share yet, and much of what I have learned and am learning here has to do with respecting the natural pace of things— of days, of meals, of creativity, of storms.  

However, I have finished three poems over on my Green Language poetry journal, which you can sign up for and read hereSalve, Lepeda Now & Then, and Artemis, they are called, full of olives and pomegranates, the horned moon, the way the land still seems to speak the names of the old gods.

An ancient olive press in the ruins of a monastery, where the air was full of sheepbells
My heart is full of many strands of everyday tales—the old couple who sell baskets on the roadside; the sound of dozens of sheep bells clear as wind; the sweet sea so salty you can float without effort; the violet shape of lightning in the middle of the night; the moment the crickets begin their cry at dusk; a river pool of perfect clarity adrift with sycamore leaves; the age of a name like Artemis, and how it still finds foothold in the many faces of the living land; the smell of brush burning at dawn as an old woman makes ash for her autumn garden; running on old dirt lanes with the little ones singing and yelling and skirting puddles; the amber eyes of a young black sheepdog, tied to an olive tree by an old white lighthouse, wriggling with joy to be patted—which are threading and rethreading their way through my storymaking.

I've been reading as much as I've been soaking in, from Robert Graves' The Greek Myths and The White Goddess, all of the above-quoted Mani, Martin Shaw's new and brilliant Scatterlings, and a very beautiful book called Orpheus: The Song of Life by Ann Wroe, found at random at a used bookshop days before we left. These volumes too have shaped the narrative of my days here, passages falling into my consciousness just at the right moment, scraps of silver for the magpie mind. Here are some.

A Venetian lighthouse at the northern tip of Kefalonia, looking out toward Ithaki
"Two tatterdemalion and barefoot women, a mother and a daughter in antique straw hats as wide as umbrellas, their faces burnt black by the sun and eyebrows and tangled hair caked white with dried brine, were gathering rock-salt in broad wicker baskets. They worked here all summer, they said, and sometimes in the winter too, sleeping in the huge cave by the chapel of Hodygytzia (Our Lady of Guidance) where there was a little spring of brackish water for them to drink and dip their paximadia" (page 79, Mani).

The antechambers of the ancient Necromanteion, Oracle of the Dead, where the rivers Acheron, Styx and Pyriphlegethon converge on a plain looking out toward the Ionian sea
"Delphi, the home of Apollo, was once an oracular tomb of this same sort, with a spiralled pytho and a prophetic priestess of the earth goddess, and the 'omphalos' or 'navel shrine,' where the python was originally housed, was built underground in the same beehive style [...] The provenance of the beehive tomb with a passage entrance and lateral niches is no mystery. It came to Ireland from the Eastern Mediterranean by way of Spain and Portugal at the close of the 3rd millenna B.C." (page 103, The White Goddess). 

A Souliote watchtower along the river Acheron, where mountain shepherds armed to the teeth laid in wait of Turkish attack

"Mythologists watched him enter as a seed falling, the ash key turning in the wind, the kernel trodden underfoot, the grain flung out from the sower's hand. He sank into the earth until he released life. His husk rotted from him there, and white hairs of new roots crept out into the dark. A pale filament uncurled, like a question; the shoot grew. Orpheus as a primitive god of vegetation endured the cycle of the seasons from death to life, to death, to life again" (page 129). 

Heather and a smoketree and the mountain cliffs above the river Acheron

"There is a deity that rowed her boat to our very shore whilst we slept, adrift in trance from a sleeping pin. After a time she leaves and will not come back. In our era, when we believe we can be anything and have anything we want, all the time, it is disarming to hear that we cannot snap our fingers to the gods and expect them to work slavishly in our favor; that in fact it is we who need to cross nine lands and oceans, to craftily get round Baba Yaga and her sisters, to emerge at just the right moment and display enough 'awakeness' that love floods back into the equation" (page 130, Scatterlings). 

"It was a Thracian offering, the sort he would have made as a boy in the forest: finding the face of the goddess in a branch or a stone and polishing it, carefully, with his blue cloak before dedicating it at some holy spot among the trees" (page 88, Orpheus).

Walking the old Souliote path to a mountain redoubt on a hot day far above the Acheron
In a land like this, there are still words resting in the language that can hold what cannot be spoken except in praise of deity, of mystery. Artemis is the rising crescent moon, the grottos wet and thick with cyclamen, the shaded mountain paths; Zeus is the sudden thunder and the wild lightning and torrential rain; Persephone is the bloody pomegranates, ripening just at the cusp of autumn, and the river Acheron whose icecold springs emerge right out from beneath the limestone cliffs. They are still here. Their temples may be long ruined, but the stones and the trees and the hawks and the moon and the rain are as alive as ever, waiting to be sung again. 

I've been trying, in the wrong language, and clumsily, to do as Orpheus the young Thracian musician did; leaving a gift for the face in a trunk, a tide, a star. It is small, but something, at least. 

There is so much to learn,  so much to bow our heads before, so much to thank.  And so the weaving goes. 

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Women on the Ancient Wall of Kranea

Surely on another autumn day like this, the acorns swelling green on the trees, the earth dark red with rain, the sky elaborately patterned with the tatters of a storm, another woman stood here on the behemoth limestone wall of the ancient acropolis called Kranea, looking north across a fertile oak valley at noon.

Maybe the wife of a soldier who patrolled the wall, looking out for invaders from the eastern acropolis at Sami, came to bring him a basket of corn meal cakes and sheep's cheese and a flask of weak wine for lunch.

Or maybe his daughter, with black braids and bare feet and fistfuls of acorns to throw at imagined foes. Or maybe an old woman, despite orders, in a time of peace, wearing the saffron robes of an old priestesshood, a school from Before the wall and the acropolis and the men who could move and chisel the earth into such giant blocks.

Maybe she came to look and to think, to dangle her veined old legs until someone stopped her, to sing the songs her grandmother left her, songs for the moon and the red earth and the harvest.

Songs from before even the names of Artemis, Demeter or Kore. Before She was broken into a hundred pieces and scattered. As one name She was far too strong even for a wall of immortal limestone cut by teams of oxen and men.

And what of a woman just my age and size and temperament, twenty-seven and slight, a dreamer with a hearty appetite and a streak of anxious nerves? Did she ever walk this wall?

She would have had children, no doubt, half-grown already. A body broader and more generous for it. What broke her fast at dawn? What words did she murmur to the rising sun? What lullabies to her daughters and sons with the moon? What teas for their coughs, what fears, what hopes, what smell and warmth of her husband in the heat of the early autumn dark?

Now, the wall stands tumbled. The spines of scrub oak, soft-eared salvias, white blooming squill spires, olive trees and thyme push everywhere around and between.

Lichens spread across the stone, maps of millennia, each century's island.

Rain, two thousand years of it, has made hollows, tunnels and bowls in the limestone wall, like the underbelly of Kefalonia itself, riddled with freshwater passageways and underground rivers.

Everywhere across the dark red earth, small purple crocuses have sprung up out of the rain.

Somewhere, there are pieces of an old temple to Demeter, but nobody seems to know where, and stones, after so long, begin to look alike. We eat a picnic on the old entrance gates and talk of ancient carts and chariots, the sound of wheels, of hooves, the life of the gatekeeper.

Goats nap, belled, under olive trees beyond a wire fence. We leave dry golden grapes from a small market and a pinch of rolling tobacco in a rainmade hollow for Demeter, since we can't find her temple. The sky and its clouds talk about rain.

The people of ancient Kranea are now only the red earth, the olive, the crocus, the acorns, the chisel marks on their colossal guardian wall. We try to visit some of their tombs at Mazarakata, but the gates are closed, the lock rusted. We can see a few through the fence, full of wild thyme. There is one almond-shaped hole into the earth, womanly and dark. There, in the red earth, everything is reborn. There, the fall of civilizations is not past, but now, resting in mythtime. Right there, where Demeter walks, with purple crocuses at her heels. 

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.