Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Stillness, Unwisdom & the Solstice

The word ‘solstice’ essentially means ‘sun stands still’. Today the daystar reaches its lowest point, before changing its path and beginning to ascend once more. 

Intrinsic to this day is a stillness—yet also an unending motion.  

It is something of a paradox, the ceaseless movement of the Earth around the sun, the constant turning and circling that characterises everything; the constant change. Still, inside that movement, stillness can be found. A sense of being in this time and place, right now—the shortest day, the longest night. A time and place echoed in this same solstice day that has come before, over and over.

This night is a single night; and there has never been any other. 
(Leslie Marmon Silko, Ceremony, 1977, p. 192)

It is interesting to look back on what I wrote last year, to see how this solstice is the same, and different, and a new world entirely. Part of what has emerged in the writing of this blog is an ongoing record of my moods, thoughts, ideas and images that I find it useful to return to. I so often forget my own wisdom, and need to remind myself of the important things I have learnt and explored, and even of my own goals and aspirations. The ups and downs, and constant turning and circling of illness often leaves me dizzy, without focus, unsure of quite what I should be doing. 


I found out several weeks ago that I have an iodine deficiency, which most likely explains why I have been feeling worse than usual over the past year. (This is one of those rare occasions when Western medicine has actually given me a useful result!) Thus, in knowing that I am finally addressing the problem, I started to feel a little better, and to write more, which energised me. I felt like I was gradually being lifted up from the low place I had been living in for several months, and a love of words and expression was returning, glimmers of creative magic. However, I’ve been knocked back a bit over recent weeks, not sleeping well, and my energy levels have fallen again. Tired, yet overwhelmed by ideas, by words, it irks me that I cannot act on all of them. So I just note them down, file them away, and hold to a belief that soon, I will feel better, and will be able to use my time to create.

In a strange way, beset as I have been with the realities of illness, with distractions, and some hesitation about the path I am travelling, I have been feeling—of all things—unwise, as if all my writing, all my creative explorations, count for very little. 

Why am I telling you this? More to the point, why am I telling myself this?

Because I want you/myself to know that troughs are part of life. The lows must be taken with the highs, and yes, sometimes things get hard, overwhelming.

Being overwhelmed, I feel unwise.

By ‘unwise’ I don’t really mean foolish, silly or thoughtless; I simply mean that whatever wisdom, intuition or direction I do (sometimes) possess, seems absent, and without it I feel stuck.  


I believe it was Socrates who said The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.

I feel as if I know nothing, that I am searching in the dark for something that I have lost, and I barely know what that something is. But there is something about this state that intrigues me, despite the difficulty and frustration of it. It seems apt to be here now, at this the lowest, darkest point of the year’s circle. I want to wrap the darkness around me, and remember how to use the eyes of my heart once more, to finally see where I am going, and what I must do.

I have been both still and in constant motion over the past year. I’ve been myself, and changed. I’ve been high and low, light and dark, wise and unwise. I’ve come full circle, and will again, and again.

As is my wont, I’ve been reading many interesting books, exploring feminist spirituality, poetry, and inspiration for getting back to a daily writing practice. I’m also in the midst of Lucy H. Pearce’s most recent book, Full Circle Health: Integrated Health Charting for Women (2017). Once I have tried the charting process for myself, which I hope will help bring more balance and awareness to my daily routine, I aim to share my thoughts and experience of it with you. 


And in the beautiful, unstoppable cycle of stillness and change, in the blue-grey depths of winter, a bright face has appeared—my first calendula flower.


N.B. The misty photos above were taken yesterday. Today, in contrast, has been clear and sunny.

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Furies: A Poem

Two Furies, from a 19th century book reproducing an image frrom an ancient vase
(Source: Wikimedia Commons) 

lighting lightless eyes with fury 
that motion through emotion – anger – arrives 
teller of troubling truths, revealer of wrongs 

we’ve been told, we women, not to feel it 
certainly not to show it 
so unladylike, so inappropriate 

but we do feel it 

who can blame us? 
we are human, after all 
wilfully wronged and restrained
forced into shapes not our own 

taught no other way 
we push our anger down, hold it in 
feel it thickening in our throats 
until our voices flee 

this is what they want

rage flares within 
burns our hearts to black 
and we cannibalise ourselves 
until all that remains are empty 
silent shells 

they delight at this 

what they do not understand
– and what we are remembering – is that 
black is our colour, darkness our home 
and red blood flows through our chthonic bodies 
its own bright unlight 

we endure because life endures 
(despite hollowness and enforced silence)
by virtue of the dark 
its womblike circumference 
its still sanctuary   

and because of that pure, beautiful blackness 
they do not see 
when our shells ossify, become armour 
that protects us as we sprout 
wide shadowy wings that fly us to freedom

then we open our throats and speak truth 
singing serpent-tongued and winged
as we always were 
for it is our furies that show us the way


* * *

I’ve been thinking of anger recently, of how it is an emotion that has at times driven my writing. I seem to have so very much to say when rage is flaring in me, and it provides me with an energy I would not otherwise have.

A few years ago I read about a Canadian study by Dr. Cheryl van Daalen-Smith, called ‘Whispers and Roars: A Feminist Analysis of The Anesthetization of Girls’ Anger’, which made quite an impression on me at the time. Unfortunately, I’ve been unable to find the full article again (though it is mentioned here and here), so I cannot quote from it, but it dealt with the idea of anger as a positive and useful emotion, and explored the ways in which girls are taught to suppress it, resulting in loss of feeling and authentic self-knowing.

We tend to characterise emotions as either good or bad—happiness = good, sadness = bad—yet I think the truth is that emotions themselves are neutral. It is part of being human to experience the whole gamut, from the brightest of joys to the deepest of griefs. I, for one, think that a life lived feeling only the so-called ‘good’ emotions would be a very boring life indeed. Though emotions such as anger, fear or frustration may be unpleasant to feel, they are necessary, bringers of wisdom, growth and creative fire.

Anger, in particular, is a very useful emotion, as it alerts us to when an injustice is being done to ourselves or others. It tells us when something is wrong, and, when handled well, gives us a chance to put things right. Of course, anger can be a problem when it is expressed through behaviours such as aggression or violence; but what the study made clear to me is that it is as damaging, sometimes more so, when it is not expressed. Girls are often taught from a young age that showing anger—making a scene, disturbing the peace, rocking the boat, disagreeing (particularly with a male)—is wrong, unfeminine. Above all, we are expected to be ‘nice’, and this has the terrible side-effect of silencing us, often when we most need to speak. 

Thus, instead of being shown how to express anger in healthy ways, to speak up about the wrongs done to us and to protect ourselves from harm, girls—and the women they become—tend to suppress their anger, to force it back inside, where it festers away and causes an untold number of health issues, both psychological and physical. In being taught not to acknowledge and express anger we are also being taught to distrust our own feelings, disconnecting us from those feelings, from our bodies, and our intuitions. With anger turned inwardly, we become angry with ourselves, rather than angry about the external things/people/situations that really deserve our outrage.

It goes without saying that reading the aforementioned study made me angry—for myself and for all women and girls. Anger is indeed a negative emotion when it is anaesthetised, when it is stripped of its power—just as women are stripped of our own power in a patriarchal world—but when channeled in the right way, anger becomes positive, and positively powered. 

Clarissa Pinkola Estés writes in Women Who Run With the Wolves: Contacting the Power of the Wild Woman (1992):

In her instinctual psyche, a woman has the power, when provoked, to be angry in a mindful way—and that is powerful. Anger is one of her innate ways to begin to reach out to create and preserve the balances that she holds dear, all that she truly loves. It is both her right, and at certain times and in certain circumstances, a moral duty.

For women, this means there is a time to reveal your incisors, your powerful ability to defend territory, to say “This far and no farther, the buck stops here, and hold onto your hat, I’ve got something to say, this is definitely going to change.” (p. 363)

Expressing anger is something that I still struggle with, but being able to write it out is a way of releasing it from my body, so that it does not remain to build up inside and do harm. Hence, thinking of these things, I wrote the above poem.

On my journey as a writer I have discovered that I love to play with words, to double up and twist their meanings. Thus, in this context, the word ‘furies’ refers not just to the many angers that women feel, but also to the Furies (called the Erinyes in Greek), who were ancient chthonic deities of vengeance in Greek mythology. They are often described as being frightening in appearance, sometimes old hags, with black bodies, wings, and snakes wreathing their heads. The wings (whether of bird or bat) and the snakes call to mind the imagery of the Great Goddess, so often associated with birds and serpents. And of course, their black bodies and connection with the underworld, brought to mind the Dark Feminine too. Thus, the Furies in this poem represent far more than just themselves.

So, I share ‘Furies’ here, as an expression of my anger—and there are far too many things to be angry about these days—but also as a transformation of that anger, into a written creation that I hope will inspire others. It is all right to feel anger, all right to have flashing eyes and bared teeth, when needed, and to invoke the power of the Furies. Wrongs need to be righted, and if we women can learn how to harness our anger, then together we can be part of the process of change.

* * *

Addendum: Just yesterday I came across this utterly brilliant post by Trista Hendren, ‘Re-stor(y)ing Sanity’, on The Girl God blog. It is about girls/women, the anaesthetisation of rage, and Medusa—another snake-wreathed female ‘monster’. I thought it such a beautiful synchronicity that I had to tell you about it. Do go and have a read.

William-Adolphe Bouguereau, The Remorse of Orestes or Orestes Pursued by the Furies (1862), detail
(Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

On a Winter’s Afternoon Came Kookaburra


The afternoon was alive with birds, but it was Kookaburra who claimed my attention. S/he sat quietly, looking and listening intently. I tried to do the same, and the leaves glowed and the clouds shone, and I was restored.



   

Thursday, 8 June 2017

Connection: Writing as Magic

I subtitled Offerings from the Wellspring, ‘A blog about creativity and connection in a living world’, for an important reason.

‘Creativity’ is self-explanatory. This space is both creative tool and outlet, where I can share my writing, my art, my attempts at living creatively.

As for ‘a living world’, of course, this world and everything in it is alive, sentient, capable of communication and relationship. My ideas in this area have been particularly influenced by David Abram’s extraordinary and mind-blowing books, which explore, academically and poetically, the concept of animism (in terms of language, perception and embodiedness). I try as much as I can, to think and act from this animistic perspective. Not very well, I freely admit, but perhaps that is a story for another day.

But it is the word ‘connection’ that I am led to explain further. I have mentioned it before, in a piece I wrote for Writers in the Mist last August, in which I said: 

The word ‘connection’ has three meanings in this context: (i) the interconnectedness of everything, and the necessity of forming relationships, not just with humans, but also with nonhumans and the earth (principles I try to keep in mind as much as I can); (ii) the connections and friendships that can potentially be formed by sharing my work with other bloggers and readers from all over the world; and, (iii) the connections that I love to find in my writing and other creative work, such as when a resonant concept in a nonfiction book I have just read pops up in a novel, giving me something to explore and write about; or when a series of separate ideas or events join together to form a story.

And of course these three meanings are … ahem … connected.


It has been important to remind myself of this because I’ve been doing a bit more writing lately, flooding pages in my notebook with words, when for several months the words had only been coming in drips and drops. As I began to enjoy the process once more—no matter the quality, or lack thereof, of what I was producing—I started to realise that what I have been missing and craving is connection.

I wrote a poem not long ago—which I am holding safely under my wing for the time being—and that poem emerged from many connections: a feeling, an intriguing word, a few sentences I had written down a year ago, word meanings, synonyms and etymology … words leading to other words … images accumulating … until the poem surfaced, whole. I am proud of it.

There is something about the creative process which thrives on, requires, connections. Perhaps that is all it is: finding connections, and expressing them. Words strung like pearls on a necklace, threads of imagery woven into larger pictures, thoughts catching hold of other thoughts. When ideas are coming thick and fast, and I find my way from nothing to something, I feel so very alive, so very wild, like I am dwelling within a magical—yet entirely natural—process that is unfolding because of my engagement and interactions with it. 

Then I think of this: ‘Modern sickness is that of disconnection, the ego unable to feel an organic part of the world, except via chemical and popular culture addictions.’ (1) Yet we are an organic part of the world, our bodies and souls made of the very same stuff, from stardust to birdsong. That we forget this, or are no longer able to perceive it, is one of the tragedies of modern life. We are disconnected, and made ill and unhappy because of it. 


I often think of this quote from Abram: ‘… we are human only in contact and conviviality, with what is not human’. (2)

Though we are human, and think in (usually very limited) human ways, we do not exist in a vacuum, surrounded only by what is human, only by our selves. It can be easy to think this sometimes, living as we do in square-walled human constructions, with human-made (thus unnatural) conveniences like electricity and running water; or living only in our heads, in a disembodied intellectual state which we have come to believe is normal. In these ways we are physically (and psychically) disconnected from the weather outside, from fresh air, from other creatures, and from the natural world as a whole, with its cycles and transformations. We’re also disconnected from our own bodies. Thus, life ends up feeling static and empty of meaning, and we turn to the ‘modern addictions’ to alleviate this, merely making the problem worse.

We can only define ourselves as human by differentiating ourselves from what is not human, what is not us. Everything that we perceive and experience—the wind whipping our hair about, the shape and solidity of a tree, the velvety ears of a dog or cat—serves to tell us what we are not, what our bodily boundaries are. I think this is part of what Abram meant in the above quote. Yet there is so much more to it, for ‘contact’ is connection, and ‘conviviality’ is friendliness, relationship. We can’t just define ourselves as human based on what is ‘other’, but must connect with those others, those nonhuman beings and landscapes. This implies a need for engagement, observation, interaction and, importantly, empathy. In doing this, we learn how to be human, how to exist as part of, not disconnected from, the more-than-human community; how to speak with and learn from nonhumans and the land, and hopefully, how to be better humans. 

This is why we need what is not human, for it is the nonhuman world that creates us, not to mention the fact that nonhumans are, literally, our kin, and meant to be our teachers. This knowledge should humble us. And this is why the extinction of every species, the destruction of every natural place, is so great a loss. As we diminish the diversity of the earth, we diminish the family of life and ourselves, lessening our chances of becoming fully human animals.


I should say that this idea of contact and conviviality applies to nonhumans as much as it does to us. A wild creature is not just the body that contains it, but the sum of all of its interactions with the world: with its habitat, with others of its kind, with predators or prey, with earth or treetop, water or sky. Divorced from that wild context, and say, put in a zoo, a wild creature ceases to be what it is. And tamed and held captive in our houses, perhaps we are the same. Disconnected. Hollow.

While we do have a physical boundary, that of our skin, which contains us as a discrete person, a certain shape in the world, and a personal mind or consciousness, at the same time I believe we can, and do, extend ourselves beyond this dividing line. This is part of what animistic perception is about: letting the rest of the world in, and projecting ourselves out into it, physically and psychically. With each inhalation we let air (Spirit) into our bodies, with its myriad scents carrying the essence of other beings—the perfume of violets, the scent of coming rain, the musty decay of autumn leaves. Sounds enter our ears and cause physical and emotional responses, whether it be a memory arising from hearing a favourite song, or a slammed door making us jump. We feel gloomy on an overcast day, or have a sense of expansiveness and freedom when standing at a high vantage point. I believe that even thoughts, ideas and dreams cannot be claimed as merely human phenomena, as they come from elsewhere, perhaps given to us by a place, a tree, a bird, a feeling which was engendered by something outside of us (and who’s to say that nonhumans don’t think and dream too?). What we see, hear, feel, smell, experience, walk through, play with, eat, and so on, gives rise to who and what we are.


It is often said that language is what separates humans from nonhumans, though this isn’t quite true. Language, that is, the ability to communicate, exists independent of words (and independent of humans too). Though there is something in the notion that human language, particularly the written word, is one of the key things that has severed our connection with the natural world; Abram deals with this idea throughout his book, The Spell of the Sensuous. Yet, though he believes that a return to oral culture is greatly needed (and a return to living in our sensuous bodies also), his conclusion is not that writing is bad. It is, in fact, its own very concentrated form of animism. He said in an interview:

Everything that we speak of as Western civilization we could speak of as alphabetic civilization. We are the culture of the alphabet, and the alphabet itself could be seen as a very potent form of magic. You know, we open up the newspaper in the morning and we focus our eyes on these little inert bits of ink on the page, and we immediately hear voices and we see visions and we experience conversations happening in other places and times. That is magic!

[…]

I'm not trying to demonize the alphabet at all. I don't think the alphabet is bad. What I'm trying to get people to realize is that it's a very intense form of magic. And that it therefore needs to be used responsibly. I mean, it's not by coincidence that the word "spell" has this double meaning — to arrange the letters in the right order to form a word, or to cast a magic. To spell a word, or to cast a magic spell. These two meanings were originally one and the same. In order to use this new technology, this new play of written shapes on the page, to learn to write and to read with the alphabet, was actually to learn a new form of magic, to exercise a new form of power in the world.

But it also meant casting a kind of spell on our own senses. Unless we recognize writing as a form of magic, then we will not take much care with it. It's only when we recognize how profoundly it has altered our experience of nature and the rest of the sensory world, how profoundly it has altered our senses, that we can begin to use writing responsibly because we see how potent and profound an effect it has. (3)

Writing is magic. I feel this is so, based on what it has done for me, bringing me from a nowhere/nothing place, back to life. It has helped me to heal, to find myself once more. Creativity itself is a spiritual practice, and therefore necessary and meaningful. Thus, in not writing for some time, really delving deep into my inner life, my wellspring, I began to feel disconnected, from myself as well as the world. Without writing, I wasn’t finding the connections that enliven me, that bring meaning. 


I’ve said before, I want to write myself back into relationship with the world, to let my imagination spill out of the boundaries of my own body, yet to write in a fully embodied way too. When I am unable to go out into the world, I can at least invite the world to come to me. I want to write for and from the earth, not just for and from myself, and this implies responsibility. And if everything is interconnected—and it is!—then the connections are already there, always there. It’s just a matter of opening up to them. This means that writing itself is about connection, about engagement with the world—intellectually, intuitively and sensuously—even though, paradoxically, the life of a writer may seem, from the outside, so very full of solitude and withdrawal. 

And so here I am at the end of a long and rambling essay, because I started writing, and connections found me, and wanted to be written. I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to say, or where I was going to end up, and perhaps this doesn’t make as much sense as it should, filled as it is with my sometimes vague philosophical musings. Yet this needed to be said, the connections forming on the page, and reminding me—writing is magic.

References:
1. Monica Sjöö & Barbara Mor, The Great Cosmic Mother: Rediscovering the Religion of the Earth, second edition, HarperOne: New York, 1987, 1991, p. 29
2. David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-than-Human World, Vintage: New York, 1996, p. ix
3. Scott London, ‘The Ecology of Magic: An Interview with David Abram’, http://www.scottlondon.com/interviews/abram.html

Thursday, 1 June 2017

Winter Warmth

The violets have been blooming again, and, as I did last spring, I’ve been drinking violet tea for its cleansing benefits, not just to help rid my body of a cold, but also as a way to mark the movement from one season to the next. Autumn has flown by much faster than I thought it would, ending with a blaze of leaves, and we’ve just crossed the threshold into the dark time of winter. 


The seasons sometimes take me by surprise. After all, the winter solstice is only three weeks away! As usual, I don’t feel ready. I’m always a little behind the seasonal cycles, though the deepest, coldest parts of winter tend to come well after the solstice, so I needn't worry too much. There is still a whole winter ahead, and I am very much looking forward to it. 

There is something about the cold weather which is invigorating, and I hope I will be able to get out into it more often, to walk, to take photos, to be swept clean by the wind. 

Due to the cold which has slowed me down over the last two weeks, I don’t have much to say today. Only that, despite my lack of writing over recent months, I have still been busy. My latest knitting project has been completed, just in time to provide me with the winter warmth I need.

In addition, I have begun writing more again, and next week I will share a rather long, rambling essay about connection. Meanwhile, there are other ideas a-brewing, which I hope will get turned into words one of these days. And as always, I have far too many books to read. All in all, things could be worse. I am counting my blessings.

Thursday, 25 May 2017

The Cauldron

Source: clipart-library.com
As I trudged along the empty road, through a grey landscape bare of features, I was pulled out of dull reverie by the smell of smoke in my nostrils. Peering ahead, I saw a crossroads, where choices lay—straight ahead, left, right, or back the way I had come. The thought of having to choose a direction wearied me. How would I know which way to go in such a dreary landscape as this? With no landmarks to guide the way, no beauty to lure me on. 

Then I saw it, an old gypsy wagon by the road, painted with red and green and gold, and a white horse grazing nearby. And mingled with the smoke of a campfire was the scent of something else, something savoury and enticing.
I realised that I was hungry, famished, starved to the bone.

As I approached the fire I saw it—a big black cauldron, curved belly full, almost to the brim, with something delicious. And sitting on a low wooden stool beside the fire, elbows resting on bony knees, wrinkled skin glowing in the flickering light, was an old woman.

‘I knew you’d come,’ she said, her voice husky, as if she’d not used it for a long time. She reached forward and began to stir the contents of the pot with a large wooden spoon, and gestured for me to sit down on a rug strewn on the ground.
‘Look at you! You’re skin and bones, my dear. You’ll never get to where you’re going without your strength.’

I wanted to tell her that I didn’t know where I was going, that the choice posed by the crossroads was one I didn’t know how to face, but in my hunger and anticipation, I remained silent. I stared at the cauldron, and my mouth began to water.

‘But,’ the woman uttered, a ludic glint in her eye, ‘you’ll have to wait. This here stew isn’t done yet, and I think you know it.’

I was puzzled at this, and frustrated. So much for the kindness of strangers. My belly growled in protest.  

‘This cauldron,’ the crone said, ‘all blackened from use and dented about the sides, this cauldron is your life. And the stew bubbling away inside, isn’t ready at all. If you tasted it now, you’d only be disappointed. Far too bland for your taste, it would be—and mine too. And I don’t want you thinking I am a terrible cook. Oh no! You’ll have to wait, because this stew needs to be boiled down, reduced, condensed, until all that is left is a strong, dark brew, so full of flavour it will knock your socks off. It needs to be simmered down to almost nothing, until you find that almost nothing is in fact everything; and it takes time and patience for that. Yes! What you’ll be left with will be so potent, so pungent, so exquisite in flavour, that you’ll never want for anything else.’

She stirred the pot once more, turning the spoon anticlockwise, as fragrant steam curled upwards, and grinned, her face rippling with a topography of time-worn lines.

‘You have come this far, through the empty land, and the vital ingredients are all cooking down as they should. It won’t be long now, and then you will be strong. You will know which way to go. Are you prepared to wait, my dear?’

‘Yes,’ I said.

(Developed from an idea I wrote down over three years ago, when I was just beginning my journey as a writer.)
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