Legends & Myths: Immortality in a Butterfly’s Wing

Butterflies have always fascinated me, which is just one of the reasons I wrote this article for a regional magazine years ago. With “puddle parties” right around the corner, I decided to share this piece on the legends and myths found in the Southwest. Enjoy!

buttery_To Serve BrookeShadenOne bright summer day, the Creator sat under a tree watching a group of laughing children at play. A brown pup romped through a riot of wildflowers. The sun lit a bright blue sky dotted with wispy, white clouds. A songbird landed in the branches overhead, loosing a shower of pine needles.

The Creator watched the play of shadow and sunlight and fallen yellow leaves fluttering here and there in the late summer breeze and as he watched these things he grew sad.

“Soon these children will grow old,” he thought. “And that puppy will become a tired, mangy dog. And the flowers will die and snow will cover the land.”

The Creator became so sad at these thoughts that he vowed to preserve the afternoon for the months ahead. “All these colors should be caught forever,” he said to the songbird that watched him overhead. “I will make something to gladden my heart, something for these children to enjoy.”

He took out his magic bag and in it he put the black from a laughing girl’s hair, the brown of the pup’s floppy ears, the yellow of the fluttering leaves, a bit of blue sky and a touch of white from a cloud passing by. He added green from the pine tree and the orange, purple and red from the flowers all around. Overhead, the songbird sang her merry tune and with a smile, the Creator tossed a bit of her melody into the mix.

butterfly_Passage MarcoMazzoniBrimming with happiness, he walked to the children and offered them the bulging sack. The beautiful girl with black hair opened the magic bag and out flew thousands and thousands of butterflies in every color ever created. Enchanted, the girl said she had never seen anything so beautiful. The children agreed and the Creator was glad.

And the children danced with joy under the fluttering wings of these new, fanciful creatures. Then one, with wings the color of a summer sky, landed on the Creator’s head and began to sing a beautiful song. The other butterflies joined in and the children stopped to listen to the chirping melody.

The songbird flew down to perch on the Creator’s shoulder. “When you created the birds you gave us each our own song. Now you have passed mine around to these new playthings of yours,” she scolded. “Isn’t it enough that they have all of the colors of the rainbow?”

The Creator thought a moment and said, “You are right. I should not have taken what was yours.”

And he took away the song from the butterflies, which continued to dance over the children’s heads.

“The are beautiful even so,” the Creator said.

And that is why butterflies are silent today.

This delightful Papago version of the creation of butterflies is only one of a fluttering myriad of butterfly tales told throughout the Southwest and far beyond. The butterfly has symbolized the human soul since antiquity. The Russian name for these colorful creatures is babochka and the Ancient Greeks called them psyche – both words for the soul. The common name of the butterfly comes from the Anglo Saxon word buterfleoge for “butter” and “flying creature,” which linguists believe was the way of identifying Europe’s common yellow brimstone butterfly.

butterfly_the sound of flying souls, part 1BrookeShaden

Of course, butterflies actually flitted onto the scene long before people started making up myths to account for them. Butterflies emerged at least 38 million years ago with the earliest known fossil discovered in Colorado’s Green River Shale. Today, there are nearly 18,500 known species of butterflies ranging in size from Queen Alexandria’s Birdwing with a wingspan of 11 inches to the diminutive Western Pygmy, which spreads out to less than half an inch. Butterflies can be found on nearly every part of the globe with the exception of Antarctica and the world’s oceans. They grace flowery fields, meadows, hillsides, stream banks, forest glades, deserts and alpine tundra. They play a crucial role in the ecosystem as pollinators and in the human imagination as symbols of creativity, joy and rebirth.

Nearly 400 species of butterflies – more than half of the total number found in the entire North American continent live in Arizona. The Tohono O’odham, once known as the Papago, focused on the sheer beauty of these insects, as some 240 species flutter through their southern Arizona homeland. The southeastern portion of the state has biological links to the Sierra Madre range and the tropics in Mexico and its varied plantlife and climate account for the region’s diverse butterfly population.

The Yaqui, another southwestern desert tribe, believe that butterflies portend the coming of rain. When they spot approaching butterflies, the Yaqui sing a rain song and throw white corn kernels or dried leaves in the air.

butterfly_Funny how secrets travel Federico BebberWhite butterflies, they say,in a row are flying.

White butterflies, they say, in a row are flying.

White butterflies, they say, in a row are flying.

White butterflies, they say, in a row are flying.

Over there, I, where the flower-covered sun comes out,

they are emerging, all through the wilderness world,

in a row they are flying.

White butterflies, they say, in a row are flying.

As this song would suggest, the best time to search out butterflies in the Southwest is in the rainy season between the months of July in September, which is when the adults are breeding and laying their eggs. The highest concentration of species in Arizona reside in the southeastern portion of the state – specifically in Santa Cruz, Cochise and Pima counties. Chances of finding butterflies increases when two habitats overlap. Some of the best, easily accessible butterfly watching areas include Sabino Canyon in the Santa Catalina Mountains, Madera and Florida Canyons in the Santa Rita Mountains, and Ramsey and Garden Canyons in the diverse Huachuca Mountain range. Along with discovering them near their favorite flowers, butterflies might also be found congregating in “puddle parties,” depressed wet spots where the insects gather to replace vital trace elements.

But you don’t have to venture south — butterflies and their stories can be found throughout the Southwest. In eastern Arizona, the Chemehuevi, also known as the Southern Paiute, often represent insects in the designs of their highly prized baskets. The popular pattern of the butterfly shows up in these coiled baskets, which are woven out of such raw materials as willow, devil’s claw and juncus.

butterfly_A View from a Hole MarcoMazzoniLike many ancient Southwestern cultures, the Hopi often utilize the symbolism of butterflies. Prehistoric Hopi pottery shows this affinity as does the three Hopi kachina with butterfly origins — Poli Sio Hemis Kachina (Zuni Hemis Butterfly Kachina), Poli Taka (Butterfly Man) and Poli Mana (Butterfly Girl). However, the butterfly assumed a more menacing aspect to the Aztecs in Mexico. The goddess Itzpapálotl, or Obsidian Butterfly, was represented as a strong ferocious goddess with butterfly wings and big claws on her hands and feet. In Mexico, many people still believe that a black butterfly at the door portends an impending death.

Several Arizona-based cultures drew similar, disquieting morals from the butterflies fluttering, zigzag, seemingly demented flight. The Zuni sacred butterfly, lahacoma, is believed to make people crazy, especially young girls who will follow the yellow butterfly wherever it may lead. This belief is similar to the story of the Apache Bear Dance, in which butterflies entice girls from the underworld. The Tewa of Arizona also warn against the temptation represented by this colorful insect in “Transforming Bath: Butterfly Seducer” — a tale where a girl ignores her work to follow a beautiful butterfly up a mountain. Once at the top, the butterfly turns into a wicked boy who then tosses the girl down to her death.

The Navajo use the symbolism of butterflies to warn against vanity, temptation and foolishness. The Navajo story of “The Two Maidens and the White Butterfly” furthers the folly of butterflies. When the hero of the tale catches the wicked White Butterfly, he splits open the enemy’s head with an ax and thousands of butterflies escape from the mortal wound. The wise hero pulls one of the butterflies out of the air and insists that it tell the others they can no longer enter the brain of man. “You will be of little use to the people,” he says. “Only when they catch you and put pollen on their legs and arms and say – ‘May I run swiftly, may my days be long, may I be strong in arm.’” Even so, the Navajo consider the perishable dust of the butterflies’ wings a subtle warning on the fragility of beauty.

In the spring, the Apache sing the sorrowful song of the Flower Maiden, which also details the creation of the butterfly:

butterfly_Restlessness Federico BebberIn the first days of the people, many warriors sought the favor of the beautiful Flower Maiden. But of them all, she loved only two – Hidden Love and Iron Courage. They each contended for her love, but not even the Sky Father could help her make the choice. Then fate stepped in and both warriors were called to a great battle against invaders coming from the north. Flower Maiden bid them each good-bye with a heavy heart. Many months passed as she waited for her warriors to return, but when the war party rode back into camp, neither of her loved ones returned with the victorious.

Flower Maiden, who had lost any chance of happiness, took her tears and set out to find the bodies of the warriors she still loved even in death. She searched the hills and plains for years, sundered from herself in her grief.  When she could find neither of her beloved warriors, she pleaded with the Sky Father. “Please help me find their resting place,” she cried. “Please help me find their lost souls.”

“It was not my wish that your promised ones should die,” said the Sky Father. “But with them I also touched many others and in sorrow, I covered all of their bloodied bodies with soil and grass.”

The Flower Maiden lamented. “Then I shall never find them.”

Her sorrow grieved the Sky Father so, he ordered the ground to yield flowers in the colors and patterns of each fallen warrior’s shield to aid Flower Maiden in her lonely search. And when he realized she could not find the battlefield on which her beloved warriors had died in a single lifetime, he turned her into a beautiful butterfly so that each spring her spirit could wander among the flowers in search of her loved ones. And perhaps one day she will find them.

In the meantime, the Creator has given us the butterflies — ephemeral as the powdered memory of love lost, the black from a laughing girl’s hair, the yellow of falling leaves or the halcyon blue of a summer sky.

butterfly_the sound of flying souls, part 2 BrookeShaden

Images: To Serve by Brooke ShadenPassage by Marco Mazzoni, The Sound of Flying Souls, pt. 1 by Brooke Shaden, Funny How Secrets Travel by Federico Bebber, A View from a Hole by Marco Mazzoni, Restlessness by Federico Bebber, and The Sound of Flying Souls, pt. 2 by Brooke Shaden. All Rights Reserved by the artists.

 

 

Sex and Sensuality in “The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories”

Bluebeard biffnoI was first introduced to the work of Angela Carter in the late 1990s when I met Terri Windling in Tucson. The first Angela Carter collection I read was The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories and, since that time, I’ve gone through several copies of this slim volume. Although it is one of my all-time favorite books, it’s been a while since I’ve sat down to read it; and this is the first time where I’ve forced myself to focus on the stories as a writer instead of as a reader.

This is not an easy task. It’s too easy to slip into Carter’s lush prose, her quick wit, her decisive flair. However, as I slowed down and took a closer look this collection of short stories, I noticed that not only has her rich prose influenced my own writing style, but there are also themes she visits that are close to the ones I tend to revisit in my own work. Unlike me, Carter has no fear in peeling back layer after layer. I tend to stay closer to the surface of things, which often hinders me. This reading turned me inwards; the stories became both a revelation and a reflection of the details drawn too finely or not at all, techniques I need to concentrate on as I continue the pursuit of an independent voice and style.

Bluebeard Gustav DoreThe titular story, “The Bloody Chamber,” has always been my favorite in the collection: the way Carter uses the masculine scents of tobacco and leather; the unveiling of the bride as though she was an artichoke voluptuously stripped of its leaves; and the “a choker of rubies, two inches wide, like an extraordinarily precious slit throat.” Perhaps it’s due to my own escape from domestic violence, twice, that draws me to this particular tale, but whatever the reason, the image of the bride and the beast is among my favorite themes. When I’ve attempted my own versions of this story, I’ve always felt that I’ve fallen flat, that I could never approach Carter’s brilliance in the unveiling of this theme. It wasn’t until I reread the story as a writer that I discovered a beat that I’ve danced around—the “sheer carnal avarice” Carter flirts with throughout.

Bluebeards last wife hogretAs the story continues, Carter emphasizes this sexual extravagance at every opportunity: the “great pistons ceaselessly thrusting the train;” the “amniotic salinity of the ocean” surrounding the Marquis’ palace; the heavy, hooded white lilies that “stain you.” The thing that has always bothered me about this story becomes evident when read from this alternate point-of-view. The protagonist stays passive. She never evolves to a point where she even attempts to defend herself. Instead, it is the girl’s mother who charges to the rescue. The wild-eyed mother with her revolver is the true heroine of this story. She is the heroine I want to write.

Beauty and the Beast Toshiaki KatoThe presence of carnal sensuality and raw feminine power continues as a common thread through the rest of the collection’s stories. In “The Courtship of Mr. Lyon,” a twist on “Beauty and the Beast,” the reader is tantalized in the opening with a road “white and unmarked as a spilled bolt of bridal satin” before moving on to experience the gentleness of the beast’s kiss and “the stiff bristles of his muzzle grazing her skin.” Things take a darker turn in “The Tiger’s Bride” when the protagonist, who was lost by her father in a card game to a tiger posing as a man, gives up her humanity to embrace the beast within herself: “each stroke of his tongue ripped off skin after successive skin, all the skins of a life in the world, and left behind a nascent patina of shining hairs.”

The Bloody Chamber Bluebeard Arthur RackhamAlthough I can write about violence, I have difficulty with raw sexuality. By revisiting Carter’s collection, I have been able to see ways in which I can heighten sensory description in seemingly unrelated scenes, which then create a build-up to the carnality I’d like to add to my own collection of work. Carter flirts with dangerous themes. She dares us to dance with the Erl-King, to contemplate the meaning of love in Nosferatu’s mansion, to howl at the full moon. And what other purpose is there to writing, if not as using it as a means to shed light in the darkness?

Over the years, I’ve learned that everyone has “a story,” a few people have a few stories, and yet others carry a multitude within them. Carter carried the multitude. She wrote as many of these as she could and, by doing so, gave her readers the opportunity to recognize themselves in her words. I hope to follow her example.

LIttle Red Riding Hood Arthur RackhamI know “the carnivore incarnate.” I’ve lived with the wolf that “cannot listen to reason.” I’ve known more than one man with “a wolf’s heart.” And I think Carter did too. I think she knew the wolves intimately. But, instead of letting the company of wolves devour her, she picked up a pen and wielded it like a knife. “Since her fear did her no good, she ceased to be afraid.”  And with that, Carter let the forest close “upon her like a pair of jaws.” I like this image. I think it’s time to let the forest close upon me as well. I think it’s time to delve deep into my fears and hopes, to put them on the page. Who knows? Perhaps I will be like Carter, laughing at the threats that once faced me. Perhaps, like Carter, I too will realize I’m “nobody’s meat.”

The Bloody Chamber Cover2Work Cited

Carter, Angela. The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories. 1979. Penguin Books, 1993.

Images: “Bluebeard” by biffno, “Bluebeard” by Gustav Dore, “Bluebeard’s Last Wife” by hogret, “Beauty and the Beast” by Toshiaki Kato, “Bluebeard” by Arthur Rackham, and “Little Red Riding Hood” by Arthur Rackham.

 

Disenchanted: Contemporary Issues Revealed with a Fairy Tale Twist

A Wild Swan_Little Man_Zohar Lazar_The New YorkerIn the fall of 2015, I happened across the short story “Little Man” by Michael Cunningham in The New Yorker.  As a collector of fairy tales, both old and new, I immediately recognized this strange and surprisingly modern twist on “Rumpelstiltskin.” Cunningham revisited this and several other well-known fairy tales in his collection A Wild Swan and Other Tales. With the popular surge in fairy tale retellings, I have often wondered why Cunningham’s take achieved publication in such a prestigious magazine. A close, in-depth reading of his collection revealed elements I seldom see in popular fairy tale renditions. Cunningham utilizes a variety of clever techniques in his stories, but the ones I was most drawn to the most as a writer were his use of sarcastic commentary on modern issues and the juxtaposition of classic fairy tales with contemporary parables.

Of all the stories in the collection, “Jacked”—a contemporary take on “Jack and the Beanstalk”—was the one that captured my interest the most as a deft and detailed commentary on the single parent, only child plight so prevalent among middle-class Americans. Cunningham creates a solid foundation with Jack’s character in the opening lines: “This is not a smart boy we’re talking about. This is not a kid who can be trusted to remember to take his mother to her chemo appointment, or to close the windows when it rains” (23). Forgetting a chemo appointment is a long cry from forgetting to close the windows on a rainy afternoon, yet it perfectly captures the entitled privilege we’ve come to expect from today’s youth.

Cunningham stays faithful to the original plot in “Jack and the Beanstalk,” but then modernizes it with a series of witticisms of a sarcastic nature: “The mist-girl tells Jack that everything the giant owns belongs rightfully to him. Jack, however, being Jack, had assumed already that everything the giant owns—everything everybody owns—rightfully belongs to him” (26). Personally, I’ve never been particularly fond of “Jack and the Beanstalk.” And, after reading the story, I was left with the feeling that Cunningham wasn’t in love with the original fairy tale either, which is why he pushes the unlikeable character to even further extremes. A “shockingly expensive haircut” and “200-dollar-jeans” can’t hide Jack’s self-entitled nature as a petty criminal. Cunningham makes the story relevant. He makes it his.

A Wild Swan Yuko Shimizu

All of the stories in A Wild Swan and Other Tales have roots in classic fairy tales with the exception of “A Monkey’s Paw,” which reimagines the supernatural short story “The Monkey’s Paw” written by W. W. Jacobs in 1902, and the opening and ending stories, which offer broad commentary on people at large. I especially loved Cunningham’s snarky wit in the opening pages of “Dis. Enchant.”: “Vengeful entities seek only to devastate the rarest, the ones who have somehow been granted not only bower and trumpet but comeliness that startles the birds in the trees, coupled with grace, generosity, and charm so effortless as to seem like ordinary human qualities. Who wouldn’t want to fuck these people up?” (3). Cunningham continues his observation of human foibles, allowing the reader the opportunity to connect with an array of fairy tale characters. He offers the opportunity to fantasize and to relate to even the most mundane and petty complaints.

A WIld Swan Yuko Shimizu illustrationThe evil stepmother in “A Wild Swan” is given sympathy after she turns her 12 stepsons into swans and commands them to fly away: “Do we blame her? Do we, really?” (5). The witch from “Hansel and Gretel,” finds her voice in “Crazy Old Lady”: “Were you relieved, maybe just a little, when they lifted you up (you weighed almost nothing by then) and shoved you in to the oven?” (20). In addition to identity, Cunningham plays with sexual themes; Rapunzel keeps her shorn hair so her blinded prince can make love to the piece of her that was lost in “Her Hair,” a boy marries the first girl who doesn’t treat him differently just because he has a prosthetic leg in “Steadfast; Tin,” and a girl agrees to play dead for exactly twelve minutes so her Prince Charming can play out his necrophiliac obsession in “Poisoned.”

Cunningham creates a cast of characters that we know intimately: the people who were only partly cured of their curses gathering in bars, the aging women with no families who become easy targets in their old age, the couple who plays out kinky sex fantasies behind closed doors, the single men who would give anything to have a child without the entanglements of a partner, the couple who finds their love renewed after tasting separation, the girls who wonder if their only choices for a companion are the asshole and the fool, and the men who prefer to forget their losses at the cost of the ones they love. These characters are fragments of ourselves and others, fragments many of us prefer not to face.

A Wild Swan_Beasts_Yuko Shimizu

As I pondered Cunningham’s treatment of old material in a new light, I realized that I tend to shy away from the very thing he embraces. There are opportunities there, but they can only be broached if I am willing to write from the hard places. Cunningham uses sarcasm to separate himself from his material. He allows the reader to make the obvious connections and then to bear the burden of the revelations mirrored from familiar tales retold in a contemporary setting. I think it’s a fine line to walk, but I also think that this is why Cunningham’s work rises above the multitude of other fairy tale retellings flooding the market. As a writer drawn to similar subject material, I am of the belief that fairy tale retellings work because there is such a breadth of material available to mine. However, I’ve also learned that it isn’t just the more obscure tales that need to be told; it’s the true tales. It’s up to the writers to find new ways to reflect the deepest, darkest parts of themselves through the comforts of the familiar.

 

A Wild Swan CoverWork Cited

Cunningham, Michael. A Wild Swan and Other Tales. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015.

Images: “Little Man” by Zohar Lazar, The New Yorker; “A Wild Swan,” “Poisoned,” and “Beasts” by Yuko Shimizu. All rights retained by the artists.

The Beauty of Bavarian Oral Traditions: Schönwerth’s Collected Fairy Tales

Schönwerth4Although Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm are well-known for their work in collecting fairy tales, they were not alone in their interests. Inspired by the Grimm’s Deutsche Mythologie  (German Mythology), Franz Xaver von Schönwerth, a high-level civil servant, began gathering oral folklore in the mid-1850s from people living in the Upper Palatinate region of Bavaria, Germany. However, his compendium of more than 500 tales was locked away and forgotten until the archive was rediscovered and brought to light by Erika Eichenseer in 2012. This new material created a literary sensation that swept across Germany and inflamed the curiosity of fairy tale lovers worldwide, but it wasn’t until The Turnip Princess and Other Newly Discovered Fairy Tales was translated by Maria Tatar that the material became available for English speakers to mine.  And what promising material it is.

“Schönwerth’s tales have a compositional fierceness and energy rarely seen in stories gathered by the Brothers Grimm or Charles Perrault, collectors who gave us relatively tame versions of ‘Little Red Riding Hood,’ ‘Snow White,’ ‘Cinderella,’ and ‘Rapunzel,’” writes Tater (xii-xiii).  “Schönwerth gives us a harsher dose of reality. Not one to dress up a tale with literary flourishes or to make it more child friendly, Schönwerth kept the raw energy of the tales, resisting the temptation to motivate surreal plot twists or to smooth out inconsistencies.”

Schönwerth5

While reading the stories in this collection, I was immediately struck by the inclusion of  such familiar symbols as iron shoes, magic rings, and animal helpers. The difficulty came in separating the familiar from the unfamiliar, in search of new ways to approach the literary refinement of oral traditions faithfully transcribed by a civil servant more than 150 years ago. The rambling structures, inconsistent logic, and odd embellishments made me appreciate just how much work the Brothers Grimm had invested in their own canon, which they had extensively revised for popular consumption. These tales have taken on the allure of timelessness, which is one of the reasons fairy tale writers continue to shape them into new forms. Mining original material from Schönwerth’s collection that is suited for modern retellings turned out to be a more difficult task.

When tackling Schönwerth’s material, my first inclination was to favor tales that have similarities to ones that have already been established in the contemporary fairy tale tradition: “The Iron Shoes,” a variation of the lost husband stories such as “East o’ the Sun, West o’ the Moon” and “Thumbnickel,” whose hero brings to mind “Tom Thumb” and “Thumbelina.”

Schönwerth1But, in truth, the stories I was most drawn to featured unusual takes on transformation tales. For instance, the Kafkaesque “Prince Dung Beetle” follows a cruel young man who is turned into a beetle for his sins. Another example is the rambling and discordant “The Snake Sister,” where “redemption is born from pain and suffering” (230).

One of the more curious things about the tales published in this book is that they predominantly feature men instead women. Of the 72 stories collected, only about a fourth of them feature female protagonists.  Oddly enough, this doesn’t mean that primary (or secondary) female characters are lacking in heroism. For instance, in “The Red Silk Ribbon” the fisherman’s son is the one who must be saved by the princess who married him. The antagonist, a mermaid who seeks to entrap him, transforms her rival into a dragon by throwing blue sand in her face. It takes three attempts at being roasted in kilns before the last of the dragon’s skins are split and discarded, leaving the princess once again in her human form.

Schönwerth3Throughout these wonder tales are the “transformations that break down the divide between life and death, nature and culture, animal and human, or beauty and monstrosity” (xvii). Schönwerth’s dedication to the documentation of the oral traditions of his beloved Bavaria is evident in these stories’ raw energy, surreal twists, and unvarnished narratives. “Fairy tales are always more interesting when something is added to them,” Maria Tatar writes. “Each new telling recharges the narrative, making it crackle and hiss with cultural energy” (xvii).

And Schönwerth’s collection offers the prime opportunity to do just that. These tales are vibrant and fragmented and untouched, ready to take on the literary fingerprints of writers seeking fresh material to work with. “Schönwerth’s collection reveals just how comfortably the tales inhabit a world that values spontaneity, improvisation, rough edges, and lack of closure” (xvii). In effect, this discovery and the distribution of these tales is a boon to fairy tale writers looking for fairy tale silver to turn into literary gold.

Work Cited

Schönwerth, Franz Xaver von. The Turnip Princess and Other Newly Discovered Fairy Tales.  Edited by Erika Eichenseer, translated by Maria Tatar, Penguin Books, 2015.

New Beginnings

dites-le-avec-des-mots-by-catherine-chaulouxI suffer from acute procrastination, especially when times are tough. And times have been extremely tough the last few months. Seeing as it’s the first of March and there are no terrible deadlines hovering, I decided it was time to break the silence.

Blog posts are the most enjoyable during the research phases or as a way of reliving a fabulous event. I attended the World Fantasy Convention at the end of October and rode that high for nearly a week before the bottom fell out of my personal life. All of the wonderful words, the excitement, and the momentum gained from this wonderful experience disappeared when I was faced with a dramatic turn of events in my home life.

I don’t want to go into details, but someone close to me made a decision that sent me spiraling and unable to function more than at the basic level. My home, which had been my sanctuary and writing retreat, went up on the market in November and I was faced with the problems of figuring out how to survive on my own while finishing my MFA in creative writing at Stonecoast over the next 18 months. Luckily, I was greeted with love and support by family and friends both home and abroad. I knew the transition was going to still be hard, but it was eased with the knowledge that I would not have to go through these challenges alone.

la-dame-au-dragon-by-cathering-chaulouxA few weeks after this rupture in my home life, I went forward with a scheduled knee surgery to address chronic pain and mobility issues caused by my bicycle accident in June. The surgery was supposed to be a breeze, but it turned out to be more complicated than expected. (Go figure.) Boxing up all of my belongings and being faced with the prospect of moving when I couldn’t even walk put me in an even deeper despair that continued through most of December.

On a high note, I took a 10 day trip to Hawaii at the beginning of December. The whole thing had been arranged by my girlfriend’s husband without her knowledge. It was a wonderful surprise and it came at the perfect time. Her love and kindness helped to ease my physical and emotional pain. There is something to be said about stepping away from a negative environment, even if it’s just to take a breath. I wish I could say that my trip to the Paradise of the Pacific healed me–I even considered staying–but I had to return and face the turmoil waiting for me at home.

les-apprentis-by-catherine-chauloux

le-verre-a-moitie-vide-ou-a-moitie-plein-by-cathering-chaulouxThings started to look brighter in January. I went to Ireland for 10 days for my second residency at Stonecoast. A few of my classmates and I toured Dublin for three days before taking the train to Howth for a truly remarkable workshop experience. That trip could have (and should have) fueled the fire for half a dozen blog posts. Perhaps, in the coming days, I will return to that time and share some of the details. For now, it’s enough to say that it was a life-changing experience that ended with the thrilling announcement that Elizabeth Hand would be my second semester mentor. I was, and still am, over the moon.

A week after returning from Ireland, the house closed and I had my share of the proceeds in a bank account. Suddenly, I had unbridled freedom and a bit of cash in hand. On a whim, I attended AWP and met up with a few friends. Things started looking up. February was filled with writing my residency response, unpacking and getting (somewhat) settled, attending therapy sessions, preparing and submitting homework packets, and the decidedly uncomfortable process of down-sizing. I also went forward with what I hope will be the last surgery connected to the June ordeal and I am currently in my second week of recovery.

So now, it time to get back to business. As I enter March, I can take a deep breath and count my blessings. Are things perfect? Not yet. But I feel as though I am moving forward more days than not and I am slowly moving into a more positive and productive space. And, I can’t ask for more than that.

de-a-a-z-tout-sur-les-oiseaux-catherine-chauloux

Images: Dites le avec des mots (Say it with words); La Dame au dragon (The Lady with the Dragon); Le verre à moitié vide ou à moitié plein !i (The half-empty or half-full glass!); De A à Z, tout sur les oiseaux (From A to Z, all about birds). All rights retained by Catherine Chauloux. To see more of her work, check out the artist’s online gallery.

Looking into the Self with The English Magic Tarot

english-magic-tarotA couple of years ago, a vibrant rendering of The Magician showed up in my Facebook feed. I was immediately smitten. This was not The Magician I was familiar with, but he hinted at a wild power I was eager to explore. It didn’t take long before I tracked down the source and then became an avid fan of what eventually became The English Magic Tarot.

150px-rws_tarot_01_magicianFor more than a decade I had used a Rider-Waite tarot deck, which depicts The Magician as a static character with all of the elements at his disposal. He holds a wand upright and is crowned with the symbol of eternity. Roses and lilies crowd the foreground and a table is laid out with symbols of the minor arcana—swords, staves, coins, and cups. This particular card is one that frequently would show in my readings and it was a familiar sight.

the-magicianThis new depiction of The Magician drawn by artist Rex Van Ryn took my breath away. As the color was added, the card became even more stunning. This magician was not the tamed red-robed mountebank I knew so well. This English magus wields a wild magic. The symbols of the minor arcana are all still present, but they are his feet. This magician can work his spells without the sleight of hand. He transcends the mundane and has opened a portal to a fey world full of tempestuous beauty. This magician needs no wand to work his spells. He is skilled in his craft and he’s not afraid to use his craft.

tarot1I connected with Rex through social media and avidly followed his progress as he worked his way through the deck. My Rider-Waite deck was retired after the lifelong friend who’d originally given them to me betrayed our relationship. She had nearly as much energy in that deck as I did and it was time for me to separate myself from the past. Although The English Magic Tarot deck also utilizes the blues, reds, greens, and yellows that are so prominent in the Rider-Waite deck, these images contain darker hues that evoke the English countryside. I loved every single card that he shared and I waited for the deck to become complete. I knew from the beginning that this was a deck I wanted to get my hands on.

In addition to Rex Van Ryn’s work composing these new images, The English Magic Tarot project also drew on the talents of colorist Steve Dooley and author Andy Letcher. It was released by Weiser Books in October 2016. The wait was over.

“This captivating new tarot deck draws us into the vibrant but often hidden world of English magic, evoking a golden age of mysticism, a time when John Dee was Queen Elizabeth’s Court Astrologer, antiquarian John Aubrey rediscovered ancient sacred sites, and the great physicist Isaac Newton studied alchemy.”

When my new deck arrived, I spent some time getting acquainted with the cards and then decided to get down to business. The traditional spreads I had used in the past didn’t feel quite right, so I followed a layout described in The English Magic Tarot book—The Prism Spread, “named after Isaac Newton, and his discovery that light could be split into its constituent parts with a prism of glass.” The results were enlightening indeed.

tarot-3The cards revealed that I was in the middle of a full-blown identity crisis (Page of Coins, reversed) and that I felt isolated and trapped in a place of pain and sorrow (Queen of Swords). My creativity had been stifled (Three of Wands, reversed) and I was hoping for a return to good times and abundance, even if it was just for a short time (Nine of Coins, reversed). In the greater context, the cards showed that I was a sensual and creative person, but that my powers had been blocked (the Empress, reversed). I needed to put my emotions aside in order to make room for new ideas and intellectual insight (Ace of Swords). People around me realized my difficulty in controlling my intense emotional strife (Knight of Cups). The challenge was in accepting the fact that things were not going the way I had hoped, but that I still had the potential to eventually succeed (Six of Wands, reversed). However, with perseverance, I will eventually reach my goals and the rewards of material wealth (Seven of Coins).

Those of you who know me will see the uncanny truth unveiled in this reading. I have, indeed, been questioning my creative calling and have been dwelling on my lack of self-worth. My bicycle accident in June left me broken in body and spirit, which has put me in a place where I feel terribly isolated and desperate for the return of health and happiness. The concussion I received from the head trauma has created problems with cognition and has effectively blocked my creativity. This has left me struggling with volatile emotional swings and the depths of despair. I know that I need to accept the limitations placed on my mobility and intellect. Eventually, I will heal. I just have to be patient. It’s incredibly difficult, but I am slowly making gains and each day I’m able to accomplish a little bit more.me

My reading with The English Magic Tarot has reminded me that there is always a silver lining. You just need to know where to look. Magical, indeed.

Note: Rex Van Ryn gave me permission to include images of the deck and my reading for the purposes of this blog. All Rights Reserved by the artists.

 

On the Wing: A Natural History of Grief

h_is_for_hawk_cover450I began reading Helen Macdonald’s heartfelt memoir, H Is for Hawk in early June. Based on the author’s family history and intertwined with reflections on T.H. White and the history of falconry, Macdonald’s book won the Samuel Johnson Prize and the Costa Book of the Year Award in 2014. Her compelling take on “the archaeology of grief” and her decision to train a goshawk as a form of solace and redemption transform the concept of a memoir into something more than words on a page. It unfolds as a study on ways to move through the landscape of time and space.

“We are very bad at scale,” writes Macdonald. “The things that live in the soil are too small to care about; climate change too large to imagine. We are bad at time, too. We cannot remember what lived here before we did; we cannot love what is not. Nor can we imagine what will be different when we are dead. We live out our three score and ten, and tie our knots and lines only to ourselves. We take solace in pictures, and we wipe the hills of history.”

green-voices“It struck me then that perhaps the bareness and wrongness of the world was an illusion;” she continues, “that things might still be real, and right, and beautiful, even if I could not see them – that if I stood in the right place, and was lucky, this might somehow be revealed to me.”

In the past, I’ve written numerous articles blending fact and fiction in essays linking nature and myth. Macdonald takes this one step further with first-person accounts reflecting on concepts of loss and the experience of communing with nature as she trains a goshawk she names Mabel. As part of the process, Macdonald folds the narrative into shared experiences with T.H. White: “The lines between the man and landscape blur,” writes Macdonald. “When White writes of his love for the countryside, at heart he is writing about a hope that he might be able to love himself.”

night-hawk“Like White I wanted to cut loose from the world,” she continues, “and I shared, too, his desire to escape to the wild, a desire that can rip away all human softness and leave you stranded in a world of savage, courteous despair.”

This was something I could relate to. But her grief at the loss of her father was foreign to me. It wasn’t until I was in a traumatic bicycle accident a few days later that I began to connect with the rawness of her sorrow.

“Here’s a word. Bereavement. Or, Bereaved. Bereft,” Macdonald writes. “It’s from the Old English bereafian, meaning ‘to deprive of, take away, seize, rob.’ Robbed. Seized. It happens to everyone. But you feel it alone. Shocking loss isn’t to be shared, no matter how hard you try.”

I did not lose a member of my family or one of my friends. I lost myself. And I had no way to grapple with the devastation wreaked upon my body and soul until I once again picked up H Is for Hawk. This time, the text took on a new meaning.

hawk1My accident occurred when I was about halfway through the book, just as I had started Chapter 13, “Alice, Falling.” It seemed appropriate. “And me? I do not know,” Macdonald writes. “I feel hollow and unhoused, an airy, empty wasps’ nest, a thing made of chewed paper after the frosts have murdered the life within.” The author’s grief mirrored my own.

“The archaeology of grief is not ordered,” reflects Macdonald. “It is more like earth under a spade, turning up things you had forgotten. Surprising things come to light: not simply memories, but states of mind, emotions, older ways of seeing the world.”

And this proved true. Like Macdonald, I worked through the loss of who I had been. It was a slow process, one that still presents challenges as I continue the transformation. There are times when I want to run away, times I am overwhelmed with the desire to escape the realities presented by loss, but these impulses are coming further and further apart. And one day, I hope to find resolution in the way I see myself and the world I live in.horus-spirit-of-the-hawk

“There is a time in life when you expect the world to be always full of new things. And then comes a day when you realise that is not how it will be at all,” Macdonald writes. “You see that life will become a thing made of holes. Absences. Losses. Things that were there and are no longer. And you realise, too, that you have to grow around and between the gaps, though you can put your hand out to where things were and feel that tense, shining dullness of the space where the memories are.”

And that’s what it’s all about, growth through loss—“a reckoning…of all the lives we have lost (Macdonald)”—and the lives we have yet to discover.

mabel

Artwork: Green Voices, Night Hawk, and Horus-Spirit of the Hawk by Susan Seddon-Boulet. All Rights Reserved by the artist.