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.

A Parliment of Owls: Native American Myths of the Southwest

calling_the_allies SSB

I spent 19 years exploring Southwestern deserts and the stories of the native peoples who live there. It didn’t take long to learn that certain stories are only told in the winter, when the world is at rest. Stories about owls fall into this category. Seeing as it’s snowing in Colorado, it seems as though this is the time to share a few of my favorites gathered during my desert years, which seem so far away they might have happened to another person entirely.
“There came a gray owl at sunset,
There came a gray owl at sunset,
Hooting softly around me,
He brought terror to my heart.”

                                                     — Pima Song

The Direction West 1994Terror poised on a tree branch, He swoops silently out of the shadows upon a victim unaware of his presence until, with a thudding impact, powerful talons crush its flesh. A curved beak flashes. A quivering end to one life brings sustenance to another.

Owl’s extraordinary nocturnal hunting abilities have inspired more fear, reverence and story-telling among Native Americans than almost any other figurative animal but Coyote. Nearly universal among tribal lore, owl tales reveal a sharp eye for ecological detail and a complex worldview embedded in the intricate weave of Native American storytelling.

Owl Wind 1992With fringelike leading-edge wing feathers that muffle the turbulent sound of wind rushing over wings common to other birds, owls descend in eerie silence upon their prey. And eyes with a retina equipped with an abundance of rod cells capture light for nighttime hunting. These capabilities are often linked to haunting Native Americans tales of death and ghosts.

Yet, owl myths also reveal complicated tribal worldviews in which traditional Western-society concepts of good and evil give way to ambiguous, contradictory and unpredictable forces of nature. Feathered ghost, protector of abused children, transformed monster, part witch, part keeper of souls — Father Owl assumes a baffling array of fierce, yet wisely just guises in tribal mythology. He’s often used as a spiritual foil to illustrate the value of reverence, obedience and right behavior — making him a favorite in the instructive world of children’s bedtime stories.

Young Owl 1994Parents receive instruction right along with children. For instance, in a tale belonging to the Tewa people, a disobedient boy sneaks out at night to watch his elders in the kiva. His father catches him, beats him with a stick and sends him into the darkness, where the boy cries and moans. Father Owl glides out of the night and lands before him, telling the boy to get on his back. Father Owl carries the child back to his nest filled with his own fledglings. “This is your new home,” says Father Owl. “I took you away from your mother and father because they were always scolding you.”

Ancestor 1987When the boy’s parents discover their son is missing, they regret beating him and begin searching for their lost child. After a time, seeing the parents nearly dead from despair, Father Owl lets the child return to his home on the high pueblo.

At first, the boy’s parents don’t recognize him — he has started growing feathers and his eyes are turning yellow like his owl brothers and sisters. Father Owl tells the parents that the boy must stay in a locked room for four days. After sunset on the fourth day, they may look in, but if they open the door before then, the boy will belong to the owls forever.

I Hear the Owl call my Name SSBBut eager to see her son, the mother can’t wait, and on the morning of the fourth day, she peeks into the room. That night, when the parents open the door, they find not their son, but a large owl flying from one corner to the other.

Overcome with sadness, the father says, “My poor boy, your mother was bad for looking too soon and now you are an owl.”

The owl nods.

“But if the enemy approaches or sickness is coming, you may come and warn the people,” the father says. And the owl, who was once a boy, flies off into the night.

So rather than simply concluding that children should always obey their parents, this story also illustrates why parents should not whip their children and explains why an owl’s call is often taken as a warning.

Ancient Ones 1991All Southwestern Native American tribes have similarly complex — usually foreboding — stories about Owl, who often serves as a specter to keep willful children in line. In “The Mountaintop Way,” a Navajo ceremonial tale, Owl Boy’s human mother abandons him because of his fearsome nature. Spurned and rejected, Owl Boy kills a member of his tribe when he attempts to return to his Navajo family. The narrator intones, “He went to them, but they were afraid of him: his big eyes, his long sharp fingernails, his voice that sounded like the wind playing a flute in a hollow tree.”

Most Native American tales also use this fierce, night-haunting predator to illustrate death, witchcraft and prophecy. The owl’s ghostly approach, keen vision and eerie nighttime habits prey on humankind’s fear of the dark and the unseen. Moreover, the owl’s strident, discordant vocabulary chills the soul and enhances its nocturnal image as a caller of death and singer of bad omens. The Apaches and Navajos believe that a hooting owl portends death and destruction. Historical records contain accounts of war parties or detachments of Apache scouts who would not fight if they heard owls nearby. To this day, a traditional Navajo will delay a journey if he sees an owl near his Hogan, and both Navajos and Apaches believe that if an owl calls your name, death is near. Similarly, Mojave, Tohono O’odham and Pima mythologies suggest that owls can hold the souls of the dead.

Owl Spirit 1981

Many cultures tell grim stories to account for Owl’s origins. For instance, one Navajo tale says that Owl is the child of one of the many monsters that once roamed the earth. In the Navajo creation story, Monster Slayer kills two winged giants called Tse’na’hale, which lived on Shiprock. After killing the adults, Monster Slayer transforms one of their bloodthirsty offspring into an eagle and the other into an owl to keep them from harming the Navajo people. Monster Slayer predicts the owl’s nature and its place in the Navajo realm saying, “In days to come men will listen to your voice to know what will be their future. Sometimes you will tell the truth and sometimes you will lie.” That note of ambiguity captures the complex, flexible and realistic role of the owl that animates many such tales.

Pathways 1988The oldest owl fossils in North America date back some 60 million years on the Colorado Plateau. Of the 133 species of owls found worldwide today, only 19 species live in North America. Southern Arizona, being the northernmost migratory range for several owls, hosts 13 species — more than any region in the United States or Canada.

Unlike most birds, the owl sees exceptionally well in dim light. Moreover, the owl’s disc-shaped face acts like a radar dish, catching faint sounds in a wide range of frequencies. The owl’s hearing is so acute, it often locates its prey in the dark undergrowth by sound alone — perching and hooting to panic mice and rabbits into betraying their position. Another oddity is the owl’s ability to swivel its head 270 degrees, which gives it wider range of motion to detect prey without moving and giving away its position. Add to these, the owl’s ability for ghostly flight, and you get a most successful predator. The owl’s flight is almost soundless thanks to the serrated edges of its leading feathers and the muffling effect of its downy upper surface feathers.

1989-DreamingTheOwlDream_SusanSeddonBouletNative Americans made adroit use of many of these remarkable qualities and often embedded such keenly observed details in their tales. For instance, the Hopis use owl feathers on their arrows to make the shafts fly silently and strike without warning. And Tohono O’odham medicine men, called “owl-meeters,” would discover where the enemy could be ambushed — relying on the owl’s uncanny powers of observation of the unseen. “Hoot owl medicine man, cut the arrow feathers of this my enemy,” the warriors would implore. “Gray owl medicine man, come with me! Yonder find my enemy and make him helpless!”

The Hopis also venerate the great horned owl, who is the protector of peach orchards, reflecting the owl’s skill in keeping rodent populations in check. The great horned owl also plays a prominent role as a Hopi katsina pantheon, but since it is a symbol of the dark, its feathers are not used on prayer sticks, which are offerings to the sun.

Through the Night Sky 1975

In the end, the picture of Owl that emerges from the fascinating wealth of tales remains as complicated, imaginative and mixed as the world itself. One of the most interesting and delightfully ambiguous tales is the Zuni story that explains how the world was divided into light and dark. In the Zuni tale — echoed by many other cultures — the birds and the beasts played a game to set the pattern of day and night. The birds played for day — for like human beings most birds are creatures of the daylight. However, the beasts played for night — the time when the mountain lion and other predatory mammals rule. However, among the beasts Squirrel took the side of the daylight-loving birds while Owl played with the night-loving beasts.

Midnight Sun 1984The game went on all night with each side trying to guess where the other had hidden a set of sacred sticks. As the sun came up, the birds had the most sticks and so won the sun’s daylight. Bear ran off for the cover of darkness and in his hurry put his moccasins on the wrong feet, which is the way his feet still are today. Mountain Lion’s fur was tinted golden with the sun, leaving only his mouth black to show his connection to the night.

Meanwhile, the children of the sun, War Twins, chastised Owl for playing with the beasts and said, “you have not stayed among the winged creatures. You have made a mistake. Therefore, you have lost the sun’s daylight.”

To this day, the owl prowls his dark domain, the soul of the night and keeper of secrets. But sometimes, if you listen closely, you may hear a warning in his haunted lament.

Keeper of the Mysteries 1985I am the owl.
I sit on the spruce tree.
My coat is gray.
I have big eyes.
My head has two points.
The white smoke from my tobacco can be seen
As I sit on the spruce tree.
The little rabbit comes into sight,
Nearby where I sit on the spruce tree.
I think soon my claws will get into its back,
As I sit on the spruce tree.
Now it is dawn, now it is dawn.
The old man owl’s head has two points.
He has big, yellowish eyes.
We see white smoke from his tobacco.
Ho, ho! Ho, ho! Ho, ho!”

— A Navajo song

 

Storyteller 1989

All of the featured art in this post was created by Susan Seddon-Boulet (1941-1997). Images: Calling the Allies (1982); The Direction West (1994); Owl Wind (1992);  Young Owl (1994);  Ancestor (1987); I Heard the Owl Call My Name (1982); Ancient Ones (1991); Owl Spirit (1981); Pathways (1988); Dreaming the Owl Dream (1989), Through the Night Sky (1975); Midnight Sun (1984); Keeper of the Mysteries (1985); and Storyteller (1989). All rights reserved by the artist’s estate. Archival prints and original art can be purchased at Turning Point Gallery.

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.

Fight or Flight: Words of Wisdom for Writers

lamott“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor,” writes Anne Lamott in her highly acclaimed book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (93). I first read this book more than 20 years ago in the only college writing class I’ve ever taken—and I hated everything she had to say. Lamott wrote about self-doubt, addiction, jealousy, hopelessness, and despair. None of these things applied to me. At the time it was published in 1995, Lamott was in her early 40s; I was in my mid-20s. I had just sold my first professional magazine story. Perfectionism was a tool I used to make my work shine. It wasn’t until my writing career plummeted and my personal life shattered that I returned to this book, seeking wisdom from a woman who has known self-doubt, addiction, jealousy, hopelessness, and despair.

Her words helped me rediscover my own voice during adversity and I returned to this book over the years passed. I’ve used it as a resource for teaching writing and I’ve also used it during times when I needed a push to continue with my own work. As a writer constantly searching for ways to improve my work, I’ve read numerous craft books on writing, but Lamott’s book is the only one I return to over and over again. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life offers practical wisdom for writers with an emphasis on some of the things that matter most: short assignments, shitty first drafts, and self-discovery.

cropped-gabriel-moreno-woman-bird-hybrid-art-pen-and-ink-illustration-beautiful-portrait

One of the most important things to take away from the advice in this book is on breaking your work down into short assignments. It is something my students have found useful as a tool and it is a technique I use frequently in my own writing. The title of Lamott’s book comes from an experience she observed while growing up. The memory she recounts is when her ten-year-old brother was panicked into inaction when he finally sat down to write a report on birds he’d put off for three months. It was due the next day. Their father, who also happened to be a writer, propelled him into motion. “…[He] put his arm around my brother’s shoulder,” she recalls, “and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird’” (Lamott  19). This common piece of wisdom can be elusive, especially when tackling large and/or complex projects.

Although I was able to write magazine articles in one sitting, I soon discovered that fiction needed a different approach, especially when written in the longer forms. The desire to know everything before sitting down to write can be crippling. My stalling techniques are similar to hers, so I followed what worked for her and discovered that it worked for me to. If the writing is going well, I will stay in my chair until a scene or a chapter is complete.

romantischer_spiegel_an10321aa_2_1012If things aren’t running smoothly, I use Lamott’s one-inch picture frame technique to focus in on just one thing: a paragraph detailing setting, a section of backstory, a character study. Lamott claims that an entire novel can be written one paragraph at a time by focusing on short assignments: “L. Doctorow once said that ‘writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.’ You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice about writing, or life, I have ever heard” (Lamott 18).

I agree. When I find myself floundering, wondering if being a writer was the worst possible decision I have made in my entire life, trying to decide what other choices I might have left in the life ahead of me, I take a breath—sit down and work on writing just one more sentence, just one more paragraph, just one more page. Those short assignments add up and inevitably I’m surprised when each story finally comes to an end.

birdwoman-nancy-woodThere is always a sense of relief and accomplishment when a story or a project is finally finished, but it doesn’t take long before you realize that the first draft is only the beginning. There is a different sort of panic that sets in when you realize everything you’ve just put on the page is a jumbled mess: giant plot holes, inconsistent characterization, generic settings, stilted dialogue, information dumps. “Very few writers really know what they are doing until they’ve done it,” Lamott sympathizes. “For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts” (22).

I struggle with this every single time I sit down. There is the urge to polish each sentence, to listen to the lyricism of the words, to create a beautiful paragraph. However, it’s difficult to make any progress if you attempt to edit as you write. “The bottom line is that if you want to write, you get to, but you probably won’t be able to get very far if you don’t start trying to get over your perfectionism,” Lamott writes. “Perfectionism…will only drive you mad” (31).

gabriel-moreno-illustration-bird-womanIt can be a difficult pursuit to move past the desire for perfection in order to put the story on the page in its raw and garbled state. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to discover the places where a story might have missed its mark or characters whose voices might never be heard if you don’t get the words on the page. When I find myself struggling, I remind myself that what I’m writing is a shitty first draft. It’s an act of forgiveness. The creative process is for the muse; it’s the time to wallow in emotion and discovery. The critic has her turn, but that comes later—much, much later.

Lamott says, “We write to expose the unexposed” (198). The only way to uncover these hidden truths is through the process of emotional exploration and self-discovery. As a writer who has experienced the fear of putting too much on the page, I can relate to Lamott’s assertions.

fireeaglespirit“If something inside you is real, we will probably find it interesting, and it will probably be universal. So you must risk placing real emotion at the center of your work. Write straight into the emotional center of things. Write toward vulnerability. Don’t worry about appearing sentimental. Worry about being unavailable; worry about being absent or fraudulent. Risk being unliked. Tell the truth as you understand it. If you’re a writer, you  have a moral obligation to do this. And it is a revolutionary act—truth is always  subversive” (Lamott 226).

But the fear remains. What if the emotional center we expose, the sentimental truths aren’t of interest to anyone else? I believe this fear is universal, that’s why writing is a risky business. Writing becomes flat and generic without passion. We need to shine a light in the dark places, expose the hidden truths. “The core, ethical concepts in which you most passionately believe are the language you are writing,” writes Lamott. “Telling these truths is your job (103).

There is a plethora of craft books to choose from and many focus on the fundamentals: plot, character, dialogue, setting, and so forth. However, it is the rare gem that looks at the other aspects of living a creative life. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life is one those gems. Lamott gives writers permission to take breaks, to “free yourself to begin filling up again” (178). She focuses on practice and progress through short assignments, she encourages forgiveness and exploration with shitty first drafts, and she inspires with the advice to expose the unexposed through self-discovery.  The more I’ve lived, the more Lamott’s “instructions” make sense. Above all, she reminds writers that we are our own worst critic. There is a time to let it go in order to move forward with craft and life. “…[T]here will always be more you could do, but you have to remind yourself that perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor” (Lamott 93).

Suggested Reading: Lamott, Anne. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. Anchor Books, 1994.

Illustrations: Bird by Gabriel Moreno, Bird Woman by Nancy Wood, Butterfly by Gabriel MorenoFire Eagle Spirit by Susan Seddon-Boulet. All Rights Reserved by the artists.