Sometime ago, I was tagged to answer What are your 10 Top Influential Books? Now that’s a serious list and I needed time to mull it over. The moment came last night when I was in bed with insomnia, tossing and turning and trying to quiet my mind. I didn’t succeed in quieting it down but I did feel the glow of satisfaction in coming up with 10 books and authors I cannot live without. Here they are, mostly in order.
- Beloved by Toni Morrison. I read this book three times before I finally understood anything in it. And what I did comprehend changed my life. And it keeps changing my life. Paradise by Morrison is another that does the same.
- The Story Girl by L.M. Montgomery. This was the first novel I read (age 11) where the gift of storytelling was viewed as life’s highest honor. Its set among children on a family farm and is still my favorite escape read.
- Violence by James Gilligan. I read this when I had a semester abroad at Oregon Extension many years ago. I reread it this year when I was full of grief and anguish over the shooting of Mike Brown in Ferguson, and all the others who fall to police violence that we sometimes hear about and sometimes do not. This book aided me in understanding the rampant violence in our society and how our justice system fails to truly address or prevent violence. Violence is our national tragedy and the legacy we must address and heal.
- Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton. This is a favorite book for so many reasons. Wharton’s critical gaze never flinches or falls aside. While she was a product of her time (unfortunately), she was also a sharp critic, superb writer, and craftsman. Her prose is some of the best—like drinking a biting cool drink in a crystal glass.
- Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. This is a hard one to admit. I tried to reread the Little House a few years ago and was floored by the strong libertarian tones and blatant insanity of Pa. Uh, illegally dragging your family full of little children into another nation’s land so you can bag better game? Your whole family nearly dying from malaria and no one noticing because you’re all alone (in a land you have no right to) and it’s better that way? Wrong, Pa. So wrong. But anyway, I read these books obsessively as a kid and I will say, they’re all about women getting through bad times and being tough. Every girl needs to read about other women surviving bad situations. I learned about survival early on, thanks to Wilder.
- Agatha Christie. The Murder of Roger Ackyrod was the first mystery I ever read (I was 12). And I’ve been obsessed with Christie ever since. I still read her for pleasure but I love to take her plots and paragraphs apart. No one has a character to leave a room and a new one enter as smoothly as Christie. The reader never notices it happening. Christie’s a workhorse and a cunning master.
- Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich. Her novel opened up a whole new way of writing and viewing the world. People can be terrifying and awful but still be magical. Love Medicine haunts me.
- Middlemarch by George Eliot. Eliot’s love for her creation spills out in every sentence of this book. I read her for courage and compassion.
- The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. Another writer I struggle with as an adult. But every time I write a new story, I can hear Lucy stepping into the wardrobe, brushing past the fur coats, and into a new world. Much of my desire to tell magical stories comes from him.
- Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. In a fit of thirteen year old boredom, I opened my mother’s lime-green college copy of P&P. I burst out laughing when Mr. Bennett wryly and verbally tangoed with his wife. And that was just the first page. I couldn’t stop reading and I’ve been laughing and taking notes from Austen ever since.
The equinox occurred last night at 11:29 (CST). This was when the sun shone directly over the equator. After last night, the days for the northern hemisphere will shorten and the beautiful balance of equal days and night will tip over the edge towards darkness.
The autumnal equinox is also known as the Second Harvest (where everyone takes a break from the first harvest rush before pressing on) and more recently, Mabon (a Wiccan name and a male figure from Welsh mythology).
I’ve been considering how to observe this equinox. I’ve been poring over magazines, hunting for images and phrases that speak of the coming winter and darkness, a time of the year I take great solace in. Woodcuts from fairytales leap out, as do leafless trees twining over paths. At some point this week, I’ll make a collage but I wanted to do a small observance for the day and prepare myself for how the light will be changing.
In the end, my observance was born from observing changes. Yesterday was the first day I wrote a to-do list and didn’t feel ashamed or frustrated I didn’t get it all done. Yesterday was the first day that I wrote and thought hard and then let myself rest with a walk and a short nap. Yesterday was the first day I observed that I was balancing work and rest without guilt or self-flagellation for not getting more done. This was a huge balance that came from years of emotional work and rocky ongoing struggles.
Creation and depletion is balanced by play and rest. And the equinox is all about balance, two equal sides. It’s a natural time to honor the balance in life and notice the areas it’s occurring. I chose to look at the areas where I was successful rather than not. It’s harvest time, after all. A time to count, savor and enjoy one’s riches. I don’t have a pantry (nor did I do canning this year) where I can walk in and gloat over my jars of preserves and jams. So I walked into my internal pantry instead and gloated over the new preserves and jams nourishing my internal world. It’s a new chapter for me—enjoying what I have rather than lamenting over what I don’t. Work is always pressing onward but it’s good to take a moment and celebrate what is working out and what is in balance. It’s a beautiful and sweet time, a moment of deep breath taking before the last lingering days of autumn come to an end.
I took a little stroll by the river yesterday morning before the heat set in. Just as I came to a T in the trail, cigarette smoke wafted past in the breeze and I overheard an argument in progress. Two men stood at the intersection. One leaned over a sky-blue backpack and jerked out a grocery bag from its depths. A lit cigarette dangled from his lips and he articulated around it, his words loud but indistinct.
His friend paced around him with an easy swinging step. “You ain’t ever told me that. I never heard that. Don’t tell me that.”
Arguments happen on the trails, of course. Angry children yell at their parents in passing and disgruntled spouses huff out peevish retorts while flying by on bicycles. This argument was a little different, however. Two men were having it out over a backpack while all about them, people feverishly ran, biked and rollerbladed past. There were no pretenses to exercise in this argument. They were just two men on their way somewhere and paused to duke it out.
I had a decision to make at that point. I could turn left and dodge hissing geese guarding adorable goslings or I could swing right towards the park and march right through the disagreement. I didn’t want to walk past a public argument but I lectured myself that I was a writer and whatever was going on could make good material.
I took the right turn and swung past. The pacing friend paused in mid-argument flow. He inquired, “How you doing?” to me. I replied, smiled in turn and their argument resumed as if I had never been there.
And that interaction was one of the huge pleasures of being a writer. By forcing myself out of my comfort zone and gliding past an argument, I saw a glimpse to another world. Two friends were comfortable enough to argue with each other at an intersection and they weren’t getting too heated up over it either. I’ll never know what that argument was about but I caught the roll of their words, the flinging of their heads and the easy way in which they disagreed.
As I walked away, I became so caught up in remembering their poses and looks that I forgot my own problems and worries. That tiny interaction pulled me right out of myself. It’s good to be outside and be an observer. And a writer.
One of my first real memories was climbing out of bed in the middle of the night and padding out to the living room. My parents had forgotten to turn off the Christmas lights and I knelt in front of the shining tree, singing little songs to myself with tears running down my face. I was so happy from the beauty of the shining tree.
And tonight I find myself doing much the same, after a wonderfully restful day full of snacking, cat cuddling, book reading and “Merry Christmas!” shouting. I turned the lights off, lit candles and settled into the couch, finally giving myself the time to look over the fairy lights surrounding the snow village, sniff the scented candles and then turn to watch the falling snow outside.
I want to wish everyone a restful day, whatever you believe in and I hope everyone gets time to fill their hearts with the beauty they love, whatever that might be. Blessed be, everyone. Blessed be.
It’s snowing. So beautifully. Winter brings a harshness, a steel edged beauty hallowing all it touches. Tiny little birds hop about in the snow, prancing on the deck and driving the two indoor cats mad. The birds’ feet make patterns of lace on the snow. I’ve spent many a happy minute meditating on their miniature prints. And I’ve heard it from trackers that it’s possible to differentiate bird tracks. The key is watching the bird make the tracks and note every behavior while they do so. Were they nervous when they made the tracks? Hungry? Hopeful? You’ll only know these answers if you give yourself over to fully observing the bird. Eventually, as you mindfully observe and take notes, the tracks begin to lay out a story about how the bird felt and what goal it was pursuing while it was hopping around. The observed bird’s tracks will become familiar as the palm of your hand and just as the lines and scars on your hand reveal your life, so will the bird tracks will reveal their tiny secret life.
When I first learned about the ability to track and the resulting possibility to enter the thoughts and feelings of an utterly different life form, I was staggered. I still am. But what really made me sit up and blink was the great feeling of familiarity the new concept brought. “Of course, I can enter their world. Of course, this is the way to do it. I knew this all along,” a deep spot in my soul declared. Of course! Of course! One of my absolute favorite abilities is observing and now I could take that power and use it to enter another world, both bird and animal.
The snow is here and it’s swung open a magical door, a gateway of animal tracks. It only takes a moment or two but it’s worthwhile to bend over a few tracks and study them. First, of course, is figuring out which animal made them. Many animal tracking books and online sites are available for this. From there the questions begin to branch out: what direction was the animal heading? What portion of the print is the heaviest and what does that mean? It’s by observing the animal and then their prints that the questions are truly answered.
I haven’t got to the point where I can tell what an animal is feeling or thinking from their prints or but every winter I take a little time to look at different tracks. The marvel and beauty of the prints calls me to the future promise of knowing. Great things are done in little steps and this may be the year I pull out a notebook, dedicated to juncos, the tiny snowbirds I especially adore and note my observations. Two black eyes: beady. One breast: white. One head, one back and two wings: dark grey, portions covered as if by a cloak. Eagerly looking for food, head swiveling this way and that.
Sitting on the train ride home, squeezed uncomfortably near a fellow passenger due to our bulky coats, a painting I had seen earlier at the Art Institute that day flashed across my mind. “Wrapped Oranges” by William McCloskey is a tiny oil on canvas, a mere 12”x16”. It is a still life of six oranges, two completely wrapped in thin paper, another two coyly peeping out their wrappings and the last two unwrapped. And while the oranges are lovely within themselves, the dark blue backdrop and veneer tabletop create a radiated, shining painting. When I stood at the gallery gazing at the painting, the woman alongside me gasped. She smiled shyly over to me and said, “When I saw this picture in the catalogue I didn’t think it was anything much but now that I see here it…well, I understand.” After all, how many pictures of oranges are there that can make a viewer gasp? Not many. McCloskey’s grasp of the beauty in ordinary objects and his ability to illuminate that beauty to the viewer is extraordinary. I too was taken aback by the tiny canvas and out of the hundred pieces I saw that day, “Wrapped Oranges” stood out like a beacon.
Feeling uncomfortable I was intruding on a stranger’s space in a train, McCloskey’s painting rose to my mind and I couldn’t help but smile and relax in my seat. Remembering his gem was like a dose of good therapy. I recalled that the world is beautiful and that people have a tendency to want to share that beauty. My own present discomfort would soon pass. Perhaps my fellow passenger wasn’t too discomforted by my closeness. It was rush hour and we were all packed in anyway. After a little bit of gentle conversation, I found out she had been to the Art Institute that day and she too had seen the beautiful “Wrapped Oranges”. We both smiled fondly, remembering the painting. We compared notes on the exhibit going on, “Art and Appetite.” Seeing and remembering art helped me to relax in my skin just bit more. An uncomfortable position became a pleasant one and while a small thing, it felt large. A tiny yet beautiful painting changed the dreary tone of an evening commute.
(picture by melissa taing)
This is a continuation of Persephone’s Fruit
Whether forced or implored by her husband, Persephone ate the pomegranate seeds. Her fate was sealed. She would spend time with her mother, Demeter, in the Overworld for two-thirds of the year but since she ate fruit from the Underworld, the other third must be spent in Elysium.
The word pomegranate comes from the Medieval Latin pōmum “apple” and grānātum “seeded.” When she took the fruit in Elsyium (or “apple land”), she ate a byproduct of the land and became irrevocably joined. One telling of her story relates how she was starving and finally gave into her hunger. Another that Hades forced the seeds into her mouth against her will. Whatever reason she ate those seeds, the result was the same. She was now connected to the land of the Underworld.
Persephone became a woman of dual nature. Not only was she the daughter of Demeter but she was now Queen of the Underworld. Another name for her as the Queen is “Despoina”, or the Mistress. She welcomes the new souls of the dead, nourishes them with food and lights the way. She is a guide and a leader in a bewildering time. She assists many, including Orpheus, Hercules, Odyssus and Psyche on their adventures and labors. The Kore (or maiden) of an earlier time is now a gracious woman, comforting and aiding the distraught, showing them where to go and providing sustenance. She passes from darkness to light, joining her mother on the fruitful Earth above and then diving back down to provide life in death.
During this season, I had the special delight of coming across a flaming red oak. Three oaks stood in a circle, each a different shade of red. One oak, in particular, gave out a breath-taking living flickering red. I found it hard to look away, hard to continue on my walk without looking back. If trees have spirits, then this one had decided, for just this season, to reveal her own, urging the other two to do just the same. They responded though not with as much vulnerability as she did.
The glorious red leaves are gone now, stripped from the treetops by rain and wind but I saw for just that day. I saw that tree and I saw the other two because of the one. If a Queen was passing, through my town and through the park, there would be no better herald than the red oak flickering under lead grey skies. And I choose to believe, before the mundanity of logic sets in, that a Queen, leaving her sunlit realms for darker climes, passed through my yard and out the other on her descent down. The pomegranate, seeded apple, resting on my kitchen counter, tells me it could just be true, after all. Possibly. Maybe.
Persephone. When I first came across this tale, it felt both scarily foreign and familiar. I couldn’t tell where the dividing lines were, what about this story made me feel like I had heard it one hundred times and what about it revolted my mind as being strange and weird. The idea of Hell springing onto the world and snatching away beauty, promise, youth- that felt wrong. It was foreign to the younger part of myself, the one in denial over the presence of Death. Death should not play a part in this beautiful story.
The sad truth is, for all of us, Death is here and comes in one thousand ways. Your body need not die for the experience to happen, tragedies kick it off. Whether we like it or not, whether we’re naïve to it not, we must die a thousand little deaths in this lifetime. And sometimes…many times…it feels like during the pain and misery, that we will never live again, we’ll never walk in the sunshine, laugh and smile.
The story of Persephone begins with a happy girl, hanging out with friends, picking flowers, making garlands. The ground rumbles and shakes and out gallops Hades through a crack, god of the Underworld. He snatches the girl for his bride and hurls her down with him, down into the black descent of death. Her mother, Demeter, discovering her daughter kidnapped for a god’s bride, goes on a searching frenzy. The Earth falls barren in Demeter’s sorrow, everything withering and dying from her curse.
After a lot of adventures and lots of people dying through famine, Zeus finally grants Persephone’s return from the Dead. She will spend half the year to her mother. For the other part of the year, she must live in Elysium (the vaguely happier part of the Underworld) with her husband.
Long ago, before the Ancient Greeks told this story, older civilizations also told a Persephone style story. This different Persephone went willingly down to the dead, seeking for her King below. Babylonian stories of Ishtar and Inanna also have a Queen willingly make her descent to the below.
Whichever way it is told, the descent into the Underworld is no easy matter. It’s paved with tragedy and sorrow, a sundering of what once was. Persephone ends up in Elysium or “the apple land” as Robert Graves translates it, an orchard island where good people came after death. She spends half the year there, living among fruit and trees. When she arises from the ground, her mother springs to meet her and Spring bursts forth from the reunion.
Clarissa Pinkola Estés, writer of “Women Who Run with Wolves” and a fabulous Jungian analyst, walked me through a retelling of Persephone, fleshing out the inkling I had of Persephone’s desire and willingness to go to the Underworld. Desire and resistance are not incompatible emotions and the Greek Persephone’s resistance and her earlier predecessor’s willingness reflect how the two can twine together.
Persephone holds out the apple of promise- for our terrible times of pain and anguish. Death must come for rebirth. I still have no understanding of why this is but I hang onto the hope that it is true. The natural world cycles this story over and again. Life can be beautiful even in the Underworld and just as Persephone is united with her husband, so are we forcibly united with ourselves as we pass through dark times.
As we walk towards the darkest time of the year, Persephone descends with us. The light will come back, Spring will rupture forth but for now, the darkness and all that it carries comes near. It arrives whether we would have it or not and it’ll do its work whether we would have it or no. Necessary and potent, there is work going on at this grey time. A grasp of this season’s inevitably and a belief that all is not lost, that good work is being done, this is the legacy Persephone grants us.
Inspired by Dana’s beautiful nature mandalas, I set out to make my own. I have little experience in mandalas except reading about the sand mandalas the Tibetan monks make. They create complex circular designs out of sand and then ritualistically destroyed their creation, ceremonies and prayers lifted up during the end.
I set out in the morning with a bag and a husband and we skirted along the hems of native plants growing in profusion along a creek. I always hesitate to pick flowers. It feels cruel tearing the flower asunder from the mother plant and as much as I love bouquets of fresh flowers, I rarely indulge. Today however, I sniffed the breeze and began to pluck tiny purple Michaelmas daisies, dropping them into a pouch as I went along. After dodging assorted bumblebees and harvesting a few flowers, I marveled at how many flowers were left. It’s as if I never touched them, so many still tilted purple under the sun. I prayed a quiet “Thank You” for the bounty of the flowers and sent a few lavender buds into the breeze in an attempt to return what I had taken. We moved onto a sumac bush.
What I did not expect was while I gathered, I felt my heart threading its way through the rising vegetation and then along the water of the cool creek glinting below. For the first time in my life, I did not want to leave my current home. The thought of leaving this small piece of restored land, profuse with flowers, bugs and animals, suddenly wrenched my heart out. I come from a long line of wanderers (as I think most Americans do) and I have always wondered where we would wander next after this home. This time, however, I did not want to wander. My hands were joined to the land as I nimbly picked leaves and flowers and now my heart was as well.
Leaves, flowers, and crabapples in hand, we wandered back and I began to build my mandala, spinning out a circle that radiated from three glowing daisies in the center. I built the art knowing that it would come swiftly apart and be sent back into the world. A certain joy caught up with me then- the joy of freedom. It’s a very gentle feeling, very small but it grew as I added leaf after leaf and flowers after flower to the circles. It continued on even as I ripped the mandala apart, sending the bounty back to the outdoors. As I cleaned up the litter and tiny bugs fallen from the petals, I reflected on how the mandala wasn’t to make money, to further my career or anything like that. It was a celebration of play. It was the gathering, the creation of beauty and then the destruction that is so necessary to our lives. The materials I loosened from the plants and trees were now settling into the earth for the next growth cycle. My internal load was lightened as well during this simple ritual. Making a mandala clears the mind and sweetly teaches the lesson of letting go. As we head into winter, I look forward to making more mandalas out of what the season offers. Even in the depths of dark cold, there will be a few twigs and berries to lend themselves to creation.