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.
Far away, up and over the hills, there was a woman who made magic come to life. She sunk her hands into the ground and life came up. She took paint and brush to paper and images came to life, sweet children, gamboling dogs and heady masses of flowers. The flowers followed her wherever she went. Tasha Tudor was committed to her own way of life and she was determined to live it with all the will she could muster out of her body and mind.
She turned back the clock and lived in the era she wanted to live in. She wove blankets, knitted socks, hauled water, cooked in a wood burning stove, made candles to light her winters, milked her goats, dyed her yarn, only wore dresses and threw lavish celebrations. And while this was going on, she painted pictures and sold them. Some were put into books and told children’s stories.
I came to know her at the start of my teenage years. I too longed to dress from an older times. I longed to live on a farm and feed my chickens, be followed by a flock of dogs. I longed to sit in front of a fire, reading books or making clothes, listening to the fire spurt and rustle. I longed to walk into my barn and bring down the hay for my horses, stepping through the sweet smelling straw while it snowed outside, cats curled into tiny bundles in the hayloft. Tasha came to me just as I was beginning to put these desires into words. A life I felt was lost to another time was being lived and it was happening now. “The Private World of Tasha Tudor,” with Richard Brown’s gorgeous photos, awakened possibility and brought glimmers of hope.
Like a fairy godmother, she popped up at difficult moments in my life. At one particularly difficult part of my life where I had lost all my bearings, where I had no idea who I was or what I should be doing and there was no one telling me what to do, she sprang up. She arrived in DVD form, “Take Joy!,” and I watched that DVD day after day for a few months. I can’t tell you exactly why I watched it so many times in a row but I watched very keenly, soaking up something that only the subconscious fully understood.
I’m not entirely sure why I watched the video so many times. The most sense I’m able to make out of it now is that I was watching a woman who created her own life, her own standards and lived this life despite what anyone else had said or done to her. She was in the twilight of her life in the video, coming to the end of a long journey and relishing it all. Her way was so different, so obvious, so blatant, so unapologetic that like a hungry tired plant, I sucked it all in. I never knew Tasha the woman but I did know her as the artist and as a role model.
The title of my blog, Sparrow Post, is a tribute to the wonderful post office she fashioned for her own children, constructed out of cardboard and paint. The postmaster was a sparrow and he had a room in the back, where he could sort mail uninterrupted. Dolls and stuffed animals posted their letters and parcels at the office and I can only imagine the play must have been intense. It fired my imagination in a brilliant storm the moment I read about it and while I have yet to make my own post office, complete with sparrow postmaster, I wanted to invoke the same whimsy, the same delight in the small things in life, in the play and the imagination that comes when we feel free.
This is the space I’m creating in this blog and I want to thank you for reading and joining me. Please read about Tasha Tudor, she really was incredible and if you feel stirred to create a story, a picture or whatever your medium is after reading this or reading about her, please share. I would love to see, honor and know your creation.
The apples scattered from Persephone’s hands and rolled like burning rubies, tell-tale signs, through the greening grasses. This is what Demeter found and launched her into the frantic hunt for her lost daughter- or so I’d like to imagine.
I found the signs in the grass. In a tiny parcel of wild land, bound by a dentist’s parking lot on one side and a jeep car sales’ lot on the other, I found the signs of Persephone’s passing, sweet tiny apples tucked in the grass. Flies and hornets feasted, the hornets’ stingers vibrating in ecstasy over the sweetness. I picked a few apples that weren’t burst or bruised and tucked them into my pockets, taking the time to gaze up in the boughs. There weren’t any apples there; already the season is passing by, already we are beginning to count the days till spring.
I found pears too and delighted over their luscious shapes, hot women ready to be bitten into, chewed and swallowed. The trees are so out of place in this tarmac oasis but it was clear they were planted out of love long ago; after all you “plant pears for your heirs.”
The autumn solstice marks our descent into the winter- or the descent into hell if you’re a girl caught up by the god of the dead. The descent is slow and curving, marked by tremendous abundance where food litters the ground and trees shed their colors in a glorious shower. Everywhere, the wealth swirls by and catches our eyes and ears and hearts. It’s a tremendous pageant before winter’s austere coloring and as I click a few pictures of apples, I can’t help wonder at the beautiful story of a mother’s fierce love for her child. She tosses her love to us even now and we eat it up, apple by apple and pear by pear.
I had the great good fortune to be in Chicago on Wednesday. I was there to attend an art lecture over at the Art Institute but beforehand, I zigzagged through intersections and people, picking up a picture of this dazzling beauty before heading over.
As a child, I regarded this Picasso sculpture with a mixture of revulsion and fear. I could get behind the glorious animatronic Christmas scenes in the Marshall Field’s windows and I could gaze at mummies over at the Field Museum, enraptured and silent, brooding over the ancient mysteries of the afterlife but this sculpture got to me. It bugged me.
Now as an adult, striding the streets of Chicago all alone, I looked up at the sculpture and smiled. No fear this time, no nightmare feelings and confusion. No, all I felt was love. This weird dim creature, part bug, part sea creature could easily be Chicago. She is a metal woman, her ribs showing and her wings folded behind, regarding us with an impassive face, silently watching the city bursting around her base. Surely there are uncanny secrets hidden behind such a visage, hidden secretly in the ribcage which we cannot see.
She dwells in a square where many people come and meet, hang out and visit. She dwells with music singing at her knees and with the produce of the Midwest too, as yet another farmer market spreads out on the asphalt below. I’m not sure how I cracked the case of fear but I see her differently now. More as a guardian, a strange sign of knowing than as a dream gone completely wrong.
It’s hard to know how to take the loss of winter. Most people are happy and congratulate each other on it. They smile on twitter and face book, crowing over the warmth and the lack of snow. And I, twisted this way and that, sorrow in my heart. I miss the bright red of the cardinals in the snowy bushes or the dear plump grey caped juncos hopping in and out of the tracks my husband and I leave in the snow after we fill the feeders. I miss the intense cold of winter, when it’s so cold that no one is out and when I go to the river, each sound is crystal clear. The downy woodpeckers sound off as do the chickadees and I listen to breaks of ice in the river as it hardens and forms and floats. Winter is cold and it’s bitter but it has a blue beauty of all it’s own and I miss it.
Due to winter not being here, I can take walks everyday in my jeans and my tennis shoes. It’s a little cold but not bad as long as I take a quick pace. Everything is brown and olive. The trees are. The goldfinches are. The big windmill overlooking the park is. People bike furiously past me every day. They’re mostly men and mostly frown. Biking seems hard work even without snow.
The days pass and they are easy on all of us. The temperature hangs around forty and it makes so much easier for grocery shopping, visiting with friends, eating out. It is a world held in suspension. I haven’t been able to smell the snow yet. I haven’t shoveled and I haven’t marveled at the sculptures snow and ice make. Life is easier but it’s loss is the toothy edge that Nature always brings. I hope this easy winter makes life lighter for the birds and squirrels and other wild things but I worry about the turtles and frogs coming up too soon believing it is spring and then losing them to the deep winter that may come still.
I haven’t had to fight in this winter, where I grow cold constantly, where I just want to sleep forever. Missing winter is like missing a great cold god. Sure, they’re mean, sure they try to kill you but hey, they’re mysterious and beautiful and as it happens, you aren’t starving and you can get through the experience of this god with relative ease as long as you drive safe on the roads.
This crownless god crawls in at night however. Every night, the temperature plummets to the teens and when I rise in the morning, everything is sheeted in the handiwork of the winter kingdom. The car’s windows are scrolled in feathers and diamonds and the grass snaps white in the bright sun. I gaze from without and gaze and gaze. Maybe there’s hope the god will come back. Maybe we’ll get to see the dazzling change we see every year and complain about. I want to complain about it. I need to complain about the cold and then have it take my breath away with it’s sharp hard beauty.
The sun is setting now in shades of orange and apricot, setting where I can’t see it, I only see the afterglow. One more day to go and then the weatherman says, the Artic cold will come in and all this warmth and dryness will pass away. So when that happens, I’ll head out with a shovel and salute the glorious day. Winter is coming after all. We get to see it at least for this year, I dearly hope.