Talk to You Later and more...

Talk to You Later

After noticing that I wrote the name of (deceased) Senator Daniel Inouye in my last blog instead of James Inhofe, a mistake I've corrected, I've decided to take a break from these occasional blogs. My heart has been in them, but my mind has been on the road.

I'm writing fiction again, which was the goal of this last year of traveling around doing weird things. I liked the weird things. The weird things have restored me, and I will probably keep doing them. But the point was to rediscover the compulsion to tell stories that has made my life coherent in the past and will again. That train has at last reached the station.

Many thanks to my readers, whether friends or strangers.

Jo Ann

A comforting, though dumb, idea

Last Thursday, after the pope addressed the U.S. Congress, I wrote on my Facebook page, "Pope Francis is definitely not a shit head. May the rest of us rise above shit-headedness as well." What I meant was, maybe we can lower the walls a little, take a few rows of bricks off the top. Maybe we can stop pointing our megaphones at the people on the other side, who may share none of our views but may also be members of our families, or our neighbors, or that woman at the drive-up window who doesn't disappear for ten minutes into the bowels of the bank when all you want to do is make a deposit. Maybe we can all take a deep breath, and just, you know, try to listen to each other. Maybe if we don't yell at him so much, Senator James Inhofe, for example, will read the IPCC report--just out of curiosity, just to see what all the fuss is about climate change.

Mike Huckabee at left, not the pope
Then the Pope met with Kim Price. Reportedly, he gave her a rosary and told her to "be strong." Price is not Catholic, so I wonder about the rosary. I wonder why he kept this appointment at all. Maybe he was given bad information by his staff, or (as some are already saying) by the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops. It doesn't really matter. He met with her, and now he's over for a lot of us. I feel like crying.

Gay marriage is no longer a matter of religious conscience. It's the law. (For the record, my religious conscience led me to participate in church-sponsored LGBT sacred unions 15 years ago.) But isn't obeying your superior officer on the battlefield also the law? Yet once in a while a soldier says nope, I've had enough, I'm not going to shoot at even one more person. The result is that many of us welcome her home and take up a collection for her defense. What's the difference between Kim Price and this soldier? For me the difference is that the soldier is choosing not to take a life, or royally mess one up, while Price is choosing the opposite course. She says she gets to mess up two lives because God tells her to.

For a few months I thought that some of the fair and generous people of the world had found a sort of leader in Pope Francis. It was a comforting, though dumb, idea. The Roman Catholic hierarchy is never going to prioritize ending poverty over freaking out about sex. James Inhofe and friends are never going to change their minds about climate change. The wall between us and them will still be standing when all of us are dead from heat and hunger and endless arguing. And blogging. Endless blogging. Truly a waste of time.


Ireland, Part 2: Brighid and St. Brigid

"A river of tears is one of the strongest evidences of a 'crash and burn' initiation into the Scar Clan."-- Clarissa Pinkola Estes

Priestess Glenys of the glacial river valleys of the Pacific Northwest greets you. Glenys is my new name, by the way. It's Welsh and means from the glen. A glen is a narrow valley, sometimes a river valley. Baby name websites insist that Glenys also means fair, clean, and holy, but I just discovered that this morning when I woke up at 2:00 AM, still on Ireland time, and can't be held responsible for it. Keep all this under your hat for now, until I get used to it.

I am also one of the Daughters of Danu, the name my fellow initiates and I gave our circle, but if tears shed are proof of membership, I might also claim a place in Clarissa Pinkola Estes' Scar Clan.

Daughters of Danu. The words of each of these women are written on my heart.
I've been through something in the last year or two that recently culminated in a dismantling or even a disintegration. I've been sharing my efforts to renew myself in this blog. This time they've led me pretty far from what I know, into things I can't "be sure" of.

Some believe that before Ireland was settled by Celtic tribes, its women were in charge. At the very least it was matrilineal, meaning that kinship was traced through the mother's line. Even in Celtic times, women held a much higher place in society than in the Europe and European colonies of more recent history.

I haven't done enough reading about these topics to claim anything citable, and the evidence I do follow keeps realigning, but I sense in my depths that better ways of living existed in pre-agricultural and early agricultural communities, and that those better ways grew out of respect for the creative powers of the earth in her female likeness. Some of my reasons for saying this are new, from these months of bottoming out and climbing back up again. Some have been with me all my life.

1. History is written by the winners (including historians with tenured university jobs). So much of the history of women (including, for example, the witch burnings of the Middle Ages and early modern period) has been minimized, trivialized, or altogether buried that it's difficult to believe that "official" accounts are the gospel truth.

2. Human beings, according to high priestess Anyaa McAndrew, my teacher, are "meaning makers." We gaze into the past, we interpret the present, and we attempt to interrogate the future for stories, symbols, and practices that help us go on, or (if you're more optimistic than I am) thrive.

3. The gentle slopes and rounded hillocks of Ireland's West Coast (at least) demand female deities. The Celtic Christians saw this themselves, and instead of trying to exorcise the goddesses from Ireland, they"syncretized" these figures (attempted to combine or unite opposing principles) with Christian ones. 

The goddess Brighid, for example, was said to be one of the Tuatha Dé Danann, or children of the mother goddess Danu, identified with the land. Brighid is described by later figures such as William Butler Yeats's fellow folklorist Lady Augusta Gregory as "a woman of poetry, and poets worshipped her, for her sway was very great and very noble. And she was a woman of healing along with that, and a woman of smith's work, and it was she first made the whistle for calling one to another through the night."

Christians syncretized the goddess Brighid with St. Brigid, a nun of the fifth century who founded monastic communities, primarily of women, the most famous of which was in Kildare. Her feast day is February 1, chosen to coincide with the Gaelic festival of Imbolc, a "pagan" festival associated with the goddess Brighid.

I have said before that I don't know if I'm a Christian anymore. Sometimes I may have said that I'm definitely not. At least a few times, I've said that I probably still am. The religion you're raised in is a hard thing to abandon. And Christianity in particular has a beauty and depth that people who associate it with Westboro Baptist Church and Bob Jones University have no access to.

But Christianity alone is too wobbly a structure to rely on in these turning times. (I don't confuse it with Jesus himself.) The tree of my faith needs deeper roots. I was moved beyond words to have the scars on my face and hand anointed by Anyaa with water from St. Brigid's well in Liscanor, near our retreat house. Brighid, I believe, was present in that water as well. (Thanks to Dragonfire for bringing it into our ceremony.)

"To live is to be marked," says Adah in Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible. My scars will fade with time, but they won't disappear. I wouldn't want them to. They are reminders that once I fell apart and was pulled from the underworld into the light by a group of wildly generous women and the goddesses standing behind them.

Altar at St. Brigid's Well in Liscanor

Ireland, Part 1: The Cliffs of Moher and Last Comments on Wales

Southern end of the Cliffs of Moher

I’m in Ireland now for ten days at a retreat house located up the hill from the Cliffs of Moher. I’d describe the area to my West Coast friends as the Mendocino beach stretched out, minus the fancy B&Bs and restaurants. The sea is generally gray-green in the distance (rather than the blue in the photo above), and the slow slope uphill from the cliffs is dotted with cows and modest, stucco'ed homes painted pale colors. It’s usually cloudy, sometimes foggy, but occasional sun breaks through and lights up the houses. Narrow roads lead up to where I am staying, among women, making new friends. We’re on a secret mission here.

My face is healing fast, and I’ve just had a massage. I’m drinking lots of water and eating vegetarian food. I’m very well. (Special note to my daughter: I’m really verywell.)

I want to share a bit more of what I learned from my classmates in Wales about tackling climate change in writing. Tackling is not the right word. (It is in fact a sports metaphor, God help me.) I’d say now including or, a bit more precisely, being transparent to climate change.

Below are some of the approaches my classmates and our instructor in fiction, Jay Griffiths, are taking or have taken in their writing. I’m hinting here at possibilities, being careful, I hope, not to give away any of the magic.

An imaginary landscape in which survivors face dire need, but their problems are quite different from those we are likely to encounter in the future.

A group of people trying to figure out how to live differently. Their histories and character flaws have everything to do with how they approach this challenge.

The last days of ease as related by a character who didn’t really believe these last days would come—sort of “The Death of Ivan Illyich” where death is general as well as personal.

Jay Griffiths’ A Love Letter from a Stray Moon (2014), in which the earth is seen from a point of view that is a unique melding of the imagined minds of Frida Kahlo and the moon.

A letter addressed from the future to a friend or relative living in the past, before massive change began to take place.

A big thank you to the kind and brilliant people I met in Wales.


Some Considerations When Telling It Slant or Otherwise

Our two teachers at Ty Newydd--Robert Minhinnick and Jay Griffiths--offered us welcome reminders about what makes good writing and new ways to think and write about a world suffering from climate change.
Minhinnick's New and Selected Poems 

Minhinnick's and Griffiths' work and teaching:

Minhinnick has made a lifetime commitment to both climate activism and poetry. He has been called "the leading Welsh poet of his generation." You can hear some of his poems here and at other sites online. He has also published essays and, more recently, fiction. In his teaching, he emphasized such fundamentals as including detail, the more particular the better, making full use of our memories, and letting strong diction stand alone, without modifiers.

Griffiths is better known in the U.S., partly because of her columns in the magazine Orion. Her book Wild: An Elemental Journey (not to be confused with Cheryl Strayed's Wild) is a memoir about visiting some of the last wild places on earth and an argument for leaving them that way. Some of her other works: A Sideways Look at Time, and Kith, about the modern child's need to meet nature unmediated. A paperback version of Kith will be published soon in the U.S as A Country Called Childhood: Children and the Exuberant World.

Her teaching of fundamentals centered on point of view--how what is seen changes according to who is seeing it--and on something she calls a work-in-development's arrowhead, where its focus is, where it is tending. The arrowhead of A Sideways Look at Time, for example, was the "politics of time." Jay wrote those words on an index card. In fiction, she said, finding the arrowhead is easier. What does the protagonist want? What obstacles are in the way of her getting it?

In putting together a book of poetry, Minhinnick said, one keeps in mind a theme or controlling idea. He prefers individual poems, however, to avoid summing up, to gesture toward continuing. 

Writerly intention and tone when climate change is the subject: 

Griffiths led a discussion suggested by something one of us had said (it wasn't me--I'm not this smart), that climate-change writing, climate-change art, is the opposite of art about war. War poetry is a poetry of reproach, she said. It looks backwards.

Must climate change art look forward?

Minhinnick stressed that the earth, and even late-arriving humans, have already experienced climate change more than once. The difference this time, Griffiths argued, is that the climate change has been caused by us. It's anthropogenic. (Minhinnick: "That may be, but I don't want to see the word anthropogenic in a poem!") 

Should art about climate change also be about reproach?

One of the roles of being a writer is being a messenger, said Griffiths. 

Minhinnick reminded us of Auden's "September 1, 1939," which asserts that all a poet can do is warn: "All I have is a voice/To undo the folded lie." What we write about should contain an element of warning, Minhinnick added, just as long as it's not black and white, as long as it's not telegraphed.

I'm not sure which teacher offered the following, but I think it was Griffiths in the first case and Minhinnick in the second. 

Writers need to distinguish between the fire in the belly that makes us want to get something across because people need to hear it, and the fire in the belly that makes us want to say something because we want to, or need to.

It is always easier to change someone’s mind in the dark. When light is shined brightly on particular readers, they tend to hide.

Beliefs about climate change: 

I figured you would be curious about this.

Griffiths holds that we in the West will face trouble due to climate, but that an "honest calmness" is justified. We have the means to temper climate effects, unlike the poor inhabitants of countries like Bangladesh. Griffiths acknowledges the injustice of this: the West is largely responsible for climate change while the whole world suffers from it.

Minhinnick is optimistic, period. He offers no argument for his optimism beyond his resilient nature. I feel now that he might justifiably have quoted the last lines of "September 1, 1939":

May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

(My own views about climate change haven't altered much over the last couple of years. I believe climate change is accelerating toward catastrophe, and that few if any human beings will survive. If we act to minimize the damage, we'll have to do it soon. We know enough to move forward right now. More science may be helpful, but what is required is something else--a capacity for love and courage that might emerge from new stories, new art, and a new humility about our species.)

More to come

I learned almost as much from my fellow students as from my teachers about indirect approaches to writing about climate change. And I'd like to share Griffith's wisdom about my own sketchy thoughts about a book to come. 


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