from BARDO

The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.

Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made

is star-stuff too?


– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.


Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.


Roselle Angwin

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

making story: that bright moment




I've been thinking a great deal again about story: why it's important, what it can show us, the kind of stories we need as a species to forge a new way forward. I've written about it many times, here and elsewhere. I've been thinking, too, about how and when I might re-incorporate into my course programme, as I've mentioned, the previous workshops I used to lead back last century and in the early years of this, where myth, archetype, fairy and folk tales were key to understanding our lives, as well as inspiration for creating new stories.

Looking back over the blogs, here's one I posted five years ago now, in May 2011. It's an excerpt from my book Writing the Bright Moment – inspiration & guidance for writers (hence the references), which you can buy from me via this blog and Paypal. I suppose it's primarily for writers, about making story, but it's also about how stories make us.

~~~

A Tree Full of Birds

‘If I were asked what I want to accomplish as a writer, I would say it’s to contribute to a literature of hope... I want to help create a body of stories in which men and women can discover trustworthy patterns...Every story is an act of trust between a writer and a reader; each story, in the end, is social. Whatever a writer sets down can help or harm the community of which he or she is a part...’
Barry Lopez


In the chapter on creation stories I laid out, briefly, a number of different approaches to explaining how we came to be here. Each of these viewpoints is unique; and yet many have features in common. Some have a gender bias; some seem loaded towards violence; some have humour and generosity; some establish the pre-eminence and dominion of humans; others less so. An individual culture’s religious foundations – and, by implication, its creation narrative – has notoriously been fiercely defended as the only possible worldview, and arguably has been, and is still, at the heart of many situations of world conflict. What happens when one culture’s adherence to its view of our origins, and the faith built on those, comes up against a different one?
When the idea of a spherical, rather than flat, earth was once again raised as a serious proposition in Europe in the Middle Ages (the ancient Greeks had already propounded this thesis), this view was condemned by the Vatican as utter heresy, and some of its proponents were excommunicated or put to death.
Later, Cromwell’s troops destroyed the ‘idols’ and icons of the Roman Church in Britain. In the C19th, Christian missionaries destroyed the ‘idols’ of tribal peoples in the Commonwealth. At the turn of the new millennium, fundamentalist Muslims destroyed the sacred Buddhist images in Afghanistan.
Plus ça change... Some current fundamentalist Christian sects cannot accept any truth in other religions, nor in any Darwinian and post-Darwinian views on evolution. Some atheists cannot accept any notion of the existence of the sacred, in any form. Some people insist that creation narratives are literal representations of how things were and are; some say they are allegories; some maintain that, as metaphors, they constitute a vast and important body of ‘wisdom teachings’; some dismiss them as childishly superstitious rubbish which should be stamped out.

Many so-called ‘primitive’ tribal cultures, ridiculed by our Western ‘civilisation’, have a profound awareness of the interconnectedness of everything, and live by laws of respect and reverence for all life, as embedded in their creation narratives. We, who consider ourselves sophisticated, have coerced, bullied, seduced or ‘preached’ many of these peoples away from these beliefs and into our worldview which, ‘developed’ though it may be, is hardly a sustainable, let alone a respectful, one.

What we do know is that we need to find a wiser, more sustainable way to live; not just for ourselves, but for the planet as a whole.
In ‘Tongues of the Earth’ in this book Jeremy Thres raised these questions; and they are important enough as to raise again. What are the tales we tell ourselves? What underlying beliefs and truths do they portray? What stories support our values? How could we build on this? Do the stories in which we immerse ourselves enhance our view of ourselves, each other and life?

Here’s another question: what responsibility does the writer have for what he or she puts into the world? No one wants chocolate-box stories and perpetual epiphany; you can’t make stories about only contented characters in a perfect world. But when did you last see a film that portrayed people relating in a healthy, loving and mature way to each other? What is the attraction of watching TV shows and screenplays that centre on human dysfunction and people behaving badly?

What stories do we need? At the end of my first book in 1993 (Riding the Dragon – myth & the inner journey) I asked this question. Here I am again: nearly twelve years on, in this book, I am still asking this same question (and in this blog, another eleven years on). In one way and another this question has been posed throughout this book, too: tacitly, or overtly.
How would it be to read books that support us in being more fully and compassionately human? Ones that give us tools to grow and change; offer us models of functional, healthy patterns of relating – whether to ourselves, to each other, to the wider human sphere or to the planet as a whole, rather than narratives that merely underline how grim ‘reality’ is, and how untrustworthy and self-seeking people are, thus confirming our view of the world and the human condition as basically beyond hope?
Perhaps our diet has become too thin, and we are looking for a different kind of nourishment. We need now stories that offer us healing, offer us the potential of wholeness, of coming through in the end. Empowering stories. Stories that show us human being at its best: its most courageous, generous, kind, loving, compassionate, wise, funny. Stories that celebrate the earth, wilderness, the diversity of nations, the diversity of species. Stories that allow us to imagine a new world order based on empathy, co-operation, kindness, discussion, negotiation, fairness, equality. Stories that celebrate what is green, what is vulnerable, what is innocent, what is childlike, what is wise, what is feminine, what is masculine; stories about co-operation and harmony rather than competition and conflict; about people making wise choices. Stories that celebrate magic, mystery, miracle. Stories that help restore some sort of faith, whatever that may mean for each of us.
I am aware that these things on their own do not make story, or even poetry. But the way we deal with them, and the choices we make, do. And they do, also, make a life.

I am not suggesting that we pretend all is not how it is. I am not naïve enough as to assume that war will end in my lifetime; that violence will cease to exist; that poverty will be an extinct word; that pollution will be outlawed; that conservation will suddenly become more important to the corporate world than profit. 
I am not at all suggesting that we pretend pain does not exist. On the contrary. Go to where the pain is. Write about it. Make a story of it. The pain will show you where the work is needed, and it will, in its unfolding onto paper, show you the path for healing. Human life will always be hard, in parts – that is the nature of the egoic life, which sees itself as separate and all-important, that judges and picks and chooses: ‘I like this, but not that. This is acceptable but that isn’t.’. But the stories that matter, the big stories, are always a triumph over these limitations.
It is important not to give up. Human actions matter; they make a difference. Even one person’s weight will make a difference. And who knows which of us will effect the final ‘critical mass’ moment at which a threatened downslide will wobble, pause, and start to right itself? And it is at that critical moment, when we are deepest in the darkness – maybe right now – that we need these stories of hope; when we need a lamp out of the cave. And we need to know we are not alone.
Find something you can really believe in; something that enhances your life; and a group of people who think like you, whether it’s a writing group, or a politically active group, or an evening class, or an online discussion group, or people who like walking out on the land, or are involved in life-enhancing projects in the city. Find a community that supports you in your vision. Maybe they’ll be flesh and blood people. Maybe it’ll be the books of poets or authors writing passionately about things you care about. It’s crucial. Make it the next thing you do. ‘Never doubt that a group of committed individuals can change the world; in fact it’s the only thing which can,’ said anthropologist Margaret Mead. And ‘Better to light a candle than curse the darkness,’ goes another saying.

Where do you start? Find a moment of glory. I’m thinking of Seamus Heaney’s ‘Postscript’ poem, of R S Thomas’ ‘Bright Field’, of Brendan Kennelly’s Glimpses. Early in her book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek Annie Dillard mentions a tree, an Osage orange, which, ostensibly empty, suddenly flames with an eruption of blackbirds, previously unseen; then another, then another – hundreds of blackbirds from what looked like an empty tree. This was a moment of glory for her, to which she returns in the course of the book. Reading her passage, many years ago now, that tree became a moment of glory for me, too; one which I have not forgotten, to which I return, a metaphor against which I measure, or by which I name, other moments – including, of course, my own personal remembered gloriousnesses. The tree, in the book and in my imagination, is both itself and a metaphor for something else. It has become mythic in size, and that way contains magic.
It happens that many bright moments occur outside, when alone in nature; and many occur in the little ‘lost’ moments between people. These events, I realise as I get older, are not the huge dramatic moments of intense revelation or passion, as they seemed to be when I was younger. Instead, they’re often tiny and easily missed; clichéd in their everydayness: a smile, a hug from a loved one, a touch on the arm, shared words or silence, extraordinary light on the water, the glimpse of a kingfisher, an unexpected gift through the post, a card with kind words, pony’s breath or dog’s wet nose barely touching your hand, catching the dawn, an instant of total and spontaneous openheartedness. Sometimes you are prepared, maybe in a heightened state of some sort. Usually, though, these moments occur in mundane circumstances – and, let’s face it, much of our life is mundane; yet this, this quotidiennité, is the terrain of miracles. It’s the present moment that we inhabit – the now that is the only time we have. The writer’s job is to pay attention, pay attention, pay attention. Cultivate that kind of looking.
Slow down. Stay open, stay alive. Stay awake.
Writing is a process that never stops. There is no destination; there is only the journeying. Sometimes it works; sometimes you’re off track. You’re always searching for the next step. ‘…It can take a lifetime to convey what you mean, to find the opening,’ says Lopez. ‘You watch, you set it down. Then you try again.’

So you find something that inspires you and you let the pen catch fire. Find that moment of glory. Stay alert for it. Catch it out of the corner of your eye as it streams past, and slide it onto the page. Write what you’re passionate about. Really passionate about, deep inside. Let it have soul. Let your words matter. Make them count. Don’t waste them, and don’t underestimate them. Don’t worry whether anyone else cares about your writing. That way, you can’t fail. ‘People are hungry,’ says poet David Whyte; ‘and one good word is bread for a thousand.’




Roselle Angwin
 


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