on love and survival
I am away in Italy with a huge bagful of bright earths and a fistful of ink recipes. Internet is sparse and from 8am until 10pm daily I am needed by lovely humans, soft ochres, rich tannins and great food in equal measure. So, forgive me while I steal an hour away from the throng to post three non-topical and perhaps atypical pieces for you tonight, so that I may make my deadline after all, despite my explanatory Note. Ignore or enjoy them, as suits your mood. I shall never explain myself when love or survival are the subjects.
Warm greetings from the first storms of an Italian Autumn.
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There is a holy place where an impossible feeling resides. I used to name it euphoria, but it is not that, in the way moderns use it. It is the natural joy of many organisms, and now I see that it is not only human, but is everywhere. The cat turning over in the dusty sun, the swan hooting and puffing, the moment when the chords resolve only to suddenly suspend again, as in late Bach or early Björk. It is when the spirit descends, or when the guest arrives unbidden and stands stubbornly horned and pelt-clad at my side. This is where LeGuin wrote from, where Liz Fraser sang from and Pina Bausch danced from. It is where James Turrell makes his light and where Howard Hodgkin took five years to make one moss green mark. It is the mouth of an open volcano, the mud and ashes of my camp at first light. We wish to reside here, but we cannot stay. It is a paradox: a place which visits us which we as selves cannot visit.
The manner of travel in this wondrous fermata is attraction to emptiness. Make in oneself a void of great enticement.
How can we write ourselves, draw ourselves, turn ourselves to this no-space, this liminal void? There is no place for ideas as we must make ample room for what can flood in. The absence of concern for self is the first step. To get ourselves to a place where we may do this safely takes training, going beyond identification with our pain and our stories, it takes much preparation of the physical sort. Still not opening? A year of madness and sacrifice should do the trick. A loss of faculties. Facing one's shame.
And then, backing into the room like a lost guest, the graceful, impossibly long-desired feeling arises, not a state of mind but a disposition of feeling. This guest will leave under the cold gaze of scrutiny. Glance kindly, briefly. The door that it both is, and which it enters through, is called ‘loss’. The key is letting go of self, the lintel is everything that we cannot know, but which we must rely on.
So, we invite it, this place-which-visits-us, this glade, with guilelessness, prayer and most of all with sacrifice, the real and unacknowledged ‘unspeakable vice of the Greeks’, which we must rediscover. Thus, emptied and set like Whitby jet in a ring of Welsh gold, we become one with the ground of creation.
That morning, I saw a long white bird fly north into the bay, unsure and unlikely, pale against the dark green elm tops. My heart leapt. A swan from Abbotsbury? But no, too thin. And besides, one so young would still be grey, a cygnet. Only as it landed in the topmost branches of a blessed surviving elm, and sat up, clearly relieved, did the milky droplet shape, an upturned distaff, full of pale wool rovings, reveal its nature: an egret. This is how I knew he was coming.
My heart was light, and after a minute's rest, the bird alighted, circled, and flew south again. Perhaps to find its mate upon the River Wey. Lifted, I recorded the sighting in my diary of such things, a metronomy of creatures and stars.
Once home, I couldn't shake the feeling of a blessing and caught myself at odd angles in shop windows smiling broadly for no reason. I met people and listened to them, but it was made clear to me that I was waiting, and should be patient.
Rovings are the scoured, smooth, final preparation of sheep's wool before spinning. Wound loosely in the distaff, their slow unwinding by the left hand allows the fibre to be teased into a fine thread by a drop spindle or spinning wheel and the gyring movements of the right hand. Unbind, extend, twist, drop down, gather up. And so, roving becomes yarn, just as journeys become stories.
This refining, if we allow it, means we must shed some of our conditioned protection and be scoured by life. If two fibres would be joined to make one thread, most of that greasy, gorgeous lanolin must go, be washed away, to be used elsewhere. Cleaned, dried, carded, and gathered, wool can be spun. And once spun, what vast opportunity arises. Fabrics, garments, raiments even. A winter sweater. A scarf, bright blue as the 4th of September.
The tall, pale winged one was his herald. Wandering through, rather princely, with the fine posture of living matter aligned to gravity. So when at the signpost I said to him, ‘Welcome to paradise,’ I was not joking. I have lifted living silver from the tide here and feasted on its flesh with salt and sea beet.
But I had not yet stood, casting shadows with another, as the half-moon rose over the rocks. Then, been taken in hand, pulled bodily into belonging.
If I had stayed in my bower would the storm not have swept up the valley to the ridge on which I slept, wrapped in diverse plastics and subsea sound? When the branch fell, and I ran breathless to the roundhouse, was not my real body left at the head of the valley of the shadow of death where the hazel turns to oak and the ash to chestnut? Here under the raw thatch I still lay not fearing evil nor believing in it, really, only the misguidedness of souls big chalk chunks gleam under my feet, what place has the devil to sit? Horned gods come unbidden to women in woods who know how to wait and these are not the devil unlike my father I had no patience and always had the last word but he was my furnace and I witnessed the sulphur mine of his desires fail to explode in two years he was dead, his bequest my bloody-mindedness, a facility for finding pleasure in unlikely places, two beef-dripping coloured moles and a love of bacon. Where there is deep lack there is also raging opportunity a chasm drawing others into it, my Grandmaster said I was ambitious and I had no idea but he was right I want to eat everyone and everything including the devil himself, as my appetite far outstrips his. If we were sat facing each other on stumps by the roundhouse fire in the Great Ridge Woods and my home-cured bacon were hanging in the rafters smoked by all that hazel, oak, ash and chestnut and if there were thick doorstep sandwiches passed round no matter what magic he used I would eat more I would eat more than him, and then I would eat him.
All photos from this week in Italy.
This week’s good thing: Red ochre from a disused bauxite mine in Puglia. My hosts have a white plastic sack full of great beauty. Ugh, I am in love again, I am sorry Golden Valley, Clearwell red, and all my other blood red earthen loves. I will return, or you can share me with this enticing Italian, and live happily together in my pigment hoard, my haematite harem.