There is magic in good storytelling. In a world that can seem so woefully devoid of magic, we have a tendency to romanticize the writer, who is in touch with that magic in a deep, visceral way. But humans have been telling stories for as long as we've been human. Those who are lucky enough to call themselves professional writers have a particular set of skills and an admirable work ethic, but they don't hold the monopoly on good storytelling. The astrophysicist and the bank manager and the firefighter and the dairy farmer have stories of their own to tell. Storytelling at its root is a communal activity, something that can be shared by everyone. NaNoWriMo inspires us because it reminds us that storytelling is not about self-torture or perfectionism or asceticism, let alone popularity or profit. We can reclaim storytelling as basic human nature. We can recapture the creativity and imagination that is our birthright. We can push back against a society that would drain the world of its magic.
"One day I am sweet, another day I am sour," says the Irish trickster god Manannan mac Lir in his guise as the disheveled traveling buffoon whose hat is full of holes and whose shoes squish with puddle water when he walks. Manannan appears in folktales sometimes as a buffoon and sometimes as a richly dressed bard of talent and renown. When he is a buffoon, his words are sweet and his music sweeter; when he is a master of his craft, he comes off as a fake and an ass. When he is at home, he is a king whose otherworldly castle is thatched with white birds' wings. But the half-thatched homes of the mortal bards will never be complete. While the poets are away gathering their feathers, the winds have already swept away the last day's work. Which is the real god? The king, the poet, or the wandering buffoon? Which is the real writer? Which is the real me?
Between research and writing, there is a lacuna in which almost anything can happen. The hush is nearly unbearable. In my mental landscape, ideas rustle and nudge towards one another through the tall prairie grasses, their haunches twitching with tension, ready to flee. Eros is thick in the air. Ecology rubs up against ritual theory, playing with the hem of her skirt. Bruce Lincoln is making eyes at Lewis Hyde. The deer of my dreams raise their heads to listen hard for the hunter. The salmon of wisdom are working their way home. Any moment, I'm going to start writing. Any moment...
Have you ever heard of a murder of crows? I strongly believe that the mass noun term for poets should be bureaucracy. Singly, poets have this reputation for being sensitive, articulate, deeply strange and haunted — not to say enlightened — creatures who drift through life with the veils lifted and the doors of perception open. Don't be fooled.
When my friend Carl McColman says that language is tricky, and that God is bigger than the limits of the human mind, we might imagine our words are just so many rigged-up rubber bands, paper clips and packing tape with which we are, MacGyver-style, trying to capture a wild and mighty wind. Yet our words are our own breath given form by our body and its movements, and where else have we drawn that breath but from the winds themselves? Our speaking is a shaping of the wind within us, released back into the wild to work its way into someone else's body, moving with the ebb and flow of sound waves, pressing in against their eardrums, stirring the tiny hairs of their skin. To talk about language this way is to break out of the metaphor of objects and containers, and to see words as experiences in themselves.
Maybe I was a weird kid, more enamored, more sensitive than most, and as I've grown up, my perspective has changed and evolved. But that this is true only convinces me all the more of how important it is to appreciate the diversity of experiences and the many voices that strive to share them, and not to be too quick to dismiss certain experiences or perspectives as less valuable or insightful than others. Is there only one way to appreciate nature? I can't believe there would be just one.
When we see nature itself as a constantly-unfolding story about the deepest, most sacred truths of life and death, we can adapt the practice of Lectio Divina as a creative approach to meditation that can strengthen our relationship with the earth. Here are just a few ideas about how to use the practice of Lectio Divina to engage with the stories of nature. Although we can approach each of the four stages of Lectio Divina as distinct activities that we can do one at a time on their own, we experience the most benefit from this kind of spiritual work when we bring them together into a single coherent, continuous practice.
Not all of our companions will elbow their way into our lives and demand our attention. Some of them linger beyond the limits of our ordinary experiences, leaving only footprints and snapped twigs as traces of their presence. These are our guides to the depths of mystery and wilderness. They are dark wanderers who cross our paths only in the obscurity of a moonless night, whose form we seem to see only just on the periphery of our vision before it dissolves again into the tangled undergrowth of the unknown. They are the companions whose presence we sense with the thrill of uncertainty, that mixture of excitement and terror that gives rise to awe. Their breath is the sound on the edge of hearing that we catch just when we think we are alone. Lest we forget that nature is not only familiar and intimate, but deeply wild and strange. Lest we forget that some things are hidden, and will remain hidden. The bear is, for me, this kind of companion.
We want so very much to understand our gods, to know them intimately, to see how they work in our lives. It is tempting to dissect, to analyze, to categorize. And sometimes, it is necessary, even beneficial. We are categorizing creatures, we human beings. We pick out patterns as a matter of survival. When it comes to our gods, we reach for them not only with our prayers and offerings, but with our reason and our intellects — we would know them with our whole selves, in all their parts, in part so that we might know our own selves better in all our parts. The challenge is to delve into theology without killing its subject, to try our hand at analysis and critical thinking without pretending that the numinous divine is a dead thing that will hold still beneath our careful knives. Theology is not dissection. It is much more gruesome than that; it is vivisection.
Christmas eve night, about nine o'clock. Basket slung over one arm and bumping into my hip with every step, I trudge through the snow. The ribbon wound around the basket's slim handle glistens in a hint of milky moonlight, gold thread woven in elaborate patterns through the deep red cloth. In the basket, a red pillar candle and two tapers — scented "seasonal berry" — jostle in a nest of intertwined greens, bits of douglas fir and blue spruce smelling sweetly of bent needles and dried sap; wedged among them, the frankincense sticks, the crystal bowl full of dark sunflower seeds and dried cranberries, the small jar of spring water decorated with silvery snowflake designs and curled bits of blue string. The snow crunches as I feel my way along the un-shoveled path through the park, some of it falling onto the tops of my moccasin-like shoes and slipping down inside to melt against bare skin.