Tag Archives: story

Through The Red Door

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Out the Red Door“Through the Red Door”
(It’s her imagination)

… As the curtain rises, we see little Johnnie all dressed in his new hat, red coat and black boots. He is standing next to the reading chair.
“I want to go outside and play,” he called to his mother.
It was early morning, even his cat Goldie was still asleep. Through the big window behind him he could see the garden with the cone flowers and the white picket fence. He wondered when his Mother would let him go beyond the white fence? He had a sandbox near the stone dove and a hiding place near the fountain. He loved to go through the red door into the garden. But he also longed to go over the white fence across the grass and beyond the meadow. He imagined exploring the forest. He heard there were creatures living in there. Perhaps he would see Winnie the Poo, Brer Rabbit, Mowgli or Mole and Ratty. He was sure the Hundred Acre Woods, the Riverbank, and the Jungle were in there among those far off trees. He wanted to check it all out for himself. He knew for sure that true adventures happened out there because his mother read to him from the night-time storybooks.

She sat in the corner and leaned up against the pillar She had her note book and pen ready and the story started to write itself. It was magical . What is it about the Red door that made her think of her cousin Johnnie. He was such a cute little guy. His daddy had bought him the boots. The black hat had come from her. The red door prompted the red coat with the black trim. Now dressed in the imaginary outfit little Johnnie stood in this imaginary room staring off, his hands clasp in front of him.”

I love the creative process. When I look at the finished Collage new stories and possibilities show themselves. The images prompt a tale of my own creation. Part of the fun of our image exchange is opening the mail and looking through the items enclosed.
Right away I fell in love with the child in the Red Coat. I also loved the Blue Rose. Which can be seen in the collage behind the stone bird. I eliminated a couple images but there were two other images I tried to include but even after altering there size and tucking them in here and there I couldn’t get them to work in this composition.

What’s it all mean? What do I see in the combination of images that have spoken to me?
I love the red door. It is unpretentious, strong but not threatening. I love the view of the flowers, their color, their form. I enjoy considering the white picket fence, the large evergreen tree and the mist on the meadow leading to the forest off in the distance. The chair, its style is formal but the fabric is delightful and reflects the petals on the garden flowers .I had the image of a pile of contemporary pillows for a while. I wanted to use the image but not as pillows. I like the pattern. I turned the pile on its side along the bottom third of the compositional frame but they migrated up to the top. They have a mask like quality to the design pattern, as if they represent a chorus watching the story or theater curtains lifted to expose the stage play. The scene has a safeness, a warmth about it. Is the young woman the child’s mother, his nursemaid, babysitter, a relative or an older sister? I also love the young woman’s gaze. She is lovingly focused on the child. The child is a wonderful, precious, innocent. How lucky women are to “know” the wonder of the new innocent. The cat, curled up under the chair reminds me of my cat, able to sleep anywhere. I find the pillar she is leaning against with its curves very feminine and sensual. The stone bird, missing its beak, makes it hard to tell if it is an owl or dove, both familiars of the Goddess. The blue petals of the rose form a halo behind the bird’s head. A Rose is also very special to the Goddess. This piece reminds me of innocence, safety, love, protection and the playfulness of our imagination.

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The Mermaid’s Tail

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The Mermaid's Tail

There was once a mermaid named Verdi, who longed to fly. When waves roiled and bubbled on the surface and the depths turned murky and opaque she longed for sun. On clear days the limpid emerald and turquoise seas drove her mad with their banality. She longed to swoop through a gamut of blues whose cerulean hues held no hint of green. Whenever she could, she rose to the surface and sent her woes spiraling heavenward in a high-pitched aria of sadness and despair.

Sometimes, when huge weather systems marched across the endless expanse of ocean, strong winds preceded them, heralding change with a phalanx of whirlwinds each bearing an armful of spoils torn from fertile lands beyond the horizon. Occasionally, their booty came as petals stripped from the flower pots and gardens of fisher women. Verdi gathered them carefully, transfixed by the faint hint of fragrance still clinging to each scrap of shimmering color.

In the short time before they turned to slime, she laid the petals out on the back of a large sea turtle, summoned from the depths to act as her table.  Arranging and rearranging them, Verdi tried her best to imagine their original configuration. But, she never could and then the sad, heart-breaking song would rise from the sea again, distressing every living thing above and below the surface.

One day an owl happened to be passing while Verdi was mixing and matching the flower petals. As he slowed his flight to see what she was up to, the tip of his wing crossed her peripheral vision. Without knowing what he was, before her head had swung around to follow his flight, she ensnared him in a web of golden trills. The beautiful notes, tough as spider silk bound his wings together and he tumbled out of the air. SPLAT!  Down, down down he fell, onto the turtle’s back.

The owl shook himself and stood up. His huge yellow eyes raked the mermaid’s sullen face and weedy locks.

“Caught me fair and square,” he muttered. “Well! You may have the requisite three wishes. They come with the standard warning and no guarantees. Be careful what you wish for.”

“I want to fly.”

“Easy enough; hop on. I’ll take you for a spin myself.”

“No! I want to do it myself.”

‘You haven’t any wings,” observed the owl craftily.

“Well then I wish for wings!”

“You wish for wings and the ability to use them in flight. Correct?”

“Yes.”

“That’s two,” screeched the owl, but the mermaid did not care.”

Her wings stuck out on either side of her body, just below her arms. She gave them a lazy flap and felt the air beneath her catch and take hold lifting and carrying as if she were a piece of thistledown. The view was all she hoped it would be. There on the very tip of the horizon she caught the glint of a palm leave rustling in the breeze. The owl flew alongside her. Normally he wouldn’t bother with a wisher, except for the actual granting, but something about Verdi made him curious to see what would happen next.

Land was all she had hoped for – the sights, the sounds, the smells and textures. How different everything looked when it was dry! Not quite as rich and shiny as when wet, but the variety more than made up for it. She flew and flew, soaring, diving, gliding and indulging in acrobatics until suddenly, far from the sea, hunger pangs sent tremors through her new wings and she realized how tired she was.

“How do I land?” she demanded.

“Is it your wish to land?” asked the owl casually?

Ye … er no, not just yet. Uh, how do you land?”

“On my feet,” smirked the owl.

The mermaid flapped her tail. They were flying over a thick patch of forest.

“What if I asked for legs? But then what would would I  eat? How long  till I learn to walk?”

Her stomach rumbled, interrupting the string of increasingly panic-stricken thoughts.

“I wish I had…” She clamped her teeth down hard on the tip of her little green tongue and winced.

Your wish is my command,” he murmured sweetly.

Her purple eyes stare fiercely into his yellow ones.  They refused to blink

“Take me home,” she ordered wearily.

In the blink of an eye, she was floating, once again, beside the patient sea turtle. The owl had disappeared, but the wings still hung by her sides so water-logged she was never again able to launch up into the sky, no matter how she practiced.  Nevertheless, Verdi loved her wings; liked the distinction they bestowed.  To her delight she discovered they worked well underwater, propelling her forward more swiftly than she’d ever swum.  She soon became a hunter and explorer of renown, traveling all the seven seas and finding wonders in their depths to equal anything on land.  Occasionally, she thought of the owl and sent a song winging his way.  But nothing ever came of it because, from that day forth, he steered clear of ladies with tails.

 Christine Irving, March 2014

The Cosmic Egg

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Cosmic Egg2

“This is how the ancients described the egg; some called it the copper stone or the Armenian Stone; others the brain stone; others the stone which is no stone; others the Egyptian stone; and others again the image of the world.”                                                                              ~ Anonymous alchemical manuscript

This week, I wanted to do something with eggs.  Eggs don’t really need their symbolism explained, but some of you might not know that The Cosmic Egg plays a major role in many creations myths.  It occurs as a motif among the Celts, Greeks, Egyptians, Phoenicians, Canaanites, Tibetans, Hindus, Vietnamese and Chinese.  The egg is complete and self-contained, holding within itself all things.  It only needs brooding – that is to say, love, tenderness, warmth, attention and recognition.  Something has to want it to hatch.

If I use this collage for self-analysis, I would say there is something in me wanting to be born that needs my attention and desire to bring it forth.

The cultures listed above have vastly different interpretations of how the egg came to be – it may have risen mysteriously from the sea or a white lake; or been vomited up; or laid, or whispered into being by a dragon.  Some say the egg is the Primal Spirit that arises out of the “sounding vibration” of the universe.  How ere it be, the egg is the first differentiation that follows Chaos – everything – earth, air, fire and water; Heaven and Earth, the Sun and Moon, arise from its hatching.

The egg holds within itself the dualities of the feminine masculine and masculine, egg and sperm. Or as The alchemical Axiom of Maria Prophitessa says: One becomes two, two becomes three, and out of the third comes the one as the fourth.

Looking at the collage you could say that out of the one egg arose the masculine and feminine which produced the man-child who became the fourth.  As you can see he is holding three birds.  Of course, that isn’t what I intended at all; my only intention was to begin with an egg.  However, as a student of symbols I am familiar with the language of alchemy.  Who knows what strange amalgam of knowledge and preference made me choose these images, which may have been sitting in my files for years?

The boy reminds me of the images of the Minoan priestess holding snakes with a cat on her head Minoan Snake Priestessand also of the mysterious boy child Zagreus who may have been the son of Persephone and Hades.  It is hinted that he appears as a symbol of rebirth in the Orphic Mysteries.  As the venerable riddle demonstrates, eggs are all about rebirth – “Which came first the chicken or the egg?”

I chose the flower because I wanted to add something lush and beautiful.  I tried a number of images but this one with its trailing sepals seemed chthonic and earthy as well as beautiful and alive.  I liked the funereal tinge it seemed to provide; the reminder that death is part of the mix.

By the time I got to the flower I was already thinking about ancient Greeks and Minoans – so this wasn’t as instinctive a choice as the others, but the collage work really starts to get fun for me when both sides of my brain are collaborating and playing off each other.  Of course, my internal symbols librarian had to egg and snakeput her two cents in, demanding a snake.  Eggs and snakes are ancient associates of each other.  The Celtic Cosmic Egg was born of a snake.  Like eggs, snakes are symbols of rebirth.  And, of course, snakes lay eggs themselves.  Who can forget the famous fierce fight to the death between the mongoose Rikki-Tikki-Tavi and the serpent Nagina in which, with the help of a courageous bird,  he saves the boy Teddy by capturing the cobra’s last egg and taunting her with it …

Yikes!  I’m off on another by-way, into another story; association leads to association, always with a thread of logic connecting them.  Today, the threads seem to be eggs, snakes, death, and the very word ‘mongoose!’

For me, creating a piece of art, crafting a poem or evolving a ritual connects the dots between images, ideas and insights I’ve been filing away for years.   I’m constantly grateful and excited that these miraculous psyches of ours allow for such an exponential expansion of creativity.   Isn’t it amazing we humans come with a built-in entertainment system?

And NOW for something different!

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And NOW for something different!

The two of us are pleased that we’ve stuck with our blog for a year but we are also very excited about starting this next year with a fresh new focus. We decided to continue with Myths, folktales, stories, poems and tall-tails but to broaden our approach. Instead of picking the tale/story first we are going to take an element, category or aspect of story and approach the creative work in an open-ended way. It is my hope this will expand the imagery to include some surprises and to connect to myths, stories and folk tales in a new way.

February is going to be about BIRDS. We are going to work with the idea of birds. Birds, all types of birds: sea birds, raptors, ducks, forest birds, open field birds, night birds, water fowl, big birds, tiny birds, birds as spirit, their feathers, beaks, feet, eggs, and nests, birds as totems, bird wings, bird flight, soaring, gliding, and flightless birds, diving birds, bird plumage, song birds, bird symbols, and their predators. We will be considering all of it.

Another change is that we are going to take turns posting. Each week one of us will be responsible for the blog post and art piece, (a mixed-media and/or collage) plus an essay, poem or story. Of course, we can always post more often but for sure every other week. We plan to give this format a 3 month trial and then decide to continue with it or make more adjustments.

The idea of this blog is to continue our collaboration, which we both love, to create an art piece on a regular basis, and to focus on the study and application of symbols, story, story telling and creative writing. We welcome your feedback and suggestions. If you’d like to play along with us let us know.

Kwan Yin and the Fox

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Kwan Yin and the Fox

One foggy night, long long ago, Kwan Yin, Goddess of Compassion, was passing through the narrow streets of a small rural town on the banks of the river Mu. Smoke from cooking fires combined with the damp cold air to produce fevers and loud hacking coughs that shook the thin paper walls of the houses and caused the entire population to toss and turn in fretful sleep.  Kwan Yin moved tirelessly from house to house laying cool fingers on hot foreheads, dripping her sweet balm onto the parched lips of sick children.  With so much human misery voicing discomfort and fear it was astonishing that her ears picked up the faint whine of a distressed animal.

It was coming from beneath an old overturned rowboat on the banks of the river.  A bent oarlock kept one side barely raised above the mud, while the other lay half-buried in muck.  Bending down to peer beneath the boat, Kwan Yin spied two emerald green eyes glowering from a far corner.  The smell of blood and urine and the sharp musk of fox told her all she needed to know.  The animal had become trapped, who knows how many days ago; faced with starvation, unable to extricate itself, it had begun to gnaw at its own paw in a last desperate attempt at freedom.

“Hush,” she hummed. “Hush, now.  Lie very still.”

Grasping the edge of the splintering wooden boat, the goddess heaved with all her strength, but he boat refused to budge.  Dropping to her knees, she dug a small hole in the dirt.  Placing her lips close to the ground she called softly, “Izanami, Sister Earth, can you hear me?”

The ground trembled beneath her knees.

“Please, dear sister. Grant your unworthy little sister this one small favor.  You hold a rowboat, old and crumbling, painted blue, half-buried beside the River Mu.  It holds one of your living creatures captive.  I beg you to release the fox into my care.”

The sound of tumbling rocks grinding against each other rose out of the hole.  Kwan Yin listened patiently to the familiar grumble.  She knew the lecture by heart – “Stop interfering, taking every disaster to heart, attempting to change the natural course of things …”Finally, the lengthy tirade ground to a stop.  The hole snapped shut as the river bank gave a convulsive twitch and flipped the row boat up in the air.  It landed with a splash, half in and half out of the water, drenching Kwan Yin’s white kimono.

She shook out her wet robes and tore a strip off the bottom of her underskirt.  The fox bared its teeth as her hand approached the mangled paw, but the fight went out of him at her touch.  His heavy sigh, sounded like a sob, like giving up, and for a moment she thought him expired.  Then his pink tongue, rough as a cat’s, licked feebly, twice across her fingers.

At that moment lights appeared at the end of the cobbled lane.  Gongs sounded, men shouted, and cymbals clanged.  A shaman’s voice rose above the crowd, exhorting the angry mob to search out the fox spirit who had brought sickness to their village.  Scooping the fox up in her arms, Kwan Yin stepped quickly into the rowboat.  The sudden redistribution of weight dislodged the boat from its loose mooring.  A moment later a strong current seized them in its grip and bore them away.

Muffled in darkness with nothing to see or do, the unlikely companions soon fell fast asleep.  They awoke in the midst of a snow-covered forest.  The boat drifted along more slowly now, closer to the banks.  Once or twice, Kwan Yin managed to snatch a branch of frozen berries from an overhanging bush.  She fed them one by one to the fox along with mouthfuls of snow, melted in her cupped palms.

The fog had dissipated and though the days remained overcast, at night the skies cleared to reveal a strange star burning large, low and bright on the western horizon.  The beautiful compelling light seemed to be guiding them. The two companions took to sleeping during the day and sitting awake at night to sing and yelp at the beautiful sight.

As the fox recovered, his red fur began to shine and his nose gleamed shiny and black. The green eyes sparkled with mischief and his scraggly tail fluffed out into a glorious bush.  One day he spoke.  “Tonight is the longest night,” he said conversationally,

Kwan Yin glanced at him, “You needed have bothered pretending not to talk.  I can read minds and I speak the tongue of every sentient creature.”

The fox looked crestfallen for a second.  “I knew there was something funny about you – you never eat or drink.”

“What do you mean – the longest night?”

“You mean you don’t know everything?”

She shook her head.

“It means the year is changing.  Winter is coming, but at the same time the light returns, the days get longer.  Tonight is a magical time of transition. Anything could happen.  Perhaps, our journey will finally come to an end”

No sooner where the words out of the fox’s mouth when the boat bumped into the bank and stuck fast in a tangle of roots.

“It’s almost midnight, “whispered the fox.

“Somewhere, a baby’s being born, a radiant child, a special child.  I can sense the mother’s labor pains and feel her joy,” replied Kwan Yin.

Above them the star flared.  It shone on the snow shrouded trees where one bare branch burst into flower.

“Time to go,” said the fox.  He jumped into Kwan Yin’s arms, licked her face and jumped.  The snow flew up in flurries, sparkling in the moonlight.  She blinked and he was gone.

 

 

Leaping for the Moon

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Leaping for the Moon

This piece went through many changes.  My first idea grew out of a song Anna sings in The King and I – “Toads toads, all your people are toads!”  I was remembering it as’ frogs’, but then I remembered that the courtiers were toadies and…never mind!  Suffice it to say I’ve had frogs on the brain and toads being such close relations get included in the mix.  With a bit of poetic license they can even stand in for their cousins (witness the previous collage).

At first, I envisioned a bunch of toads in a pool of water with their heads sticking out, but I couldn’t find the right kind of water in my picture files and my lily pads had disappeared somewhere.  I decided to make water out of strips of patterned paper in blues and greens and purples.  I found this great spiral design in the shades I wanted and decided movement was more fun than straight-edged strips.  The frogs looked wonderful with their heads sticking out, but then  this wonderful leapy-type jumped out at me begging to be used.  I placed  him above the waves, leaping into the air after a golden ball.

It looked great!  All I needed was a background.  Day or night?  I couldn’t decide.  I tried beige to match the previous collage, then a soft mottled dusky paper with mauve and lavender.  Rummaging through my calendar collection I came across one featuring moons.  What if he were jumping for the Moon instead of a golden ball?  The Moon is a ball!

When I put it all together, the other frogs seemed to take away from the drama of the picture.  Out they jumped!  Leaving me with another pared down simple image – even though my intention was to create a more complicated intricate piece.  Perhaps the message is that more and more, I value simplicity.  Or maybe, because the tales are structured so austerely, the pictures inspired by them also demand simplicity and a certain starkness, leaving room for the viewer/reader to fill in the planks and turn the caricatures into characters with motivations and emotions reflecting her/his own inner life.

Like the story,  this picture raises questions.  Is this an expression of exhilaration?  Or does it teach me about the foolishness and futility of trying to reach beyond my grasp?  Maybe it’s a lesson in lunacy?  Or possibly, connection?

All stories hold layers of meaning and all woven with the warp and woof of real experiences, real people’s lives.  Pull out just one thread and it will pull you down by-ways you never imagined were there.  You may even find yourself leaping for the Moon.

And Sarah Laughed…

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and sarah laughed

One day, God took with him two angels and went visiting, disguised as a wayfaring stranger.  Abraham, obeying the ancient laws of hospitality ran out to welcome the weary travelers in.  He ordered a lamb slaughtered and sent Sarah to bake bread.  Seating the stranger in a place of honor, he offered him wine, dates, almonds and salty olives.  God, pleased with Abraham’s kindness to strangers, promised that Sarah, who had been barren her whole long life, would soon bear a son.  Sarah, eavesdropping on their conversation from within the folds of her tent laughed to herself at the idea.  God heard her and asked Abraham why she laughed.  Sarah, frightened, denied that she had. “Yes you did,” said God.

What a strange and wonderful story this is.  I’ve read several interpretations of Sarah’s laughter – some describe it as a peal of joy, others as a snort of derision.

In the entire Bible Sarah is the only person who is described as laughing.  Laughter is mentioned in a few other places and a couple of times groups of people laugh scornfully, but no other individual laughs. This is an old old story, repeated hundreds of times before it was written down more than six hundred years after it was first told.  Why did this little detail of one woman’s quiet laughter survive?

I found a great article by Richard Restak on the psychology and physiology of laughter.  Basically, laughter releases endorphins that make us feel good.  It relieves stress, alleviates anxiety and lowers our blood pressure.  Laughter also dispels nervousness, eases social situations and creates feelings of companionship and good will. Laughter can also be derogatory, self-deprecating or ironic.

Maybe God’s insistence that Sarah acknowledge her laughter was a way of underlining the importance of laughter.  Maybe, it meant, “don’t undermine your own human nature.” Perhaps it serves to remind us to stay present and take ourselves less seriously.  Consider how important the issue of reproduction was and still is to many women.  Then and now, it bears directly on honor, shame, status, fulfillment, personal happiness and identity.  Sarah had been living with the burden and shame of being barren for her whole life. Her reaction to Hagar and Ishmael indicates great defensiveness around the subject.  Maybe the story tells us that relaxing our hard grip on the identities we create for ourselves opens an opportunity for change.  Look how often women who try for years to become pregnant finally conceive after giving up and going on vacation or adopting a baby. There are many ways of being pregnant with things other than babies – dreams, projects, causes, art.  For any of them to come to fruition we need to relax, breathe, and let go of outcome.  We need to laugh.

Especially we need to laugh at ourselves and the absurd situation of being human.  It difficult to be self-aware. Consciousness is both blessing and curse, it can heal but also cripple.  Laughter, a phenomenon that even now scientists cannot entirely explain, explodes paradox and shifts our perspective. It breezes like a cleansing wind through our darkest passions and most twisted assumptions, if only we let it.  The story tells us to remember, honor, and use this gift as an antidote to suffering.

In this collage we see Abraham relaxing together under the trees, drinking wine.  Sarah, having heard her name spoken, leans against the tent pole eavesdropping on the conversation.  Traditionally in those days, when a man and woman were depicted together in a work of art, particularly if they were “man and wife,” the woman would be drawn smaller than the man.  Here I’ve reversed the tradition because it is Sarah’s story that interests us; her emotions drive the story and it is her laughter we remember.

Cinderella BCE

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In this collage I return to the oldest known Cinderella story, Rhodopis.  It comes to us from the Greek geographer Strabo (64/63 BCE – c. 24 CE) who heard it in Egypt.  Another account of Rhodopis has survived in Aelian’s (175 – c. 235) writings implying the Cinderella theme remained popular throughout antiquity. Interestingly, the story mentions Aesop of fable fame who lived 500 years earlier, indicating that the story probably originated much earlier than the 1st century CE. Aesop used stories featuring animals to teach lessons in morality; from her very beginning, Cinderella is doubly linked with the animal world.

In this version Rhodopis is a slave girl who is teased unmercifully by the other servant girls for her fair complexion.  After her master gives her a pair of rose-gilded slippers, they dislike her even more.  At the next feast day they give her so many chores she cannot attend the celebration.  As she washes clothes in the Nile, her slippers get wet and she puts them on the bank to dry. The god Horus swoops down in his falcon form, flies off with her sandal, and drops it in the Pharaoh’s lap.  He goes in search of the owner and you know the rest of the story!

I’m struck by how very old this story is and how long it retained the shoes and the bird as part of its bones. In my last post I mentioned the symbolism of ownership and possession inherent in the shoes. Years ago, I moved to Saudi Arabia where I lived for sixteen years.  One of the first things I learned was not to ever point the soles of my shoes at someone.  It is considered an insult.  I always thought it was because shoes touched the dirt and were unclean.  I see now that it might imply ownership.  In a part of the world where slavery existed officially until very recently and still continues unofficially in some households, I understand how this might indeed be a grave offense.  It also explains why shoes are left at the door of the mosques (and in other countries and faiths, the temples).  The holy places belong to God and no human can possess them or claim ownership.

Of all the places in the world where one might need shoes, the desert takes the cake.  Given the heat, the stones, the difficulty of walking in sand, a shoe offers freedom of movement and the ability to travel long distances.  Freedom and travel are hardly synonymous with possession and ownership, in fact they seem opposed.  Like many seeming opposites, they simply occupy different ends of a spectrum.  Or perhaps they are mirror images of each other.  Maybe the point of them, in this story, is to teach that two things can be true at the same time. Or that one thing can simultaneously be true and not true …

In my collage there is only the god Horus, the sandal, the sky and the desert.  I wanted to capture a tiny bit of the majesty and terror and beauty of this stark realm.  The collage represents a moment of suspension, of transition and transformation.  In a moment the shoe will drop into Pharaoh’s lap and everyone’s life will change.

The collage recalls a passage in my novel Magdalene A.D. in which Mary Magdalene, the protagonist, has been stung by scorpions.  Lying in a fever, near death, she dreams three dreams.  In the second dream she falls through the sky like the sandal in my collage.  In the third, she dreams of flying over the desert in the shape of a sacred vulture.  These images also recall my vision quest in the Mojave, during which I spent three days and nights in the desert in the company of a Joshua tree.

I feel deeply satisfied with this image (though the blue of the sky didn’t scan very well because I used a metallic electric-blue paper that was really hard to work with).  It seems a far cry from all the busyness of the story and its complex overlay of worldly socio-economic concerns, yet somehow Cinderella brought me to a place of immense solitude and hushed expectancy.  Cinderella consistently retains its ties to the spirit world – whichever of the many versions one reads there is always some mystical connection made by an animal, plant or ancestor that connects the feminine to the divine.   Perhaps this is the true meaning of the story.   Buried in a midden of lust, ambition, greed and cruelty the heart of the world still beats for us, still offers connection.

The Princess and the Pea

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Princess and Pea

This month we leave ancient myths and time-honored tales to devote ourselves to a modern composer of fairy tales.  It takes real art and a profound grasp of human nature to create the kind of story that rings true across differing cultures and thus becomes told and retold time and time again, fitting seamlessly into the repertoire of wonder tales read aloud in the evening before bedtime.

Hans Christian Anderson was such a fellow.  Bullied during an impoverished childhood he took refuge in books and made the land of enchantment his own at a very early age.  He was an awkward shy man with unfortunate features, given to romantic crushes on beautiful unobtainable people.  The suffering and depression thus engendered added that dark undertone to stories based on acute observation and understanding of the quirks of human behavior.  Though humor isn’t an overt feature of his stories it lurks in the character sketches of his secondary characters.  The mother duck that hatches a swan, silly Thumbelina and her toad, the poor soldier’s magic gadget which allows him to know what everyone in town is having for dinner all represent sly tongue-in-cheek sketches of human psychology and culture, keeping the stories just as fresh today as when he wrote them.

It is just this combination of bold plots, dark pathos and embedded humor that appealed to me and also thousands of other children around the world.  Certainly it is a mix that strongly mirrors the reality of many childhoods.  Though adults often choose to forget, children often find adult behavior ludicrous.  They quickly learn to hide their smiles and opinions, but revel in stories, which subtly mock their guardians.

“The Princess and the Pea” is one of our favorites.  It is very short- we’ll see how we get on as we go along.  Lot of other stories by H.C. Anderson are jumping up and down right off-stage impatiently waiting their turn!!

Meanwhile, today the story hit me as very African, in that African tales often deal with relationships between people involving their place in the family, tribe or society.  The Princess and the Pea is a mother-in-law story.  It has only three characters and two props – the mattress(es) and the pea.

African families tend to be large intimate extended associations with little privacy and an abundance of opinions in which the mother’s voice and views dominant in domestic affairs.  When a new wife enters the household she is frequently in competition with her husband’s mother for his attention.  Of course this happens in many cultures around the world, but in western countries, particularly the United States where women exercise power outside the home and families live in small private units, mother-in-law issues have greatly subsided.  However, Anderson was writing at an earlier time when living space was divided into two domains – the domestic and public.  Women ruled the domestic sphere and men the public. This story depicts a power struggle between the matriarch (queen) and the son’s fiancé.  Though the prince loves this woman, he will not save her from the trials imposed by his mother and closes his eyes to any conflict. The bride wins her place in the family because her innate character and backbone (depicted in reverse as sensitivity) let her prevail.

In my collage racism (hinted at in the different skin tones of mother, son and bride) is a metaphor for all the ways we humans rank and judge each other according to our differences.  In this story we sense no one would really be good enough for the queen’s son, because she doesn’t want to share him at all.  Thus she is looking for any and all reasons to discredit and discard his lover.

However, the young woman is accepted and she does become part of the family, so the different skin tones also show the beautiful melding and acceptance possible when we manage to set prejudice aside.

The earliest known bedding dates to 77,000 BCE and was discovered in Sibudu Cave, South Africa. Beds have always been a sign of wealth.  Until recently they were often listed in wills as significant pieces of property.  The number of mattresses available to the Queen implies prodigious wealth.  When the girl calls for more and more of them, she is attempting to demonstrate ability and poise in coping with that unfamiliar wealth.

Dried peas are still a very important food staple in Africa as they were for many centuries in Europe where they often served to ward off famine.  (“Pease porridge hot, pease porridge cold, pease porridge in the pot nine days old.”) Perhaps this bride-to-be’s sensitivity to the pea portends a respect for food, survival and the necessity to provide and care for the general population of her new kingdom.

And a Child Shall Lead Them

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And A Child Shall Lead Them_NEW

Besides motherhood, this story seems (to me) to be about doorways and the insouciance of children.   There’s something about it that keeps me making these very simple compositions with only one or two images.  I keep trying to make it more complex and layered, but when I do it all looks like a muddle to me and again I’m reduced to the child and the universe.

Doorways to me are about choice. Do we pass through them or pass them by? Do we slam them shut or fling them open?  Where do they lead?

Krishna’s mouth offers  infinite possibility.

In fairy tales doorways generally lead one into a different reality, another kingdom, an alternative universe.  Portals challenge us to change – our minds, our attitudes, our perceptions and assumptions.  Change is at the heart of all fairy tales.  And change is the core of the life force.  Someone once told me,”Change or die!”  I took her advice, and the new growth deriving from the changes I made continues to thrive and grow to this day. I think my collage says- “Don’t be afraid.  Look at me.  I’m a child, yet I step out without fear.

I think the name of this piece is, And a Child Shall Lead Them.