LIFE AS MYTH
Art and artifacts
A peach of great price
Once upon a time
The golden thread
Mary & Co.
Secrets of the hidden garden
A call to wonder
The poetics of grace
A living myth
The seeds of wisdom
Life as myth
A vision quest
A feminine myth
Impressions at sunrise
Following a white hart
THE LESSONS IN THE PEACH
Though Georgia is the self-proclaimed "peach state" I heard once that they actually grow more peaches in South Carolina. That feels right to me because when I was a little girl that is where we always went to buy them. During the summer months (usually starting in June) we would pile into my mother's blue and white Plymouth station wagon, cross over the Talmadge Bridge and head in the general direction of Hardeeville, South Carolina. That's where they had roadside stands which sold fresh fruits and vegetables, fruits and vegetables so fresh, in fact, that they had been picked that very morning. Yellow corn with silk tasseled tips, vine ripened tomatoes, pole beans, yellow squash, swollen snake-skinned watermelons. And, of course, peaches, fuzzy skinned and sticky sweet.
And something rather like that might be found in the mythology surrounding Hsi Wang Mu, ruler of the western paradise and keeper of the Peaches of Immortality.
The jade palace of Hsi Wang Mu is on the peaks of the snowy mountain range of K'un-lun and is the home of the Immortals. According to Taoist myth, the peach orchards of Hsi Wang Mu leaf out once every three thousand years but it is only after an additional three thousand years that the trees bear a season of fruit. The banquet to celebrate this event takes place on the shores of the Yao Ch’ih (Lake of Gems) and attended by the Immortals. The feast includes such delicacies as dragon liver and phoenix marrow. The highlightis the, rarest of rare, Immortal Peach, which has the magical property of bestowing immortality on all who taste it.
Two stories with two peaches. The first peach linked to South Carolina summers and station wagons and the pleasures of a roadside fruit. The second linked to a jade palace and a Chinese goddess and the gift of immortality. Any connection between the two? Yes, it has to do with our mortality. And when the stories are viewed through that mythic lens, a somewhat larger question emerges -- which is -- how do I bridge the gap (inside myself) between mortal living and immortal Life?
With midlife comes the specter of our own mortality. And the more palpable presence of Death can bring chaos, disruption, depression, withdrawal, or any other number of psychological demons. However, our mortality is, in fact, a gift -- because it is only by awakening to our own mortality that we create the possibility of receiving the gift of our immortality.
So what does that mean? It's about crafting a life which lies somewhere between the back seat of a Plymouth station wagon and the shores of the Lake of Gems. And what lies in between is -- who you are, the essence of who you really are, your particular spark of the divine fire. Not what you have always been told you are or who you ought to be -- but who you really are and the life that expresses that divine spark.
The challenge is what happens on the way to the Lake of Gems -- the lessons found in Life's obstacles, setbacks, self-doubt, suffering.
Over the years I have watched many times the PBS series, The Power of Myth. The program is a six hour documentary which features conversations between Joseph Campbell, noted mythological scholar, and television journalist Bill Moyers. Taped in 1988 shortly before Campbell's death, The Power of Myth explores the transformative potential of myth for the individual and the society as a whole.
Last night as I struggled with writer's block on how to finish this piece, I turned again to Campbell and Moyers. When I placed the DVD into the player it continued where I had apparently left the program from the last time. And with that section, I now conclude.
Moyers: What is the adventure that I have to take, you have to take? You talk of something called a soul's high adventure.
Campbell: My general formula for my students is "follow your bliss." Find where it is and don't be afraid to follow it.
Moyers: Can my bliss be my life's love or my life's work? Is it my work or my life?
Campbell: Well, if the work you are doing is the work you chose to do because you enjoy it, then that's it. But if you think, "Oh, gee, I couldn't do that." That's your dragon, locking you in.
Moyers: Unlike the classical heroes, we're not going on the journey to save the world but to save ourselves.
Campbell: And in doing that you save the world. I mean you do. The influence of a vital person vitalizes. There's no doubt about it. The world is a wasteland. People have the notion of saving the world by shifting it around and changing the rules and so forth. No. Any world is a living world if it is alive. And the thing is to bring it to life. And the way to bring it to life is to find where it is in your own life and be alive yourself.
Moyers: You say I have to take that journey and slay those dragons. Do I have to go alone?
Campbell: If you have someone who can help you, that's fine, too. But ultimately the last trick has to be done by you.
The Power of Myth/Episode One: The Hero's Adventure (on DVD), with Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers (1988).
PROLOGUE AT YEAR END
Did you ever write a letter to yourself, one that you meant to revisit at a later time? I think the same idea is behind marking the interior frame of doors with your children's heights. If you look back at the series of scratches over time, you can see how much they have grown.
This post is a doorway of sorts, my doorway, made up of artwork from the past decade. It forms its own series of scratches, marking various milestones, moving from 2011 to 2017 to 2020 to the conclusion of 2021. It stirred up a lot of memories to re-visit this material. Artwork, after all, reflects the journey of the artist.
And so here is my end of the year post. Wishing you a happy new year in 2022 and one more beautiful scratch on the doorway of your journey.
ON PEACHES, SQUIRRELS AND THE LADY BUG WHO CAME TO STAY
Every year when my peach tree fruits I think about that lovely myth of the immortal peach. This year was no different. Then the squirrels crashed the birthday party. But, in the end, there was a single peach, protected in the highest branches of the tree, and somehow that seems right. Earlier this week I ate the immortal peach. It was completely wonderful, the best fruit so far. As for next year, I'll remember all the lessons the peach tree has taught me and I'll be buying squirrel nets.
A yearly update on me, the little peach tree and the neighborhood squirrels. Something very interesting happened in our relationship in the spring of 2021.
First. She produced hundreds of fruits this year. But now how to protect the crop from the neighborhood squirrels? Last year it was squirrel nets but this year she had outgrown them. If I had had a crane and some human ground support then maybe we could have wrapped her up against the furry felons. But she was left exposed. Her branches began to droop with fruit. I began culling the fruit, tossing the extras in the bushes. But I couldn't begin to do enough. There was that much fruit.
What should have worked but didn’t: squirrel nets and culling.
Next. The squirrels began their attack, taking bites of the young peaches and leaving the damaged goods behind. I tried to push back. I'd open the front door and shoo them (like that would help). Once I went right up to the tree to chase a squirrel away. When he didn't move I began shaking the branch. He remained, not moving one inch. This was the crossroads for me and his kind. I gave up. Maybe I'd given up a week or so earlier but it was official now: they had bested me. Again.
I felt bad for giving up, for making that choice. But then I realized something. I could beat the squirrels at their own game. There was so much fruit that it didn’t matter. The squirrels were now free to raid the tree without interference. The heavy branches soon began to lift and small weak twigs littered the ground around Little Peach tree. The squirrels were doing my work for me — culling and pruning, something I was unable to do.
Of course One must never be complacent about squirrels. I couldn't hope they would leave me a share of the peaches. So today I harvested 46 peaches. All that remained on the tree. They are vibrant, unblemished and quite small. They will ripen undisturbed on my window sills.
Squirrels, Little Peach tree and I now coexist. At least this year we do. Little Peach tree looks exhausted, having given birth to so much bounty. The squirrels have a few more damaged peaches to eat and then they will move on to their summer work: taunting my dogs in the back yard.
As for me. I’m musing on this year‘s teaching from the peach tree -- ideas about harmony and natural cycles and coexistence. About picking your battles, especially when dealing with squirrels.
Shown here is a commemorative video of the harvest of 2021, starring a ladybug who hitchhiked into the house in a basket of peaches. A ladybug who refused an offer to take her back outside and flew away into the recesses of a little home -- where she is most welcome.
A PEACH OF GREAT PRICE
My spunky little peach tree, first blighted by a spring cold snap and then defoliated by a plague of ravenous bugs in 2017, keeps on keeping on. She bloomed her heart out this spring and now is studded with fruit. - - My peach tree (June 3, 2018)
This week I completed a yearlong daily writing project. My first entry was the one that began this post (June 3, 2018), a few sentences about a young peach tree in my front yard. There was a great peach harvest last year, with so many peaches that I made a big batch of peach chutney. It was remarkable considering what had happened in 2017. After an accident in mid-summer I was pretty badly hurt. During my recovery a swarm of hungry bugs attacked my beloved peach tree. First it looked like a flame thrower had scorched a few branches and then the whole tree slowly succumbed. Crippled by my accident, I watched helplessly from the living room window as every single leaf dropped off. To make matters worse, the Internet, conveyer of all wisdom, said bug infestations like that one can kill young vulnerable trees.
When I was strong enough, I hobbled into the yard and hammered some treated fertilizer pellets in the ground all around the skeletal tree. Then tree and I waited and hoped. Irma's rain helped the treatment dissolve and not long after the peach was covered in leaf buds and there were healthy green leaves erupting from the tips.
I decided to let my peach tree rest a little bit this year and didn't fertilize it in the fall. As a result, the peach harvest was much smaller this spring -- but the peaches were gorgeous things, full of color and with the most delicious peachy smell. (Probably because there wasn't so much competition draining the reserves of my young tree.) But there's a twist to this story. I went out to check on the peach tree late last week, and as I came down the front steps I noticed a peach at the foot of the staircase. It was nibbled halfway down and discarded. More bad news to come. The squirrels had stripped the peach tree clean, except for one lone peach at the top of a very high branch. I picked it and brought it in the house to finish ripening near the kitchen window.
Now for the lesson in the peach.
There's a Chinese myth about peaches and the goddess Hsi Wang Mu who lives on the snowy peaks of K'un-lun, the home of the Immortals. Every six thousand years Hsi Wang Mu has a birthday celebration which is called ‘the Feast of Peaches.’ The date for the festival exactly coincides with the ripening of the immortal peaches.
According to Taoist myth, the peach orchards of Hsi Wang Mu leaf out once every three thousand years but it is only after an additional three thousand years that the trees bear a season of fruit. The banquet to celebrate this event takes place on the shores of the Yao Ch’ih (Lake of Gems) and is attended by all of the Immortals. The feast includes such delicacies as dragon liver and phoenix marrow. However, the highlight of the banquet is the, rarest of rare, Immortal Peach, which has the magical property of bestowing immortality on all who taste it.
What's the lesson here -- besides a few fundamentals of peach tree maintenance? The peach tree is not so remarkable if you consider all the troubles that come with keeping her healthy. And from year to year the challenge of bringing her to fruit can be daunting. Who needs that? But I love her anyway. She is a lesson in patience, as all things garden are. She requires more care and more time that you think she should, as all things garden do. But it's something more, it's the story we have shared together, the peach tree and me, since I came back to Georgia, a story measured in planting and budding and blooming and fruit.
Every year when my peach tree fruits I think about that lovely myth of The immortal peach. This year was no different. Then the squirrels crashed the birthday party. But, in the end, there was a single peach, protected in the highest branches of the tree, and somehow that seems right. Earlier this week I ate the immortal peach. It was completely wonderful, the best fruit so far. As for next year, I'll remember all the lessons the peach tree has taught me and I'll be buying squirrel nets.
THE PEACH TREE AND ME
Two stories about healing.
During my recovery from all the broken parts a swarm of hungry bugs attacked neighborhood trees and shrubs. My beloved peach tree got hit hard. First it looked like a flame thrower had scorched it. Crippled by an accident in the summer, I watched helplessly from the living room window as every single leaf dropped off. To make matters worse, the Internet, conveyer of all wisdom, said bug infestations like this one can kill young vulnerable trees.
I love the tree. She gave me fruit the very first year. I want us to have a long fruitful relationship. So. When I was strong enough, I hobbled into the yard and hammered some treated fertilizer pellets in the ground all around the skeletal tree. And then tree and I waited and hoped. Irma's rain helped the treatment dissolve and now the peach is covered in leaf buds and there are healthy green leaves erupting from the tips.
This week I went to the doctor and I'm adjusting to life sans Frankenstein boot. So I can drive again which is wonderful. Walking is a work in progress. Remember Bambi's first steps in the Disney movie? Yeah. Kind of like that. But one thing I told the doctor, true for me and the peach tree, is : "It feels like it's not going to get better but healing does happen."
The peach tree and me. We're doing ok.
[Update: My spunky little peach tree, first blighted by a spring cold snap and then defoliated by a plague of ravenous bugs in 2017, keeps on keeping on. She bloomed her heart out this spring and now is studded with tiny fruit.]
THE PEACH STATE AND ME
No experience has been too unimportant,
and the smallest event unfolds like a fate,
and fate itself is like a wonderful, wide fabric
in which every thread is guided by an infinitely tender hand
and laid alongside another thread
and is held and supported by a hundred others.
Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet (April 23, 1903)
Over this past year or so, all the appliances in my kitchen broke. Disposal, stove, dishwasher, microwave. Everything, except the refrigerator. Contrary to the ancient wisdom that says don't leave things broken because that will attract more broken things into your world, I let them rest in peace in my kitchen and reverted to no-microwave, no-disposal, patch-and-mend-dishwasher and toaster-oven living.
Then last spring I had a conversation with the kitchen fairy. You see, the appliances weren't the only problem. The DIY kitchen cabinets featured doors made out of old windows and, consequently, wouldn't pass safety codes, much less an energetic bump from one of my mammoth dogs. And the giant concrete laundry basin that masqueraded as my kitchen sink never drained properly and was home to black mold (all the time).
To repair or not to repair? No easy answer. There's the possibility I might have to leave my home next year so why bother? But we decided, the kitchen fairy and I, that I should probably just take a step in faith and pull everything out. The house would probably sell for more, if it came to that, and I could actually cook in the meantime. In late June I began what was to be a four month process of redoing the kitchen.
There were losses along the way. One of the cabinet shelves collapsed due to flimsy shelf clips and heaved my mother's blue willow china on to the floor. Lost quite a few pieces to the clip debacle. Then one of the carpenters dropped a screw driver from a terrible height on a pile of pretty painted dishes. Seriously, how that sharp-shooting screwdriver managed to navigate through boards and cabinets to land squarely on a helpless little dish is nothing short of remarkable. I picked up the various broken bits and put them on the dining room table to toss out later.
Then one more break -- when I fell hauling construction debris to the street -- spraining one uninsured foot and breaking the equally uninsured other. I couldn't drive. I couldn't walk. I crawled around on my hands and knees. I slept on the sofa for weeks. I cooked frozen meals in a toaster oven on a trunk at the end of the sofa. Shortly after my fall, the carpenters disappeared after receiving their first paycheck. Life didn't stop for chaos but thanks to a whole lot of help from friends and family the groceries arrived, there was help with trips to the orthopedic clinic, etc. Even the remaining subcontractors found all kinds of ways to extend unexpected kindness. Hauling away debris. Buying me a pair of plumber's knees to cushion my crawling.
The girl with the peaches: portrait of Vera Mamontova. Valentin Serov. 1887. Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.
This brings me back to the lesson of the broken dish.
My son saw the ceramic remains, ready for the garbage heap, and asked why I didn't just repair it. Had I heard of kintsugi? Kintsugi means "golden joinery". Using a lacquqer mixed with gold, silver, or platinum, artisans repair broken objects in a way that highlights the damage. When an object breaks, that's just part of its story and a reason for celebration. How had I never heard of this?
Hearing my summer story a wise friend asked whether there was a lesson that Life might be offering me. Well, that's a complicated idea, I said, while crawling to the toaster oven. But maybe Life did want me to learn something new. If I can apply kintsugi principles to last summer, to all my summers, maybe I'll see my life with new eyes -- messy, unpredictable, sublimely beautiful at the broken places.
A FEAST OF PEACHES
Georgia peaches are a fixture at summer roadside stands and I've learned how to determine their ripeness when shopping -- a slight give to the fruit when gently squeezed and a rich peachy aroma. The same rules have worked for my homegrown ones this summer when picking them in the front yard.
So what to do to celebrate the ripening of the Dovekeep peaches? Peach chutney, of course. The five star recipe that has won my heart requires four pounds of Dovekeep peaches along with red pepper, cardamon and diced ginger. These are additions to a personal spice collection that, up to now, only contained peppercorns and kosher salt.
The process takes time and I've decided to enjoy it, photographing each step along the way. This image is one of my favorites. It's an early step -- the peaches have been scored at the bottom, put in a pot of simmering water for thirty seconds, then doused in ice water. This makes it easier to peel the peaches but it also makes their color more vibrant. Hours later from when I began. The chutney is simmering on the stove, leaving the house heavy with the smell of apple cider vinegar and brown sugar. In a few minutes I will return to the kitchen and finish, putting the chutney in mason jars.
It's hard to gauge how much chutney will result but I hope there will be enough for a few gifts -- along with a summer brunch for my family. There might not be any dragon liver or phoenix marrow to eat but there will be a feast of green salad and Mimosas and grilled cheddar sandwiches on sourdough with plenty of Dovekeep peach chutney.
EPILOGUE AT YEAR END
Another year around the sun begins. I wanted to share some wise words and, for some reason, Tolkien came to mind. He has great advice on meddling with wizards and live dragons (don’t do it). But this next one is extra-good.
There is nothing like looking, if you want to find something. You certainly usually find something, if you look, but it is not always quite the something you were after. — J.R.R. Tolkien
The picture is a collection of some of the art I’ve created since the pandemic began. Not necessarily what I went looking for — but what I found this year. Or maybe it found me. And over the next year I’m going to explore that idea — about looking for something and finding something unexpected. Or as a friend once told me: We make plans. God laughs.
Happy New Year, everyone.
ONCE UPON A TIME
||I love illuminated manuscripts and they were an influence on this work but stained glass is probably a better metaphor for the project, as the piece narrates the transformation of color through the lens of one day. Consider. If you watch a stained glass window you will see it change. The window glass remains fixed but when combined with light, as it is meant to be, the glass transforms over time. It's more than the shifting of colors. If you watch carefully, it can also hold the flickering shadow of branches or a bird's wings. It can shift the light in the interior space, as a chapel brightens or dims or holds a puddle of rainbow light on floor and walls. [Let's] consider the fundamental truth of the stained glass: Time is at play in the world. - "Once upon a time" (2018)
Over Christmas dinner. One of my sons asks, What's your New Year's resolution?
I didn't have an answer. I mostly thought about the gift of Time.
Life has provided a reminder very recently that we're not immortal. Mine was -- I injured my spine this fall. It took longer to heal than expected but I'm finally on the road back. I’m also really grateful for the good people at the spine clinic that have helped me get here.
New Year's resolution. What to do with the gift of my time? When Mom died -- it was around last year this time -- someone asked which one of her children love to garden, too. And the answer from my sibs was "Wesley". Isn't it strange to hear things about yourself through others' eyes? I haven’t thought of myself as a “gardener” though I've been planning a garden ever since I moved back to Georgia. So maybe this is the year to figure out a way to push that dream garden further along.
New Year's resolution and what to do with the gift of my time?
There's one other thing about Mom. Her love of writing and her wish that she had given more of her time to it. She advocated for me to write all my adult life -- and that is knocking around in my head today as I reflect on how I might invest my precious gift of time. Not what to dabble in during the next year. But what to invest in. Since the spine injury I've made a few lifestyle changes that might be steps forward. One change is a standing desk in my little studio. Just waiting for me every morning -- to put pen to paper, paint to paper, hands to keyboard.
An explanation for the photo in this post. It’s a stained glass window from the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, one of my favorite places - anywhere. Today is the feast day of St. John. Patron saint of love, loyalty, friendships, and all things writing. So I'm writing this morning and going over my old journals and thinking about the garden of my recent dreams. And feeling grateful for love and friendship and healing and Mom. And for the gift of time.
New Year’s resolution? Carpe diem, y’all.