My last post about the “Slant-wise & Slippery” retelling of Little Red Riding Hoodreminded me of a fun and sexy song about Little Red by Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs. It was popular when I was a young teen experiencing those first faint stirrings of lust and longing that comes with sexual awakening. I sensed the power-struggle going on between Red and the Wolf. His lust made him a danger to the unaware Little Red, but his longing for her tamed him in the end. He became captive to his own lust, and Little Red, (still unaware in this retelling), held all the power.
Years later I read (and later watched the film) “In the Company of Wolves,” another retelling of Little Red Riding Hood by Angela Carter from her book of fairy tales The Bloody Chamber. In this story the innocent girl meets a handsome hunter in the forest while on her way to visit Granny. They flirt with each other and then part company to see who can reach Granny’s house first. If he wins, his prize is a kiss. She takes her time getting there, wanting to make sure he wins.
But when she arrives, she’s disappointed that it’s only Granny waiting there for her in bed. But what big eyes she has! What sharp teeth! Eventually she sees though his disguise. He throws off Granny’s clothes and reveals himself to be a man-eating wolf rather than the hunter. But when she sees her old Granny’s bones thrown into the fireplace and realizes she’s next on the menu, she turns the tables on him. She starts removing each of her garments and throws them into the fire until she’s as naked (and dangerous) as he is. When he is about to attack her, she laughs at him, knowing “she was nobody’s meat.” By the end of the story she is sleeping “sweet and sound” between the paws of “the tender wolf.”
Not long ago I came across another fun and sexy overturning of the Red/Wolf power struggle in Leonard Cohen’s song “I’m Your Man.”
“All lower love is but a schooling for the highest love,” says mystic Rudolf Steiner.
One last song, having nothing to do with Red or the Wolf, but it beautifully expresses the confusion and inward struggle that comes when transitioning from the lower to the highest form of love. It’s from the musical Jesus Christ, Superstar, and is sung by Mary Magdalene, who has only known love of the lower sort and is trying to understand this new sense of spiritual love for the Beloved.
I’ve always loved fairy tales, especially the darker, deeper, originals where good did not always overcome evil. As a young adult I was drawn toward those gothic love stories that were a type of grown-up fairy tale—Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, Bellefleur, Song of Solomon, Beloved, and others that blurred the boundaries between the real and the fantastic.
Tales that told the truth but told it slant, as Emily Dickenson advised. Stories that show how slippery the truth is, how slantwise the world lies.
So when my friend and fellow blogger, Luanne Castle, came out with Our Wolves, a chapbook of poetry about “Little Red Riding Hood,” I eagerly scooped it up. I discovered with delight that she explores the slippery, slantwise versions of the classic tale, re-imagines various retellings, and poses intriguing questions.
Who are the “wolves” in our own lives, those who would devour or diminish, strangle or silence us? Who are these little Reds with their erotic cloaks and bobby socks? Their “do-good” Granny baskets and daring treks through dark woods warned by all as dangerous?
And what of the Mother who sends her daughter off on such a risky mission? What of the Granny who chooses to live in such a dark and dreadful place?
What of the Hunter or Woodcutter, who in some versions and not others, comes to save—whom? The Granny or the Girl? Or is it the Woodcutters own blood-lust that lifts the axe that splits the Wolf? Is it lust for the Wolf’s silky pelt that brings the Hunter to Granny’s door?
And what of the Wolf? Misunderstood? Maliciously maligned for being what he is, a Wolf?
If you love fairy tales and poetry, and enjoy exploring the slippery and slantwise, then I’m sure you’ll enjoy reading Luanne’s Our Wolves available on Amazon.
Here’s a nibble from the last lines of the last poem to whet your appetite:
It is difficult to know what to do with so much happiness. With sadness there is something to rub against, a wound to tend with lotion and cloth. When the world falls in around you, you have pieces to pick up, something to hold in your hands, like ticket stubs or change.
But happiness floats. It doesn’t need you to hold it down. It doesn’t need anything. Happiness lands on the roof of the next house, singing, and disappears when it wants to. You are happy either way. Even the fact that you once lived in a peaceful tree house and now live over a quarry of noise and dust cannot make you unhappy. Everything has a life of its own, it too could wake up filled with possibilities of coffee cake and ripe peaches, and love even the floor which needs to be swept, the soiled linens and scratched records . . .
Since there is no place large enough to contain so much happiness, you shrug, you raise your hands, and it flows out of you into everything you touch. You are not responsible. You take no credit, as the night sky takes no credit, for the moon, but continues to hold it, and share it, and in that way, be known.
From Words Under Words: Selected Poems by Naomi Shihab Nye, published by Far Corner Books, 1995.
This poem speaks to me. Sorrow is something heavy you carry in your body. It’s personal. It belongs to you. But happiness is too large to carry in your body. It comes from without and carries you along with it. It’s not personal. It doesn’t belong to you. It blows “you” away and leaves you with this “belongs to everyone” feeling. The whole world is included in happiness. It just shines everywhere, through you and to everything that surrounds you. Everything glows in that golden light, even the soiled linens and scratched records, as Nye writes.
It’s like the painting by Pierre Bonnard above. Happiness shines through every line–from the lax layered leaves at the bottom, the elegantly twisted trunk, the bursts of red and yellow at the center, the far-faint mountain in the background, to the snowy blossoms bursting heavenward.
There’s no reason for the happiness I feel when I look at this painting. It just is.
What is it about this painting by Ernie Barnes that so uplifts and inspires? That ripples with joy? That feels like poetry in motion? The elongated bodies express a joyful, hopeful longing to rise up. To leave this earth and its troubles behind as they leap into the air, their faces upward gazing as the ball falls, triumphantly, through the hoop. Their feet barely graze the ground. Their arms and legs and elbows a choreography of dance movements, jazz rhythms, and soul music. No blues here. It’s all Praise God and Amen!
You can see all that in Barnes’ “Sugar Shack” as well. Imagine what joy he must have felt while painting these! It makes me happy just thinking about it. Barnes knows something about the joy and challenge of movement. He was a talented athlete playing professional football, as well as a talented artist, before his death in 2009.
That “poetry in motion,” that joy in movement, can be found in found in great dancers everywhere. I found the following video in celebrated writer Zadie Smith’s article about what dance can teach writers. “When I write I feel there’s usually a choice to be made between the grounded and the floating.”
She compares the dancing of Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire. Kelly’s is firmly grounded, prosaic, “commonsense” dancing, showing what everyday, ordinary bodies in their youth and strength can aspire to. Astaire’s dancing, by contrast, is not aspirational but inspirational. His dancing, she writes, is “transcendent . . . . for no bodies move like Astaire, no, we only move like him in our dreams.”
The Nicholas Brothers, Harold and Fayard, were another example of that transcendent dancing. Smith writes: “The Nicholas brothers were many, many magnitudes better than anybody else. They were better than anyone has a right or need to be. Fred Astaire called their routine in Stormy Weather the greatest example of cinematic dance he ever saw.” (Be sure to watch to the end when they descend the stairs doing the splits!)
Smith has a keener eye for dance than I have, for she saw Fayard’s dancing as more prosaic: “formal, contained, technically undeniable.” Whereas, “Harold gives himself over to joy. His hair is his tell: as he dances it loosens itself from the slather of Brylcreem he always put on it, the irrepressible afro curl springs out, he doesn’t even try to brush it back.” For me, both dancers are pure joy and perfection.
“Between propriety and joy,” Smith writes, ” choose joy.” In dance, in art, in writing—in life, I’d add—choose joy. I try to choose joy when I blog. Sharing things that bring me joy.
I’ll leave you with what Smith says is the best writing advice she ever heard—from the dancer Martha Graham: “There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.”
I mentioned in my last post that I wrote a myth about the creation of the isthmus that now comprises Central America for a novel I’m writing. The myth lies at the heart of what this novel is about: love and devotion, duty and self-sacrifice, beauty and brutality, saving and savoring the world, creativity and destruction, and uniting two into one whole. In some ways the myth mirrors the creative process, what we have to love, what we have to slay, what we have to sacrifice to create anything worth making and saving. I’d be pleased to know what you think.
A Mayan Legend of True Love: Balanque and Malenque, Hero Twins
Eons ago before the world was whole, mighty gods ruled heaven and earth. The two great land masses we now call the Americas were separated by a tumultuous sea, and knew not each other’s names. Two heroes, sired of two gods, one ruling above and the other below, were born with one sacred mission: to unite the two into one whole.
Now in those days many gods inhabited the Underworld, but the fairest of them all was the goddess Xite with her long dark flowing hair and lithe limbs shimmering with rainbow scales, for she lived in the ocean’s depths and played in the sea’s waves. But the greatest of these Underworld gods was her uncle, the Demon Bird-Dragon who some called Vucub.
Now it was Vucub who kept the seas between the two Americas in constant turmoil as he pursued the lovely Xite round and round the two continents. The whipping of his forked serpent’s tail, the beating of his great dragon wings, and the fiery breath that spilled from his great beaked head kept the seas in constant motion, spilling upon the shores and flooding the plains, all to the consternation of Hun, the god of the Americas who stood with one massive foot on each continent. And much to the distress of Xite, who sought to escape Vucub’s lust.
Then one day, during one of Xite’s ceaseless circling to escape her uncle, the great golden god Hun glimpsed her swimming by, shimmering through the waves with her rainbow limbs and flowing hair and fell in love. From their fateful mating the twins Balanque and Malenque were born, their flesh joined at the hip.
Now the two loved each other very much as twins always do, for they complement and complete each other, representing as they did male and female, strength and beauty, hubris and humility, bravery and sacrifice, might and meekness. They grew up laughing and playing together, never finding their joined flesh a hindrance but a symbol of their mutual love and devotion.
Their sweet days of play and leisure were numbered, however. So adept were they in uniting what was parted that their mother and father, still relentlessly harried by Vucub, whose pursuit of Xite was now driven by a raging jealousy as well as lust, laid upon the twins a great mission: to create a land bridge between the two land masses. This would unite the two Americas that Hun ruled, as well as divide the sea in two, preventing Vucub from pursuing their mother from one sea to the other.
And so the twins, ever ready to please and serve their parents, took up this great task. Balanque stretched out his right hand to the land mass in the north while Malenque stretched out her left hand to the south and the two together pulled and tugged, tugged and pulled, day and night, night and day, until they drew one long strand from each land mass to meet in the middle uniting them forever. Thus the slender waist now known as Central America was created.
When the task was completed, the twins were so depleted they lay down to rest at the center of the isthmus and fell fast asleep. Each dreamed of their great making and all it could become. From their dreams rose all the flora and fauna that now adorns and inhabits the isthmus.
From Malenque’s soft curves and flowing hair, her hips and breasts, came the flowing rivers and waterfalls, the tangling vines and trees of the jungle, the hills and mountains and fertile valleys. From her rosebud lips, blooming cheeks, and dancing eyes came the wild orchids and sweet mangos, the trilling songbirds and darting butterflies. Balanque’s dreams were full of jaguars and howling monkeys that sprung from his powerful thighs and grasping arms. Red and yellow macaws flew out of his mouth, and great sensuous snakes slithered from his muscled calves.
But when the Demon Bird-Dragon discovered he could no longer pursue his beloved Xite because of the land-bridge her offspring created, he grew wild with fury and rose up to destroy what they had wrought. With his great forearms grabbing the edge of the isthmus and his serpent tail and mighty wings thrashing the sea, he created a great army of waves to rise up to destroy the land-bridge and drown all the flora and fauna that flourished there, and Malenque and Balanque along with them.
Now the howls of the monkeys and the roars of the jaguars woke the sleeping twins, but they were still too drunken with dreams and heavy-limbed in their drowsiness to rise up to defend their creation. When they struggled to rise, bound together as they were, they could not. Balanque struggled to his knees but Malenque was still entangled in the vines and tree roots of the great jungled forests and could only rise up on her elbows. When Vucub saw Balanque rising but trapped by his sister he called out in triumph.
“See how it feels to be trapped and bound, to be forever prevented from rising up to pursue what you love, to be dragged down by a lust that consumes you? I shall destroy all you created together and separate your mother from your father and take her down to the nether parts of the sea where the world and the great god Hun shall see her no more forever. And you, the twins your parents spawned, shall drown beneath a thousand waves as all you created collapses into the sea.”
In great alarm and rage, Balanque pulls with all his might to rip his sister from the land’s grasp so he can rise and defeat the demon, but he cannot pull her loose. Her hair is threaded in the rivers, her limbs tangled in the vines, her feet are roots binding her to the earth. He sees the anguish and pain in her eyes as she tries to tear herself away to help protect what they created. He knows they are doomed, whatever they do. If he rips her away, he could lose her forever; if he doesn’t, he loses her and everything they birthed together.
Malenque sees his pain and shares it. She tells her brother, “Break away from me and kill Vucub. It is your duty!” Encouraged by her words and in a lust for battle, Balanque rises from his knees to his feet in a low crouch and lifts his heavy sword over his head to slay the Demon Bird-Dragon. As he does so, Malenque is dragged upward with him but still fastened to the land that will not let go.
Seeing that her brother is still tied by his love for her, and their sacred mission is doomed to failure because of it, she begs him to slash down with his mighty sword and part their bodies so he can rise up to fight Vucub. But Balanque, who he loves his sister more than his own life, cannot lift the sword to separate them for fear doing so will slay her. Malenque, seeing the fearful love in his eyes, knows what must be done. She grabs his sword from his hand and strikes down with all her might between them, severing his hip from hers, and freeing him to fight.
Balanque looks in horror at what she has done, what she has sacrificed to save them all. As the blood spills from her lifeless body, with a screech of grief and rage and icy revenge, he grabs his sword from her hand and rushes forward screaming in blood lust. With one mighty blow he slays the Demon Bird-Dragon, severing its head from its thrashing body.
Vucub’s shriek of terror abruptly ends as its severed body convulses and its mighty wings fall. The raging waves recede taking the Demon’s body with it. But Balanque holds up the demon’s head and bowing deeply, presents it to his mother. She takes the head with its tuft of brilliant feathers, its fierce eyes and sharp beak and sets it upon Balanque’s head as a crown. Now he too is a god, like his mother and father, but he takes no pleasure from it, for his beloved Malenque is no longer at his side. Her body has been reclaimed by the land.
Now when he walks there, he sees her everywhere, her laughter in the sound of the waterfalls, and her whispers in the swaying trees, her wide eyes in the orchids, and her graceful arms in the jungle vines. His grief at her loss is so constant and fierce the deluge of his tears become great lakes and his cries shake the earth and topple boulders. His wrath rises up in fiery volcanos that spill memories of her blood sacrifice across the land.
And so, even today, the beautiful isthmus that Balanque and Malenque created together to join two great continents—this slender thread, this graceful waist that unites them—is riven with the tremors and terrors of Balanque’s great grief, even as it sings with the beauty of Malenque’s great sacrifice, and the Hero Twins’ everlasting love.
In a novel I’m writing I include an origin myth of how the isthmus of Central America was created. It’s fictional but inspired by the Mayan myths I had been reading. My protagonist reads a myth about the heroine for which she was named. The book is full of gorgeous imagery and she describes some of her favorites: The rivers, trees, and flowers flowing out of Malenque’s body, Balanque with the jaguars and monkeys and macaws rising from his. Xite with her flowing hair and fish-like tail looking anxiously over her shoulder as she swims away from the Demon-Bird Dragon. . . . . She wonders if this is where her love of art was born.
So imagine my delight when I discovered the lush collages of Maria Berrio, inspired by her own reading of myths from her native Columbia. In an interview for the Georgia Review she says:
I am deeply influenced by surrealism and magical realism, so some of my favorite classic South American authors are Borges, Neruda, and Márquez. But much of my work has, of late, been influenced by oral traditions, as well as the rituals, customs, and beliefs of South America.
For example, a tale I explored in my 2017 piece Aluna references the creator figure and “Great Mother” of the Kogi people from my native Colombia. . . . .The painting depicts a female version of the mama priest in the moments just after she is brought out of the cave. Her senses are flooded with the intense beauty of the world she is charged with protecting. It is a fragile world, but she accepts her destiny.
Barrio creates her collages from hand-made papers, often with natural motifs, from the global south, such as Nepal, India, Korea, Japan, Thailand, Mexico, and Brazil. A writer from Praxis International Art describes her work this way:
Her careful and laborious assemblage of torn pieces of paper is a way of creating a transcendental space/time where myths and dreams can be told; among them, the story of the all too human yearning to recover the treasures of the lost garden of childhood, which echoes the longing for Paradise Lost.
Myths reveal the great archetypes from which the world’s art and literature and religions are evolved, and therefore from which histories and cultures arise. They can teach us great things about ourselves and this world into which we are embedded.
I’ve been reading (again) Jane Hirshfield’s Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry, a collection of essays on the art and craft of writing poetry. There’s so much here to mine for writers of any stripe, or for anyone engaged in the creative process.
My favorite essay—and certainly the most underlined and annotated—is the last, “Writing and the Threshold Life.” It’s here where she speaks of the liminal, the time and space of transition integral to all rites of passage. It’s where, she writes, “a person leaves behind his or her old identity and dwells in a threshold state of ambiguity, openness, and indeterminacy.”
Most people dip in this space only temporarily for specific purposes. But for some “the liminal becomes their only dwelling place—becomes home.”
This was true for me when our family sailed around the world. The sea was our home. We were in a constant state of transition, travelling within the circle of an ever expanding horizon, with no landfall at all sometimes for weeks, months, at a time.
The sea was “a threshold state of ambiguity, openness, and indeterminacy” as we sailed upon its surface or dived beneath it, weathered its storms and doldrums, watched lightening forking the sky and striking down all around us, greeted herds of dolphins rising up from the deep to play by our side before dipping back into the world from which they rose.
Our world was in constant motion as the waves rushed past our hull during the night and the stars circled over head while the boat rocked us to sleep. One after another port or cove, island or atoll, would disappear behind us new ones came into view.
When our travels ended, coming back to a so-called conventional life ashore did not dispose me of this deep sense of the liminal, of living always within a state of transition, for so many transitions I’ve made between then and now.
When I deeply examine the fabric and construction of this world we live in, I become more and more convinced that we all are living within a liminal state all the time. For nothing stays the same, nothing is as it first appears, everything is always becoming something else.
We pass through one doorway to another, one room to another, one place to another—so many thresholds we pass through every single day. Dusk to dawn, toddlers to teens, acorns to oak trees. There’s no end to it.
But the poet or any person on a creative or spiritual journey lives this liminal life even more keenly, or at least more consciously, more deliberately, perhaps, than others.
Hirshfield quotes from a poem by Czeslaw Milosz:
The purpose of poetry is to remind us How difficult it is to remain just one person, For our house is open, there are no keys in the doors, And invisible guests come in and out at will.
She elaborates: “Speaking from the point of view of multiplicity, betweenness, and visitation, the writer can become a person in whom both individuality and community may ripen into true expression.”
When writing, she tells us, we assert who we are and what we think, but we also surrender those things “to stand humbled and stunned and silent before the wild and inexplicable beauties and mysteries of being.”
The writer’s task is to become “permeable and transparent.”
It’s about “stepping past what we already think we know and into an entirely new relationship with the many possibilities of being, with the ultimately singular and limitless mystery of being.”
“Above all it is about . . . the affection for all existence,” the hawk as well as the rabbit it hunts.
But isn’t this, or shouldn’t this be, the task of all of us as we transit this life? To stand humbled, stunned, and transparent as we move from what we were before this life began to what we will become when we travel beyond it?
Hirshfield’s book ends with this poem by Gary Snyder:
On Climbing the Sierra Matterhorn Again After thirty-One Years
Range after range of mountains Year after year after year, I am still in love.
And yet we know it’s all just one continuous unfolding as one day or year slips seamlessly into the next. This marking of time is an illusion and has no more weight than what we give it.
In reality, there’s just this present awareness of the here and now before it too dissolves into what we call the past and evolves into what call the future. But what we call the past and the future are just part of one continuous, seamless, whole.
What we experience as the passage of time is simply the process by which we come to know that wholeness—intimately, inch by inch—as it reveals itself to us through it unravelling. As if the totality of existence is one huge ball of yarn that we are experiencing as it unfolds, moment by moment. And yet we too are woven into that wholeness, each of us separately and together. And what we are witnessing is our own self-revealing.
Nothing we cherish is lost. Nothing we aspire toward is unfulfilled. It’s all part of the one Whole.
The longer I live, the more I see things this way, and see myself as an essential part of it—as ever fresh, and as ancient as time itself. A time out of mind, or mind out of time.
2022, I embrace all you revealed to me of what forever is.
2023, I welcome all you will unfold of what was and will be.
One of the pleasures of painting is creating something special for loved ones. Both of my grandchildren have a special affection for foxes. This one is for my grandson, which also includes a mink because he mentioned how cute they are, having seen a report on how hundreds had escaped (or been recued) from a mink farm.
These paintings for loved ones don’t always come out as well as I hoped. A landscape of a California vineyard for my brother and sister-in-law did not please me. I mailed it anyway, since it was a Christmas present and “okay,” although not as good as I’d wanted. To make up for that, along with it I mailed them another California rural scene I liked better.
I just hope my grandson doesn’t outgrow this painting too soon. He’s a sweeet kid and loves animals but he just turned 15. I’m hoping he sees the humor in the two critters eyeballing each other. A bit of tension there. The mink is safe enough though. Maybe I could have toned down the flowers? But who’s to say young male teens can’t appreciate flowers as much as the rest of us?
My granddaughter will outgrow the paintings I made for her soon enough too. I like thinking these will be passed along to my great-grandchildren someday. Or some grandma in a thrift shop or at a garage sale will pick them up for a couple of bucks to pass along to their own grands.
It’s been awhile. I traded in my pen for my paintbrush these last few weeks. The new novel I’ve been writing is off with beta readers who will give me the feedback I need to continue revising. In the meantime, I’ve been wanting a seascape to go in a special place in our home to complement the model of the USS Constitution that my husband spent three years creating.
I saw an online paint-along of a seascape from a photo reference I liked, and decided to give it a try. Unfortunately, the paint-along format didn’t work for me. I’ve never been someone to draw within the lines. I wasn’t happy with the outcome and turned off the video and, using the photo reference, worked on my own, adding and deleting elements as I went along. It went through several transformations before my husband and I decided it would suffice.
It’s signed and framed and ready to hang. At first I thought this frame was too busy for the painting, but when I tried it with other, plainer, frames, it didn’t look as nice. Besides, I love the frame. The antique look blends well with Old Ironsides.
I haven’t worked a lot in acrylic. Although I’m starting to get the hang of it. Most of what I’ve been doing has been in water color and pastels, or a combination of the two. I just finished another acrylic that I’m pleased with—a birthday present for my grandson. I’ll share that here soon too.
In the meantime, I’m wishing you all a wonderful Thanksgiving Day with friends and loved ones.