Art by Arielle Bobb-Willis
Just over a year ago, I moved from the gloriously distracting Sydney coastline to Melbourne, in the hopes that the notoriously bad weather and thriving arts community would provide a creative cocoon to nurture my writing practice.
Little did I know I’d be spending six months of 2020 in complete lockdown, in an urban one bedroom apartment with my partner, unable to venture more than 5km from my doorstep.
Aside from throwing the odd tantrum and working through a seemingly endless list of online courses, I’ve spent a good deal of lockdown tending to ritual fire as a way to commune with the non-human peoples and places that I’ve so dearly missed: the clear waters of the Sassafras creek, the wild winds coming off the southern ocean, and the soft cushion of pine needles on the Sequoia grove floor.
I’ve also initiated a depth inquiry into my ancestry, following an abiding longing to connect with the paternal lineage of my african grandmothers, my black roots, and in doing so have uncovered a nourishing network of support sitting just below the surface all along.
Needless to say, I got the creative hibernation I asked for (and more).
The poet, Billy Collins, describes poetry as “the history of the human heart”. This winter I have found a new note in my poetry through unlocking chambers that contain hidden stories, both from my own past and those who have gone before me. And so it occurred to me that while I've been traversing through this seasonal rite of passage, my identity as an artist has also been in transition.
As we grow, so too does our creative self-expression. As best we can, may we companion our growth with curiosity and presence, to stay with the edge of what is alive for us in the sometimes daunting terrain of our own hearts.
In other words, let art change you, and let your art change.
With chocolate-coated coffee beans and daydreams of faraway lands,
// Poems from the Edge of Extinction: An Anthology of Poetry in Endangered Languages, edited by Chris McCabe (and this talk by the editor on the intimate relationship between poetry and language, for those who want to hear more).
// The album Wanci by Tarawangsawelas
// Mask art by Magnhild Kennedy (Damsel Frau)
Burmese map of the world, courtesy of New York Public Library
"The world is full of riddles that only the dead can answer."
I read this line last night in the novel I'm currently reading, The Famished Road, by Ben Okri. To me, it's one of those lines that lingers on the tongue, especially because it's these very riddles that I've been exploring over the past month, through connecting with the wisdom of my ancestral lineage.
I've recently learned that ancestor reverence is a central part of the (often misrepresented) animist religion, Vodun, that my father's people practise in Ghana. In fact, many cultures around the world have been practising some form of ancestral care for centuries.
But like many of us, I did not grow up with the concept of cultivating a relationship with my ancestors. According to one of my current teachers, Dr. Daniel Foor, our "western culture" stands as a minority in having composted these practices somewhere along the way over the last thousand years or so. This gap in understanding what it is that we inherit often carries implications for both individual wellbeing and, importantly, cultural and ecological healing and accountability.
So perhaps one of the riddles we're now facing as a collective is, how can we know where we're going if we don't know where we've come from? How many of our current challenges and conflicts are in some way related to intergenerational trauma? And in light of that, what are the gifts and strengths that have been handed down to us to carry forward for the benefit of our communities?
Something I'm uncovering is that blessings and burdens can be two sides of the same coin. This follows the same principle that the antidote is found within the poison. For example, the expression of vision or imagination can equally become distorted as anxiety when repressed: a nightmare of fantastical images spun into webs of fear.
Similarly, the author Martín Prechtel talks about the relationship between grief and praise. He says that, "If we do not grieve what we miss, we are not praising what we love. We are not praising the life we have been given in order to love."
What if we were to harness the power of our imagination and channel this electricity into our creative self-expression? Perhaps the joy generated from this energy would mobilise the grief in our heart, and allow us to pour forth the boundless love that it contains.
The ancestors may be "dead" to our modern psyche but that doesn't mean they aren't in fact a vital part of our humanity. Tending to our relationship with the ancestors reminds us that we come into this life with everything we need, if only we adjust our vision to the bigger picture of the systems that support us.
With lion tears and white rum libations,
Art by Carl Jung
Did you know that there is an octopus in Tasmania that crosses the road? According to anecdotes from local fisherman, female octopuses attempt to migrate from the waters of Norfolk bay to the ocean to release their eggs into the sea.
To do this, they have to cross the Eaglehawk Neck isthmus, a narrow strip of land - and road - that connects the Tasman and Forestier peninsulas.
(It's a true story! I learned this from an author named Erin Hortle in this year's Melbourne Writer's Festival, who was inspired by this phenomenon for her novel, The Octopus and I.)
For me, this wild imagery conjures up the notion of ferrying intuitive and creative ideas from the watery realms of our deep imagination. We too go through a process of incubating fertile dreams before carrying them over the threshold, from the intangible to the material.
Of course, not all of these unborn ones make it across the channel. We are not here to do and be everything imaginable. But the ones that do emerge, the ancestral visions that call to be birthed, go on to create new life in the world.
The role of the muse is to accompany us on this journey, to help us midwife these creative imprints. Regardless of whether we are conceiving a new project, chapter, or stage of our identity, the muse is an ally in the body of work that is the unfolding of our life story.
My online course, MUSE, begins on Monday.
So if now feels like a fruitful time to dive into the mythic realms of creativity and soulful self-expression, this Sunday the 23rd is the last day to enrol.
May the glimmering inkling of your creative visions bloom.
With silver princess gumnuts and eight-limbed reveries,
Art by Joan Miro
Over the weekend I attended a seminar on “Writing in therapy” with a small group of kind-hearted people. Through expressive writing exercises, we shared stories of our experience of life in lockdown and beyond... ⠀
The isolation and the vulnerability. And, also, our increased attentiveness to the small moments of beauty, grace and connection. If I could weave our collective stories into a central message, it would essentially be this: ⠀
I have been tossed by the waves in many a storm, and yet, here I stand: soft and scarred, bruised and luminous.⠀
This pandemic continues to remind me that what I thought was "secure" or stable is actually always subject to the Great Mystery and inevitable cycles of change. It’s our inner resources that really come to the fore in these times.
The mystic, Meister Eckhart, alluded to this when he once said, “What is it that remains? That which is inborn in me remains.”
What remains for me is:
Love and Beauty.
Story and Ritual.
Soul and Mystery.
When all else has been pared back, what remains for you? What are the pillars of your interior life? And what strength can you draw from these in this time?
With endless cups of rooibos and flourishing fiddle figs,
// Things fall apart by Chinua Achebe
// Lanny by Max Porter
// Demian by Herman Hesse
// The Weekly Service
// Black is King visual album by Beyonce
Fante Asafo flag from Ghana
This past few weeks I've had the pleasure of sitting in online councils with elderwomen from different cultures across the globe. Grandmothers have always held a special place in my heart. I was partly raised by my maternal grandmother, and in my eyes she was a magical woman. Together we would paint faeries, visit folks in need at the wayside chapel, and sit on park benches in Redfern gambling with scratchies. Needless to say, she was an interesting character with a big heart.
And that is exactly the wisdom that the Grandmothers have been sharing in council- that at this pivotal time, our greatest task is to rebuild the bridge between head and heart.
Too long have we lived with this separation. This disconnection shows up not just in our individual lives, but also in the rupturing that exists within our relationships with each other and our other-than-human communities.
So what does it actually mean to reconnect our head and heart? I feel it means holding both discernment and compassion. Boundaries and forgiveness. Intellect and intuition. It means softening into the inherent vulnerability that comes with remembering our interdependence with all living things.
As old structures are dismantled, we are being asked to meet this moment with enough humility to admit that we can't control everything. And yet, the paradox is, if we can fully embrace our place within the greater web, we find we have so much more power than we realise.
There are many actions we can take in our communities that foster respect for the diversity of life on this planet, human and otherwise. I also believe that for our actions to be most effective, it's important to simultaneously reignite our capacity for deep listening.
That way the knowledge that we learn passes through the fires of the heart, alchemising it into wisdom. And it is here that we might just find an emergent future to walk into, a landscape "beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing," as Rumi would say.
May we lovingly tend to a world with a broken heart. And that begins with being an ally with our own, so that we may companion others from a place of integrity and be of service to our collective cultural regeneration.
With open hands and a heart full of questions,
// This talk, "Decolonising the dead," on working with the ancestors for cultural healing, with Dr. Bayo Akomolafe and Dr. Daniel Foor.
// The art of Alexandra Levasseur.
// Bongeziwe Mabandla's new album, Iimini.