Wednesday, 27 May 2020

Prior to milk and bread

Mariss Stevens' Containment series caught my eye on Instagram. The series is a set of quilted images created over the past weeks. Her latest blogpost, On Containment (22nd May 2020), describes the process from conception to finish, including a definition of 'containment' as holding (holding back) and 'restraint'.

"The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one's self", the poet Ilya Kaminsky recently (14th May 2020) quoted Stravinsky speaking about musical composition, on Twitter - "And the arbitrariness of the constraint serves only to obtain precision."

In Mariss' series, vases contain and constrain flowers, which are pulled into captivity by the mouths of vessels, thence to fountain out their blossoms the more -

Containment #3
Containment #7
 Tree trunks operate similarly.

Containment #1
The constraints of format and resources, in this series, expands in the fifth work - not only to flip the orientation of of the work from portrait to landscape, but also beyond inward - house and garden - motifs, to reach quite literally for the moon.

Containment #5
Mariss judges the connection between it and the theme to be "nebulous", but I question that judgment. The series consists of eight works - the number which, flipped sideways, represents infinity in mathematics; and the one that in the arcane realm symbolises balance between heaven and earth. Five is understood to bring chaos and conflict, but also transformation and change.

Mariss' moon in this series is pregnant with the potency of the time-piece, which that heavenly body is, in relation to the earth: determining our calendar, the tides and feminine cycles. The exquisite fabricated image, contained upon the background in its frame and constrained by its position in the series overall, reflects an undertow of truth, which penetrates the boundaries of the lockdown in utter peace.

'Time as a task' during quarantine has recently been found by Parul Seghal - in an essay entitled In Search of Time Lost and Newly Found (19th May 2020) - to be a slippery and bewildering challenge; but these little textile works demonstrate the power of working with time, working within its natural limits. The crafter-artist flowers again and again inside her hours and her works are pollen grains, or little moons, from the hands of her soul.

All our days are numbered, that is to say: limited, but each day contains its own potential. I pondered the practicalities of this mystery in a pollen grain of my own, a blogpost from about a year ago, entitled Time as an organic fact (14th May, 2019).

Time can be felt as "a natural sequence of moments blossoming their opportunities", I wrote, and I still agree with me about this. Too fine a plan or regimen will scorch them; take no action and they will drown.

The hours we are given are our nourishment prior to milk and bread. Eat, drink, enjoy!

I thank Mariss Stevens for allowing me to use images of her works for this post. To see the full set, including the mesmerising process of how she created the moon, as well as the surprise coup of the eighth work, click The Containment series.

- Silke Heiss, 27th May 2020

Saturday, 16 May 2020

Welcome to the hours

Sabrina Orah Mark's article in the Paris Review on May 7th - Fuck the bread. The bread is over. - beautifully describes a real, living now - yes, alive as you or me - woman's plunge into testing adventure. Although she specialises as lecturer in fairy tales, she discovers - as the lectureship position disappears into thin air due to Corona - that she has never actually lived one.

Robert Bly, in his Preface to Iron John (1990), writes:

"The knowledge of how to build a nest in a bare tree, how to fly to the wintering place, how to perform the mating dance - all of this information is stored in the reservoirs of the bird's instinctual brain. But human beings, sensing how much flexibility they might need in meeting new situations, decided to store this sort of knowledge outside the instinctual system; they stored it in stories. Stories, then - fairy stories, legends, myths, hearth stories - amount to a reservoir where we keep new ways of responding that we can adopt when the conventional and current ways wear out."

I changed the name of this blog from '... follow your footsteps' to 'And they lived happily ever after ...' for one simple, utterly pedestrian (no pun intended) reason: my feet became sore. I took this as a sign that I must stop following my footsteps so much. My feet were obviously tired of adventuring without rest. Perhaps I must settle down and finally, finally live like every ordinary body else as best I can, I figured at the time.

There is no difference between my actual life and a fairy tale: it is as hard, as full of twists and turns, as horrifying and as magical.

I grew up steeped to the brim in fairy and all kinds of tales. I guess I became curious in my middle age about what happens in the 'happily ever after'. How does 'happily ever after' work? Many people around me - possibly with the exception of the homeless - seemed permanently to live in the 'ever after'. Okay, I thought, if my feet are that sore, perhaps the time has come to stop, look around me and ask to share the prize.

The biggest difference between a traditional fairy tale and 'real life' is that there are no statistics and no mass media in a fairy tale. A fairy tale has one hero or heroine per story, period. She is never a statistic. Nobody feels sorry for her. Nobody worships her. She's too busy trying to stay alive, somehow, between dreadful tasks and tempting or distracting villains, and seizing glimmers of opportunity, for social commentary, psychological analysis, or media people to get a single word in edgeways.

Mark, in her article, writes that the characters who do not fulfil the required tasks in a fairy tale simply fall over the edge into a void, in the same way that a cartoon character can toss his cup behind him and never worry about having to wash it. I hazard that those who 'live happily ever after' fall over that same edge, into that same happy void. It's the place where ordinary life continues. The land of unwashed cups, for sure.

Continually adventuring on the edge of things must have bitten into my feet. (I have to 'read' it somehow, so, because I do not have medical aid.) So I step down off it, off the edge.

The days welcome me into their hours.
I recognise the hours!
Beautiful creatures they are: flowers given us to unfold our beings in doings.
I realise I have been here from the start.
Everything and nothing is the same.






Saturday, 9 May 2020

Maskless

How naked faces are, when masked.
How revealing the eyes.
How private and how

exposed, now, that we're forced

to face each other's and our own
true colours, locked in water:
mirrors, unclothed, entirely unalike.












 

Friday, 1 May 2020

Labour is blossoming or dancing where?

I have always loved to work. The work I have done - I mean here in the main my art and writing - has built, and over and again repaired, my mind, body, heart and soul.

The following small, personal selection of poems and extracts are a tribute to the beauty of committed human work. Whether it be sewing or carpentry, web design, computer programming, mining, gardening, catering or trading. There is no end to human talent and no end to the quest to get whatever it is you are doing right. To begin with, I've chosen one of my favourite stanzas from my old master, Yeats, for you to enjoy -

Labour is blossoming or dancing where
The body is not bruised to pleasure soul,
Nor beauty born out of its own despair,
Nor blear-eyed wisdom out of midnight oil.
O chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

- from Among School Children by W.B.Yeats 

Not bruised, not born of despair, not blear-eyed, but dancing and at one: that is when a human being can attain a wholeness that compares to the completeness in the life of a tree.

I've always loved Herman Charles Bosman's poem, Seed, which be-sings the integration of a farmer's body, mind and soul by means of the process of working -

Seed

The farmer ploughs into the ground
More than the wheat-seed strewn on the ground
The farmer ploughs into the ground
The plough and the oxen and his body
He ploughs into the ground the farmstead and the cattle
And the pigs and the poultry and the kitchen utensils
And the afternoon sunlight shining into the window panes of the voorhuis
And the light entangled in the eyes of the children
He ploughs into the ground his wife's brown body
And the windmill above the borehole
And the borehole and the wind driving the windmill.
The farmer ploughs the blue clouds into the ground;
And as a tribute to the holocaust of the ploughshare -
To the sowing that was the parting of the Juggernaut -
The earth renders the farmer in due season
Corn.

- Herman Charles Bosman 

The shock of not being able to work anymore, due to a stroke, and the frailty of illness and old age, hit my mother and my husband respectively very hard - both were people who had been hard-working, who grieved the loss of their capacities to do even menial chores. My husband's frailty loaded on me more than is usual, and taught me - 

Beautiful body

My fingertips -
rough
from washing and rubbing -

rust in the whorls,
from scrubbing the pan, my back aches
from cleaning the floors,

my neck and shoulders are stiff
from sitting at the computer.
or maybe

from peeling and coring the apples;
my underarms sweaty and fragrant
from labour.

How beautiful
when your body
can work.

I think of my mother -
helpless after her stroke;
my husband so frail it's an effort to walk.

I shan't complain
about work, but give thanks
my body can.

- Silke Heiss 

Norman [Morrissey, my late husband] often quoted the following line from one of his favourite books and authors, and his passion for their meaning engraved itself into me -

"[They] came and went without fear of necessity, working hard because of the life that was in them, not for want of the money."

- from The Rainbow by D.H. Lawrence

The great emphasis, with which Norman used to pronounce the phrase working hard because of the life that was in them leaps me straight to Maria Montessori's exploration of the human instinct to work - 

"The most important discovery is that a child returns to a normal state through work. Countless experiments made upon children of every race throughout the world have shown that this is the most certain datum that we have in the field of psychology and education. A child's desire to work represents a vital instinct since he cannot organise his personality without working: a man builds himself through working. There can be no substitute for work, neither affection nor physical well-being can replace it. [...] A child's instinct for work is a proof that work is instinctive to man and characteristic of the species."

- from The Instinct to Work in The Secret of Childhood  by Maria Montessori 

None of the above eulogies and thoughts about work concern themselves with forced labour, or with ugly struggles between "deviated men" (in Montessori's words) who have "lost the proper motives for work".

Just about every human has it in them to do something well. Each human has something to offer, which will help in however small a way to serve the whole. I never believed those who told me it's only about filling my stomach: they were trying to reduce my spirit to a machine.

Photo by Clark Young on Unsplash

Thursday, 23 April 2020

How but in custom and in ceremony?

"... may her bridegroom bring her to a house
Where all's accustomed, ceremonious;
[...]
How but in custom and in ceremony
Are innocence and beauty born?"

These lines, from Yeats' A Prayer for my Daughter have been playing on my mind these days.

The lockdown has banished two customs or ceremonies, two major sources of peace, rhythm and reverence in my personal life - wine at sundown, and solitary walks outdoors.

However, in all other respects, my daily life is far less affected than I would have thought it would be, even considering that I am in a new town, in a new house, with a comparatively new beloved and a blank future.

It has taken time to discover that my life path is in no way diverted by circumstances, however unwelcome or painful or just plain irritating these may be. The main reason for this is because I am still the same.

I grew up on home-cooked food. Just like her mother, my mother made everything from scratch. I have largely continued this custom. We never went out (my father considered it "money down the drain") and we never ate 'junk'.

The Second World War's consequences ingrained a 'waste not want not' practice of daily living into my grandparents, who transferred it to my parents, who transferred it to me.

It's nothing special, really. Millions of women, people all over the globe, will turn soft and spotty bananas into banana loaf, if given half a chance. I find that some grated lemon rind and ground cardamom seeds add a lovely fresh mystery to ordinary banana bread. My wrist works to the sound of the wooden pestle grinding and clacking against the mortar.

The original recipe I use comes from a primary school friend, a loyal soul I am still in contact with. I think of her when I use it. I think of the various people in my life who have purred while eating this bread.

One extra thing I learned - was it from my mother again? - is that if you beat the egg whites stiff first, in a separate bowl, and then add them to the dough at the very end, the mixture is given an extra dose of airiness, which persists into the final, baked bread. I thus follow this habit with much of my baking. It means there is an extra bowl to clean, but it's worth it.

   


 

Thursday, 16 April 2020

Revelations

The sunrise is spectacular,
so we step over the grass road,
to the unfenced farm behind us,
to get a better view of the horizon.

Sacred ibis fly in formation above -
an arrow point trailing long ribbons
of white and black bodies scything the sky,
while gold bleeds into the flesh
of the clouds.

Padding back home
through the wild veld,
our eyes fall
onto a pile,
and another, and another

- three heaps of young, white ears:
abalone, abandoned here,
on black nets.

There's been a ban on harvesting them,
twelve years.
We wonder, have these lain that long?

Poachers must have scooped them out
and left these cairns.

'I feel sick,' you say,
as the sun climbs higher
and the wind cries
eerily around the corners
of the place where we stay.

- Silke Heiss, 14th April 2020



Saturday, 4 April 2020

The sun and the avocet

Before he rose today, the sun asked the avocet -
"What have you found during your foragings this dawn?"
The avocet looked around her and, surprised that the sun showed an interest in her, reflected for a moment.
"Mr Sun," she then replied obligingly, "I have found that essentially nothing has changed. I mean, everything is the same as yesterday, and yesterday was the same as the day before."
The sun made no reply. He was busy working on a particularly delicate pale purple, whereby he wanted to announce himself to the hills on the opposite horizon.
Mistaking the sun's momentary silence for a gentle invitation to be-think herself, the avocet added, "Of course, this morning is the same, but it is also different from all others. Low tide is particularly low today, and so the parts of the lagoon where I am foraging are particularly tight with fish. The skin of the water is rippling with them, and many have been jumping, as if they had not enough space at this moment."

The sun had completed the creation of the desired pale purple.
"Ah," he said, "I like that you are so observant of others. I shall touch the water's surface now, to give it a little colour. It may help those mullet feel that their home is just a little more expansive until the high tide frees them."
He directed the light of his eye into the sky, which obediently threw a rosy spread upon the water.

"What else," he then asked the avocet, "have you discovered?"
"I hope I can satisfy your curiosity," the avocet replied a little nervously. "I will say that I have had quite a dawn of wise morsels. I must have felt this test coming."
"I am not testing you," the sun corrected the bird, "I am curious about what happens before I arrive."

"That does put a different slant on it, thank you, Mr Sun," said the avocet, humbled by the sun's frankness, and moved by the Great Light's desire to talk to her, an insignificant little wader. She paused for a moment on her long, thin legs, before continuing.
"Ok, Mr Sun, I will dredge up my deeper thoughts."
She hesitated, but then took courage. "Today I confess I thought about death," she declared quietly. "Or, not really death. I thought ... I mean, I found that when something dies," she said slowly, "it gives the time it used while living back into the world."

She paused again, not used to talking this much, and also somewhat a-wonder at the wisdoms her questioner was fetching out of her delicately up-turned beak. Then she added,
"I find this each time I eat a hermit crab. As soon as I swallow one, it fills my stomach with time that belonged to it, but which now belongs to me to find the next one."

"Very good, very good," chuckled the sun, as the colours on the lagoon became golden.
The avocet could not help but walk on her stilty legs straight into the stream of gold, because it lay directly in her path. She briefly felt herself disappear completely. It was as if she were being eaten by the light.

'Perhaps this is a bit like what the hermit crabs experience,' she said to herself, 'when they disappear in my warm body.'
But she did not tell this to the sun, who was by now a free ball in the sky, great and silent and beyond the possibility of any further communion.

'I'll save that wise morsel,' thought the avocet. 'Who knows, I may need it in the future?'

- Silke Heiss, 4th April 2020

Image of avocet: African Bird Club





Saturday, 28 March 2020

Pleasant characteristics of Vulture

For yesterday's blogpost I had contacted Tanya Casteel, asking her permission to use her beautiful painting of the bird. She granted me permission after I had posted the blog. Here is her lovely image of Vulture now, imbued, as I see it, with traces of an Aurora Borealis expressed in the hues of eternity -

www.tanyacasteel.com


I have allowed the moment, and Tanya's artwork, to inspire me to read up more on Vulture. Two characteristics that are highlighted are that Vulture naturally shares his food with his own kind - you will not find a vulture greedily gorging itself on its own, before the others can get there. On the contrary, the bird spreads information about where a carcass may be, so that as many as possible of his kind can 'help', so to speak, to clean up.

Secondly, as far as I can tell, it is the only raptor who does not kill other birds. In fact, I hazard to believe those who tell me that it does not kill anything at all.

These are pleasant characteristics to consider when thinking about this mighty bird.

I would like, further, to think that ingesting bones, as vultures are able to, could grant a seer's inner radiance, such as Casteel's image seems to pay homage to. 

Friday, 27 March 2020

Dream of the vulture

I dreamed of a vulture.
She (or he) was immense, perched in a room, or house, full of people.
I did not know the people, but I did not feel a stranger.
I did not know the room or house, but I did not feel uncomfortable.

She was an exquisite specimen, with large wings of feathered ivory. Her neck ruff was a dark chestnut colour. Her head was beautifully sculpted and her eyes were bright, alert and calculating, clearly judging the extent of the space.

I could sense that she wanted to open her wings, but I could not see that it would be possible for her to do so in the constricted area she, and we all, were in.

She was as tall as I was, almost - certainly her body was the same length as mine, but how much stronger than mine by far were her creamy shoulders!

None of my books on animal medicine and symbolism have anything to say on Vulture.
So I searched the web and came upon a page on artist Tanya Casteel's website, with a beautiful image and card (Vulture), and found these words:

"Vulture as a spirit animal symbolises purity, restoring harmony, preventing the spread of disease, and being noticed for what you do instead of how you appear ... Vulture is there to restore harmony to forgotten places."

The great bird is also associated with humbleness - "No job is too small, dirty or unimportant. They all matter!"

I have seen the Egyptian goddess Isis - one of my personally most beloved mythic figures - represented with the powerful wings of a vulture, which she uses to restore breath into her husband's, the god Osiris' vanquished body. The quiet, intent vulture in my dream was perhaps a visitation from that ancient energy serving the cycles of life, who knows?

Francois Forichon, watercolour, 1911



Wednesday, 25 March 2020

Wild Voices and Greater Matter - a chronology of purchases and words

Last July, I bought Wild Voices Messages from the Soul of Africa, a beautiful and helpful book and card set. 
I met the author, Anne Keating, at the launch of Greater Matter in October. 
In December, she wrote me the following response. I thank her for her permission to quote her response, as well as to share her poem, Wild Goose
Here is her email:

Hello dear Silke
I loved GREATER MATTER.
A stunning, amazing piece of work Silke, wrought from so much god-damn honest pain – flip.
I’ve read it three times and I know I will come back to it.
Thank you.
I want to share some of my story of how I remember Norman ...
With love to you

Anne

Here is the poem:

WILD GOOSE

I come to Greater Matter
Curious.
Who is this woman
Who speaks of Love and Death
Who takes poetry and writes a book
With a beginning, a middle and an end,
and in that order?
Soon I am intrigued captivated absorbed
Sometimes the story holds so much grief
I must close it,
open the small window in my loft for fresh air
Look down to see the living
Branches sway
Green
Gentle Ngunis, halo-horned, moo.
Our lungs easy to fill,
an insult to the struggle I read of
... and I remember the Norman I knew.
The Bard at High Riding
once a near neighbour on the mountain,
Wrote Tim and me a poem about
labyrinths, souls and the wild goose:

Our hand-built labyrinth, “Wild Goose”, radiates between two spreading
oaks
This long year so lovingly constructed
concentric earth paths,
tumbled river-stones and lavender
will guide the pilgrim
to the sacred centre
giving succour.
At last we complete the circles, tuck in the last stone

“This deserves an Opening Ceremony, maybe poetry and wine...”
Norman agrees.
He writes:

WILD GOOSE
The soul goes its road:
this way, that
- restless;
drawn,
a slow spin
to its own heart
- a wild goose
spiralling in
to land.
2004

*

Dismantled before Silke’s Great Suffering
This labyrinth was a place of joy to many pilgrims.
Guided by the sacred wisdom of the river-stone spirals
They spiralled to their centre.
They found their Wild Goose
And stroked his white neck
with reverence.
Silke, now the Bard at Wild Riding,
through spirals of ache, has watched her “soul goes its road”.
Confounded by pain
Yearning her lover...
Yet, resilient, she now recovers her centre.
Powerful, she holds this place.
With tenderness she strokes
the strong white neck of her Wild Goose.

                                        - Anne Keating

I am, now, no longer at High Riding, but, due to the enforced lock-down I am finally able to engage with and study Wild Voices as I intended to do when I bought it. How I look forward to absorbing myself!

For more information on Anne's book, please visit Wild Voices

If you would like a copy of Greater Matter, please email me at silke@silkeheiss.co.za
Alternately, if you would like to order my book via Amazon, please click on this link Greater Matter





Thursday, 19 March 2020

Helped by a hook

This morning, as I walked along the shore of the lagoon, something sharp sank into my foot.
I winced and kicked, and a snag of weeds and fishing tackle spun itself more tightly around my toe.
I pulled out a rusty fishing hook.

In German, when there is a problem, we say, "Wo ist der Haken?"
Where is the hook?

Where is the hook when things don't add up, when they don't make sense. In English, I suppose, the sentiment would be translated as 'where's the catch?'

Among all the different levels of reality there are, most are not immediately apparent.
The hook was not visible in the sand. But once I felt it in my toe, I could see it and remove it and dispose of it safely.

The snag, which keeps tugging at me during these strange, unforeseen days, is: who is there, who still trusts their experience, their own eyes and ears? Who, in the noise of news and numbers, is able still to hear their own impersonal, intuitive voice?

We tunnel in to our laptop and cellphone screens, but the sky does not disappear.

The rusty fishing hook helps me catch myself. For I must be helped to retain a hold on myself in these times.