New Year’s Eve 2020: The Muses are Speaking Again

If there were ever a year’s beginning that invited us to pursue the most compelling intentions…

The persistence of nature’s waterways often remind me of the virtues of following my internal flow of curiosity…

The Muses have not been completely silent, but murmuring at a lower volume, simply listening to the songs others hurl so courageously into the world.

Yes, in the usual fashion, I am envious as much as I stand in admiration of my beloved friends’ accomplishments this year, accomplishments that I read as more impressive or valuable than my own. Yet, this year unlike others I find that I am not envious or admiring of the accomplishments themselves, but of the courage and diligence it takes to bring them forth.

Today I read my initial notes from four years ago about the book I wanted to finish in a year’s time. A book about women from Greek tragedy, and what they teach us.

The intention to take on this question was earnest, but resulted in my waffling over the moral rectitude, and relative toxicity of this project, an anxiety with which I would not cease to assail friends, family, and even an Anglican priest, until I backed away, slowly, and stopped writing for awhile.

Women who kill their lovers, their children, themselves. Women who poison, lie, lay plots for the destruction of innocents, pry the supports of social order apart with their teeth. What can they teach that is of constructive value, especially in the current climate of recovering social unity?

“Ought we to rehabilitate them?”, I once heard a woman ask at an Emily Hauser lecture at University College London, as if she was tiptoeing around the cage of an aggressive pit-bull. Emily Hauser, as I recall, voiced that she was not soon intending to deliver an answer to this in her retellings of the more straightforwardly heroic Greek mythic women.

This of course galvanized my curiosity about my project again, and confronted me with the question: If we seek to rehabilitate Medea, Clytemnestra, or Phaedra, and to deprive them of their actions on the grounds that these were invented by the patriarchy and are of no help to us other than securing the legacy of the patriarchy and the vilification of female agency….

What happens to us? What happens to the story? What happens to the human experiences these women carry for us?

Thus, I renew this old intention for the New Year. To explore this question with renewed rigor, and borrow some courage from my friends who have modelled it so well for me this year in their own pursuits.

I know that Elizabeth Gilbert in Big Magic argues quite convincingly from her own remarkable brushes with this truth, that the Muses will cease to sing to a would-be creator who will not in haste take their song and bring it to the world. The Muses will find another whose initiative is greater.

Yes, this may well be the case. Someone out there may be crafting their Acknowledgements page for this book that needed to be written, and, having read their Gilbert, they may well write, “Thank you to the anonymous person who ignored the call so I could take this on”. Yes, another may be off and running, or even crossing the finish line with the baton. And if that is the case?

I would still pursue it for the sake of discovery itself, from my own efforts, and for the pleasure and adventure of meeting those in academia, in the arts, in the act of living, who share my curiosity.

Indeed, one explorer’s summit of Everest does not stop countless mountaineers from doing the same. A woman’s giving birth does not stop another from bearing a child (yes, a silly analogy, but I am keeping it!). Even one author’s publication of a book about a girl who turns into an earthworm should not stop another from writing a book on the same topic, because these could be told in very different ways, for very different audiences, and yes we do need more stories like this!

This is my intention, then, to harness the big or small magic available to explore the still-compelling question I have for these infamous tragic women. Why do you exist? What are you here to teach me if I listen?

If there were ever a year to declare the intentions that call the heart, but which previously seemed ridiculous, grandiose, and/or unfashionable, I suppose this year has opened up new vistas of possibility as much as it has educated us globally on impermanence, and unsustainable patterns of treating one another, and the planet.

And what are your heretofore seemingly too immense/grandiose/awkward intentions? What are the areas of curiosity that are uniquely and intrinsically yours?

I’d love to hear some of those stories of courageous journeying in 2021!

Sending my own intention out in the hopes to kindle others’ pursuit of the curiosities that goad them, as the wind carries the clouds across the sky, or the waves guide the surfers toward the shore!

Gratitude for lessons of 2020

This pandemic period has afforded me over the past months a real time for growth, of the ordinary sort. Thankfully my family and I have been safe from the virus and have had the luxury to work from home, and to do our part to stem the spread by living a quiet life, not traveling, not hosting or attending gatherings (apart from those over Zoom), and taking the long-view that these efforts now will pay off in future.

So, in my more closely circumscribed world, I have grown in the kinds of incremental mastery that do not sound like much, but have challenged me in crucial ways:

  • Moving into my own space (above), small but manageable, and adorned with the instinctual, fundamental meanings of a hearth and a home, one I anticipate occupying for more than a year, after 14 consecutive years of moving from place to place.
  • Meaningful work, and an investment in my work community. I work in academic administration and teach Greek myth to graduate students at an institution with a philosophy steeped in depth psychological approaches. The faculty of my department has been unbelievably supportive in welcoming my philological and classical reception studies take on mythology teaching, accompanied by my complicated relationship of scepticism and intense curiosity about depth psychological lenses. My students have refreshed my interest in the mysteries therein.
  • Living close to family, and supporting my parents through their own life changes with food, laughter and a bit of yoga here and there.
  • Tending friendships and community relationships, and keeping in touch. Still more work to do here, but I am improving!
  • Cooking, baking, and nourishing myself and those I love with joyfully prepared meals – cooking has been immensely grounding for me, now a devoted student of chefs with passion and flair: Yotam Ottolenghi, Roopa Gulati, Diana Henry, Meera Sodha, Samin Nosrat, Nigel Slater, and others.
  • Writing for the sake of writing, and sharing: writing fiction for the first time, and poems to process the events of this year, and sharing with my prose with my wonderful critique group, and my poetry with my community of creatives from Oxford, who have been my north star.

Here’s to lessons learned, poems written, and dishes cooked (the NYE feast of beef in red wine with Barolo), and may many more follow! In some ways 2020 has been my happiest year to date.

The Last Reflections of 2020 in Haiku

Writing poetry for me means listening and giving musical voice to me truth, which delivers itself unto me with its own cadence that shakes the boundaries of my understanding, and tends my soul.

Reading poetry always leaves me changed in some way, and able to recognize myself better in another way. It also brings me into immediate and intimate contact with another person, the one who wrote and so generously shared their world with me.

A poem from Alice Oswald, sent from Oxford, for reading at midnight on the Full Moon, November 30th, 2020

The COVID crisis has been a poem – it has had its refrain of social distancing that has come to the fore in greater and lesser ways, and has yielded stanzas of adherence and dissolution. What is so achingly human as the vacillation between upholding and relaxing moral principles? What is so achingly human as to long for physical immediacy, amidst the online company we have grown used to keeping?

What is the last thought before sleep this New Year’s Eve? Mine is what I love most about a poem that speaks to me.

What is my last thought

before sleep, and growing night?

Your voice, a true song.

Happy New Year, Everyone!

Sunset, December 31st, 2020

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