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Into the Misty Woods

February, 2023


Dear Friends,

It's the season of cold and gray here in Iowa, the time of year when I don't want to go anywhere in the evenings. Instead I prefer to sit in a chair doing something quiet, going to sleep at an embarrassingly early hour. I wake in the morning to darkness, then spend hours in my bedroom's window seat, reading and drawing and thinking as I savor a cup of coffee I can make last for an amazingly long period of time. (Blessings be upon the person who invented the insulated thermos). These are privileges, I realize, of being self-employed and of an age when no one depends upon me to do anything in the morning. 

Sometimes it feels like I'm hiding from responsibilities, and at other times it feels like there are things stirring underneath---seeds just starting to twitch with a bit of growth.

On one of these dark mornings I came across an online essay, one that I'd reached by a hop and skip and jump, seemingly at random. As I read it, my back straightened from what felt like an electric charge. This man can write, I thought. Then I read some more, and some more, and then I started listening to his podcast, and here I am: a Martin Shaw Fan. Which is what I want to tell you about today. He's a good man to listen to, in the dead of winter especially.

Martin---I'll use his first name because I feel I know him---is a storyteller and scholar of mythology. He lives in Devon, England, near Dartmoor National Park. He's a sort of Gandalf figure, someone who loves the woods and the wild, who weaves stories of talking animals and impossible feats, the sort of tales set in misty woods like the photo above. 

Part of what intrigues me about Martin is that several years ago he converted to Christianity, something that astonished him as much as it perplexed many of his friends and colleagues. He had a full-deal epiphany experience--a shaft of light coming down in front of him in the forest, a voice from beyond, the whole shebang. And ever since he's been grappling with what it means to be someone deeply inspired by pagan myths who also follows Jesus (or Yeshua, as he calls him, using his Hebrew name).

Martin's journey has similarities to my own long-and-winding spiritual path. Equally intriguing to me is his ability to weave meaning out of old stories. I've listened entranced as he told stories such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the Red Bead Woman from Siberia, and St. Kevin of Glendalough. Some of them have a twist that could almost be called a moral, some not. On these winter days, in this season of my life, they seem to speak directly to my heart.

Let me give you sample of his work. Here he is ruminating on why myths are important, in an essay in Emergence Magazine:

As humans we’ve long been forged on the anvil of the mysteries: Why are we here? Why do we die? What is love? We are tuned like a cello to vibrate with such questions. What is entirely new is the amount of information we are receiving from all over the planet. So we don’t just receive stress on a localized, human level, we mainline it from a huge, abstract, conceptual perspective. Perpetual availability to both creates a nervous wreck.

The old stories say, enough; that one day we have to walk our questions, our yearnings, our longings. We have to set out into those mysteries, even with the uncertainty. Especially with the uncertainty. Make it magnificent. We take the adventure. Not naively but knowing this is what a grown-up does. We embark. Let your children see you do it. Set sail, take the wing, commit to the stomp. Evoke a playful boldness that makes even angels swoon. There’s likely something tremendous waiting.

This is not to imply it’s easy. To become a warrior of the elite class in ancient Ireland you had to learn how to dance on the tip of a spear, to become a sovereign you had two wild horses attached to your chariot, setting out in different directions. Your task was to create, between the warring directives of each, a third movement, forged from the tension of both wills. If you could thrive under that discord, stay upright in the unknowing, make play from the tension, then you had the capacity to be a sovereign. And it wasn’t just a case of bullying the horses but making a kind of alchemical covenant between the two: you rode the counterweight and something new was birthed. That requires patience and a certain amount of discomfort.

So what could that look like in our lives? It means rescuing little ideas that gleam for a second in our soul then disappear. Coaxing them back. It means attention to not this or that but possibly both or some other way entirely. This isn’t necessarily easy, being so conditioned as we are to yes or no, black or white. And sometimes that third position is not what many would call a logical response. . . 

I have become more eccentric since my time in the forest, clearer and occasionally kinder. Life doesn’t feel certain, but it feels succulent. Life doesn’t feel assured, but it feels vivacious.

It doesn’t feel safe, but it feels pregnant with possibility. And, like every human before me, I’m going to have to make my peace with that arrangement. To repeat, it was always like this.

Well. You can see why I'm so taken with Martin Shaw. Whatever he's drinking, I'll take a flask of it too.

There's an old saying that each of us is living out a myth, whether we know it or not. I think mine has been the myth of the pilgrim, the traveler, the seeker. I identify with Odysseus, St. Brendan of Ireland, and Gudrid the Far Traveler, for example. Perhaps you have a myth, too, threading beneath the surface of your life.


Whatever your myth is, I hope you have a misty wood to wander through these days, and a warm place to return to at night. I hope you give yourself permission to step apart from the blizzard of troubling news and the endless barrage of noise, so that you can go looking for mystery. After all, there are swords waiting to be danced upon.

As for me, since I began listening to Martin Shaw, it seems as if the creatures of the woods are appearing more to me. Or probably I'm just paying more attention to them. No matter. Just in the past few days I've been greeted by a fox who flashed me a grin as it darted across a residential street, and a Cooper's hawk who gave me a measured stare as it perched on the side of an urban stream. I'm still pondering their messages, here in the darkness of the year.

All good wishes,

Lori

(first photo credit: Bob Sessions; second photo credit: Martin Shaw)


Recommended Resources:

I think listening to Martin Shaw is the best introduction to his work. You can hear audio stories and essays on his Substack The House of Beasts & Vines, including his on-going series Seeking a Liturgy of the Wild. His website has additional information on his books, essays, and his Westcountry School of Myth.

More than a quarter century ago, scholar and teacher Joseph Campbell helped ignite a renewal of interest in mythology. The Power of Myth provides an overview of his work and insights.


In Don't Know Much About Mythology: Everything You Need to Know About the Greatest Stories in Human History But Never Learned, Kenneth C. Davis gives a lively and engaging account of how myths have shaped human history and culture for millennia.
 

 



Upcoming Event:

I’ll be speaking in Mt. Vernon, Iowa, at 1 pm on February 2 as part of a series on Lifelong Learning for Adults. My talk Writing My Way Around the World: Reflections of a Spiritual Travel Writer will be at the Lester Buresh Family Community Wellness Center.
 

My Newest Book:

As regular readers of this newsletter know, I'm the author of the new book The Soul of the Family Tree: Ancestors, Stories, and the Spirits We Inherit. See my website for a full list of reviews and media, including my NPR interviews with Rick Steves (part one; part two). 

Interested in doing The Soul of the Family Tree in a book group? You can find discussion questions here

If you've read and enjoyed any of my books, I hope you'll post a review on Amazon, Goodreads, or other online sites. Your review will help other readers discover my work.
 

My Previous Books:


Near the Exit: Travels with the Not-So-Grim Reaper is about places that have helped me come to terms with mortality. 

“This book’s journey to spiritual places near and far is worth taking.” Library Journal (starred review)







Holy Rover: Journeys in Search of Mystery, Miracles, and God is a memoir told through trips to a dozen holy sites around the world.  

“Whether describing mystical visions or the rhythms of everyday life, Erickson turns the spiritual journey into a series of exciting transformations.” Publishers Weekly (starred review)



 




 

Lori Erickson is one of America’s top travel writers specializing in spiritual journeys. She's the author of The Soul of the Family Tree, Near the Exit and Holy Rover. Her website Spiritual Travels features holy sites around the world. 



 
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