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The Songs & Silence of Women

Through all the world, women have begun singing. Theirs is not a beautiful song in the way we normally think of beauty; it is a raw, raucous lament. Beautiful though in its truth and weight.


Woman have begun singing about their pain. I know you think they did this decades ago, when feminism uplifted women's voices, but that was different music - it was about a longing for the sky, a song of wings. Now, we hear about the broken bones, bruised hearts, ruined trust. The songs that could never be heard until women had rescued themselves from dark towers, claustrophobic kitchens, small lives, and learned not only to fly but to stand on their self-seeded inner ground.

These are songs women have been whispering amongst themselves for millennia. Where do you think so many fairytales come from? We mostly know them now the way men have chosen to retell them, but their origins are in the bones and blood of what women have always experienced.

(Men have their own terrible experiences too. As I woman, I can say that but not speak to it.)

And in the middle of all this wild and powerful singing, I want to speak for silence.

For the women who carry a song within themselves that they do not vocalise: it's okay to be silent. It doesnt exclude you from the community of survivors. It doesn't mean you aren't amazingly courageous. Infact, I wonder if in these days, holding on to silence is a special courage all its own. Maybe you are protecting yourself. Your parents. Your children. Your peace.

Maybe you cried out years ago, told family, told the police, and were left with this silence that has become itself your lament.

Maybe you were assaulted by women, and no one's singing about that.

If you are holding words in silence, for whatever reason you choose, I want to tell you that you're noble. You're brave. You're just as important and beloved as the women who shout their tales to senators in elevators. What happened to you mattered, and your choices as to how you carry that matter too. Don't let anyone tell you that other women speaking up is on your behalf too. Your silence is important! We must not deny it. We must not take it over and speak for it. The silence of some women is an essential part of womanhood's song.

It's okay to speak up about what happened to you. There is no shame to having been sexually assaulted any more than there is in having had your arm broken. It's also okay to not speak up. Your survival is not someone else's healing tool. It belongs to you, and absolutely you have the choice what to do with it.

Silence is not a matter of not speaking out. It is a way of holding one's voice.

Everywoman And the Monsters

Once and always, there was a woman who sought her fortune. She had not expected this. As a little girl, she had dreamed only of making a little garden, baking bread so she was surrounded by what surely must be the aroma of heaven, and every night watching the glorious sunset. Her dreams might have grown bigger with time - or not, who knows? But her father cut off her hand, her grandmother cut out her tongue (why? it does not matter why; nothing could ever adequately explain it) and so she ran from home to seek her fortune.

The hand grew back. It ached in bad weather, and that was bad enough, but she learned how to write and paint and catch rain with it. The tongue grew back. It could not say certain words without her wanting to vomit, and that was bad enough, but she learned to sing and orate with it. She became strong, interesting. She grew flowers where she could, baked bread when she could, watched sunsets. And she fought the monsters when they came - sometimes to victory, sometimes to a shuddering defeat from which she crawled away only half-alive. For the road was haunted with monsters. Beautiful, charming, often inexplicable, they came to her shouting, smiling, hobbling, dancing. They were rich men, old ladies. They were some guy walking along the street, some president of a country.

At last, after what felt like many lifetimes, the woman arrived at the gates to a beautiful land. As far as she could see, there were gardens - wild, enchanting gardens through the land and in the hearts of the people who lived there. No kings ruled this country, for gardeners understand better than that. They work for nurturance not power, diversity not monoculture. The woman in all her hope and her weariness approached the gates.

And monsters reared up to stop her.

Always they had been trying to stop her from entering this beautiful land, even before she knew it existed. For you see they would wither and die if they could not feed on her hope, her gentleness, her dreaming, her softness, her love. They had turned her out of home and built the road she must walk along. The woman tried now to raise a sword against them, but she was so tired. She had fought so long, and here at the point of hope the monsters were fiercer, more powerful, than ever before. Despairing, she turned to go.

But a young, pink-haired woman came up to take her hand (the one holding a sword). And a quiet-faced man in a uniform came up to take her other hand (the one that had been regrown). Look, they told her. And looking, she saw a vast crowd behind her - all the women with regrown hands, tongues, feet, hearts; all the men with wounds themselves, all the people who had been walking roads and fighting monsters for what seemed like forever, seeking a fortune the monsters told them existed. All the billions of people who dreamed of growing gardens, loving others and their own selves, being happy and safe, chasing the grimy dreams of monsters instead.

And look, said the young woman and the quiet-faced man. So she looked at the monsters. How great they were! How fierce and loud! How much power they held! And yet ... how small inside. How frightened. She saw in their eyes that they knew they were outnumbered, and this knowledge made them desperate and dangerous, with their claws buried deep in the lovely, scarred breast of the world.

But the woman turned away from them again and looked at the billions standing with her. Perhaps we could do this together, she said.

And so they did. They sang until the monsters were silenced. They tore down the gates until hope became the present moment. They made the road beneath their feet into a garden.

It's not that easy, some said.

But really, it was.

photo by Amber Carbo Privizzini

In The Dark Forest

One of the most prevalent mythic images is that of the woman (or man) who ventures alone through the dark forest to face trials and sorrows before emerging strengthened. I have used it myself many times in narratives and therapeutic stories.

The truth of course is that you are probably safer in the forest than you are walking a city street, drinking at a house party, going for an evening jog. In my own country, there's nothing in our forests that would harm you except your own foolishness in not being prepared or walking an unstable path. There are no bears, wolves, snakes. Even if there were, they'd more likely run from you, for surely wild creatures have their own dread tales to tell about when people venture alone through the dark forest.

I have always believed that the old metaphors continue to speak powerfully, with truth, even in these new days. But I'm starting to think that the metaphor of the forest needs to be changed. Now, to teach our children and heal ourselves, we need some new mythic images that reflect better a truth that has always existed for women: the real danger is not in the forest.

We need a mythic image in which a woman must venture along a suburban street at night. Armed with keys between her fingers, a careful gait, clothes that will not be questioned should anything befall her, and the chilling instincts of women everywhere - always alert for the approach of shadowed men. Have you made that walk? Has it taught you about yourself and the world? Once, when I was eighteen, I walked that suburban street at night. Someone in a car followed me, creeping along with their lights off, and I sought refuge in a stranger's house. They drove me home and the next day, at the insistence of my parents, I called the police. What were you wearing? the officer asked. A black skirt, I said. How short was it? he asked. To my fucking ankles.

We need a mythic image not of the bride alone in Bluebeard's house, but surrounded by friends in Prince Charming's castle. Or the Queen's castle - for yes, women sexually abuse women, and abuse men too.

We need a mythic image not of the disenfranchised daughter facing monsters in the wild or in her stolen home, but of the princess dressed in gold who even with her power, with her fortune and the fullness of her voice, must still face a monster. And then, when she has survived, her lament is heard only as a whisper, a lie, or not at all. For, she realises, everywhere are monsters, velvet clad and bearing grand titles, and they see even princesses as ragged girls.

We need stories about the pockets in women's dresses. Sit around the fire, ladies, and bring out what you keep in those pockets - tissues, charms, tampons, griefs. Like most women, I have plenty of ugly little stories knotted up in string that I could reveal. And I have the herbs, dried flowers, old leaves, and stones that I tuck in amongst those stories to keep them from stinking, and to keep me remembering where peace and healing can be found - in the wild, in the heart of the Mother, in the dark forest.

art by vp moher

Stories for Wild Dreaming

I went to the library this week, looking for new fantasy books to read. I spent an hour browsing and came out with nothing. This is during a time when I have also been visiting bookstores, looking for new books to buy. As I can almost never afford to do this, I am very careful with my selections, usually staying with authors I've come to trust over the years, or buying books I fell in love with after reading the library copy.

I have a hankering at the moment for beauty. For bears murmuring poetry to the moon, women weaving magic like cat's cradles between their fingers, grandmothers whose coat pockets are full of herbs and wishes, houses holding secrets like fallen stars. I want beautiful imagery, beautifully or at least articulately written.

They've been nowhere around me. I know I can probably find them if I scour the internet, especially from indie sources. But I want to walk into a shop and walk out hugging a book. I want to run my fingers along the spines of dreams, and tip forward one that looks promising, and be delighted.

kay nielsen

In each of the libraries and bookstores I visited, the Science Fiction & Fantasy section was filled with muscular stories of war, conflict, crime, political epics, violent beasts. Book after book appeared much the same. Finding a book that wasn't part of a series was almost impossible (and why do they no longer say on the cover that it's book two or three in a triology?)

There was considerably more diversity in the Young Adult section, where I encountered gentler fantasy stories amongst the war epics, a few mythic tales, more connection with nature. But I did not buy any because, for the most part, books marketed for teenagers use basic language and a simple kind of structure, which does not satisfy me.

I wondered why most of the women's stories, the gentle stories, the romantic, charming, and beautiful magical stories, were in the Young Adult section. There were even books whose main characters were adult women. Sharon Shinn, Megan Whalen Turner, Ursula le Guin, Juliet Marillier, Anne McCaffrey - these are just some of the women who write about adults and yet their books are shelved in YA (at least where I live).

I wrote a long post contemplating the gender politics of all this, but maybe it's just that I live at the bottom of the world and the store buyers here are serving a small and particular market. Maybe I have very limited standards which are based on nostalgia for the achingly lyrical and masterfully written books which were more available two decades ago - because most of what's touted as "lyrical and beautiful" these days does not really compare to Earthsea, Gormenghast, The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, and is still so often quite hard and violent as well. Or maybe adult readers of sf/f these days really do want mostly war, violence, grim visions. Maybe there's some strange new idea that wonder and enchantment are no longer appropriate for adults, that we need something more serious (ie, dark). I find that hard to believe, considering the popularity of books like The Night Circus. Not to mention all the hundreds of years that the romance of fantasy and magic has been written for adults. But what do I know?

Well, I do know one thing. The best way to address this topic is to simply write the kind of books I want, even if I'm the only one who will read them. Books for people who dream differently from the rest.

The Wolf Bridegroom

So, my father married me off to a wolf. He married me off to teeth and claws and the taste of sweet hot blood. He was an authority figure himself, and if he had to let me go, he said, he wanted me still tethered to a force greater than that of my liberal imagination. Thus it was I married to a wolf.

I went in virginal white, like first spring blossoms and first spring rains, into the forest. I met a husband of light eyes, sweat-scented pelt, and something so fierce in his smile that I almost turned and ran. I was not frightened of him, only of my own sudden longings. He took me deep into the forest.

And I learned what it meant to have married a wolf.

It was shy glances through the shadows, singing poetry to the moon, running through the wind until my eyes burned and my heart burned with a savage bliss I'd never before known. And it was a large, raucous family of in-laws who welcomed me with open arms and toothy smiles, helping me to find my own true laugh.

It was wild, gentle love.

My father with his authority and his birch rod words never did understand what real power looked like. I married a king of freedom, and became free myself.

The Magicians of the Dawn

I have always been a night owl, but over the past couple of years I've come to love the very early morning* when it's still dark and the bird-magicians are abroad, singing spells to bring definition to the world and ultimately raising the sun.

Don't believe in it? Fair enough. I personally have trouble believing in the mundane. Bird-magicians of the morning are as real as it gets to me.

* I actually don't call it early morning. I call it night until the light returns, because that's what makes sense, and I suspect it's what we called it until we got ourselves clocks. And that liminal hour when the birds take charge, doing their delicate musical magic, is far more enchanting to me than any midnight witching hour, because it's real magic, you know? Not just some tipping point humans imagine as if their timepieces have any bearing on natural reality at all.

Our arrogance and sense of racial superiority deprives us of so much magic and understanding of life, and of this world we share with the sorcerous birds and the myth-hearted animals.

Wondering About Blogging

I have the opportunity to create a website with my own domain name, something I've been wanting to do for years. But now that the time has come, I found myself hesitating. Wondering.

And so I ask you.

What do you love best in weblogs? Minimalism with quiet space and fine-boned text, or full-screen images with a bold, luscious text? Do you like a clamour of sidebar imagery, or the trendy squarespace look of scrolling sections, or a clean space with one small link list?

Over the years I've had both a bold luscious look and the current minimalism - ironically, I feel the latter better contains my inner vividness. (Incase you're wondering, I'm sitting here in a dress the colour of wild bees, with long messy hair, holey stockings, and a new nose ring, listening to Matthew Perryman Jones' Cancion de la Noche - the song which inspired part two of Deep of the Far Away. My computer has warned me that listening to music this loud may permanently damage my hearing. In a minute I am going to get on with writing about a mad circus. I tried writing something dirt-footed and fur-skinned instead, I really did, since most of you like that kind of thing, but my imagination just couldn't bend that way for long. My manuscript documents are very spacious; I keep the text in a very narrow area, even more so than this current template. I must have that calm, that quiet.)

But back to what I was saying. Does a dot.com url make a difference to you; does it feel more professional? And what is your impression of people who use their names as website urls? (I'm toying with the idea of using my real name going ahead but am unsure since Sarah is a very old "brand" now.)

Is there anything that attracts you instantly in a weblog? Anything that instantly puts you off? I know a lot of people dislike my current small text but I have synasthesia and sometimes larger text really disturbs me. What about no photographs? I personally I won't read weblogs that have text boxes superimposed against photograph backgrounds, or who have large text, or who use the comic sans font. It's not a design judgment, it simply hurts my eyes too much.

There are loads of web marketing advice sites to consult but I think it's more effective to simply ask readers.

Thank you for your thoughts on this. I hope you're having a lovely day. I spent most of my morning going on a long bicycle ramble, enjoying the flower-strewn grass, the trees and hills, of distant neighbourhoods.

The Old Spirit in the City

I have been wanting for years to move away into the country, where meadows and trees can soak up my gentled breathing. But another part of me longs conversely to move into the heart of the city. To have libraries for my forests. To have dusty memories, sudden sirens, rickety stairs leading up behind shops, for my poems. Even to have the stain of sea in the air (all but one of our cities here are beside the ocean.)


photo by ffion snaith

But the city as I imagine it won't linger for long. Every day it becomes more modern, its shy bookish dreams being swept away, old windows broken so whole walls of glass can be erected instead. I come from a people who left behind their history and heritage to create something new. Their spirit remains in our society. This is a land of runaways and reinventors. Nothing is allowed to remain old for very long.

For those of us who love the dust, the ghosts of trees in our walls, and the poetry of worn floorboards declaiming beneath our feet, innovation and ease is not exciting. I've noticed in particular a new-fangled love for illumination. Everything is lit, uncluttered, bare. It's like no one remembers anymore that light is not just for seeing, but for feeling also. Its subtleties shape our moods and understandings. Its shadows are its memories and inspire our own. When we walk always through shops, offices, and rooms that are implacably bright, we are afford no gentleness or curiosity or change.

I long for the city, but I think it is drawing away out of my reach.


The Child Who Felt Too Much

Outside, a bird is singing. With my curtains closed and the sky packed down with clouds, there's a slight echoey feeling, and I could almost believe we are in an old, damp forest, that bird and I, living our best lives. Sometimes my longing for that wished-up life clenches within me, literally hurts me, and I have to grope again for my breath. And I have to remind myself that what I long for couldn't ever exist. It's a patchwork of dreams I had as a child - sunlight through elegant dark corridors in houses I visited, the feeling at someone else's grandmother's tea table, the sound of old floors telling tales beneath my feet. In particular, there was a house surrounded by trees on the drive home that seemed to me must be magical inside. I yearn to live in that house, even though it has long since been torn down.

I remember too much from when I was a child who felt too much. It may be why I am drawn to storytelling. When we write fiction, we have the chance to dwell within the moments that touched us  deeply throughout our lives. I'm not talking here about things that happened, but the mood of them. The ambience. How air felt, shifting against my skin, as I walked into a sunlit room. How soft the scent of carpet and warm scones felt as it sank through me. Sometimes it seems to me like memory is an otherworld within the self, and story shares the same world, although it too has its own soul, on the far side. We meet, and wander arm-in-arm, kissing sometimes, weeping in each other's arms, there in that liminal space. That what-was space where dreams go to fade and, maybe, get reborn as tales.

Heaven in a Wild Flower

My new computer has low optical quality. Images are often blurry or yellowed. Because of this, I've had to put aside my photography. I take snapshots with my phone for instagram, but the art I was slowly developing, the years I put into learning about light and poetry - all of that I've relinquished. I'm focussing on words instead.

Right now, I don't miss it too much. My dreams for photography were always outweighed by my doubts about my ability. Maybe one day I will return to it when I have a better computer and more courage.

One of the reasons I was drawn so deeply into photography was because I liked taking a camera with me as I went out into the world. I found that, when I did, I had an excuse to slow down and engage with the environment more. People don't understand why someone would want to stop and whisper to a blossoming tree, or stare at a distant hill, or just sit in the grass letting sunlight drape over their shoulders. More understandable is taking photographs. And so I would bring myself into close, quiet intimacy with the world through my camera lens.

I would see how a flower lay against the voluptuous curve of light, a love story that filled my throat with emotion (I learned not to cry because if I did I could not take photographs). I would see the magic in a man's tilted face - magic that was not inside him but it was inside me and I could project it with my camera onto him. I would watch the spirit of a shadowy cave make a model dance, and then the spirit of sumptuous sunset draw her into enchanted stillness. I would see the secret dreaming of a tree.

The world is crowded with wonder. Photography brings us closer than close to it. But words can do the same. I shall try to write them.

and speaking of intimacy with the environment, this post by nonfixedstars is beautiful.

At the Edge of the World

I stood in the long grass, looking out at the bare stone islands rising from the sea. They were dragons made of earth bone and ocean memory. They were castles of the pearl king. All around me the wind danced like a joyful dervish, and I felt the spirit in me dancing with it, even as I steadily eyed those islands - for I was a wind-girl drawn to the one thing strong enough to resist the wind, mountains. I knew even then, even only nineteen or something, not yet fully educated and never having much travelled, I knew in an ageless part of myself that this world was not enough. It was only story, and I could tell it to myself however I liked. Under all the traffic and commerce and movies and clothes, there was simply wind and mountains, the dance and the stillness, the wild love.

"Don't just stand there," he said irritably. "Come down to the beach, live a little."

I shrank back down to a girl who was never enough herself. I left the wind and descended a long steep zig-zag of stairs to the place he wanted me to go, in order to prove I was living life to the full. Not just standing on a hill, looking out at islands, doing nothing.

All these years later, I don't remember the beach or what we did. But I can stand on that hill again in my heart and my being, feeling the curvaceous flow of the wind, seeing the bone islands. Knowing how it still matters, long after he and the beach and the day have gone.
Quite some time ago I read the novel The Light Between Oceans - long enough ago that I remember reading it, and the pain it caused me, but not much else. Some novels are like that, ephemeral, leaving only a delicate afterlight on the memory's eye. I know I wanted to love it, for its title alone almost demanded that, and the sadness that I felt after finishing it was sadness for the story and the fact I could not love it after all.

And yet I wanted to see the movie. I love beautiful movies, never mind even what they're about. I wanted to watch the wind go through long grasses and over oceans at the edge of New Zealand, where it was filmed. Tonight, I happened upon the movie, to my absolute delight. I watched it ... and forced myself to go on watching it, although halfway through I'd really had enough. There was so much to love. But the pain of the story remained.

I'd forgotten how cruel it was. Oh, I understand the author was exploring a moral dilemma, and knew all along what I was letting myself in for. I didn't mind enduring most of it. But the ending - there was no need for the ending - why did she write that ending?

the first day of spring

There always comes a day early in spring when you feel the beginning again. Meteorologists may tell you when the seasonal change has arrived; stars may tell you from afar, but then you wake to a warmth you've not felt for a long time, and a silvery quality to the light that makes it seem like the day is a bell that has been struck, and you know now it's spring for real. The bright-eyed sun-god is smiling crookedly at you, throwing handsful of hope at you, and something turns, like the year turns, inside your heart.

The Memory of Freedom

I climbed the hill, following a meandering path like I was walking the spine of an old dormant creature, pelted with manuka, who dreamed of the days it danced with the sea. My own dreams were barely more civilised. I wanted to take off my shoes, my appointments, my power bill, and run away to live witch-wild amongst the trees. I'd done it before - really, it's amazing the things that can be managed when you're eighteen that seem impossible at forty five - but since those summer days under a different mountain, half-kin with a different manuka forest, I'd spent too long with electricity and excuses; I couldn't believe in freedom any more.

But the wind knew freedom. Coming in endlessly from the ocean, it spoke an epic about forever. It remembered me as a bony, mad-haired little girl from back when these hills had been my home. It remembered the young woman who kept coming back for an hour or two at a time, longing for her wind and old woodland shadows, but knowing no way to remain. And it held a vision - hope or dream, I'll never know - of who I might be one day when it rushes in from the waters to find me amongst the trees again.

Back in my stone cottage beside another sea, far away, I drank tea out of lovely cups, put flowers in vases on the table, paid the power bill. I thought about all the ways we are convinced we don't need freedom. Then I closed my eyes, stood on a hill in the forest, and listened to the world breathe.

Art by Frances Gearhart

Writing Deeply About Small Things

I woke to the memory of rain gleaming on the grass and driveway. The air felt replete. It always makes me a little sad when the night has been raining and I, sleeping, missed it. Rain is so precious, I want to experience every moment of it - although too often when it comes I fret about whether I'm enjoying it enough, and fear it will end any moment and not come again for a month. I feel the same about spring. Apparently, I am not one of these people who can drink in the beauty of nature - I gulp, and then choke, and spill half of it down my blouse.

Book twitter is playing a game at the moment, write about your own work in the style of "How to Tell if You're in a .... Novel." I could only reply with one of my current works in progress, because really I don't know whether there is much consistency across my works. Perhaps I could say, you are beset with too many words ... no breeze goes undescribed ... nothing much actually happens. (I also could add that you will meet heroines who are gentle, uncertain, seeking beauty and love in life rather than power, and heroes who seem like strong men but carry a deep, secret vulnerability. So maybe there is some consistency after all.)

I've always said that, for me, writing is an organic process done more by feel than thinking. I seldom compose sentences; I listen to what wants telling, and I feel the shape of it, the depth and texture of it, and I recreate that with words. It's a method which I guess suits description rather than plotting, and this is no doubt why my stories are usually about small moments.

I'm sharing about my writing process because I wonder if other people (women especially) can relate to doing their own things differently from how they're supposedly done. Knitting by instinct. Painting by the sound of colour. Mothering by spiritual resonance. Making music by feel. Maybe it has to do with having a true and loving relationship with the activity, imbued with trust for what the activity asks of us. Or maybe we are just strange.

The rain has returned, a ghost of the sky sighing as it drifts towards earth. I have opened the window and am determined this morning to just let it be. To let the love flow through me like poetry.

Coming Home Again

Yesterday I went back and forth through the city, walking through rain, running for buses; I tried to take the same journey three times and finally reached my destination in the dark. I limped home at last well past my bedtime. I was in a lot of pain from all the walking, and my laundry, with which I'd been so pleased, was soaked on the line.

This is life sometimes. It seems a mad bumble, a waste of time. But halfway through my adventure, I let go of what I could have been doing instead, and this morning I realise all the plans I'd had to abandon would have been a waste of time themselves, and so nothing was lost. There is a charm to travelling without hope of purpose, a small magic to just carrying on even though you have no idea whether you should or not.

All of which is to accompany my announcement that I'm moving back here, at least until I can afford to get myself a proper website with a domain name. As I explained on the penwitch site, I don't have the strength at the moment to undergo all the work it would take to rebuild my audience across various social media platforms. It was more work than I anticipated. I also found that penwitch was a hard name to live with - bigger than me, bolder than me.

(And I know it should be bigger, bolder than I, but sometimes proper grammar sounds wrong.)

So here I am. And coming back will probably lose me audience too! But I can't think of it as a waste of time. I stepped out into the wild, and realised fairly quickly that I'd gone the wrong direction without resources to sustain me in a new journey. Attempting adventure is never a waste. If nothing else, you learn what you love.
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Thanks & Blessings.