Once upon a time, there was a kingdom under the grip of a spyglass.
If you had the spyglass, you could see anything in the world. If you had the spyglass, there was nothing from which you couldn’t glean information. It had mesmeric power over the people. It had been created by a king who gave it to his daughter, to be used for the strangest of courtships. If you wished to marry her, you had to achieve only one thing.
You had to disappear.
You had to become a magician of the invisible.
If you could achieve that and defy their magic, she would offer you her hand. If you didn’t, you were executed. No one had ever succeeded, and many had tried. It was as if the spyglass secretly longed to be defeated.
But it seemed there was nowhere, absolutely nowhere, the spyglass couldn’t peer into. For the longest time, it dragged its hypnotized citizens with it.
But there was a chink in the design. A blind spot.
There was one place that the spyglass couldn’t find you.
It was directly under the feet of the daughter.
Smoke Hole is a small attempt to meet one infection with another: beauty.
What kind of beauty, do you (maybe wearily) ask? The kind we see on Instagram?
Beauty kick-starts our attention. The real sublime. To behold it is almost scary because we suddenly have a longing to stand for something. Beauty not as generic but specific, troubling in what it may call forth in us.
I hope this book infects everyone who reads it. I hope there are soon tangible signs of its impact: you breathe deeper, feel steadier, become acquainted with rapture, held strong in grief. I hope this book is a conduit between the timeless and the timebound, prayer mat and smoke hole.
Between Prayer Mat and Smoke Hole
Let’s start by kneeling down.
Because the thing I’d love to talk about is beneath us. That ground the spyglass can’t quite access. It’s a little worn, possibly with hurt feelings, but it’s there.
It’s a prayer mat. We’re all praying to something.
I know there’s a lot to hold our attention right now—everywhere I glance, there’s a screen pummeling us with statistics—but I’m going to ask us to lower our gaze for a moment, you and I.
Examine the weave of the mat; scrunch up your nose and rub up to the dizzy, strange scent of its perfume. There is no one-size-fits-all mat. There are countless millions of prayer mats, and every last one is different. They’re just enough room for you to kneel on, and that’s about it.
It may not look like much, not with all these other distractions, but we make things holy by the kind of attention we give them. So let’s really look at the weave. It’s moving. There’s a Norwegian tugboat pulling into Alexandria at midnight, there are pale stars over a Provençal castle, there’s a desert woman weaving an emu feather into her hair. If we keep paying attention to this little stretch of rug, strange things happen.
We start to witness a secret history of the Earth.
Not the only history, but one tributary of a bigger river that eventually leads us to the vast ocean of Time and Consequence.
We behold this with our old mind, not our new mind.
Sometimes I call this Bone Memory. Not skin or flesh, but bone knowing. It’s what makes storytellers.
This prayer mat is the stuff of our life. The idiosyncratic, usually shadowed, often neglected root system dwelling patiently underneath us. Not just things we’ve lived through, but even further back, things our people lived through. Events that, if they were extraordinary enough, got woven into stories, and by a conscious act of memory decided to be remembered.
Let’s keep looking.
Behind even your people are swooping cranes, misty Welsh hills, lush Ecuadorian valleys, and miles and miles of flowers. These are your ancestors too.
I say it again: we make things holy by the kind of attention we give them. In a time when we are begging for a new story, it may be the stories we need are supporting us right now, if only we would lower our gaze.
Many of us don’t know it, or more likely have been seduced into forgetting. When you forget what you kneel upon, you are far more easily influenced by energies that may not wish you well.
Well, enough of that.
It’s time to kick the robbers out of the house.
I want my imagination back.
And, now we’re kneeling, I ask you to do something else.
Towards the smoke hole.
The smoke hole reveals to us the timeless, the prayer mat the timebound.
The stories we remember, sink our teeth into—that we never discard, disown, grow too old for—are ones that live in the tension of both timeless and time bound.
The stories that got us and our people here in the shape we are. Those are the timebound. But it’s the smoke hole that brings in the timeless, the essential, the vital, and I’m petitioning that we could live between both.
Keeping the Smoke Hole Open
In Siberian myth, when you want to hurt someone, you crawl into their tent and close the smoke hole.
That way, God can’t see them.
Close the smoke hole and you break connection to the divine world: mountains, rivers, trees.
Close the smoke hole and we become mad.
Close the smoke hole and we are possessed by ourselves and only ourselves.
Close the smoke hole and you have only your neurosis for company.
Well, enough of that. Really, c’mon. We’re grown-ups. Let’s take a breath.
We may have to seek some solitude, but let’s not isolate from the marvelous.
High alert is the nature of the moment, and rightly so, but I do not intend to lose the reality that, as a culture, we are entering deeply mythic ground.
I am forgetting business as usual. No great story begins like that.
What needs to change? Deepen? What kindness in me have I so abandoned that I could seek relationship with again?
It is useful to inspect my ruin.
Could I strike up an old relationship with my soul again?
You don’t need me to tell you how to keep the smoke hole open. You have a myriad of ways.
We are awash with the power of words—virus, isolate, pandemic—and they point toward very real things. To some degree, we need the organizational harassment of them.
But do they grow corn on your tongue when you speak them?
Where is the beauty-making in all of this?
That is part—part—of the correct response. The absolute heft of grief may well be the weave to such a prayer mat.
Before we burn the whole world down in the wider rage of climate emergency, of which this current moment is just a hint, could we collectively seek vigil in this moment?
Cry for a vision?
It’s what we’ve always done.
We need to do it now.
This edited excerpt from Smoke Hole: Looking to the Wild in the Time of the Spyglass by Martin Shaw (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2021), appears by permission of the publisher.
Martin Shaw, PhD is an acclaimed scholar of myth and author of the award-winning Mythteller trilogy, The Night Wages, and Life Cycle, his conversation and essay on the artist Ai WeiWei, was recently released by the Marciano Arts Foundation. Shaw created the Oral Tradition and Mythic Life courses at Stanford University and is the director of the Westcountry School of Myth in the U.K. He has been a wilderness rites of passage guide for twenty years. His new book is Courting the Wild Twin (Chelsea Green Publishing, March 2020)