The Spell-Charm of Everyday Speech


Lately I’ve noticed how automatic and unconscious speaking a language is. We know what sounds right, but we don’t always know why it sounds right. We rarely stop to think through every word we say in a sentence unless we’re learning a new language, or when we trip over words that don’t sound right. Intriguing. In doing some research on this I came across stories of people who grew up without a language: deaf people born to hearing parents who were unable (or unwilling) to sign with them, as in the astounding article from Greg Downey, Life Without Language (Susan Schaller wrote a book on this, A Man Without Words). Many of these people, until found and rehabilitated by the deaf community in adulthood, were depressed and isolated without any ability to communicate, or even to clearly distinguish one object from another. With language, symbols for communication, the parts of everyday life actually become more real and discernible.

For example: I’m wondering why the difference between “much” and “many” is a big deal to native English speakers; and we catch it when we pick the wrong one of these two– “she has much dollars” makes our ears wince– but we can’t immediately explain why. Follow the white rabbit down the hole of linguistic anthropology to the mysterious root of language in our species. What began as a question of grammar becomes a deeper marveling at why we say anything at all, why pattern adds up and sounds make sense. Why is it these symbolic patterns, this unconscious depth continues to overtake our attention, sometimes causing us to speak a glitch in the system?

When I am feeling emotionally distanced from language itself as my primary mode of expression is when I am more likely trip over grammar and not care about how it sounds. I have always considered myself a wordy person, but in the past couple years I’ve been more focused on physicality, less “in my head” and at times more keen to express myself not immediately in words, but through image or movement. It was then the difference between the plural and the singular became increasingly irrelevant, my patterns of speech loosened and I could write more freely without self-censorship. Creative writing became easier, not harder, when I wasn’t stuck in Wordlandia, but explored other forms of language (language is not only words, it’s the conveyance of meaning). Being stuck in the realm of the “left brain” becomes restricting. It is necessary to break language’s patterns, invoke the animal body. Experimental freedom in language may happen more readily in spoken language, as that is when we allow ourselves to be more unselfconscious in our communication, in tune with others’ body language and focused on physical ques of the real, sensory world. Compare this to the cerebral strangeness that is writing an essay on a computer screen, every mis-written word underlined in red squiggles.

I once heard the idea that words as symbols can actually separate us further. At the time I heard this I was approaching near-worship of wordiness, an unconscious response to finding myself suddenly immersed in a (beautiful) subculture of an outdoor school which valued physical experience and body language as much as the spoken and written word, if not more. I loved this place, but worried my inclination toward expressing myself verbally was uncool in this social scene I so pined to be accepted in. The idea goes as follows: if somebody says “wolf”, you may both think of the animal, but if they go on to say, “An old grey wolf in summer is hunting for food,” that could separate you more. You both have different internal ideas of the animal’s fur color, what an old or young wold looks like, how summer feels, but maybe you were imagining snow on the ground before they said “summer”. More specifics could lead your imaginings further apart, according to the idea. It was an ear-opening way of understanding the world, and human communication. I think it is easy in modern society to over-glorify words in particular as the best means of communication, when we also have other ways of understanding each other.

In the academic paper Psycholinguistics, Formal Grammars, and Cognitive Science, Fernanda Ferreira introduces the field of psycholinguistics and its relationship to what might be going on at the level of cognitive processing. She writes,


“Psycholinguists who study adult processing are interested in how people understand and produce language. In the sub-area of comprehension, their aim is to develop theories that explain how listeners understand utterances in real time, even in the face of massive ambiguity and indeterminacy in the input. For production, the goal is to capture how speakers move from a communicative intention to a series of articulatory gestures, which results in utterances that are reasonably fluent and typically comprehensible to others. Psycholinguistic investigations focus on the constraints associated with real time processing. People understand language at the rate of about 300 words per minute, which implies that lexical retrieval, syntactic parsing, and semantic interpretation all occur in a matter of a few hundred milliseconds. Considering the size of the databases that must be consulted during comprehension, the speed and accuracy of human processing is truly astonishing.” (Ferreira)


That “speed and accuracy of human processing” is what I have come to appreciate from being a writer who draws from real-time, spoken life. To write in this way is to scratch the surface of what language is and why we are so sensitive to it. In tracking spontaneous, unedited patterns of speech from myself and those around me, I’m caught in wonder by the warm-blooded mechanics underlying evolving human language. Calling on any logical sequence of words as a species is real-life magic. It’s no accident that there’s a double meaning to the word “spell”; to write a word, to cast a charm. And there is hidden spell-charm in everyday speech. I know several people whose names are seemingly common, called the same as another’s, but they do not sound the same to me. To the untrained ear of an outsider there may register no difference. But to me, they have different names. One of my friends named Alex is not the same as the other, and it takes a friend to hear the difference. Somewhere in the ether between the life of the lips and the ear of the beholder, a word is made flesh. Even common names are incantations. Language may be a smaller pattern within nature mimicking the structure of nature itself.



Works Cited

Downey, Greg. “Life Without Language.” Neuroanthropology. WordPress, 21 July 2010. Web. 3 Sep. 2016.

Ferreira, Fernanda. “Psycholinguistics, Formal Grammars, and Cognitive Science.” The Linguistic Review 22 (2005): 365-80. Stanford University. Web. 3 Sep. 2016.


photo by wilhei, Public Domain.

A New Kind of Top Predator


Walking out to my sit spot last night in the dark, I listen to what is around me, and what is in me. An excitement and subtle fear surfaces, and I ask myself what I am afraid of. Of course the dark is still spooky. But I am one of the top predators, I assure myself. My back straightens. The Big Cat and I have a treatise to keep our distance. We are equally terrified of each other, and for that, we have sworn to not see each other as prey. Then another thought, one that makes me weak in the knees for the love of it, like a treasure remembered. I turn my face upward to the lighter ribbon of starry sky through the canopy, and I know that I have been given a great gift, a birthright. I am of that species of top predator, the only of its kind, who has the ability to choose it’s actions compassionately, to employ forethought and empathy in my predation. Yes, I eat meat. Yes, my species currently rules the whole world, and not often with our better selves. But we can choose: that is what sets us apart. A feeling of entwined humility and power came through me, and I was thankful, and at peace.


Journal entry from July 25th, 2013


Photo by Unsplash. Public Domain.

Sacred Camouflage


Last night I slept out at Valley of the Rogue State Park in southern Oregon, a place of merry adventure as the handsome name implies. That land has particular sentiment to me, the first place my tribal outdoor school camps as it caravans to the south every February, the expanse of the arid wilds under the milky way mountains. Setting up camp alone on this night, I turned away from the flickering lights of the unknown travelers and chose instead the dark, unoccupied place where my friends and I laid seven months previous. People have a way of leaving the scent of their spirit like a loving ghost in the lands they pass through.

The night was drawing down as I pulled in to pay. Clouds were rapidly gathering though the night lingered at 68 degrees fahrenheit. I set up my tarp and sleeping bag between a grove of low hanging conifers, Doug Fir and Incense Cedar. My tarp is brown, brown as the ground, blending in. Alone without light I swallow a portion of food and water and I lay down, satisfied and free in my element.

I have become more of a scout than I realize. I awaken soon to a bright artificial light illuminating my tarp in its shadows, hearing the nearby voices of two bewildered men, “Where is she? Not in that tiny car, but there’s no tent!” It was the rangers come around to check the sites for payment. I was invisible in my low brown tarp and sparse conifer grove behind a barricade of Manzanita. After basking in amusement a moment I revealed myself to their relief and humbled apologies.

A few weeks ago, on a night after acting in a scouting scenario for the teens at their overnight camp, I was walking back down to my yurt. There are no street lights in this rural and wooded neighborhood, but starlight lit the path around me. At once a car came speeding down the drive, approaching too quickly, and I knew they could not see me on the road in the darkness. Without thinking I dove into the thicket beside the road to avoid getting run over, hoping also to avoid being seen jumping off the road so comedically. I can feel the surprising speed and grace of that moment as I think back on it, the fluid rush of right movement without stopping to think, allowing my instincts to take over bodily coordination, right hand lifting the hem of my cloak over my face to conceal my identity, like a polar bear covering it’s black nose in the snow. I rolled aside from the road with an unexpected, effortless lightness of body, and I became small and unseen as the behemoth lights sped past.

“And you were comfortable in it, too,” Grandma pointed out when I told her the story.

That light, it was a kind of darkness, whereas the natural darkness became my light by which I saw. In wilderness scouting, the night becomes a cloak of belonging. Like an animal you become fluid with the day and the night, a member of both elements in a sacred way.



Journal entry from September 3rd, 2013


Photo copyright Amber MV and Family, 1970-2016 and thereafter. Not to be used without permission.

To Love as a Mentor Loves


With leaves in my hair and dirt between my toes I concluded, last Friday, a successful week of Wilderness Awareness School summer camps with the adorable wide-eyed 4-and-5-year-olds. By 4:30 the last kid had been picked up from after-care, and I expected to also promptly jet. But something in the forest called me, and I went back to the green, wooded place where we gathered and wondered. Everything was quiet now, but I could still hear the kids’ laughter. I laid down under the “fort” they built –a cute, haphazard mishmash of big sticks they propped against a Western Red Cedar tree to pretend they were building a real secret hideout. Little nature trinkets they had been enthralled with lay about: a piece of wood that looked like a giant’s tooth, a rock, a pile of fir cones to awe the imagination. I wrapped up in my cloak and realized I already sorely miss those kids, after only one-and-the-final week of being their mentor. I thought about how their lives might be, what they will be like when they’re all grown up, what the world will be like if and when they have their own kids and generations on generations have come to pass down the shadowed ages of history… and will I ever see them again? Will they remember our one magical week in the woods together, all those years ago in 2013 when they were only 4 and 5 years old? Did I make any real difference? And some tears leaked out of me because I don’t know, and I may never know. Under the eaves of that tree I thought about my own mentors and teachers from my earliest childhood memories up through my adulthood initiation at Anake, and how much they all meant to me. Maybe I care too much, but I can’t help it. I imagine that this mentor’s love must be only a small fraction of the immense love that parents feel for their children. And I think that this unfabricated familial love, when also freely felt for one’s peers and elders, is the love that bonds a community. So this is what it is like, to love as a mentor loves. It’s damn bittersweet to let them go.


Journal entry from August 6th 2013


photo by Pezibear. Public Domain.

Union of Pomegranates

Union of Pomegranates - poem by Amber MV - the Leafy Paw

I believe in the believers who live
in earthly bodies; these are angelic
whose genesis is the Tree of Life.
A union of pomegranates, gazelles grazing
give image to our beating hearts.
Whereon a sidewalk the unknown beggar
turns to friend and sudden bard
we hear a story about
Christ in the faces of everybody,
Saint Francis walking out naked,
leaping from his horse, offering his cloak,
rejecting his father’s hoard
for the love of God. It’s courage that
our action does not hinge upon
the weekly bulletin or the ordinary office.
Calling our men home from the long war,
horn of peace sounding, we women up
in flocking colors, folding you into me,
I put away empire. I like you best.
Somebody begins a riotous laugh
in a circle, slapping thighs hard,
throwing necks back like Sophia
going down with her flame-tongue
licking foreheads, good news
breathing into translation.
Behold, two fingers and a thumb
unfurled in benediction.
Bring the fish, and the wine,
and the bread.
Now we’ll lie down in green pastures
of city parks with each other;
you turn over and whisper,
Sweet Lord of the salt earth,
this is my body.
I give it up to you.



photo: Public Domain.

Tell the Truth


How does this pen feel in my hand? Can I pay attention to the physical, aesthetic aspects of writing? Can I face the power and excitement of my own mind when I later transcribe what I have written? I am surprised by the beauty of physical movement, hand on page, on keyboard, come to read the large loose fluidity of thought let out of the heavy oak door of the frontal mind which stands guarding the oceans below. Natalie Goldberg says that to learn to write is to learn sanity. We want to write with anger, with hope, with frustration, with solitude. We write to touch the soul of the world, to not be so alone. I make allowance to relearn, acknowledge the brokenness of the forced in writing, the non-intuitive ways we have surrendered to believing in, accepted as our full-time job, forgetting to ride dragons in dreamtime. But nothing of great work happens quickly, and writing is a practice like meditation or sports. Writing-practice embraces your whole life and doesn’t expect anything logical. It is the whole loving arms of the world. The earth lifts her dark skirts. Slip underneath and be sheltered.

I used to write only from idealism. I used to let my internal editor take over my creator and everything was too pretty, got boring quickly. Always sparkling this-and-that up in the head without meat and heat on the bones. My writing sounded airy because I was depressed and I could not let out the truth. It was too overwhelming. I spoke only of what I wanted to be –cured already– without knowing that to tell the truth of in writing is to reclaim the sensual world. Reality does not suck: it is the source from which all great stories come. My fears, a desperation to be strategic in my thinking and actions, to be not seen as weak or easy emotional prey in business. But how normal it is, for survival’s sake, to want to project a sketch of who we think we are instead of the riveting truth of our human lives. This comes with a cost, but neither will I begrudge us for the need to do it. That, too, is simply life.

Before, in my writing, I thought I was so unedited in my display of affection to the world, but I was unable to say what I urgently wanted to. I was a writer who wasn’t writing. All that talk, those shining mountain peaks, without getting to the point of the long cathartic embrace I was aching for. Sometimes the truth is painful or angry and the good Pagan way of dealing with it is to know that those shining peaks of wholeness don’t go away just because you are telling the scary truth of some other part of reality. It’s infantile to fear that the good flees with the bad. I am Christo-Pagan. I combine worlds, the whole of reality is a sacred space. Meanwhile the shining mountains stay where they are, un-anxious and holy in their own time, undisturbed by human emotions, not needing our reverence. They know what we need to do. When we got truth to tell in writing we’re fucking liars if we do anything but tell it. The mountains, our mothers, smile patiently saying, “Go, do and say what you must of the truth. We will not be shaken by it. We will stand here, ready to welcome you when you are home from the long road.” Tell the truth in your writing, and fear not that the good should flee with the frightful. The good will remain.

The truth may be that often I get anxious and have suicidal thinking and it’s my own ill pleasure to stew in it, though by steeping like tea in the potion I am finding a way through it, I see now. The truth is I walk between worlds. If I tell the truth I will draw closer to the good of the holy mountain, who herself is often shaded in mist and in night. The forest especially I will come to understand better by unglamorous truth-telling, for the ground of the forest is fed on such compost as this. It is a recycler of death and decay; it turns a corpse into green life. It is good thick grave soil for life. The forest is dark with death, and I am bewitched with the love of the forest’s description. It constantly shoots up from the ground of my writing.

What happens if I get into the habit of emotional lying in writing? It hurts the ground of the forest. A lie is bad for things that grow because el duende, who is the force through which the green blade pushes, requires good rainy compost to turn death into life. You may end up with a Middle-eastern desert that never gets any real rain because they made a plea to their god long ago to save them from darkness. So Creator withdrew the clouds and showed only the sun, and the land became barren and cracked. “We want light and only light!” they demanded. So the Lord their God sent light and only light onto that land where the moon, too, became vilified and fur-bodies and circles and wet, black wombs and the blood of the mother was contraband. Their earth became a red desert, out of whom Adam was pulled. And now from this too-much light there is a more fearsome darkness, the unnatural darkness of war and rape and civilized famine without the sensual dark, and what is female is feared and degraded. There is not enough rain because people do not want truth-telling, so the ground dries and loses its round woman curves, for seldom grows there now but the terrible imbalance, for people did not want the truth of the natural good darkness, the swelling rain and black clouds.

Now I learn to love the luxury of being a truth-telling writer. I say luxury and I am a writer which are unexpected luxuries each, treasures and treats. I didn’t know it could be without struggle. For a long time I didn’t write because I was afraid of not getting if perfect the first time (“perfect”! The word is a famine!). I wondered if I might become too absorbed in either writing or the world around me so that I would miss the other. I used to write beautiful words but be afraid to say them because I thought no one would believe I had written them, so I would write them and share them and falsely attribute them to others instead of I myself who was the author, because I believed that nothing so eloquent could come out of me and be honored.

At lunch I steal away to the empty children’s library near where I work, for thirty minutes to occupy and make my kingdom this quiet expansive place which is at once cozy and stretches out to full possibility. A children’s library is a place we go to learn to read and write truth. For children it is like the open breath of your beating chest when you’ve touched into some great understanding in long conversation with a friend. Out of nowhere wisdom comes over you and the world is beautiful and glows with vibrating newness, and you see with clear eyes. When you write you let out from inside you the conversation between all the parts of yourself and truth and freedom are found because your words are the shapes of the world, the world’s pulse and impression. Anything can take place on the page, anything can come out of hiding to stand in the light of acknowledgment where it has been yearning to live. I come into this sanctuary of a half-shadowed library. Taking off my shoes to feel the pulpy utility carpet through the socks on my feet, the ground, even here in a room, invites me to step into a different headspace for a time. This realm becomes mine, and here I open in power to dwell for a half hour. Pen moves eagerly across paper like paintbrush, eager to squeeze its words from the wet spaces of memory. Yesterday somebody came by, peeping their head in to see who goes here, what am I doing in here, but not minding as I was a church-mouse. It was only I, a writer abounding in worlds yet unseen to others. I was currents and labyrinths trailing earthward to crystal caves, snake patterns of mouth biting tail in circles of purple etchings, in spirals on cavern walls, turquoise bulls leaping at spear-shamans who hold fire, women who see, and who speak. Walls of starlight, fixed into dappled rock carry stalagmites, stalactites to under-land fossils. Go all the way through the caverns to the other side where there is the night-ocean, an ocean of stardust eternally deep. We carry oceans inside us, and love-forests in the core of our chests. Tell the truth in our writing: the whole mountains, the star-cave of torchlight dipping candles back into the galaxy.



photo by sammi-jake. CC0 Public Domain.

Interview: “Yo-kai Watch” Inspires Fitness, Challenges “Pokémon” with Animist Tales

Hey everyone!

I just completed a sumptuous article and interview about Yo-kai Watch and Pokémon Go. It was a lot of work and I’m proud of it. Cats are involved. The piece focuses on the mythological underpinnings of these gaming stories. They can have a positive effect on urban people in search of embodiment and a relationship with the natural world.

Check it out! Share!

“Yo-kai Watch” Inspires Fitness, Challenges “Pokémon” with Animist Tales




photo by DaFranzos. CC0 Public Domain.


With a Cat Mother’s Love

DSC_0410 copy

Dear Abby,

As much as I love my wonderful cats’ uber-domesticated constant affection, I wonder if their being indoor animals who don’t much use their muscles or claws or fangs or hunting skills outdoors (though they wrestle each other!) decreases from their quality of life. (I don’t know, but I like it about myself that I worry about this.) They seem content -and we love each other immensely- but so do animals at the zoo seem content, who are often depressed and seriously unfulfilled. So do unhealthy humans living the sedentary life seem alarmingly content. But whatever about modern humans, cats are highly dignified animals who still have their tails and fur. Yet when I let my kitties out for a moment, I find that they have forgotten how to be outside. they are frightened. And if they hadn’t forgot, they might kill birds. Not only that, but is it weird that I infantilize them? They’re my babies. I love them. I cuddle them. One is a grown cat, the other yet a teenage kitten, but by virtue of their being so domesticated, they are totally reliant on me and my partner. I am their mother! I am emotionally attached to my cats and loath risking their being eaten by wild animals outside. Our neighborhood kitties sometimes disappear, including one cutie pie who used to come say hello to us often. His humans haven’t seen him in over a week. If I worry about their quality of life in these ways, am I anthropomorphizing them? But if I am not anthropomorphizing them, am I devaluing the fullness of their little animist souls and sovereign personalities? Or am I too anthropocentric in my relationships, and my standards of what constitutes a sentient soul? Do you think cats have immortal souls? I do. And I hope that when my sweet beloved kitties pass away, we will meet again, in this world or another. Though, I think that cats are spirits of this immediate world: they tell us that animal life glorious enough. They do not wish to saved from the earth, only born back into it, life renewed in the great circle. Animals do not look to a world greater than the aliveness of this one. Will we see them again, animal companions, with their adoring eyes and purrs? But wild, sharp, independent, able-bodied, fierce natural hunters of the woodlands and savannas where we, too, will be wild again alongside them, and fulfilled. I turn to wondering.

With a Cat Mother’s Love,
Anxious Interspecies Parent



photo (c) 2016 Amber MV. All rights reserved.

Remember Me Who Have Not Any Wings


Sparrows who come to live in our rafters, here you are welcome to nest. When you fly, will you take with you the undigested weight of the earth? I am not the mighty soul who remembers each one of you falling, but I, I can give you a place for your homes in the hallways above me, welcome your conversations and song into the courtyard in need of trickling water. Your voice taught the stream how to sing. Your Avian voices are water to olive groves, and to orange trees you are the crown. Do you hear all we say here below of you, Sparrows? You follow us into cities to watch over the wanderers, we without wings, who think they must fight to know God. You know a better way, in the trees, travelers of the wings. For you the Creator plucks feathers from Her own breast. Unafraid of the heat or the sun or the winds of the seasons, you are familiar, dear sparrows, to the gardenia of day, to purple jasmine’s desert night. Come, friend of the sunflower, and take with you our prayers and oblations, small birds, those who dip close to the walking world, that we too will find the house of the morning, that we will make our nest in the garden at dawn. Feathers of stained glass, I implore you, remember me who have not any wings, but two legs and full heart to walk to the daybreak of birdsong.



Written at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Fresno, California, July 17th 2016


Photo by susannp4, CC0 Creative Commons Public Domain,



People in other countries get to buy
their exotic food at open-air bazaars
where dark-eyed lovers hold hands
in romance languages.
I’ve never been to where the erotics of spices
make me jealous like tango.
There’s so much culture and sunshine:
the women wear red
and don’t have to shave to feel beautiful.
Common life can be this sexy
even in the barrios and jungle-vine cities
if there is love.


Photo:by marusya21111999. CC0 Public Domain

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