What is Your Inner Landscape?

“An environment is also an inward reality.”
James Baldwin

One’s inner landscape is more than a locale provided by imagination. It is a medley of memory, a conjuring of images, a projection of hope, and a topography of self.

Our inner landscape is the habitation of the mind’s eye, the home for the spirit.

"Interior Landscape" by Helen Frankenthaler, 1964.
“Interior Landscape” by Helen Frankenthaler, 1964. “I had the landscape in my arms when I painted it. I had the landscapes in my mind and shoulder and wrist.” Learn more. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

What is your inner landscape?

I have long been fascinated by how people understand themselves using landscape, by the topographies of self we carry within us and by the maps we make with which to navigate these interior terrains. We think in metaphors drawn from place and sometimes those metaphors do not only adorn our thought but actively produce it.

From Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways

Robert Macfarlane’s writing on the paths we forge and how landscapes can be maps of human invention and interest centers itself at the entwined relationship between movement and cognition:

In non-Western cultures, the ideas of footfall as knowledge and walking as a mode of thinking are widespread, often operating in particular as a metaphor for recollection – history as a region one walks back into. Keith Basso has written of how, for the Cibecue Apache, the past is figured as a path or trail (‘intin), trodden by ancestors but largely invisible to the living, which has to be re-approached indirectly via the prompts of certain memorial traces. These traces – which include place names, stories, songs and relics – are sometimes called by the Apache biké goz’áá – ‘footprints,’ ‘tracks.’ To the Thcho people of north-western Canada, walking and knowing are barely divisible activities: their term for ‘knowledge’ and their term for ‘footprint’ can be used interchangeably. A Tibetan Buddhist text from around 600 years ago uses the word shul to mean ‘a mark that remains after that which has made it has passed by’: footprints are shul, a path is shul, and such impressions draw one backwards into awareness of past events.

Macfarlane’s consoling thought is we do not merely venture into landscape, we carry it forth in our own minds.

"Blue Form in a Scene" by Helen Frankenthaler, 1961. From the Whitney Museum of American Art.
“Blue Form in a Scene” by Helen Frankenthaler, 1961. Frankenthaler was a major painter in the abstract expression movement of the 20th century. Her paintings suggested abstract landscape and slight figures. Learn more. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.

“My life was written on these tree-lined streets,” wrote novelist Graham Greene of his formation of self, echoing Maya Angelou, who believed we carry the gristle of home behind our ears (and thus in our minds).

What is your inner landscape?

Is there a horizon? People? Are there boundaries? Are you viewing from the edge?

David Attenborough remembered playing in fields near his home and was delighted by what he found under rocks. He credited these childlike activities in forming the early basis of his wildly successful and enthusiastic naturalist self.

Our early experiences with landscape form our sense of who we are as we go into the world, and we hold on to them our entire lives.

Helen Frankenthaler's "Mountains and Sea", 1952. Courtesy of the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation.
“Mountains and Sea” by Helen Frankenthaler in 1952, a breakthrough of a new soak-stain technique in which Frankenthaler used an unprimed canvas and highly thinned paint to give the impression of watercolor. It enhances the conceptual aspect of the painted space. Learn more. The Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc.

This vast, intimate space is necessary for retreat and renewal, so what happens when we lose our defining ability to conjure this inner landscape?

During his long career connecting neurological disorders and behavioral abnormalities, neurologist Oliver Sacks encountered a patient who had achromatopsia, a brain condition characterized by complete loss of color vision.

Sacks details how disorienting it was for his patient to lose his color vision:

His despair of conveying what his uselessness of the usual black-and-white analogies, finally drove him, some weeks later, to create an entire grey room, a grey universe, in his studio, in which tables, chairs, and an elaborate dinner ready for serving were all painted in a range of greys. The effect of this, in three dimensions and in a different tonal scale from the ‘black and white’ we are all accustomed to, was indeed macabre, and wholly unlike that of a black-and-white photograph. As Mr I. pointed out, we accept black-and-white photographs or films because they are representations of the world-images that we can look at, or away from, when we want. But black and white for him was a reality, all around him, 360 degrees, solid and three-dimensional, twenty-four hours a day. The only way he could express it, he felt, was to make a completely grey room for others to experience – but of course, he pointed out, the observer himself would have to be painted grey, so he would be part of the world, not just observing it. More than this: the observer would have to lose, as he himself had, the neural knowledge of colour. It was, he said, like living in a world ‘molded in lead.’

From Oliver Sacks’ An Anthropologist on Mars

Sacks’ patient couldn’t bear museums or seeing pictures of his family, as Sacks wrote “not just because they were bereft of colour, but because they looked intolerably wrong.”

"Untitled" by Helen Frankenthaler in 1958.
“Untitled” by Helen Frankenthaler in 1958. One of the many canvases Frankenthaler painted while on her honeymoon in France. Her paintings suggested abstract landscape and slight figures. Learn more. Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc.
We are grounded in visual memory.

This man had lost his actual vision as well as his mental vision. That visual scape that exists when we close our eyes and settle our consciousness.

Over time and with therapy, he reclaimed color in his own terms.

Inspired by the sunrise, he started painting again – he started, indeed, with a black-and-white painting that he called Nuclear Sunrise, and then went on to the abstracts he favoured, but now painting in black and white only. The fear of blindness continued to haunt him but, creatively transmuted, shaped the first ‘real’ paintings he did after his colour experiments. Black-and-white paintings he now found he could do, and do very well. He found his only solace working in the studio, and he worked fifteen, even eighteen, hours a day. This meant for him a kind of artistic survival: ‘I felt if I couldn’t go on painting,’ he said later, ‘I wouldn’t want to go on at all.’

It is overwhelming to think we lose memory, hope, imagination and mental tranquility should something happen to our brains. But of course that is exactly how it works.

“The mind too can be imagined as a landscape,” writes memoirist, and narrator of the human social experience Rebecca Solnit in her guided walk into unknown physical and conceptual spaces.

My great-grandmother disappeared from her children’s lives. And the question is whether this woman chose to disappear or couldn’t find her way out of her own thoughts. Was she lost only to them because she had found another way, or was she lost to herself as well, bereft of the ability to navigate the world and her own mind. The mind too can be imagined as a landscape, but only the minds of sages might resemble the short-grass prairie in which I played with getting lost and vanishing. The rest of us have caverns, glaciers, torrential rivers, heavy fogs, chasms that open up underfoot, even marauding wildlife bearing family names. It’s a landscape in which getting lost is easy and some regions are terrifying to visit.

From Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost

As you wander in your landscape, do you feel lost, found, or somewhere in between? Solnit revisits the same shul as Macfarlane:

‘Emptiness is the track on which the centered person moves,’ said a Tibetan sage six hundred years ago, and the book where I found this edict followed it with an explanation of the word ‘track’ in Tibetan: shul, a mark that remains after that which made it has passed by – a footprint, for example. In other contexts, shul is used to describe the scarred hollow in the ground where a house once stood, the channel worn through rock where a river runs in flood, the indentation in the grass where an animal slept last night. All of these are shul: the impression of something that used to be there.

From Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost

The most meaningful wander is the anonymity and freedom of inner landscape, a self-authenticating journey. It is vital to our rest and restitution of spirit.

"Red Travels" Helen Frankenthaler, 1971.
“Red Travels” Helen Frankenthaler in 1971. Acrylic and marker on canvas. Learn more. Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc.

In his most famous memoirs, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Sacks describes a patient suffering from inability to form any form of short-term memory.

He remembered nothing for more than a few seconds. He was continually disoriented. Abysses of amnesia continually opened beneath him, but he would bridge them nimbly, by fluent confabulations and fictions of all kinds. For him they were not fictions, but how he suddenly saw, or interpreted, the world. Its radical flux and incoherence could not be tolerated, acknowledged, for an instant – there was, instead, this strange delirious, quasi-coherence […] continually improvising a world around him.

From Oliver Sacks’ The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat

The only time this patient felt silent was in nature. I love this. I imagine the outward landscape was so profound it nurtured the inner one.

What is your inner landscape? Is it concrete or abstract? Natural or manmade?

"New Paths" by Helen Frankenthaler, 1973.
“New Paths” by Helen Frankenthaler, 1973. Frankenthaler’s work spans decades and her later work contains even more abstract scapes that are, to me at least, even more familiar as defined space. Learn more. Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc.
Of course, our inner landscape is more than an imagined space, it’s a basis of thought. How we define concepts like home, safety, community, and comfort depends on how we visualize those concepts in our mind.

“An environment is also an inward reality,” wrote James Baldwin emphatically on the consciousness required to reduce the enormous disconnect between the races. “It’s one of the things which makes you, it takes from you and gives to you, facts which are suggested by the word itself […] the only way to change is to surrender.”

I hit the streets when I was seven. It was the middle of the Depression and I learned how to sing out of hard experience. To be black was to confront, and to be forced to alter, a condition forged in history. To be white was to be forced to digest a delusion called white supremacy. Indeed, without confronting the history that has either given white people an identity or divested them of it, it is hardly possible for anyone who thinks of himself as white to know what a black person is talking about at all. Or to know what education is.

From James Baldwin’s essay “Dark Days”

We are a product by our literal space and thus informed and indeed biased by its boundaries in our mental spaces.

I hear Baldwin’s words (there is an exquisite preacher quality to his writing), and I keep thinking we’re all walking around with worlds of inner space, layers of location.

What if we engaged on that level? Not “Where are you from?” but “what is your inner landscape?” Its boundaries, its peeks and dells. Describe it to me and we can discuss how it is same and different to mine. How we are same and different.

The Most Resplendent Words

“One thing we have lost is the courage to make new words or combinations. ”
John Steinbeck

“One thing we have lost” lamented a tired John Steinbeck in his writer’s diary, “is the courage to make new words or combinations.”

Not in our house.

“I’ll see you tomorning” I throw words and kisses at my daughter’s dark room as she tucks herself under a mountain of covers and animals. It’s an economical word, her invention, a mix of “tomorrow” and “morning.” Like “tonight.”

My husband uses the word “prepone,” which means to move a meeting forward. Or move anything forward in time.

“Let’s prepone that to tomorning” we say in our house. Steinbeck would be proud.

Words absorb the energy of what they are meant to communicate. In doing so they become more than communicative tools, they become vocalizations of the human spirit.

Script of "mosuzanu" by Parth Shah. Featured in "The Most Resplendent Words."
In the Gujarati language “‘mosuzanu’ is start of the day but not quite. The day is very young, still an infant, and if you are with someone at the time, it is likely to be someone you know well. I find this word particularly romantic with a touch of sensuality. You have likely spent the night or are still awake, and the sun is about to come and you can make out each other’s faces but not quite.” Lettering by Parth Shah, a graphic & type designer from India, studying for a master’s degree in Inclusive Design at OCAD University in Toronto.
“When I was about sixteen I suddenly discovered the joy of mere words” sings George Orwell in his memoir of the writing impulse.

When I was about sixteen I suddenly discovered the joy of mere words, i.e. the sounds and associations of words. The lines from Paradise Lost,

So hee with difficulty and labour hard
Moved on: with difficulty and labour hee,

Which do not now seem to me so very wonderful, sent shivers down my backbone; and the spelling ‘hee; for ‘he’ was an added pleasure.

From George Orwell’s Why I Write

Have you ever noticed “gargantuan” and “orangutan” look remarkably alike? These sibling words met in a book I read recently and seemed to be hugging each other across the lines.

The word 'mosuzanu' in Gujarati script by Parth Shah. Featured in "The Most Resplendent Words."
The Gujarati word ‘mosuzanu’ in Gujarati, a centuries-old script from a northwest India. “The Gujarati script (ગુજરાતી લિપિ) was adapted from the Devanagari script to write the Gujarati language, around the 10th century. It is also known as banker’s or merchant’s script.” Lettering by Parth Shah.

Scottish poet Nan Shepherd reaches into the old vernacular to find words like “blent” and “lucency” and “relume,” which she uses to reconcile image and communication.

Astonishment is in the Skies

Astonishment is in the skies;
The gilding waters murmur o’er
Songs that are their own surprise;
The trees ne’er looked like this before.

Thine is the ravishment they wear.
I turn from thee in such content
That where I go though still art there,
And all the world is with thee blent.

From Nan Shepherd’s In the Cairngorms and Other Poems

Do you know what “blent means?” Can you guess? Could Shepherd have described mountain light without it? 1

Close-up of word "mosuzanu" by Parth Shah. Featured in "The Most Resplendent Words."
The curves and edges of the word “mosuzanu,” the dawn of both day and human consciousness. Lettering by Parth Shah.

Science fiction writer Ursula Le Guin knew the power of unknown words. Resplendent words. She wrote worlds out of words her entire career. Believing the best expression of universal reality was in fantastical fiction.

Until fairly recently, the societies in and for which realistic fiction was written were limited and homogeneous. The realistic novel could describe such societies. But that limited language is in trouble now. To describe society since the mid twentieth century – global, multilingual, infinitely interlinked – we need the global, intuitional language of fantasy. García Márquez wrote his histories of his own nation in fantastic images of magical realism because it was the only way he could do it.

From Ursula Le Guin’s Words Are My Matter

“Once language exists only to convey information, it is dying” observed poet and creative writing teacher Richard Hugo. His words show eagerness to expand how we think and feel about the boundaries of language and the unsayable.

We creative writers are privileged because we can write declarative sentences, and we can write declarative sentences because we are less interested in being irrefutably right than we are in the dignity of language itself. I find words beautiful that ring with psychic truth and sound meant. If such a choice were possible, I would far rather mean what I say than say what I mean. To use language well requires self-sacrifice, even giving up pet ideas.

From Richard Hugo’s The Triggering Town

Hugo gives us permission to use the odd word or the new word occasionally, powerfully, and without hesitation. Not because we want to be casual, but because we want to be expansive.

The word 'Godhuli' in English script by Parth Shah. Featured in "The Most Resplendent Words."
The word “‘godhuli’ feels like end of the day, like you are calling it a day can relax. The sun is setting, cows are returning home, you don’t have the weight of responsibility now, the day is over. Have supper, lay down in your bed and look at the stars, most people of the region slept outside.” Words and lettering by Parth Shah.

New words are grand, but let’s not forget the unexpected rhythm of the fully known. Do you remember in The Philadelphia Story when Katharine Hepburn replies – ironically, dismissively yet beauteously – when Jimmy Stewart tells her he hailed from South Bend, Indiana: “South Bend, it sounds like dancing.” Does it? It does when she says it.

I’ve always loved the word “portmanteau.” It suggests a coat, a harbour, a suitcase, a buffalo caped in snow. It means a word formed by combining two or more existing words that all relate to a single concept. “Tomorning” is a portmanteau.

I commensurately dislike the term “pore-over.” Not only is it trite, but how does it work? Am I dumping myself into something, embodying it? Am I filing it’s pores? Am I in liquid form? Then why is it not pour?2

The word “masticate” seems misplaced, too. Dishonest. With all those consonants, it must be something horrible! Nope, it’s just chewing. A baby masticates creamed corn. Drop that at playgroup.

The word 'Godhuli' in Gujarati script by Parth Shah. Featured in "The Most Resplendent Words."
The word ‘godhuli’ in Gujarati script. “I first did them with brush pen calligraphy style,” writes the artist Shah, “But I was not satisfied. Later, I made them using old dip pens and an inkpot. This is the writing tool which would have been used to write these letters back in the day.” Lettering by Parth Shah.

The word “walkie-talkie” strikes me as odd. It’s so… jejune. Especially when you consider the device was invented in 1937 by a man working in conjunction with the U. S. Military. What if guns were called “bangy-killie?” Would they be easier to use?

Talking of words, have you used “algorithm” lately? It has only recently entered my ken, and seems to be on the make. The moment it enters my reading matter, on the screen or on the page, I am wary; I fear that there is discomfort to come, either because the reading matter is going to be too intellectual for me, or because the use of the noun (assuming it is a noun) portends pretensions to come. It’s a pity, because I like the word itself, with its graceful shape and obvious Arab origins, but alas it is not yet my style.

From Jan Morris’ Thinking Again

What a time we’re in. A renowned writer and journalist like Morris, who throws her intellect into words like “ken”, “portends,” and “pretensions,” is intimidated by the word “algorithm.” Not simply the word but its culture and usage.

I know just what she means.

We all feel “discomfort to come” about language. There seems to be an elite set of people “in the know” who speak a language that is same but separate, whose intelligence seems to preclude. For me it’s anything related to technology.

Regardless, I make up and misuse words all the time. Not to confuse but to expand. I see words for their resplendent possibility rather than their exact certainty.

Features of the word 'Godhuli' in Gujarati script by Parth Shah. Featured in "The Most Resplendent Words."
The features of the word ‘godhuli’ in Gujarati script by Parth Shah. “The script’s characteristics are due to the chiseled dip pen and inkpot. The writing tool affected how the script would look. Scripts from southern parts of India are mono-linear and curvy, as they were written using stylus, while scripts from northern parts of India would have more contrast and thin & thick strokes as they were written using dip pens.”

New words and meanings are a springboard to new thinking. New thinking is messy and confusing. But the discomfort of not knowing needn’t be lasting.

Morris, at the then age of ninety-three, agrees:

Never mind. “Algorithm” is a lovely word, a noble, graceful word, and it moves me to learn that it comes (I don’t quite know how) from the ninth-century surname of Abu Ja ‘far Mohammed Ben Musa. I can’t find him in my Encyclopedia of Islam, but I think I’ll start using the word myself, algoristically, just to amuse him.

There is always room for new words. New meanings. We are all opsimaths. – the great student and teacher Stephen Fry promises of the aged mind. I shall use that word tomorning.

Reparations for the Beaten Heart

“The human heart is so delicate and sensitive that it always needs some tangible encouragement to prevent it from faltering.”
Maya Angelou

The heart is beaten. Besieged. A bit assaulted around the edges. With enmity or indifference. The heart is fractured and threadbare.

Is it true the ribs can tell
the kick of a beast from a
Lover’s fist? The bruised
Bones recorded well …
Love by nature, exacts a pain
Unequalled on the rack.

From Maya Angelou’s “A Kind of Love, They Say”

If love by its nature exacts a pain then the heart is the locale of that pain. It is the center of our embodied pain and the center of the body, a muscle in extraordinary demand. The heart tears, beating and beaten in every way.

Julie Campbell embroidery.
The exquisite embroidery of artist Julie Campbell fuses emotion onto human anatomy to capture, in glorious vitality, the abundant complexity of being human. Photograph by Julie Campbell.
“Heartbreak begins the moment we are asked to let go but cannot” writes David Whyte in his reclamation of words.

Heartbreak begins the moment we are asked to let go but cannot. [It] colors and inhabits and magnifies each and every day; heartbreak is not a visitation, but a path that human beings follow through even the most average life. Heartbreak is an indication of our sincerity: in a love relationship, in a life’s work, […] in the attempt to shape a more generous self.

From David Whyte’s Consolations

“Heartbreak is not a visitation,” writes Whyte, but it feels like one. Heartbreak is like standing still while something pummels our exterior. It comes at you, moves after you, moves through you, all the while you are relentlessly stuck.

And the pain sits on our chest like a chest.

Julie Campbell embroidery.
“My heart is fragile, it feels too much, it aches, it cries, it has felt the icy claws of fear and yet I would prefer to feel all of this than have a cold heart lacking all empathy.” Photograph by Julie Campbell
I return to this short short-story by Lydia Davis a writer of meaning stripped of accessory.

In a house besieged lived a man and a woman. From where they cowered in the kitchen the man and woman heard small explosions.

‘The wind,’ said the woman.

‘Hunters,’ said the man.

‘The rain,’ said the woman.

‘The army,’ said the man.

The woman wanted to go home, but she was already home, there in the middle of the country in a house besieged.

In Davis’s Essays, she explains that in a first draft she initially imagined a dog in the house, but it was removed – too domestic, too comforting. When I read Davis’s piece, I mentally remove the man and the woman and place my heart inside the house. Pulsing out its little, nervous hope.1

A heart visited – despite what Whyte argues – by heartbreak.

The heart is, a poet might argue, the smallest parcel of a conceptual human. To have heart, to do something with heart, is to do something with conviction, power, the whole self.

“The human heart is so delicate and sensitive that it always needs some tangible encouragement to prevent it from faltering,” writes Maya Angelou in her glorious generosity of self. Has anyone given more heart?

This woman who spent her life writing pain, sweeping up heartache, and bundling it tight. What do we mean by that?

What are the reparations for a beaten heart? How do we give it tangible encouragement?

Julie Campbell embroidery.
“I love everything about anatomy,” writes Campbell, “But especially how our emotions affect us not just mentally but also physically. What I find fascinating is that our outward appearance tells very little of the person we are. Our bodies are a facade. I like to explore beyond this idea, and get under the skin as it were.” Photograph by Julie Campbell
The key, argues Whyte, would be to look at heartbreak not as a besieging but as… what’s the word… a companion.

Realizing its inescapable nature, we can see heartbreak not as the end of the road or the cessation of hope but as the close embrace of the essence of what we have wanted or are about to lose. […] If heartbreak is inevitable and inescapable, it might be asking us to look for it and make friends with it.

Angelou wrote about a companion. Did she mean her own pain?

Where We Belong

In every town and village,
In every city square,
In crowded places
I search the faces
Hoping to find
Someone to care.

[…]

Then you rose into my life
Like a promised sunrise.
Brightening my days with the light in your eyes.
I’ve never been so strong,
Now I’m where I belong.

From Maya Angelou’s “Where We Belong”

I often think I belong next to Hermann Hesse of Germany’s Black Forest (as my people were). Hesse was formed by a strict religious upbringing and coaxed frequently to the edge of madness by an irreconcilable sense of self against society. He believed in wholes yet suffered alienation. He nurtured a sinewy connection to nature’s cycles and held up solitude as a primitive need in the quest for self-knowledge.

In the touchingly tender poem called “Do you know this too…?” Hesse lays his vulnerability at our feet.

Do You Know This Too?

Do you know this too?
You are in the middle of a cheerful party,
when a sudden stillness takes hold of you,
and you hastily have to leave the happy hall.

Back in your bed you lay awake
like someone suffering from a sudden heartache.
The fun and laughter disappear like smoke
and you break into tears: do you know this too?

From Hermann Hesse’s Seasons of the Soul

Whether it’s a sharp pain or aching fatigue, our hearts are beaten.

Do you know this too?

Julie Campbell embroidery.
“About 15% of pregnancies end in miscarriage … My second pregnancy ended at 11 weeks. I was lucky that I already had a child and knew that there was no reason that I couldn’t have another. A year later my daughter was born. I remember something that was said to me after my miscarriage: a friend told me that her mother had several miscarriages before having her and it she hadn’t she would not have been born. I know everyone has different experiences and copes with loss in different ways but her saying that really helped. Looking at my daughter now I can’t imagine her not having been here so I’m one of the lucky ones that doesn’t have a missing piece.” Photograph by Julie Campbell

I have no reparation for the beaten heart. No transaction to set it right or stop it from stalking our steps. There is no armor against it (well, none that doesn’t extract its own grave toll).

But as I write this, surrounded by sitting in the warmth of something good, the glow of something bright, the company of these artists who met their pain with grace and generosity, and the imagined company of you, dear reader… That is the reparation – no, the recourse – for this beaten heart.