Fanning the Fragile Flame


A spark is an incomparably fragile thing. The wick is real, tangible, bound. But a spark glimmers so quickly that even though you’re sure you saw it, you can’t describe what it looked like apart from simply calling it a spark. It’s the perfect image of what inspiration is like, a flawlessly matched metaphor. Inspiration comes and lights on the surface of your heart, just brushing up against it, strongly enough to be felt, but gently enough to always evade capture. Just as the slightest chill or breath will quench the spark, the purity of inspiration cannot abide bitterness or worrying distraction.

The experience of inspiration, which I know when I’ve felt, but struggle to verbalise and so often and so quickly lose, helps me understand the leading of the Holy Spirit. God himself is a consuming flame, yet his Spirit leads in whispers and visits us as a dove. The sight and sound of him is unmistakable, but when I try to condense the sparks into communicable, intelligible language, they slip through my fingers. I can’t contain him, words prove too porous. But more than this, that familiar glimmer is crowded out easily with competing voices. As soon as the mind stops to consider any fear or worry or anger, the Dove takes flight. His holiness cannot abide my faithlessness for long.

But graciously, he doesn’t give up. The spark returns, if briefly, and continues to give glimpses of something pure and untaintable. The question is, how can I turn the sparks into a flame? The Bible talks about “rekindling the flame of the gift of God”, meaning both his Spirit and what the Spirit gives, in 2 Timothy 1:6. What can be done to welcome the Dove’s gift, to guard the spark, to protect the still, small voice that speaks so gently inside? It’s not as easy as looking for the spark, because my heart is turned by the times he finds me rather than the other way around. I can’t conjure it or manufacture it, the fire comes from him. So what can I do to feed and fuel the spark once it comes?

Just as any artist knows that inspiration is a gift for which they can take no credit, the Spirit is God’s gift-giving gift to his children. For the artist, the only way to bring the gifted spark into flame is to immediately put it to work. It must hurriedly be applied to paper if it is to have any chance of survival. It’s the same as any gift, which inevitably withers and fades when not put to use. But how could one put the gift of the Spirit to use? Not by manipulating the Dove to our bidding, but by letting him do his work and applying his gift with discipline and trust. Just as the artist continues to ply away at his work based on that initial inspiration, even long after the warmth of the spark seems to have abated, so I have to exercise trust in the spark of the Holy Spirit and practice trusting him during the times when his voice is drowned out.

The gift is something I have and it is also someone I have. It is therefore both practical and relational. My trust in the person is shown by actions I take which depend on his word being trustworthy. If my inspiration, the stroke of the Dove’s presence, is so easily interrupted, then what areas of my life need to be actively rekindled into a flame of trusting faith? Where, when and how am I relying on him? If actions which demonstrate trust breed intimacy, then perhaps this is the way to invite and retain the spark and fan it, be it ever so slightly, into a slow-burning fire which lights the immediate path and warms the heart for the journey.


Culture, Review

Lewis Hyde, ‘The Gift: How the Creative Spirit Transforms the World’ (Review)


Some books sit just above you, speaking to you but calling you up to their level. Lewis Hyde’s The Gift: How the Creative Spirit Transforms the World (Canongate: 2012) is one of these. I feel it’s significance but I don’t quite have the perspective from which to appreciate all it’s implications. So in some ways, I’m certainly not qualified to write a review. But then again, even from my position, I can see that it holds enough treasures for me to be impelled to share, write and reflect in response.

The Gift has been in print continuously for the thirty-three years since it was written, a fact which shows it’s continued relevance to readers interested in creativity, whether as practitioners or consumers. But as the foreword by Margaret Atwood highlights, the book “has always been hard to summarise in pithy prose.” As far as it can be reduced to a sentence, I would say it is a study of the nature of gifts and how the gift of art interacts with the market-driven world.

Hyde, former Director of Creative Writing at Harvard, begins by outlining the characteristics of gift culture through the lens of anthropology and folk literature. His intention is to make clear what human cultures seem to know innately about gifts through the stories we tell and the rituals we perpetuate. He then counterpoises this realm of gifts with that of the marketplace. Part one thus leads to an examination of the tensions created in the modern world by the confusion of these two spheres. Then, part two explores Hyde’s analysis taking poets Walt Whitman and Ezra Pound as case studies. In the end, as the conclusion admits, the book serves to raise the question of how artists, who essentially operate within the culture of gifts, should interact with the market-oriented culture that now predominates in modern life.

Part of what the book expertly reveals is that the relationship between art and commerce is only getting more complicated. Previously, folk cultures all over the world consistently operated on a double standard, a gift culture within the community and a market culture outside the community. For example, in the Torah, God prohibits the charging of interest between Hebrews because it is inimical to gift-giving. For outsiders, however, a market culture was allowed, maintaining a healthy boundary and allowing the internal community to flourish. Since the Reformation, however, the ancient prohibition on usury has been reinterpreted to allow for the charging of interest to all, whether inside or outside. Indeed, this is essentially the system on which the entire world monetary system is now based. Thus, Hyde argues, there has been a growing loss of the distinction between objects which can be commercialised and those that can’t.

As the first part of the study shows, artists almost invariably recognise their creativity and inspiration, as well as the fruit these produce, to be gifts. Gifts are received freely and must be given freely, as turning them to capital of any sort violates their nature and nullifies their benefits. There is always a reciprocal flow which is marked by generosity and gratitude. Gifts transform us and point us to something bigger than ourselves, creating a community through the bonds of love which they invariably forge. Artists are thus in a difficult position because their labour produces something which loses its value if commercialised–hence the artist’s age-old dilemma between staying true to the gift and making a decent living. Whitman responded to this dichotomy by giving of his self to the point of near ruin. Pound responded by embracing Fascism, which he saw as fostering a theory of money that made a place for the artist.

As the case studies show, the value of the book doesn’t lie in the answers it provides, but rather in helping to clarify the questions. Hyde admits that he is unable to offer a solution to the artist’s problem, except in hinting that society should provide a return of gratitude to artists for their gifts. This would allow the gift to remain a gift and the artist to continue in her work. But the practicalities of this are not explored in any detail. In all honesty, I found the sections on Whitman and Pound to be quite taxing. Perhaps this is due to being unfamiliar with their work. But where the book really succeeds is in showing the distinct nature and benefits of gifts, how art is itself a gift, and how artists and art are compromised by market commodification. These insights, I feel, have profoundly affected my thinking and I have an inkling they will continue to do so for years to come.

In all, the book has given me a deeper appreciation of the value of gifts, how they affect and change us, and how we ought to respond to them naturally in gratitude. As a result, Hyde has helped me to better understand the way I feel about my own art. I have always felt that it was a gift given to me, and that in gratitude to this gift, I must in turn share it with others. I now understand and can articulate why it is that I feel the dis-ease and turbulence of disobedience when I allow my gift to remain unused. I now understand why it is that I feel a tension whenever it is that I come to talking about money in relation to this gift. But perhaps with this new understanding I will be better equipped to negotiate the tension, accept it for what it is, and navigate with a clearer vision. I may not know the answer, but I feel now I at least know why there is a question.


I Asked For a Dream


I feel that cry of eternity in my heart,
It’s an impulse
A whisper, faint but unmissable,
That urges me to search for the source,
The fountain from which the beauty flows.
An uneasiness lingers over me
Peering into the vapours of coming clouds,
Their approach is relentless,
But their passing ethereal
I search for a rock on which to
Raise my eyes above the mist,
But my footing slips away into nothingness.
What form does that never-ending present take in me?
That song sung over me in the womb,
The tune of which is always on the edge of memory,
But never quite within reach.
Is not my existence an echo of that melody?
I asked for a dream and
All I saw was a glimmer,
A brief instant illuminated a new path
Which vanished just as quick.
But though the road may be darkened,
I still recollect it’s direction.
So though my foot tread trustingly,
I cling to the memory and pray for the daylight,
The beauty my goal and
The song my sustenance.

9 December 2011