Gear Down, Baby!

a detail from my painting, John's Secret

a detail from my painting, John’s Secret

When writing The Seer I showed the early chapters to some pals and the response was unanimous: break it down into smaller bites. The conceptual steps were too big for readers to connect the dots.”What!” I exclaimed. “Are you kidding me!” I protested. “Are you telling me that people need me to spell it out for them? Am I supposed to hit them on the head with a hammer?” I cried in disbelief to my bemused pals. Their response to my inner adolescent was, again, unanimous: yes. You need to go slower, take smaller steps, and come a bit closer to earth. The details matter. The job is not to be understood. The job is to create understanding.

After gnashing my teeth and tearing my clothes I took their sage advice. And, it was sage advice. The book that I published was comprised of only the first three chapters from the original manuscript broken into smaller thought-bites. Breaking it down was one of the hardest and best things I’ve ever done. Like Horton the-hearer-of-a-Who, I discovered complete new universes in the details, in the things I’d deemed too insignificant to mention or simply didn’t see with my head so firmly in the clouds. Ironically, while writing a book entitled The Seer, I learned a lesson in seeing.

Skip laughed when we first met. He’s a very-big-thinker and, like me, sees the world from 30,000 feet. He exclaimed, “Oh, No! You have the curse, too!” From 30,000 feet, small steps and details are almost invisible or easy to ignore. From 30,000 feet, everything is inter-related, one great big dynamic flowing motion. From 30,000 feet, the ubiquitous question is, “Don’t they see?” The runner-up question is, “What’s the problem?”

As we learned in school, the devil is in the details so, with my head in the clouds I have often been surprised by the detail-devil. People on the ground plant flags and guard territory. People on the ground choose sides and assume a defensive posture before thinking to ask a single question. Fear drives swifter action than does lofty reason. People are much more complex than they seem from the conceptual heights.

And, the only way of working with a complexity is through a simplicity. Connect the dots. Do not assume that “they” will “know” or “understand.” Do not assume that “they” see what I see or believe what I believe – or that what I see or believe is better or more valid than what they see. Opening a heart is a slow affair. Listening is best done when leaning in. Asking questions before making statements is good artistic process. Be a dot that connects to the other dots. Art, in all of its forms, is meant to serve as the great dot connector.

John's Secret by David Robinson

John’s Secret by David Robinson

Kerri, no stranger to my 30,000 foot rants, has developed a short-hand phrase for those too-many-moments when I need to move slower and pay attention to the details. She is helping me with this life lesson by applying a simplicity to my complexity. Now, when I have assumed that the dots are already connected and am perplexed by the breakdown, she simply says, “gear down, baby.” Move to a lower gear and open your eyes. Connection always happens in a lower gear. What is really there is infinitely more important (and often more beautiful) than what we want to be there. Releasing the “shoulds” opens eyes and hearts for shared experiences. So, gear down, baby.

 

Find The Riches

an illustration from Beaky's book, SHAYNE.

one of my illustrations from Beaky’s book, SHAYNE.

During my call with Jim I told him that my projects this year have been the most satisfying of my life. Certainly they have been the most important. And, they have also been, as I laughingly used the term, “negatively lucrative.” He didn’t yet know of Beaky’s books, of her website, of her book signing, so I sent him a few of my favorite photos from the event. Later, he sent me this text:

It is wonderful to be able to eat and pay the bills but there are for a fact things money can never buy. That famous authors obvious joy being one.

Isn’t that the truth? What price could we possibly place on joy? What price would we pay for true love? What price do we place on personal truth? What is the price tag on fulfillment?

I suspect that the great disease of our time – something future history professors and archaeologists will investigate – is that we’ve managed to place a value on our values; morality has somehow enmeshed with money, the purpose of education has somehow become the achievement of a bigger paycheck. In this never-ending political season, count the number of times and ways our candidates tell us that we must weigh our interests against our values.

What is the price of a value? What is the purpose of a value if it has a price?

All my life I’ve been told by people who love me, that, as an artist, I need to make a distinction between the work I do for food and the work I do for love. Most artists, myself included, feel their work is a kind of call. It is an imperative, a necessity. It is food. It is love. Most artists, myself included, do their work-for-love whether they are paid for it or not. They have to. I have to. It is a call. It is nourishment. There is no way in a culture that has placed a value on its values to recognize the real value of food-for-the-soul and food-from-the soul (the purpose of artists in a culture); a market cannot make sense of soul nourishment. This line of distinction, work-for-food or work-for-love, is at best a wonky value statement. It is a line that only makes sense to a people versed and rehearsed in trading their soul-requirements for a better retirement.

what is the price of joy?

what is the price of joy?

Last night I finished reading aloud to Kerri Tuesdays With Morrie. Jim’s text and Morrie’s messages are in beautiful alignment: there are, for a fact, things that money can never buy. And, those things are where the riches of this life can be found.

Step Toward Faith

My latest. An unusually small canvas.

My latest. An unusually small canvas: Will Is Belief.

I began writing this post a few weeks ago, just before the run to Florida and the launch of Beaky’s book. It was a very busy week and I’d forgotten that I started but did not finish the thought. This morning, wanting to get back into the rhythm of writing, I opened my iPad and found these words already written and awaiting my return:

I’m sitting in the choir loft watching the evening sun illuminate the stained glass window. I’m tired tonight and listening to Kerri, preparing for the Maundy evening service, rehearsing Nancy’s solo. Nancy’s voice is like a warm cello, deep and rich, and is working like a sound-massage on my tired bones. I’m giving over to it.

This cycle of services on Easter week is relatively new to me so I’m paying attention to all of the symbols and rituals of this story of rebirth. As is true of every great story cycle, the night is darkest before the dawn (thus, the cliché). This night, called Maundy Thursday in the cycle – I’m told that Maundy means mandate – is the night of the last supper and all the betrayals that followed. It is the segment of the story that is chocked full of crises of faith. If, like me, you are a lover of story you will recognize that some form of betrayal usually precedes a crisis of faith and, in turn, a crisis of faith always leads to growth and new direction; it always leads to sunrise.

Others betray us. We betray ourselves. Betrayal happens on the edges of the dark forest and forces a step into the unknown. Betrayal happens when we fall asleep (that is most often how we betray ourselves – sitting in front of the television to numb us to the richness of our lives). Things crumble: the relationship that we believed was secure, the truth into which we rooted our belief, the career that we thought would carry us to retirement. Security dissolves, identity dissipates, and then what? All the fears bob to the surface. All the dragons come out of the closet.

This was the unfinished thought I found this morning. I have no recollection of where I was going with it. Now, two weeks and a lot of life later, I read it as if someone else wrote it. However, there was one other sentence, detached from the others. It now reads like a mystery to me. When writing, I routinely float a sentence at the bottom of the page because it is the point of what I’m trying to reach. My floating sentence read:

A crisis of faith often has very little to do with faith.

And, as I try to resurrect my thought of a few weeks ago, I can only smile and write the first thing that occurred to me when I scrolled down and found the floater: Faith, like love or truth or time or anything else, is not something fixed. It moves and grows as we move and grow. A crisis of faith is really a step toward faith renewed. It enlivens. It helps us retire old dragons or let go of empty promises. It gets us out of our easy chair and helps us fully feel the day.

 

Breathe Out. Breathe In

...if beakybeaky was a band, this would be the album cover...

…if beakybeaky was a band, this would be the album cover…

The most important thing in life is to learn how to give out love, and to let it come in. Mitch Albom, Tuesdays With Morrie.

Somewhere in the 22nd hour of our drive, the sun rose. Even through our exhaustion and bad fast food coffee, it took our breath away. It replaced, or, rather, swallowed, a brilliant sliver-crescent moon.

We’d stayed longer in Tampa than we expected. The day after Beaky’s book reading and signing, Sunday, we were exhausted so we delayed our return trip home for a day. The following day, Monday, was bad for Beaky – she was in tremendous pain and we were overwhelmed with the need to stay. So, we stayed, knowing the result would be a 24 hour dash home for rehearsals.

His voice dropped to a whisper. Let it come in. We think we dont deserve love, we think if we let it in well become too soft. But a wise man named Levine said it right. He said, Love is the only rational act.’” Mitch Albom, Tuesdays With Morrie

...and the truth of beakybeaky....

…and the truth of beakybeaky….

This year is unusual. I’ve done too many plays, paintings, and projects to count and each had its rewards and regrets. Twice since the turning of the New Year I’ve completed a project that was so fulfilling, so right, that I would not change a thing. Both have this in common: the intention was pure. I did them for the right reason: someone else. The first, The Lost Boy, was a message from Tom to his nephew, Seth, and I was the messenger. The second, Beaky’s first book, Shayne, was to make a dream happen. Every dream needs assistance to be born: the manuscripts existed. Beaky’s desire to share (publish) existed. They lacked an illustrator and designer. I did the illustration. Kerri did the layout and design; a dream fulfilled itself. For me, both are lessons in breathing out love so that I might also breathe it in.

Just prior to Beaky’s reading, we took a series of selfies with her. I told her that, if Beakybeaky was a rock band, the selfies would make excellent album covers. After our photo opp, we wheeled her to a standing-room-only crowd, many people that she knew and many more that she didn’t, people who’d gathered to hear an almost-94 year old author read and sign her very first book.

a dream fulfilled

a dream fulfilled

Breathe out. Breathe in. It turns out that an exhale is necessary for the inhale.

 

 

Meet Shayne

frontcoverscreenshotAbout six weeks ago, Beaky called to discuss her writing and the viability of sharing it. Beaky is a few months shy of 94 years old and puts pen-to-paper almost every day. She calls it chicken scratch and is mostly unaware that she is a fantastic storyteller (actually, I believe she knows it but is too humble to apply the word ‘fantastic’ to herself). She can’t help it; storytelling is in her bones. Some of my favorite days of the past few years have been at Beaky’s side listening to her tell a tale.

At 93 she is reviewing her life and, like all of us, she wants to do more, be more. It is hard to understand for those of us who know her because she is a rare and special person. She is a bringer of joy; Beaky makes people smile. That, too, is in her bones. Some months ago we spent a long night in the emergency room with her. She’d taken a fall and we feared she’d broken her hip. Deep in the night, writhing in excruciating pain, Beaky looked into the eyes of an exhausted attending nurse and through her pain said, “You have the most beautiful smile.” The nurse giggled, blushed and beamed. Laughter, blushing and beaming are common occurrences when hanging out with Beaky. Even while in pain she seeks the giving-moment.

Almost sixty years ago she wrote a trilogy of stories for her children. For months we looked high and low for the folder of her stories. Not long ago we found them and discovered that each had a submission cover page; Beaky wanted to be published. So, we decided to put our heads down and make it happen. I illustrated the first book and Kerri did the layout and design. Today, Beaky’s first book, SHAYNE, is now available; it is published. Beaky is published. Within the next two months the second and third books of the trilogy will be published, too (SHAYNE AND THE YELLOW DRAGON and SHAYNE AND THE NEW BABY). Next week we will travel to be with her as she has her very first book reading & signing party. She is, of course, busy practicing her signature (wouldn’t you?).

Jim has a magnet on his refrigerator that reads, “It is never too late to become what you might have been.” In Beaky’s case I might add: It’s never to late to realize what you have always been AND be a children’s book author, too.

One of my favorite photos: Kerri with her mom, Beaky

One of my favorite photos: Kerri with her mom, Beaky

[check out Beaky’s website! www.beakysbooks.com]

See It Blaze

text from Krishnamurti as it appears in my painting

text from Krishnamurti as it appears in my painting

Every once in a while the things I read, the experiences of my life, seem to coordinate. Like a thought-confluence, the books, the poems, the errands, the conversations, run into a single thought-stream. It’s as if they called each other last week and asked, “So what are you going to wear?” Often, this is how the universe places its hammer on my head.

A few stanzas from a Mary Oliver poem, Morning Poem (read the whole poem sometime. It’s breathtaking):

each pond with its blazing lilies
is a prayer heard and answered
lavishly,
each morning

 whether or not
you have ever dared to be happy,
whether or not
you have ever dared to pray

Did you catch the word, ‘lavishly?’

Here’s a bit from Carlos Castaneda, A Separate Reality:

What makes us unhappy is to want. Yet if we would learn to cut our wants to nothing, the smallest thing would be a true gift…. A warrior knows that he is waiting and what he is waiting for; and while he waits he wants nothing and thus whatever little thing he gets is more than he can take.

Prayers answered lavishly. Whatever little thing he gets is more than he can take.

For me, there are a few important words that have, from over-use, fallen into the bin of meaninglessness:

presence, transformation

Actually, they are in the bin because we’ve managed to make them (like the word, ‘art’) commodities, marketing terms, something owned or purchased with coin or wile or reason. Something possessed or not possessed. Something available to a few but not all.

Sometimes the words open again, the experience opens again, when said another way. For instance, the phrase, “cutting our wants to nothing,” is another way of saying ‘presence.’ Don Juan would have made a good Buddhist! When present, the ordinary pond blazes, it teems with life and isn’t the experience of teeming life at the heart of any good prayer? The last time you caught your breath, a sunset or watching your child sleep, you were present, you wanted for nothing,  your prayers were lavishly answered.

my latest work-in-progress

not yet finished – maybe never will be – an, perhaps, that is the point.

The message of the hammer on my head: The pond is always blazing. The transformation is not in the pond but in our ability to see it.

 

Make It So

Pasta. Meat sauce. Warm Bread. Wine.

Pasta. Arugula salad. Wine.

Tripper Dog-Dog-Dog knows the world through his nose. He sniffs everything. It is not uncommon after we finish a meal to come face-to-muzzle with a scent-curious Dog-Dog. Lately, as the objects of his sniffer, we’re given to staring into his amber eyes and offering the menu, saying something like, “Pasta. Arugula salad. Red wine,” or “English muffin. Peanut butter with black cherry jam. Banana. Coffee.” Satisfied with our description, he moves on to the next smell-enticing investigation.

I delight in our Dog-Dog food reports. They’ve become commonplace and matter of fact; “Chocolate chip cookie. Espresso.” Our reports never contain qualifiers, so, for instance, we never say, “A great chocolate chip cookie. Delicious espresso.” We provide the minimum, the noun.

Our Dog-Dog reports have rekindled an age-old fascination of mine: the power of words, specifically, the enormous power of the labels we attach to our experiences.

Language is a sword that cuts both ways. It can liberate and it can imprison. The difference is in how it is used. Language is the primary tool we use to make meaning. Big magic happens the day a person realizes that meaning is not something that is found, rather, it is something that is given and it is given the moment we apply a word-label to an experience. Nothing is good/bad, hard/easy until our label makes it so.

Applying a label to an experience is an act of creation. It is not passive. Take note of the word-judgments you apply to yourself or to others. For a week make a game of flipping them over and applying the label “beautiful” to where you usually apply a judgment. So, for instance, instead of, “I am fat,” why not say to your self, “I am beautiful.” Both are labels. One imprisons while the other liberates. The difference is a single word.

The label determines the possibilities we see (or don’t see). In a past life I used to facilitate organizational change and I came understand that my role was to help my clients ask better questions (use different language). They always came to the table with a “how” question: how do we change without feeling any discomfort? Response: what might you see if you stopped pre-labeling what you might feel as “discomfort?”

The mantra: have the experience first, make meaning second. And then, recognize the great capacity and opportunity you have to make meaning. Why not make a better meaning? Why not take a step and let it be a step merely?

Try this: do the Dog-Dog and, for one week, eliminate the qualifiers so that nothing is good or bad or right or wrong. It just is because you choose to make it so.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 997 other followers