Do Anything Else

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It occurs to me now that all along I’ve been asking irrelevant questions. Or, perhaps framing my questions too narrowly. For instance, years ago I went to graduate school to study systems because I wanted to follow a question that reached deep into my life and identity as an artist: can a mythology be rekindled once it has died? Art, after all, is one of the primary life-keepers of a culture’s story and the beating heart of the story is its mythology. And, according to all indicators, our mythology is mostly dead [as Joseph Campbell said, for evidence of our mythological demise, all you need to do is look at the news]. So, the younger version of myself wanted to understand the purpose of my life as an artist if, indeed, I was in service to a dead mythology. Heady questions, yes? Relevant questions?

In the early 1990’s I was invited to a photographer’s studio to see the “newest thing” in photography. The photographer had a new “program” called Photoshop. Before my eyes he “photoshopped” me into a picture, a place I’d never before visited. Today, all of this seems commonplace. Now, any 5 year old can manipulate an image but at the time a photograph stood for proof that something had actually happened. A photograph could not lie. It was evidence of truth. That day, standing in the photographer’s studio, I realized that the old reliable anchors for truth no longer existed. What was our anchor?

The truly significant events in our lives rarely come in with a roar.

We’ve been hearing a lot lately about fake news – as if this was a new phenomenon. It brings to my mind a terrific book written in 1985 by Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves To Death. Here’s bit from the first page:

“Our politics, religion, news, athletics, education, and commerce have been transformed into congenial adjuncts of show business, largely without protest or even much popular notice. The result is that we are a people on the verge of amusing ourselves to death.”

I suppose fake news refers to something wholly concocted but I’d argue that when news agencies pander and promote themselves to conservative or liberal viewpoints, when ratings drive content, it’s all fake news. News with an agenda is…not news. It is, however, dangerous to a democracy and no longer free (as in free press, a cornerstone of our democracy). Historically, newspapers have always had a point of view but there was some attention paid to what was printed as news. Opinion was confined to an editorial page. When the line between true and concocted is blurred, when a populace cannot discern between entertainment and substance, it no longer has the capacity to make sound (read, “informed”) judgments. Worse, it is gullible, gossip-eaten and infinitely manipulate-able. It is, as Neil Postman wrote, entertaining itself to death.

I recently wrote about the absence of recognizable communal anchors (mythology) and the dangers of a community with nothing but the soft soil of belief and opinion as its driver. Is planting a personal-truth flag and defending its territory all that is left to us?

What else can we do? Now, there’s a relevant, open-ended question! Roger once told me that he would never be able to understand suicide. He said something like, “In that moment, rather than take your own life, why not do anything else? Why not make any other choice?” Another relevant question!

What else can we do? In the face of our own entertainment-driven suicide, why not do anything else? Turn off the blather, go outside, meet your neighbor, tell stories of your children or your ancestors. If common ground can’t be found it can certainly be created. Inhabit something bigger than opinion. It’s less entertaining but certainly more useful. Great art – no matter the form- lives in those bigger fields.

 

MAKE ME AN INSTRUMENT OF PEACE – GIFTS

to kickstart your peace, listen to this:

for PEACE on iTunes, go here (track 5 on the album AS IT IS)

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Listen To Randi

a detail from my latest painting in progress

a detail from my latest painting-in-progress

Randi is wise. Though, like all truly wise souls, she is completely unaware of her wisdom. She knows that she takes great delight in learning new things. She knows that her curiosity is boundless. She knows beyond the platitude of the sentiment that each new day is an opportunity to renew. Each new day is a step into unknown territory and, for Randi, there is no sense in taking timid steps. There is no sense in trying to make the day fit into a preconceived “normal.” There is no sense in watching the dance. Dance!

She squeals with pleasure when she hears a word used beautifully. “I am a lover of words!” she exclaims. She knows that words are powerful and when used beautifully will define beautiful experiences. She uses her words to define life beautifully. And, because she understands the power of words – and the brevity of life, she also understands the imperative of telling others what they mean to her. She has no problem expressing love.

another detail

another detail

We took a rare opportunity to see her, swinging north to Buffalo after traveling to Boston to celebrate Thanksgiving with Craig and Dan. At dinner, we talked of new relationships and new work and new phases of life. We talked of the necessity of creating balance amidst the tug and push of this fast moving life-river. Randi smiled, “I once heard someone speak about attempting to balance life and they said something that changed how I see it. They said that when yearning to balance the many aspects of our lives it is most often not balance we seek! It’s integration! Rather than try to bring all these separate pieces of life into a balancing act, why not integrate them into a unified whole!” She clapped her hands as if having the revelation all over again. “It’s integration, wholeness that we desire!”

Wholeness is another word for presence, and presence is the goal of the performers’ art. Quinn, another wise person, used to tell me that all spiritual teachings speak of finding the middle way, the path between poles or opposites. “Zealots miss the point!” he’d say. Life is not found in the extremes, in the separations, in the fragmented, or the isolationist’s dream. Those are aims of the controller. The rule bound. The real balancing comes in the letting go. As Randi reminded us, it is found in the integration, the middle way, the whole.

the whole

the whole painting as of 12.1.16

 

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Use Reason

Step Into Unknown with Sig“When a speaker who does not know the difference between good and evil tries to convince a people as ignorant as himself, not by ascribing to a poor beast like a donkey the virtues of a horse, but by representing evil as in fact good, and so by a careful study of popular notions succeeds in persuading them to do evil instead of good, what kind of harvest do you think his rhetoric will reap from the seed he has sown?” Phaedrus by Plato

 

The woman walked to the end of the small pier and started to weep. It was a cold day and windy. Kerri and I maintained silence as we passed. The woman was making an appeal to her god. She asked the stormy lake and angry sky, “Why?”

Belief is a powerful thing.

Beth believes that the universe was created 6,000 years ago. Even though the gasoline she pumps into her car is evidence to the contrary, nothing will shake her firm belief. No amount of science, data, or experience can crack her conviction to what she believes.

At first glance Beth might seem an oddity but she is actually more representative of the norm. Consider this quote published this morning in our local paper. It’s an editorial from the Los Angeles Times entitled, “The ‘fake news’ dilemma.” “Some observers argue that the public’s receptivity to fake news is a sign that we live in a ‘post-factual’ society, with people who are mainly interested in information that comports with their preexisting notions.” In other words, no amount of science, data, or experience can crack our convictions to what we believe. And, like Beth, we do not want to hear [or consider] anything that challenges our beliefs. Rather than question, we plant our belief-flag and defend the territory.

Flag planting makes for good ratings. Conflict is an easier story to sell than compromise so it is not surprising that we have news sources that blatantly cater to our preexisting notions. Division makes us a good market and infinitely manipulatable.

Certainly defending the territory of unquestioned belief feels good. Righteousness, blame and gossip always feel good. There’s no responsibility required! Here’s another bit to consider from the editorial: “The problem is obvious: When surveys by the Pew Research Center find that 62 percent of U.S. adults get at least some of their news from social media, and 20 percent of social-media users say the things they read online have changed their views on an issue or candidate, the electorate is all the more vulnerable to a disinformation campaign. By Buzzfeed’s count, the 20 most popular fake-news stories in the last three months of the campaign were shared more often on Facebook than the top 20 stories from leading mainstream news sites.”

What prayer do we have when we are too…lazy…incapable…. to discern gossip from news, belief from fact [dear reader help me find a word other than fact].

For me, the top spot on the hierarchy of beliefs-that-blind is the “pre-existing notion” that we human beings operate from reason. Reason requires doubt, questioning, listening, and reaching for the perceptions of others. Reason, like heart, is a commons. It thrives on honest debate and will have nothing to do with individual or collective rigidity. We are not born with it, however we are born with the capacity to engage it. It is not something any single individual attains – it is not attainable – it is relational – it requires multiple perspectives and continued conversation. It requires a step into the  unknown.

Thoughts Babble Hearts Speak

 

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Let Life Come Through

a sketch: Dancing At Crab Meadow

a sketch: Dancing At Crab Meadow

Kerri works on her “un-cantata.” She plays a short section from a piece and it captures my attention. I put down my pencil, close my eyes, and listen. I am inking a cartoon, preparing a proposal. It is mechanical work, rote. I have learned to use this stage of the process as a kind of pay-attention-exercise. It is only tedious if I slip into the illusion that I’ve drawn this line before; I have not, just as I have not lived this moment before.

Artistry is often like laying bricks. Repetition is rarely sexy but beautiful creations come from it. I know that in my repetition I am “putting the lines in my body,” building muscle memory.

I have not heard Kerri play this piece and I find myself savoring it. I love it when she plays. The first time she played for me I was stunned into silence. “Something came through you,” I tell her. “It was enormous.” I often tell her the story of the first time I heard her play. I tell her the story so she will play more. I tell her because I know that music wants to come through her like images want to come through me. “You have to go to the piano,” I say. “Let it come through you.” She responds, “Let’s take a walk.” And we walk. Life comes through.

Neither of us spends as much time in the studio as we ought. Our walks, however, are extraordinary.

We went to a funeral on Saturday. We will attend another funeral tomorrow. There have been many, many in the past few years. I suspect that we are of the age that funerals become common. I have been paying attention to the eulogies with some fascination. They have become life-giving or at least revealing of what actually gives life (and what does not). In the many eulogies I’ve heard, the lives recounted, I’ve yet to hear about the big house, the luxury car that was bought, the clothes or jewelry that the deceased strove to possess. I never hear about the accumulations, the stuff or achievements. I hear warm stories of relationship. I hear of family dinners, trips to the lake, walks in the woods, laughter and lessons. I hear stories of life’s repetitions, the holiday feasts, the coffee sitting, the small moments, the messy moments that amount to time spent together. The walks.

Life comes through.

See The Sacred

First Anniversary Sunrise

First Anniversary Sunrise

“…it seems to me absurd to consider problems about other beings while I am still in ignorance about my own nature. Phaedrus by Plato

I’m sitting alone in a sanctuary and thinking about sacred spaces. Here’s the thing I’ve come to understand about sacred spaces: slower motion is required to experience the power of the place. People in a hurry to get somewhere have little or no access to the sacred. Race through a meadow and you will miss it. Sacred spaces do not lose their power; people lose their access to the power of the space.

Once, many years ago in Bali, I made it a practice to walk the same pace as my Balinese hosts. To me, they moved at an impossibly slow pace. As an American, patterned to be forever in a hurry, I walk quickly “to get” somewhere else. There must always be a goal to achieve, a destination to reach. The Balinese were not patterned for transit but for presence. Over time, as I picked up their rhythm of movement I also picked up their pattern: it is possible to walk in presence. It is possible to be where you are with no imperative to get somewhere else – even while walking. It is possible to be in your life instead of racing through it.

A most amazing thing happens when “being here” becomes primary to “getting there”: everything becomes sacred space. Slow down enough and it is possible that you will recognize yourself as a sacred space.

After returning home from Bali I was able to sustain my capacity to move slowly for only a few months. It is easy to move slowly and be present when the culture you are in is patterned for presence. It is an entirely different challenge to move slowly and be present in a fast moving river. In the months after returning home I was either trampled or the cause of others (trying to navigate my slow movement) being trampled. We are not nearly as separate as we think we are. As I resumed my American pace I also dropped my capacity for presence and lost my lens on the sacred.

A recent surgery has necessitated slower moving. I have, in these past few weeks, found myself walking once again like a Balinese. I’ve stepped out of the fast moving river. Yesterday, standing on the back deck, I watched Dog-Dog delight in chasing squirrels. I listened to Kerri talk on the phone with a friend. I felt the sun on my face. There was no other place on earth I would rather be. There was nothing necessary to achieve.

Learn To Question

My best place for asking questions

My best place for asking questions

20 (aka John) tells me that his coworker, Amy, aged 22, will have answered all of life’s questions within the next three years. He assures me that she will share her answers when she has them. “We just need to hang on for another three years,” he quips, “…and it’ll all make sense!”

The admitting nurse at the surgery center feels like a threshold guardian. She said, “People who pass through here learn just how little they actually control in life. Surgery is humbling. I’m here when their illusion of control bursts. That moment is hard.” She was quiet for a moment and added, “What gets me is all these people in the world who think they have all the answers – and they think their answer has to be the answer for everybody. All these rules made up by all these people who think they have the right answer for everybody! That’s why people are killing people everywhere.”

“It sounds like more people ought to have surgery!” I tease.

“You got that right,” she said, handing me my gown, hairnet and blue booties. “Put one of these on and you realize how little control you actually have; in this place none of your answers matter and none of your rules apply!”

It should be a mantra for educators and the only argument necessary to dismantle a test-driven system: Life is always found in the direction of the question. At best, answers are relative – and the best answers, if understood, are simply doors to more questions. Learn to question.

The best art follows the same mantra. It steps into big questions, wanders into unknowns and complexities. It tests and tries, explores and experiments. It leads us to explode our answers and like a good trickster does not allow us to hold our gods too tightly. It begs us to question.

“Shall we tell Amy that there are no answers?” I ask 20.

“Nah. Why spoil the surprise.”

From the archives. This one often calls to me

From the archives. This one often calls to me

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See The Basic Layer

a detail of my latest painting

a detail of my latest painting

We’ve decided that we cannot use the word “vacation” to describe our most recent trip. Odyssey, perhaps, is more appropriate. A dog bite, projectile vomiting, 3 trips to the emergency room (yes – 3), crippling shin splints, witnessing the death of a dog, a freeway car breakdown, towing, an enormous bird flew directly into and broke the bumper just minutes after we got back on the road… For those of you with a voodoo doll with my name on it, rest assured that your spells are working.

This is also true: we saw the milky way, were serenaded by coyotes, watched a herd of elk cross a field at sunset, walked by a stream that magically silenced all thoughts, saw a double rainbow, spent precious time with family, experienced titanic kindness, were awed in the John Denver Sanctuary, received a well-timed dose of life-wisdom from an 83 year-old man sitting next to us at the bar. Oh, and learned the virtues and real-time value of an espresso martini.

This is also true: there was an emergency room close by when we needed it. The car broke down just as we came upon a rest area exit ramp (the day before we’d crossed 180 miles with no services). Kerri sang Sugar, Sugar with the tow truck driver, our AIR B&B hostess made it possible for us to stay an extra night when the emergency made it impossible for us to leave. Friends from home immediately offered help when they knew we were in trouble. They would have driven the 9 hours to fetch us if we’d have needed them.

photo-1Like all things, what we see depends upon where we decide to focus. Was our odyssey a disaster, a rich and varied adventure, a story of good fortune? Yes.

It was a reminder that things happen, circumstances change rapidly and we have little or no control over that. We can, however, choose how to live within the circumstances. As Kerri said this morning, “If the basic layer, the foundation, is happiness, you can build anything on top of it. Life can (and will) blow away what you build, but the basic layer remains.

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