Hold Hands And Step

Today, I believe the single greatest obstacle we throw in our way, the single greatest disservice we plant in our children, the unfortunate self-imposed exile many seniors adopt, the great source of interruption to all creative dreams and dreamers, is this: the ridiculous notion that one must know “how” to do anything before starting to do it.

Knowing “how” comes second.

The opportunity to look back and see “how” comes (necessarily) at the end of the process, not at the beginning. To learn, one must begin by not knowing “how.” Not-knowing-how is the basic assumption of lively, active, creative beings.

The second assumption: no one does this walk alone. No one knows all things. To successfully not-know-how invites the opportunity to ask questions of others. Hold hands and step.

Peter Block wrote a terrific book with a title that says it all: The Answer to How is Yes.

Consider Our Good Fortune

Doug once told me that health (mental and otherwise) was determined by the gap between what a person said and what a person did. The  shorter the distance, the healthier the person. His work in the world was to help young people close the gap, to help them to clarity and a purity of motivation.

Human beings do incredible things when their instincts arise, when they act without the sludge of a rhetorical gap.

Regardless of your point of view on the ongoing health care debate, this brief but powerful video from filmmaker (and friend) Mark Lundsten asks us, for just a moment, to step into the gap and consider what we do versus what we say we do in moments of pure motivation.

 

 

You can find Mark at www.fidalgofilms.com

The film can be found here, too: https://www.facebook.com/Fidalgo-Films-453155201701839/?fref=hovercard

Surrender And Surrender Again

I’ve grown accustomed to this sanctuary. I come here when Kerri has meetings in the church. It is quiet. As I sit here alone, I easily become quiet. The evening sun pours through the stained glass, the symbols shimmer.

When I met Kerri I told her that, if we were going to have a relationship, she needed to understand two things about me: I don’t sing and I don’t pray. I imagine that was stark news for a woman who works as a minister of music. I imagine she rolled her eyes. It is a running joke with the folks that know the story of my proclamation that I now sing in the church choir and band. I love to sing. As for the praying, well…, I’ve always been a meditator and that counts. Quiet is a delicious form of prayer. I was hung up on definitions. I talk to the universe all the time. To-mAaa-to, to-Mah-to.

I have, all my life, believed religion most often gets in the way of a true spiritual experience (life). “Prayer” was for me, at the time I met Kerri, a word of religion while “meditation” was a word I associated with a spiritual life. One night, not long after my move, Kerri and I had dinner with Heidi. She asked me about my faith and laughed at my reflections, saying, “You are one of those many-paths-one-mountain guys.” Yes. And, to truly be a many-paths-one-mountain guy, I’ve had to challenge some of my long held defenses, walk into some of my long held prejudices.

Yesterday, Bill said a simple, beautiful thing about faith, grace and spiritual journeys. It reinforced something I have known (for myself) for years. He said, “The problem with religion is it is heavily invested in having answers. It becomes invested in being right (righteousness), being “the way” as if there was only one way. A true spiritual life,” he said, “is about walking into the questions.” Life, the real crackling, shimmering life, is always experienced in the questions. Awe is rarely experienced in something so constructed and contained as an answer.

I brought to the sanctuary an outline/book of a class that I intended to teach years ago but never got around to offering. In the introduction a previous-version-of-me wrote this: The premise is simple and ancient: when you change your story you change your world. All stories of transformation begin with an attempt to control the uncontrollable: transformation in a story happens when the main character surrenders their illusion of control, strips their armor, walks into their fear, and meets their dragon. There are many variations on this theme. What is important to grasp is that empowerment follows surrender….

Were I writing that today I would never use the word “empowerment.It is an overused and abstract word like “presence” and generally misunderstood as something to achieve (or sold as an answer). Power is irrelevant after a dragon is met.

When I met Kerri I was terrified to sing. I’d been shamed more than once for opening my mouth, thus my proclamation. I learned, as I sang the fear from myself, that the only thing that follows surrender is more surrender.

And, in surrender, there is shimmering quiet.

Look To The Living Thing

my latest, as yet un-named, painting

Kerri looked at this painting and told me it captures how she feels when our daughter is hurting and calls home. “Describe that feeling to me?” I asked. She pointed to the painting, and said, “Just like that.”

Some things are universal and understood regardless of political affiliation or religious belief. What does a mother need to know to support her child? The political investments and religious doctrines are abstractions, separations. Motherhood is direct; it lives beyond the capacity of language to capture and articulate. It is the impulse to unity. It transcends all divisions. It knows nothing of conceptions like the rational and irrational.

Jim and I just had one of our famous phone calls. Our discussion romped through many fields but we returned again and again to the notion that the important things in life cannot be rushed. For instance, relationship takes time. Relationship takes attention and tending. It is fluid and dynamic so it is nearly impossible to slap a single word-label on it. It changes. It grows. In a single day it can pass through many descriptors. Dog-Dog can drive me crazy in one moment and melt my heart the next. The important stuff, like relationship, is not static or containable. It is not a concept. It is a living thing.

So What?

The best language can do is point to the living. Language can describe experience but can never be experience. Language, of necessity, reduces while the important stuff – like relationship – like love – expands. Language, as a tool of abstraction, can never be true. It can only point toward truth. Language separates. Truth is like relationship. Truth is a living thing, dynamic and changing. To be known, it must, like motherhood, be experienced directly.

Again, so what?

Direct experience is always (obviously) personal. Truth is not so easily captured. Is it exclusively liberal or conservative? Is it Christian? Buddhist? Is it unique to Islam, Judaism, or the Tao? Leave the city lights some night, take a good long look at the stars, and realize what you are staring into.

Last week we rushed 20 to the hospital. He couldn’t breathe. He walked to the edge of the abyss and looked into it. We watched him teeter on the edge. As we watched, all other concerns, pursuits, bills, frustrations, news,…, dropped away. The stuff of separations and abstractions went to dust in the face of the actual. Ask me what I experienced watching 20 grasp for life? There are no words. Ask him what he experienced in those long hours and he will shrug his shoulders. There are no words – but it is clear in his eyes.

The important stuff, the stuff beyond words, leaps the boundaries of separation and abstraction; all else falls away. The important stuff always leads to a universal place, a common ground. It is a beautiful paradox.  As a test, try this: if language can reach it, ask this very important and often absent question: Is it really true or merely another entrenched point of view?

a detail

Honor All Perspectives

my latest painting. Hope asks, “What do you see?”

Hope Hughes, Kerri’s longtime assistant and voice of reason in all-things-business, passed through my studio and flung herself in front of the painting I was working on. “Stop!” she cried. “Don’t touch it! It’s finished!”

“Finished? I just started,” I whined. She laughed at the perplexed look on my face.

“Put down your brushes,” she smiled, “and listen for a minute.”

Over time I’ve learned to listen to Hope. She makes sense of the world through her feelings which comes in handy to an over-cerebral artist like me. She has no inner-editor in the early stages of communication so I’ve learned her heroics are pure. She sees something that I do not. This is not the first time Hope has thrust herself between me and the painting I am about to destroy, so when she asks me to ‘look’ there is usually a good reason. I set down my brushes, cross my arms, and huff as if to say, “I’m listening but make it fast.”

Each time she begs me to stop work on a painting, a great debate rages in the household. This time was no exception. I sit in my chair and listen to what she sees. It is always diametrically opposed to what I see so I pretend to pout (I secretly love this process because it is EXACTLY what I adore about art in general and painting in particular). She tries to get me to tell her what I intended to paint, coaxing me to talk about what I see but I refuse. As Joseph Campbell once said, “If an artist respects you, s/he will not tell you what a painting means. ” Art is always about a relationship between the piece and the viewer and the artist needs to stay out of the way. If the artist has no respect for you (or themself), s/he will tell you what the painting means to them. I respect Hope so I stay out of the way.

In this painting, Hope sees deep humility in dual fatherhood.

My refusal drags other people into the fray. She snaps a photo of the painting and then shares it with others, asking what they see in the painting, what descriptors they would use. As is always the case, the replies sometimes align with her perception and sometimes not which further fuels the debate. 20 had the misfortune of coming over for dinner and he was subjected to the photograph test.

In this painting, 20 sees grief and loss. In this aspect he agreed with Hope: the painting is finished.

When I first started showing paintings I would follow patrons through the gallery (they did not know I was the artist) and listen to their perceptions. They rarely saw what I intended but what they saw was marvelous – almost miraculous to me. It was an advanced course in understanding the futility of trying to determine what another person perceives. Art, I learned in those days, is a living relationship. Perception is personal. No one is a blank slate. Paintings evoke. The meaning is made between the patron and the painting.

I enter into the studio to drop out of my many descriptors and over-cerebral tendencies. I go to the studio to engage in a pure relationship with…my muse(?) I am never more alive than when I am painting. I am never more quiet than when I am painting. The images that emerge from my quiet are sometimes incidental, always surprising, and are sometimes just a map of a moment in the greater relationship of my life. Only a moment. I feel that I have never finished a painting because the paintings themselves are not distinct, separate from each other. They are living things. They change over time. They are moments, marks in the sand in a greater ongoing relationship in the long-body of my life.

What do I see in this painting? It is not important to know. Is it finished? For me, never. And, and for Hope, yes.

Every artist needs a Hope Hughes. Someone they trust, someone they respect to step in front of their work and without editor, tell them what they see. Hope reminds me that the true value/purpose of art is to create a commons capable of affording multiple perspectives and the rich opportunity to discuss the differences in what we perceive.

Attempt What Is Not Certain

Revelry

A painting from the archives. This one goes way back…

“Attempt what is not certain. Certainty may or may not come later. It may then be a valuable delusion.” Richard Diebenkorn, Notes To Myself On Beginning A Painting

Yesterday we went to Linda and Jim’s house to do some Irish dancing. They are terrific and dedicated dancers – with a dance floor in their basement – and thought it would be fun to teach their pals a waltz cotillon. It was, as they suspected, a riot of laughter, wrong-direction, toe-stepping and left-footed-entanglements. We drank wine, ate snacks, and found ourselves boldly waltz-stepping into the great unknown. 20 called it “an afternoon of happy insanity.”

All my life I’ve been fascinated at what happens to (and for) people when they open themselves to new experiences. Generosity rises. When people allow themselves to step outside of their safe-place, challenge their need to control and open to the new, they come alive. I mean that literally. They come into the present moment, out of their obsession with replaying the past and fearing/manipulating the future, and into the place where life actually happens. Now. It is the artist’s job to open the door to the place where life happens. It is the door Linda and Jim opened for us yesterday.

Krishnamurti wrote, “Have you ever noticed that when you respond to something totally, with all your heart, there is very little memory?” Horatio and I have an ongoing conversation about art and artistry. Lately, we’ve been discussing how completely we disappear when working on a canvas. Hours go by and it feels like minutes. And, more to the point, we don’t disappear, we become present. We show up. We experience the fullness of life at the burning point. Time, that grand master of illusion, disappears.

After our dancing, standing in the kitchen with a glass of wine, I heard, “Where did the time go?” We were revitalized and giddy, compatriots and survivors of a journey into the surprises of the unknown. I smiled when there rose a rowdy chorus of, “When can we do it again?” Life had burst through – as it wants to do – and left its charge.

Begin

my studio and all of my current messes-in-progress

“Where I create I am true, and I want to find the strength to build my life wholly upon this truth, this infinite simplicity and joy that is sometimes given me… But how shall I begin…?” Rainier Maria Rilke

But how shall I begin? It is a great and ubiquitous question. I have, in my life, worked with many, many people who passionately and at last created beautiful studios for themselves and then, in horror, sat frozen in their dream creative space blankly staring at a canvas. Or a blank sheet of paper. Or an incessant cursor on an all-white screen. Or an instrument. Their first question for me (for themselves): but how shall I begin?

A friend once told me that artists’ studios can sometimes be terrifying places. “You have to show up,” he said. “And what if, when I show up, I find I have nothing of value in me? What if I have nothing to say?” Ah. There’s the rub. Inner judges delight in confusing creative spaces with torture chambers. No one, in their right mind, will willingly step into a torture chamber. Even the hardiest creative impulse goes into hiding when judgment is on the menu.

In the category of things you can say to friends but not to clients: What if you have lots to say but are simply too afraid to say it? What if within you lives an entire universe of unique perspectives and you have created a monster at the door to ensure your silence? Who’s this judge that you fear?

Rilke wrote, “Where I create I am true….” Truth is not a frozen, fixed thing. It is alive and dynamic. Artistry is an exploration into truth (personal truth), not an answer. It is a living dynamic process, not a finished product. This same sentiment applies to all of life.

my favorite recent spontaneous art installation by 20

Tom had a mantra: a writer writes and a painter paints. He might have answered the question this way: begin. Simply show up. Begin. Make messes. Make offers. Make strong offers. See what happens. Learn. Choose. Make mistakes. Make big mistakes. Decide. Fall down. Go too far. Rip it up. Stop too soon. Use the torn pages. Learn. Play. Surprise yourself. Bore yourself. Learn. Play. Choose. No judge, inner or outer, can survive in such a vibrant creative truth-space.

An actual studio is nothing more than an expression of an artist’s internal life. How do you begin? Value your truth. Allow it to live. Knowing how to begin requires an understanding of why you stopped in the first place.

And then, as someone wise once said to me: make all the world your studio.