The Invisible Silk Robe (Part 2)

The heroine or hero of a story, in order for the transformation to be possible, must take enormous risks – literally or metaphorically going to the place you’ve been warned never to go. This is the unknown place, filled with monsters or dangerous trials from which no one ever returns; in story (metaphoric) terms this means that if you do return from the adventure, you will be different – the person who went on the adventure is not the person who returns.

Stories are helpful – if you know how to read them – because they beg you to consider where in your life you are withholding your voice, not speaking your truth. How do you choose safety at the expense of your growth? What do you know in your gut that you need to do but are resisting? How bad does it have to get before you walk toward the place you are most afraid to go?

II. Speaking Truth

It was a special day. The King was to dine with their master that night. That’s why the cook let the young wife go without nicking to her face with the cleaver. All must be beautiful in the eyes of the king.  As she polished the finest china and silver, the young wife knew she had to find a way out of this hell.

The king was a renowned dandy and was given to fashion and high style. His closets were vast and full. He was known to change his clothes several times each day. He kept his designers and tailors busy and hated to be behind the trends. As far as he was concerned, one of his main duties as king was to set the fashion standards. Had there been photographers in his day he’d have legislated that only his photograph could grace the cover of the gentlemen’s fashion quarterly magazine.

Dining at the homes of his advisors was one of his favorite ploys to “be seen.” He thought himself quite clever to make his subjects think that he was a ruler of the people by occasionally gracing their homes with his presence – when actually he was designing opportunities to peacock his latest get-up.  So, the king arrived at the appointed time, sweeping out of his coach, the young wife’s master bowed deeply and gushed about the king’s appearance while hordes of onlookers peeped through the fence and from the rooftops.

All of the servants had been scrubbed and dressed and put on display for the royal welcome. As the king passed the house staff they bowed and averted their eyes after the appropriate gape at the king’s finery, of course. The stable staff followed suit and then, as the king swept passed the kitchen staff, all bowed except the young wife, who, for a moment stood looking in horror at the king. She gasped, “oh my,” and then attempted to bow like the others but could not help taking another look at the royal garments. The king, of course, stopped and glared at the young wife, who averted her eyes and blushed.

The king glowered at the young woman; clearly she was a foreigner. As the master of the house begged the king’s pardon and appealed to him to ignore the impertinent woman, the young wife stole another quick glance and visibly shuddered. The king was offended and demanded that the young woman step forward. She obeyed, keeping her eyes averted as the rest of the staff cowered at the royal disapproval. The king puffed himself up and in a wounded tone asked the young woman what on earth inspired her behave in such a manner. In a whisper, the young wife answered that, she wished to respond but did not wish to “embarrass my lord in front of the household.”

The king raised his eyebrows. Did she not know that he could have her killed? He swallowed hard and dismissed his attendants. The young wife asked that her master, also, leave them for a moment. Fuming, the master followed the servants into the house, leaving the young woman and the king all alone.

“Now,” hissed the king, “tell me why you shuddered at my appearance?”

The young wife replied, “My lord, I meant no disrespect. In my country I am considered a master weaver and have many times made beautiful clothes for the king. I have woven such beautiful clothes; my finest was a copper-colored silk robe for the king of my country. It was like the thin silk robes that must be worn in the divine world. In comparison to my king, my apologies, my lord but you look like one of his servants.”

The king was stunned into silence. The hot blood of rage rushed into his face.

(to be continued)

Send Light Into The Human Heart

“The artist vocation is to send light into the human heart.” George Sand

The first of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism is that all of life is suffering. In this context the predicament of the artist is no different than that of a plumber or a president though I’ve yet to find a plumber who considers suffering necessary to his or her vocation. With artists (in the US) suffering seems to be a prerequisite. Why do artists think they need to suffer or believe that suffering unlocks the door to their artistry?

As a nation we do not easily walk into our shadow and one of the roles of “artist” is to go where others choose not to go. A walk into the shadow may be uncomfortable but it is equally as liberating. An artist is supposed to see what others cannot and sometimes that is painful. An artist may act as a bridge between worlds of perception, living on the edge of the village, traveling into the netherworlds to retrieve a truth or a lost soul. This at times may be solitary or scary but it is always transforming. An artist rarely “fits” the social norms but always serves the health and growth of the pack.

The coaching work I do with artists (myself included) often requires a stroll into the misguided ideal or expectation of suffering. What are the underlying assumptions that make suffering or madness an erroneous precondition for artistry? This begins my ongoing series of mini-rants about suffering and the arts:

Rant #1.

Dear artist,

What if: you will never be understood. Consider: all great art lives beyond the rational, it transcends the linear sequential and reaches into places where words cannot go. You can’t measure it, quantify it, or contain it. You can engage with it. It seems to me the power of the arts is in NOT being understood; moving beyond understanding is the point, not the problem. Trying to be understood is really a mask covering the need to be liked or appreciated. As my mentor used to say, “You will know the power of your work by the size of the tide that rises against it.” Some people may appreciate you and your work, others will not. That is beyond your control. What is within your control is your capacity to do your work. You can cut your ears off investing in what others may or may not think about what you create or you can do your work and offer it to the world. Trying to be liked or understood will knock you off your artistic rails; you’ll lose sight of the essential and trade it for the superficial. It will make you timid. Stop trying to be understood and do your work. Stop trying to be liked and offer your work as if it might change someone’s life (because it might).

Rant #2.

Dear artist,

What if: you will never be valued (paid). Consider: We all want to be paid for what we do; it is how our culture demonstrates value. However, as an artist, the odds are against it regardless of the scope of your talent and dedication to your craft. Go to a casting call in NYC and you’ll see what I mean. It is the rare arts organization (or artist) that pays for itself through the sales of what it produces – in other words, ticket sales will never pay for cost of the play. Donations, grants, not-for-profit status and cheap payrolls make the arts viable in a free market economy. The artist is the last to be paid and is usually paid the least. We live and create in a culture that has managed to link morality to money, to make a commodity of it’s prophets and sacred days, and that has convinced itself that the greatest act of citizenship is to buy stuff. It is upside down and that is precisely why we need artists! Think about it, in this nation of immigrants we yammer on and on about things like family values as if those values were simple, absolute, articulated and expected from all people in every family, regardless of ethnicity, religious preference or sexual orientation. What we value as a culture is at best conflicted and complex, as artists we are meant to embody that conflict and complexity. So value your art and do your work. Stand in the conflict. Put your fingers around the complexity and begin to mold it. Launch your work out into the world because you value it – it’s your responsibility to maintain the balance between what you create and how it is offered. As Patti and I teach, focus on what you bring and not on what you get. The rest is out of your control and fretting about it takes energy that you could otherwise use to create.

The Invisible Silk Robe (part 1)

photo by Tiikka

Stories are about change and change is never easy. Often in stories the tricksters (the outsiders) are truth tellers. They are the agents of change and are initially rejected or labeled as swindlers by the status quo. This is a story about people pretending to see, pretending not to see, or simply not being able to see because they are afraid of what they might see.

The Invisible Silk Robe

I. Invisibility

For months the young wife had been abused, pushed around and cursed.  Through it all she’d managed to maintain her calm. But now, as the cook backed her into a corner, a cleaver just a few inches from her face, she resolved that she must do something. She must fight back or leave. The cook was demanding that she “keep in her place,” in other words, she had to disappear. She was desperate to keep this job, regardless of how unpleasant it became.

Every day she was called a liar or a thief.  Every disaster in the kitchen would be blamed on her and she knew it. She was different, she was a foreigner. When the staff captain asked her to respond to the charges she always stood tall and looked directly into his eyes and quietly said that she was not a thief nor was she a liar. He believed her. He knew the fate of foreigners in the kitchens. Now, even he cautioned her to keep a low profile. “Not being seen” was the only solution anyone could offer her. Disappear and survive.

I don’t know why it is but when you are new to a country, even a country of prosperity and great riches, newcomers are rejected and treated poorly. They’re granted access only through the most menial forms of labor. And that was true of the young wife. Here, she was a foreigner. Her own country was suffering through a terrible war and she’d fled to the neighboring kingdom to save her life. She’d lost her husband and her child to the fighting; their land and all their possessions were confiscated to feed the endless hunger of the armies. She was a woman alone. In her country, at the end, she had to hide to survive and she knew that she would not survive long if she stayed there. Hiding was only a temporary solution. So, she fled looking for a better life.

She was well-educated. She was a master weaver, famous in her country, and assumed she would be able to find plenty of work in her adopted country but the natives ignored her or rejected her, sometimes physically. Local vendors would not sell her thread, at least not any thread that was useful. She didn’t know what was worse: being ignored by people pretending not to see her or being spat upon by people who didn’t want to see her.

She refused to become invisible even though she often found visibility to be as dangerous in her new country as it had been in her old one; she knew that the locals where adept at pretending not to see her, visibility was not always her choice, so she often had to remind herself that she was real, they were pretending not to see her.

Eventually, she found a job in the kitchens of a wealthy man, an advisor to the King. Her job was to scrub the pots and the dishes, to scrub the floors and to scrub the ovens; she worked her hands raw from before dawn until late at night. But, no matter how hard she worked, she could do no right in the eyes of the cooks; the counters were not clean enough, the pots were not clean enough, “these foreigners do not know what clean means!” they would rant. “They’re dirty people, they’re lazy, they’re stupid….” She knew her job was not about scrubbing but about taking blame. So, with each new accusation, she worked harder and harder, determined not to fulfill their expectations, determined not to disappear.

Because she worked harder and better than anyone in the kitchen, she was noticed by the staff captain and given a compliment, and that is what brought about her troubles this day. The cooks were incensed that she was noticed and they were not. The largest of the group, a thick woman with a vegetable face, waited for the captain to leave and then backed her into a corner with a cleaver. All the others watched and laughed as the young wife lowered her eyes and promised not to do so well in the future, preparing her self to receive the blow she knew would come, the blow meant to remind her to disappear.