Live According To Your Necessity

a detail of a painting I did in honor of Dawson's arrival on earth

a detail of a painting I did in honor of Dawson’s arrival on earth

“Depending upon the lens you look through, I have been a miserable failure at everything I’ve ever done,” I said. Arnie protested but we both knew it was, to a certain extent, true. And, since our conversation I have been gazing through that certain lens and feeling my failure acutely.

This lens is not new to me. I visit it each year as my birthday rolls around. It is a lens that most artists visit from time to time. To their peril. Recently, Chris, one of the most talented and hardworking actors I know, told me that now that he is far down the road of his career, no longer a beginner, he has surrendered the idea, imperative or illusion of economic success. “I work because I have to,” he said. It makes no sense and is impossible to explain to someone who does not have “that” impossible intrinsic driver. The incentives are internal. The rewards are internal. The achievements are mastery landmarks and not monetary rewards. It looks like insanity through the lens of a profit/loss, money=morality society.

When I look through the failure lens I’ve learned I need to visit Rainier Maria Rilke. I need to seek the advice of a master. “Nobody can counsel you or help you. There is only one single way. Go into yourself. Search for the reason that bids you write; find out whether it is spreading out its roots in the deepest places of your heart, acknowledge to yourself whether you would die if it were denied you to write. This above all – ask yourself in the stillest hour of your night: must I write? Delve into yourself for a deep answer. And, if this should be affirmative, if you may meet this earnest question with a strong and simple “I must,” then build your life according to this necessity;….”

...closer in

…closer in

My life is built upon this necessity. No amount of comparing it to others is useful. No other lens is healthy. Since moving to Kenosha from Seattle, I am fond of telling people that in my move I committed economic suicide. That is a statement made looking through the wrong lens. Here is the truth: Since my move I have published my book, The Seer. I produced and performed in what I thought was the greatest heart-project of my life, The Lost Boy. It played to sold out houses and fulfilled a decade long journey and commitment to Tom. Two months later I did what I now think was the the greatest heart-project of my life when I illustrated and Kerri and I published Beaky’s books, The Shayne Trilogy. Beaky had an author’s reading a mere two weeks before her passing. Last year I authored drew and submitted with Kerri over 25 cartoon proposals to syndicates. We are completing work on our next play, The Road Trip. And, in the middle of it all, I’ve done arguably the best paintings of my life. I am meeting my question with a simple and strong “I must.”

What is failure? What is success? They are lenses and they matter not.

I am living and building my life “according to this necessity.”

The whole painting.

The whole painting.

 

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

 

Save

Save

Sit In The First Seat

 

a detail from my latest painting

a detail from my latest painting

I am living this story, as are we all. I am a lover of story so I count myself fortunate enough to know that I am living it. It’s one of the grail stories. Here’s the section of the story that I am now living:

The knight who cannot be beaten (he has a magic sword) is knocked from his warhorse. A warrior, a man with no armor or shield, no protection, emerges from the woods, challenges the knight, and in a single blow, unseats him. That’s not the worst of it: the knight’s magic sword shatters. And, that’s not the worst of it. His armor, his trusty protection through the many wars in the wasteland, pins him down. Like a turtle on its back, he is defenseless. His magic sword, his trusted armor, all that he has relied on, all that he’s built his identity and purpose upon, betray him. He is stunned. He is lost. He closes his eyes and awaits his death.

Death does not come. Well…

another detail

another detail

The warrior, the man with no armor, does not finish the job. He disappears without a trace leaving the knight stranded but alive. The knight opens his eyes and somehow manages to sit up. He weeps because his endless efforts to save the world have come to naught. In fact, fighting ogres seemed to produce more ogres! He removes his armor. He is no longer a knight. He is no longer capable of saving the world. He is, for the first time since his childhood, unprotected. He is, at last, purpose-free.

Nothing is more frightening – or useful – than to drop the armor of purpose and take a good hard look at what lives beneath all that forged metal.

...and another

…and another

At first his lack of identity drives him crazy. He has no answer to the cocktail party question, “So, what do you do?” He feels naked and exposed. Fortunately, a teacher, a hermit, emerges from the woods to help him navigate the crazies. Namely, the hermit helps him by not answering his endless questions. The hermit helps him understand that the world never really needed him because the world was never really broken. The hermit helps him relax and see beyond all of his thinking. He realizes that the wasteland came, not because the world was broken, but because he believed himself to be broken, somehow lacking.

In a life of chopping wood and carrying water he sees that his purpose has nothing at all to do with doing – or roles or achievements. He sees that the road to the grail castle is blocked so long as he believes he is defined by a role or a bank account or lost in a made-up purpose. When he drops his need for importance the grail castle appears.

...and another

…and another

Satori, in all the stories, knocks seekers from their ponies. It stops all pursuits. It pops the illusion of a purpose-driven life. It necessarily strips the seeker naked.

We are all seekers at some point.

When you are required in the workshop to write your epitaph or are somehow forced to articulate what was most important in this life, the doing, the list of achievements, the purpose-drive will always take second seat. HOW you did what you did, the relationships you tended or ignored, the moments you appreciated or missed, will sit squarely in the first spot.

 

as yet unnamed

as yet unnamed

 

 

 

 

 

Save

Save

Start Walking

photoTell Me. How can I be a learner?

My mind went absolutely blank, and I heard myself saying, Its simple. To be a learner youve got to be willing to be a fool. ~George Leonard, Mastery

I used to do a lot of work in education. My career in the theatre took a sharp left-hand turn when I started consulting with schools. The puzzles that plagued educators seemed to me easy to address. To be human is to be curious. Tickle the curiosity, begin the story and get out of the way.

Tom once told me that teaching is about relationship (not control). He also told me that the best teaching/learning needed to be directly applicable; it had to be immediate. It had to be real. It had to matter – to both the teacher and the learner. The trick is to extend the mattering into greater and deeper levels of abstraction.

An emphasis on testing is an emphasis on knowing. Great learning places the emphasis on not-knowing. It reinforces the pursuit and dispels the notion that knowledge is something achievable. Worthy questions always open more worthy questions. To be human is to be curious. To be alive is to wonder what is on the other side of the hill and then take a step toward it.

The fool George Leonard references isn’t “ the unthinking person,” it is “the carefree fool in the tarot deck who bears the awesome number zero, signifying the fertile void from which all creation springs, the state of emptiness that allows new things to come into being.”

Emptiness. Not knowing. Relationship. Mattering.

Step Into Unknown with SigThe question, “How do we/I do it?” is a great step-stopper. It is the leading edge of every personal and organizational stagnation excuse. We don’t know how. I’ve come to believe that it isn’t a natural question but is learned behavior. It is an emergency brake installed by a system that values right answers over great questions.

My wife and I have a short-hand phrase, Beaky’s Wheelchair, to remind us when we stall, that “how?” is something that can only be known after the fact. No one knows “How?” at the beginning. Beaky needed an electric wheelchair to be mobile and the world of insurance/medicare was standing still. After months of waiting, with no clue which direction to begin, we started making calls. We met every “no” with a “why not?.” We asked a multitude of foolish questions. We learned. And learned some more. Within a matter of weeks, Beaky had her wheelchair.

How do you play the guitar? Paint a picture? Bridge a conflict? Transcend a limit? Know one knows. Tickle the curiosity, let go of any notion that you need to know how, and start walking.

text from Krishnamurti as it appears in my painting

the text from Krishnamurti as it appears in my painting

 

Save

Save

Save

Save

Unify

a watercolor from 2003, House On Fire

a watercolor from 2003, House On Fire

Stay with me. I actually have a point.

If ever I teach actors again, or coach people in any endeavor, or communities/businesses seeking betterment, I will only have two things to teach: 1) Grounded-ness and 2) Focus placement on the unifiers. These two concepts are really  one looping concept but for ease and the sake of being understood, I will offer them independent of one another.

As focus placement goes, an actor on the stage has two options and depending on the focus placement they choose, they will either create the play or destroy it. A focus on how they look or sound or feel destroys the play. It is a self-focus in an art form of relationship (all art forms are made vital in relationship). A self-focus breaks the relationships and effectively locks the audience out of participating in the story. It makes the actor giddy with fear, easily distracted, alone. Conversely, the actor can focus outside of themselves, on the other actors on the stage, on the energy between, on their pursuit. An outer-focus creates relationships and serves as a magnet that pulls audiences into the story. It facilitates participation, creates relationship, and shared experiences. It unifies. Literally.

The actor who listens to him/herself pulls up their root. They unground themselves. The actor whose focus is outward, who is actively pursuing relationship, creates grounding. In fact, they must be grounded to create vital relationships. It is a first principle. Grounded-ness begets grounded-ness; it unifies. It strengthens. It invites. It clarifies truth.

The same principles apply off the stage or out of the studio. It is, however, more complex off the stage. It is much, much, more sticky.

And here’s the point: It has been said that nothing is better at uniting a community than having an enemy. It’s true. A common enemy provides an outer focus. It provides another team to defeat. It works so well that leaders across the ages, leaders who would otherwise look insipid, leaders who, like a bad actor, have a self-focus, a control need, have concocted all manner of enemies. It is a deflection. It works for a short while but what starts as false unity strips a community of its true binder. It separates and splits. It diminishes. It destroys.

Here’s the sticky part. One of the oldest tricks in the book for controlling a community is to split them, to locate the enemy within the community. And then, for good measure, magnify the split. In the early colonies – that ultimately became The United States of America – it was a strategy known as The Giddy Masses (see Ronald Takaki’s excellent book A Different Mirror). Make the people giddy with a false enemy. Uproot them. Deflect them so they cannot join in relationship and be strong as a community. Self-focused leaders cannot survive a unified, healthy populace. It is a strategy: separate the people so they cannot see the movement of power.

Today I started to read the news but stopped after only a minute. Building walls. Expelling Muslims. Enemy creation everywhere! Fox news and MSNBC are great giddy creators. It’s a bad story poorly told. It weakens all players. The primary actors do harm to their audience. Grounded-ness, a first principle, can only come to all when the actors choose to focus on the relationships, see the unifiers, to create rather than destroy. Groundedness comes when the audience engages, questions what they are being told and open (rather than close) their minds.

Grounded-ness. Focus placement on the unity. The principles that make great art also make great society. Fear, the province of the bad actor, the lot of a passive audience, although temporarily effective, can only destroy the play.

Save

Save

Stand In It

photo

a detail from a recent painting

A surprise package came in the mail. It was a gift from David, my artist’s artist. He sends me things to feed my artist soul, to stir my pot or help me sort out my dilemmas. This gift is more timely than most; it is especially relevant for me now. It is a book of photographs and essays by Walter Kaufmann called Time Is An Artist. I’ve barely cracked the cover and already know it carries the wind that will fill my becalmed life-ship.

This is a quote from the first essay: We always live at the limits, but we are rarely aware of it.

I woke up this morning awash with gratitude for a man who stood in line behind me at an airport ticket counter over 30 years ago. I was returning from Europe. I had a hundred dollars and some lose change in my pocket. I was exhausted. I’d flown from London and landed in a blizzard. My connecting flight from D.C. to Denver was cancelled. Because I was traveling on a cheap open-ended student ticket, the cancelled flight meant I was stuck with no way home. I didn’t know what to do and was too tired to sort it out. I was desperate and lost in my desperation. That’s when the man tapped me on the shoulder. He was a guy in a rumpled business suit. That’s all I remember about him. He was also trying to get home. He’d just heard someone mention an airline offering a cheap flight to Denver. It was $89.00 ($100 with tax). I ran for the ticket counter and snagged one of the few remaining tickets.

That’s it. That’s what I remember about this man who tapped me on the shoulder. To him it was probably a little thing. To me it was enormous. I needed hope beyond desperation. I was investing in a story of limitless problems and was met with a moment of generosity.

It seems that I am in a life course, a graduate school for detachment. Last night P-Tom shared a quote that was important to him when he was doing his chaplaincy in a hospital: Don’t’ just do something, stand there (a reversal of the known quote). Stand there. Amidst the grief and the loss and the mess, sometimes it is essential to do nothing but offer presence. The man at the airport gave me his presence. Beyond his situation he was listening to my struggle.

Detach from your story and the gift will be gratitude. What rolls through our minds is nothing more or less than a story. Eckhart Tolle tells us the story is a force that pulls us out of the Now. Carlos Castaneda writes that Don Juan taught him 3 steps on the warrior’s path: Detach. Make a choice. Own the choice. One of the primary reasons people meditate is to quiet the mind. In the quiet it is possible to see the story as just that, a story. Detachment, in this sense, is not disengagement from life or cold aloofness from reality. It is the doorway to life. Stand in it and not the story of it.

Gratitude lives in the Now. Where else?

photo-2

another detail from another painting. kerri says this one looks like gratitude

The man at the airport was on my mind because I have learned in this life-course that gratitude is best served in thimbles: the taste of the pear, the sun on your face. The man tapping your shoulder, “Hey, I just heard….” I thanked him before running but the real gratitude came later. Gratitude came again this morning because I was telling stories of the good angels who’ve populated my path.

Real gratitude for this life lived perpetually on the edge is often lost when the expectation-bar is set too high. To be grateful for your life – your whole life – is… an abstraction. It requires a story that pulls you away from this bite. It is a bucket too big. Savoring is a slow affair, available in the smallest taste, right now.

 

 

Love What You Do

a detail from my painting, May You Be

a detail from my painting, May You Be

It is cold and the lake is very still. It’s one of the things I love about living next to the lake: one day it is glassy stillness, the next it is an angry torrent. It is alive and has many, many faces.

Quinn used to say, “There are 5 billion people on this planet and you’re the only one who gives a damn about what you are doing or how you are doing it.” That was some time ago. There are now 7 billion people on the planet but I’m certain the equation remains the same. If you stop your forward motion because of what others might think, you are indulging in a delusion. The other 7 billion people are primarily concerned with themselves, not you. The deep water lesson: do what you love because you love to do it. There aren’t nearly as many limits as you pretend.

I thought of Quinn the other night because I have a new hero. His name is Dan Navarro. He’s a troubadour, a singer songwriter, and was performing at Cafe Carpe in Fort Atkinson, about an hour and a half drive from home. Kerri has long been a fan and introduced me to the music of Lowen & Navarro. For many decades, Dan Navarro wrote and performed with his friend and creative partner, Eric Lowen. They were brilliant together. A rare fit, a true creative team, Eric Lowen died of ALS in 2012. He and Dan wrote and performed as long as humanly possible after Eric’s diagnosis. They loved to write. They loved to perform.

A few months ago Kerri and I were listening to a Lowen & Navarro album and wondered what had become of Dan Navarro so we googled him. To our great surprise we discovered the impending Fort Atkinson stop on his latest mini tour.

Cafe Carpe is a smallish place and Dan Navarro is an accessible guy so I wasn’t surprised when, before the concert, he came over for a chat. He and Kerri talked about the pain of disappearing royalties and the radical changes technology has brought to music making and music selling. I wondered how many times he’s been asked about the loss of Eric and how it must be the white elephant in every performance as well as every conversation; the people coming to see Dan Navarro are fans of Lowen & Navarro. When it came up in our conversation he was gracious and spoke openly of missing his friend everyday.

He is putting the final touches on a solo album due out in March. “Who knows how it will be received.” he said. “And who cares. You do what you love to do and put it out into the world. That’s the best you can do.”

He took the stage, a troubadour in his power and his prime with the ease that can only come from doing with his life what he was meant to do. “People ask me about retiring…,” he spoke into the mic, “…and I will never retire. I don’t know what that means. I love what I do and will always do it.” he said, sliding into a song that left us no alternative but to follow.