Appreciate The Moment [on Not So Flawed Wednesday]

Monumental moments in a life sometimes seem so small at the time. They pass as incidental but, in retrospect, are profound.

In his recent visit, Bruce and I reminisced about my inability and horror of singing. In the majority of my life, I couldn’t find a pitch if it was sitting on my shoulder. Kerri jumped into the conversation telling Bruce that I’d found my voice. Well, to be honest, she helped me find my voice. A patient teacher who simply taught me how to hear. Bruce’s mouth dropped open when I told him that I sang at my grandfather’s funeral. “It was terrifying,” I said.

“But you did it,” Kerri added.

When I met her, as I’ve previously recounted, I told Kerri that, “I don’t sing and I don’t pray.” And, then came the ukulele band. On the day I flew in for my third visit, Kerri picked me up from O’Hare and we rushed back to make the first rehearsal of her new group, the ukulele band. We met in the gardens of the Kemper Center, Lake Michigan humming by our side. She handed me a black uke. She taught the group to tune. We learned a chord or two. And picked and sang our way through a few easy songs. I dare anyone to avoid singing when they are in a group of silly colored ukuleles. It was my first of many lessons. I was having so much fun strumming, that I forgot that I was singing.

Such a simple moment. The beginning of challenging a faulty life-story. A self-imposed limit. Kerri was wise enough to know that I needed to begin with fun. Laughter is a great maker of courage. The first step.

Eight years ago. At the time it seemed so incidental. Following this amazing musician through her day. Playing along. Carrying her books. And, all along, it was her gentle way of saying, “Let’s challenge that obstacle. There’s a way around it and all you have to do is have fun and learn again to listen.”

read Kerri’s blog post about UKULELES

Consider The Revelation Necessary [on KS Friday]

An exercise that is designed for generic failure is also designed for specific success. And, so it is with the bridge. The instruction is simple: get everyone safely across the space. If anyone touches the floor, all must go back. Invariably, the first attempt is an abject failure. The group ignores the word “everyone” and, instead, opts to try and get themselves safely across the space. They believe the game is about them, that “winning” is a singular affair.

After being sent back to the beginning more than once, they come to a spectacular yet inevitable innovation: if they work together, crossing the space will be easy. It is only a matter of moments after their revelation that they, together, construct a secure bridge and are all safely standing on the other side of the room. Specific success wrought from generic failure. And, once they have their realization, they cling to it. They own it. They must, the stakes are raised, the rules are tipped against them during the ensuing phases of the exercise.

I’ve led this exercise hundreds of times. Every single time the group has the necessary revelation. They are not in the game alone. They can only “win” if they join together. If they build it together, everyone will safely cross the space. It gives me hope.

Last night, during the town hall, President Biden said something that ought to slap us from our divisive stupor. Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin believe the 21st century belongs to the autocrats. The pace of change is moving too fast and democracies, in their divisiveness, move too slow. So far, we are proving them right.

Once, as an experiment, rather than set the challenge of the bridge, I forced the answer. The group did as I said but collapsed in the ensuing rounds. When I raised the stakes, the people gave up. The harder it got, the less they tried. They coalesced in apathy. They never made it across the bridge again, even though they knew how to build it.

This is what the autocrats do not understand. There is no ownership, no game, in a forced answer [educators could pay attention to this simple rule, too].

We are being divided through titanic campaigns of misinformation. And so, no one will make it safely across this time-space. Generic failure. Wade Davis wrote that we now live in a failed state and, so far, we are proving him right. But I have hope. The necessary revelation, the specific success, bubbles in the frustration. Those stoking the division, feeding fear, will have their day but, in the long run, the lie collapses, people join together and, like a prayer flag, build a bridge to ensure that all make it safely across. They recognize that they are not in this game alone. Winning is hollow if half the team is lost in the process.

This game, the bridge. The necessary revelation is in our nature; nature’s prayer flag. It gives me hope.

Kerri’s albums are available on iTunes or streaming on Pandora

read Kerri’s blog post about NATURE’S PRAYER FLAG

hope/this season ©️ 1998 kerri sherwood

Come To The Table [on DR Thursday]

Duke and Eileen sat at this table for many years. And, because St. Vincent de Paul wouldn’t take it for second hand sale because the top had dings in it, it rode around in the back of Big Red for many months. We forgot it was there.

When Covid roared in and the world shut down, we wanted to put a table in our sun room. That way, we could sit and look out at the day. We thought it would help buoy our spirits while in isolation. In the middle of wondering-out-loud where we could possibly get a table in a world-shut-down, we remembered that Duke and Eileen’s table was camping out in the back of Big Red. It was a perfect fit.

It began the transformation of a room that has become our favorite place in the house to sit and hang out. We’ve populated our former work table with plants. Duke and Eileen’s table is also home to many succulents and a Bonsai Gardenia sent as a birthday present from Kirsten and Chris. We resurrected an old fountain so the sound of peace is the sound of gurgling water. There are candles. Special rocks from special places. Water, earth, fire, and air; lots of air. We’ve created a sanctuary.

Watching Kerri and 20, Duke and Eileen’s son, sit at the table filling out paperwork for Eileen, I was struck by the circle coming back around, the story that this table might tell. 20, sitting at his mom and dad’s table, now center to our sanctuary, doing the work of a son to care for his mom.

It also occurred to me, standing outside, looking in at these two siblings-from-different-mothers sit at the table filling out forms (Kerri and 20 are truly brother and sister), that in the midst of “living in interesting times,” our response to the pandemic, to civil unrest, to our town literally being on fire, amid job losses and wrists breaking, has been to create a place of peace. A center of quiet around which the chaos spins.

“Make all the world your studio” was once – and still is – a mantra for me. And, now at the center of my spinning-world-studio is an intentional space, a bright and happy room bringing together all of the elements, built around the long history of comfort etched in the top of Duke and Eileen’s table.

read Kerri’s blog post about THE TABLE

meditation, 48x48IN, mixed media, 2012

meditation ©️ 2012 david robinson

Prove It [on Merely A Thought Monday]

I am about to prove that I am guilty of everything I accuse others of being. I am just as capable of surrounding myself with like-minded people as the next person. Let me explain:

I cheered when I read Marc’s response in the conversation chain. It was an appeal, an attempt to puncture a dedicated delusion, an untethered ideology. But, as is always the case when fantasy is met with fact, the holder of the fantasy vehemently defended and further retreated into their illusion. Confirmation bias.

Among my favorite phrases this week comes from a New Yorker article, Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds. The phrase: the illusion of explanatory depth. Here are two quotes from the article:

“People believe that they know more than they actually do. What allows us to persist in this belief is other people.” In other words, we ally with people who hold a similar belief rooted in the same lack-of-knowledge. Apparently, as a species, we’d rather be reinforced in our ignorance than consider the possibility that we don’t know what we are talking about. Purple Kool-Aid is easier to drink than wondering if what we’re being told may or may not be truth. It explains the current GOP, Fox News, OAN, Ron Johnson, and the rest of the dangerous-national-clown-car.

Quote number 2: “As a rule, strong feelings about issues do not emerge from deep understanding.”

Strong feelings. Deep understanding.

In the canon of human self-aggrandizement, we delight in the narrative that we are primarily rational, that our reason, like a good border collie, has driven our emotions into safe containment. The opposite seems to be the case. Or, at best, we are a mass of contradictions.

There is a flip-side, a necessity woven into our contradiction that gives me hope. Strong feelings and deep understanding are not natural enemies and need not be pitted against each other. Think of it this way, no firefighter, in his or her right mind, would run into a burning building to save a life, if we were as rational and reasonable as we like to believe. They do, however, study fires beforehand to know how to run in, how to reach. They study the science. For every exploiter there is a matching story of a giver, someone whose strong feelings combines with their deep understanding in an effort to better the world, save a life, make things easier.

That which makes us crazy also makes us compassionate. How’s that for a statement of contradiction? Families fight each other until the forest fire threatens their house. Common cause and education are a great poppers of confirmation bias.

Some fires are manufactured with the sole purpose of exploiting confirmation bias. This kind of exploitation is dependent upon – and feeds upon – strong feelings with shallow roots in understanding. Ignorance. The big lie. Vaccine misinformation. Divide and conquer is always reliant on strong feelings intended to create blindness.

Some fires are real. And, the test of a real fire: divisions fall, eyes open, and people run toward the flames to help other people. It remains to be seen how hot and close the flames need to come before the confirmation bias burns off and we realize that we’re in real trouble, that science is real, and that the big trough of purple (red) kool-aid being proffered is doing the opposite of what it professes to do.

It may be in our nature to believe that we know more than we do, but, it is also in our nature, without concern or thought for our own safety, to reach for the drowning person. Deep understanding allies with strong feelings when people cared enough to learn how to reach, how not to become the person drowned by the drowning person.

Do you see it? I am an idealist. I want to believe in the goodness of humanity and the necessity of shared truth. Yet, despite powerful evidence to the contrary, I hold fast to my dedicated belief that we are capable of tipping toward love rather than falling toward hate, that, when faced with undeniable data, that we are capable of questioning our strong feelings en route to a deeper, shared understanding. We are capable of recognizing that the science that brought us the cell phone, satellites, allergy medicine, and electric light is the same science that brings us the data of climate change, and the best way to beat this pandemic. Cherry picking belief in science is…absurd and currently dangerous. Cherry picking news is equally as absurd and currently dangerous. From my idealistic mind, it is a necessity to ask questions, check sources, doubt belief.

We are certainly capable of knowing the real fires from the those fanned by the thought-arsonists. We are capable of questioning, of suspending our delusions. At least, I like to believe that we are. I, like you, surround myself with like-minded believers.

We’ve proven it again and again and again. When we recognize that the fire is real, our dedicated illusions burn the filters from our eyes, we transcend our little stories, and reach our hands with no thought of political alliance or other exploitative non-sense, to help dig our neighbors from the rubble.

read Kerri’s blog post about BASIC LOGICAL REASONING

Find It [on DR Thursday]

Although it probably does not appear this way to you, this photograph is the road back to my easel. It was an immediate inspiration. Kerri did not intend for it to spark the cold coals of my artistic fire, but it did. It was immediate. I couldn’t stop staring at it.

This painting is called Joy. Look at the floral shapes and lines both within and around the figure:

Joy, mixed media, 50x56IN

Many of my paintings of the past several years are floral wonderlands. They infuse the figures, they are bouncing balls of symbolic trees and oversized shrubbery. They remind me to have fun. To play and experiment. I must have forgotten all of that or turned away.

I hit a wall when I painted my red mess. It’s been on my easel for months. Beneath the red mess, the painting that I’d originally sketched on the canvas, is this:

I think I’d had too much of despair-and-comfort and needed to explode my themes. Thus, the red mess.

When Kerri showed me her photograph of tiny pink flowers, I saw the painting, this painting, complete in my imagination. Not despairing, but vibrant and subtle, alive with those amazing floral shapes, five-petal-bursts of life. Contemporary. Huge. Broad strokes. Almost a sculpture.

There is a story from Plato’s Symposium that I’m using as the basis for my script revision for The Creatures of Prometheus , the original human, cleaved by the gods because it was too powerful, searching through life to find its other half. This painting is (or will be) about the search for love, the transcendence of separation. Finding.

And, as you know, once it lives in the imagination, all that remains is the volition to get there.

read Kerri’s blog post about PINK FLOWERS

joy ©️ 2014 david robinson

Use Your Chalk [on Two Artists Tuesday]

There are two words floating around in my universe these days: structured and unstructured. Structured data. Unstructured data. Structured time. Unstructured time.

The world as seen through the Puritan lens gives great preference to structure. Unstructured anything is suspect. “Idle hands,” we are taught, “are the devil’s workshop.” Yikes. Apparently it’s dangerous to take a stroll, to sit and ponder, to clear the day and do nothing.

I suspect it explains why our notion of business is hyper-focused on the bottom line and often misses the value of relationships. Bottom lines are easy structure. Relationships, not so much. It is the same with test scores in education. Easy structure. However, stepping into the unknown – the very definition of learning – is largely eschewed because it begins in an unstructured pursuit. Creating the structure, making the meaning, discovering the connectivity is what our hearts and brains like to do. When learning isn’t merely a factory, when business is more than a bottom line, people prosper. They come alive.

Unstructured time. There was a time when time had no structure. Monks attempted to “keep” time by monitoring water through a bucket or sift sand through an “hour” glass. Sometimes the water froze in the bucket so the structure of evening prayer was disrupted. The sand clumped in the hour glass and the measure of time clumped with it.

There are moment on the stage when the actor forgets their lines. It’s called “going up” or “drying.” It is always, in the re-telling, the moment when everything becomes real, alive. It is the moment when the structure becomes unstructured. Hearts race. Eyes widen. The stakes are suddenly palpable. The actor breathes, stands in the vast unstructured universe, and the words return like a swinging bar to a high-flying aerialist. The play is infused with aliveness. Presence is mostly unstructured.

As is common in the structured and unstructured use of the English language, oppositions are easily constructed. Unstructured simply means the meaning has yet to be made. Structured data, structured time, are the tip of a largely unknown iceberg. Love, joy, despair, awe…the full spectrum of experiences, bubble in the unstructured spaces. Numbers can describe a moment in time, can orient for a moment, but will never “explain” yearning or desire or our fundamental need to tell stories (put structure on unfathomable experiences). Structure & Unstructure: they are dancing partners, not combatants.

Where do we come from? What are we here to do? I am going to die, what then? It takes a good deal of unstructured time to sit in these unanswerable questions. There are, of course, plenty of people who will gladly provide structure to your unanswerable – and therefore uncomfortable – questions. Perhaps that is why we adore our structure and demonize the empty spaces? Comfort. Ease.

Kerri cannot pass a hopscotch template chalked on the street. It’s almost automatic. Step, hop, hop, step, hop. The little girl in her connects to the child who chalked the squares on the sidewalk. A simple game. Play. It’s one of the things people do with unstructured time. Set challenges. Make up obstacles. Seek puzzles. Invent. Dream. Connect to the deeper places. Where’s the structured bottom line watching the little-girl-in-my-wife hop and skip and turn in the game-chalked-on-the-sidewalk? The laughter of remembering? The giggle and freedom of the woman hopping the scotch, just because she can?

read Kerri’s blog post about HOPSCOTCH

Root Into The Worth [on KS Friday]

As Tom Mck used to say, “There are only three people in the United States qualified to review plays and none of them live in Stockton, CA.” His point: it’s best not to read your reviews but, if you must, don’t invest in what you find there. Good or bad, the review has little to say about the work of the artist and everything to say about the mind of the reviewer.

To be an artist is to be vulnerable. Vulnerability is an especially complex skill to master when the work of an artist is an open invitation for commentary.

The worst play I’ve ever seen got a standing ovation the night I saw it. Some of the best work I’ve ever done drew little or no audience. I directed a play that regularly had half the audience storm out of the theatre in anger while the other half was on its feet cheering; which half should I believe?

Many years ago I directed a play. One of my leading ladies had a family friend who was the theatre reviewer for the local paper. After opening night, my actress’ fine performance started to twist and sour. It was a mystery to me how her good work could go so bad. Later I learned that she was taking notes from the family friend. She lost herself in the cloudy opinion of an other and her performance suffered for it. She suffered for it.

Artists – not unlike everyone else – like to be liked. Most wait tables or teach lessons so they can pursue the thing they love. I use the word “love” purposefully. Most are regularly asked to give away their love/work for free on the empty promise of “exposure.” As Kerri says, “It’s hard to pay your rent with exposure.” It’s very, very easy for an artist to feel undervalued in a world where money defines value – while constantly being asked to perform for free. It makes being-liked an especially dangerous value-default.

Some of the greatest artists I’ve known lived marginal financial lives; financial success evaded them – but they knew without doubt the single secret that kept their work vital all of their lives: they alone were the judge of whether or not their work was good. They alone knew the pure driver of their pursuit. They knew the real danger of an artist’s life is to lose the purity of their artistic driver in the swamps of “being liked” or getting good reviews. They worked hard to stay centered and avoid becoming dancing bears at the circus.

It was Tom’s greater point: only you – the artist -will know if your work is good or not, if you’ve truly found and pushed your edge or discovered new territory. You will know when your work is shallow. No accolade can change that. You will also know when your work is exceptional. No criticism can change that. Its best to root into the worth of your pursuit, to grow and learn, rather than gorge on the ever-abundant-opinions of others. Good or bad. Moose or pig.

read Kerri’s blog post on MOOSE IN HEAT

all of kerri’s albums are available on iTunes & on Pandora

Draw A Chalk Circle [on Merely A Thought Monday]

There are charts for everything. Definitions and distinctions of value meant to clarify but, in the end, make life seem more and more farcical. For instance, we recently were directed to a worker’s compensation website and learned that losing your hand in an accident is worth 400 weeks of [minimal] compensation. The dominant hand is worth more than the non-dominant hand. Fingers have less value-in-weeks than a thumb. Just imagine the guys-and-gals-in-suits sitting around a conference table discussing the value of a human hand as expressed in weeks. Sometimes I’m certain that we live inside the mind of Gary Larson.

Is it no wonder that we are confused about the value of a human life? We have actuaries calculating human-life-value and making smart looking tables with support graphs to answer this most fundamental question. I’m certain that those guys-and-gals-in-suits sitting around the conference table would come up with a different answer if it was their hand or fingers or toes or life on the chopping block. If it was their child’s eye or foot. Charts, like all data points, are not personal.

We awoke this morning to the news that the latest mass shooting (if 4 or more people are shot it is, according to the FBI, considered “mass”) was in our town. We are number 47 since March 16. March 16 is the date of the mass shooting in Atlanta; 8 people were killed. Here are some nifty and comprehensive charts on gun violence in America.

When I was in elementary school we did safety drills, crawling under our desks, in the event of an atomic bomb drop. Although I was certain that my desk was not going to protect me in the event of an atomic explosion, I was comforted by the knowledge that the enemy was far away, external. Now, our children in elementary school do active shooter drills and they, too, know that their desks offer little protection. But their predicament is dire: the enemy they face is right here. It is everywhere, internal. Sitting under my desk I knew there was an entire military machine between me and the potential dropper of atom bombs. Sitting under their desks, our children know with certainty that there is nothing, not even legislative will, standing between them and the ubiquitous shooter.

I once listened to an author speak about the difficulty of writing a farce about the USA. He said, “Before you can a publish the book, the fictional farce that you’d written will have actually happened.” Our scary farce: the only answer we can muster to daily mass killing in schools, grocery stores, work places, concerts, houses of worship…the only idea that the markets will support in an out-of-control gun culture, is more guns. Sales charts and political donation data drive policy to dedicated inaction. [For some lightheartedness in the midst of this dark-and-dismal post, go here. I laughed aloud when I heard comic Steve Hofstetter riff on gun control.]

What is the value of a human life?

We had a lovely conversation in the grocery store. An accidental path crossing with friends. Sue remarked, as we compared life experiences, that our personal challenges are meant to remind us that we are still here.

What is the value of a human life as determined by those of us who are still here?

Bertold Brecht wrote a play called The Caucasian Chalk Circle. Two women claim to be the mother of a small child. A judge has to settle the case. He has a small circle drawn on the ground. The child is placed in the circle. The judge instructs the women to stand on opposite sides of the circle, each taking one of the child’s hands. The woman that successfully pulls the child from the circle will be declared the mother. One woman quickly yanks the child from the circle. The other will not pull. She refuses. She cannot do harm to her child. She proves herself to be the true mother.

I wonder what we might value if we could put down our charts and data points and amendments-as-seen-in-isolation-from-all-the-other-amendments, step beyond our abstractions, and draw a simple circle in the dirt. What might we discuss if we placed a small child in the circle, and considered the value of that one precious life? My bet is that none of us would yank that child out of the circle of life. We’d do everything imaginable to protect the child from harm. To keep it safe. Sales graphs and actuary tables and every other dehumanizing analytic would drop away. We would, in considering the beating heart of our public dangers, make the safety of the child, of every child, our personal challenge. It would slap us awake and remind us that we are still here. Alive. And, as custodians of the circle of each and every actual life, we are responsible to and for each other.

read Kerri’s blog post about STILL HERE

Live By Increments [on KS Friday]

In this case, healing is incremental. One degree at a time. Her doctor told to be patient. “Expect no more than 5 degrees a month,” he said.

After her fall, the second fall, the one on a newly-mopped-but-unmarked-wet-floor, she had a mere 6 degrees of movement in her right wrist. She showed me her range of motion and the movement was so minuscule that I had to ask, “Did you move yet?” Her stare told me that I probably could have asked a better question.

Years ago, preparing to direct a play, I did research on medieval torture devices. You’d be surprised at human ingenuity when it comes to inflicting pain. The device that Kerri uses between occupational therapy sessions to aid in the recovery of her increments looks a lot like the machines I researched so long ago. It has cranks and dials. Straps. It finds the edge of possible movement and then, with one teeny-tiny turn of the dial, stretches a fraction beyond the previous possible. Increments of possibility achieved through increments of pain. Human ingenuity cuts both ways, to the creation of promise as well as pain.

In this part of our journey, we have learned to live by increments. Our journey of a thousand miles truly begins, each and every day, with a single step. The torture device, as we lovingly call it, serves as a mechanical reminder that the greatest triumphs are often the smallest. 5 degrees a month. It’s a reminder that it is best not to rush. One tiny turn of the dial at a time. Each new increment is cause for celebration. My composer wife, in these hard-recovered-increments, steps toward her piano, toward her promise, each day, one step closer.

kerri’s albums, including THIS PART OF THE JOURNEY, are available on iTunes

read Kerri’s blog post about INCREMENTS

this part of the journey ©️ 1997, 2000 kerri sherwood

Borrow A Cup Of Belief [on Merely A Thought Monday]

The sun is streaming through the windows. It is an immediate spirit lift. We sip coffee and our conversation wanders in no particular direction.

We inevitably discuss of the absence of normal, our rolling wave of disruption. “I wonder what will happen this week?” We laugh, “Knock on wood!” For a moment we sit in silence. We’ve stopped asking, “What else can happen?” We keep the question to ourselves. We’ve grown superstitious.

For us, this pandemic time will always be known as the era of disruption. All recognizable patterns are shattered. New patterns have yet to find a foothold. Each day a tumbling unknown.

I often write about “not knowing.” It is the land where learning becomes possible. The first caveat: Have the experience first and make meaning second. The second caveat: Suspend your judgements and learn. Both are rooted in the intentional suspension of knowing. Open to life.

We are definitely having experiences. We are careful not to arrive too soon at meaning.

Yesterday I read that, when life tosses us the uncontrollable, we default to imaginary controls. We do the dishes, we vacuum the rug, rather than face what is out of our control. There is great comfort in the imaginary.

Sometimes belief in yourself is hard to come by. “Knowing” that you can do it. “Knowing” that you can stand firmly in the “not knowing” is never a given. Especially in times of continuous disruption. It is only after the fact that you “know” with certainty that you can do it. “One step at a time,” we chant.

It is, in these times of disruption, that we borrow belief from each other. You tell me that I can do it. I tell you that you’ve got this. Others “know” what we do not. They see our fortitude. We see theirs. It is why human beings are a herd animal; we come to know ourselves through the eyes of the other. We go next door to borrow a cup of belief.

Beaky’s note now sits on Kerri’s bed stand. A treasure newly found in a long forgotten purse. One of our imaginary controls, cleaning out the closets, produced this gem. Beaky, no stranger to disruption, reaches across time and the threshold to offer timely encouragement, “I know you can do it.”

“Momma says we got this,” Kerri says. If I’ve learned anything, it’s to never argue with Beaky.

read Kerri’s blog post about KNOWING