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

Save

Be Clumsy

a detail of my painting, May You Be.

a detail of my painting, May You Be.

Clumsy (klum’ ze) adj. 1. lacking dexterity, grace or skill; awkward. 2. ungracefully shaped or made; unwieldy. 3. awkwardly or unskillfully said or done, ill-contrived.

“We don’t allow ourselves to be clumsy,” Kerri said. “Life is clumsy.”

Many years ago I read a commentary that suggested we moderns have a harder time of feeling good about ourselves than people of ages past. The argument went something like this: we have an impossibly high standard to meet and it is mostly illusory. For instance, our predecessors compared themselves and their successes against a relatively small village populace. We are swimming in pool that stretches around the earth. The athletes in our ancestral villages ran against their neighbors, the artists created for a specific purpose that served a tangible need in their community. Our young runners know to the hundreth-of-a-second what greatness requires. They run against the world. Our artists rarely know outside of their own inner imperative why they are creating. With no outer limit they spend a great deal of time wondering if their work has any impact or greater significance. With no outer limit it has no defined audience or community. Stephen, a gifted and prolific artist, used to ask, “Why don’t people recognize the value of art?”

The argument is largely a question of access. Our predecessors had limited and very abstract access to the news of the day, to the happenings beyond their region. We have a 24-hour global news cycle that comes to us on multiple devices that are designed to grab and keep our attention. It is not passive. On our multiple devices we are bombarded with images and messages of what we should look and feel like. Yet, almost all of the images populating our personal measuring stick are constructed. They are manipulated, retouched, powdered and Photoshopped. Legs are stretched. Wrinkles are removed. Sunsets are filtered. We measure ourselves against illusions.

Thus, intermediaries are everywhere. Interpreters abound. I rarely go into a gallery without a curator telling me why the work on the walls is important. The news of the day makes us the rope in a tug-of-war of interpretation.

Art, like life, like deep spirituality, requires direct engagement. It is made rich in the rough draft and the mistake. The broken road is interesting, vital. Learning is a process that takes time. It is messy. It is clumsy. It is not straight, paved, and has no road signs. And, it cannot be walked alone.

There is no forgiveness (of self or other) on the path of perfection; forgiveness is in short supply when the standard is both impossible to attain and an illusion. On the clumsy path, on the messy and muddy road, lives grace, generosity of spirit and deep forgiveness.

Clumsy (klum’ ze) adj. 1. Human

May You Be

May You Be

 

Dance!

A painting called JOY

A painting called JOY

“A dancer’s body breaks down,” she said, “Painters can paint all their lives. Musicians can play until they are old, but a dancer’s instrument, her body, gives out.”

To be a contrarian I responded, “And then there is Martha Graham. She danced into her 80’s, didn’t she?”

She wrinkled her nose and said, “Not very well.”

The lights dimmed, the movie started, and our conversation ended.

She was, in her youth, a dancer, classically trained. She’d spent the bulk of her adult life teaching and choreographing. And, as she told me, “Those things are all you can do when you can no longer dance. They are what’s left.” Had our exchange not bothered me so much I might have felt sadness for her.

Like an art-mantra, Tom used to say, “A writer writes and a painter paints.” I wanted to say to my seatmate, “A dancer dances.” I thought immediately of Linda who dances even when she is not dancing. She is a riot of movement, joy-in-motion; her need to dance is infectious. Even non-dancers find themselves jigging across the floor when Linda is dancing at the party. I once told her that she is my secret weapon for throwing a successful party.

I imagined my seatmate as a young girl. Before all the training, before the technique and expectations, there was enthusiasm. There must have been joy. There must have been lots of joy. She must have known the world by moving, twirling, spinning in it. Artists – before they call themselves artists – make sense through sound, through scribbles, through spinning. They only way forward in life, the only way to make meaning and to learn, is to scribble more, to engage and translate through movement. Lazy educators write off this imperative as self-expression.

The great artist deathtrap is called technique. It is a paradox. It is necessary. It is a kind of language mastery. It is, at first, a struggle of control. How do you say what you need to say when your language is visual, aural, or kinesthetic? Training is necessary. The path to full expression is always paradoxically through constraints, control of breath or brush. Yet, too often, as is the case with my seatmate, technique replaces the enthusiasm. It can turn joy into judgment. It can make an artist forget their WHY and replace it with a too rigid HOW. It is how artists limit themselves with their artistry. It made my seatmate, a healthy ambulatory woman, believe that she is not capable of dancing.

Later, I told Kerri about my conversation at the movies. She said, “That’s why fewer and fewer people are going to symphonies or galleries. People draw lines. Artists not only limit themselves with their artistry but they also limit access to their artistry.” Joy is infectious. Artistry without it is not very interesting (and, arguably, not artistry).

Answer The Question With A Question

carrying on the tradition (and my heroes): mike and sabrina bartram

carrying on the tradition (and my heroes): mike and sabrina bartram at Changing Faces Theatre Company

Many years ago at the start of my career I bumbled into running a summer theatre company. It would become one of the great gifts of my life. At the time I decided that it would be my laboratory. I’d be able to experiment with directing processes and actor training techniques. What I didn’t realize until much later was that I would also be running an experiment in business and, more importantly, how to create a community mindset of support and empowerment (and, therefore, achievement). I was free to succeed because I gave myself permission to focus on the quality of the process instead of worrying about hard and abstract words like ‘achievement.’ My bottom line was the inner growth of everyone in the company, the inner growth of the community that we served.

When the company was up and running, when it was mature, company members swept the parking lot because they knew it would make the play better (improving the audience experience always impacts the performance). The people running the box office prided themselves on their kind service and efficiency because they knew that it would make the play better. The actors understood that they were in service to the play and not themselves. In fact, everyone in the company was in service to something bigger than themselves. That was the culture of the company. When pushed to articulate the success of what we created together, I’d say, “We’re focusing on the important stuff.”

Yesterday with great intention I sent that phrase (focus on the important stuff) out into the e-stratosphere. I lobbed it in association with the company that Kerri and I are in the process of creating to see what would come back at me. Like the summer theatre company, this new venture is our laboratory. What came back was the question, “What’s the important stuff?”

Sometimes the only way to answer a question is with another question. Take a look around your world. Take a moment to look at the difference between what you say and what you do. What do you see? What do you want to see? Big power comes to people when, like my company members (students) of so long ago, they realize that their “seeing” isn’t passive. The greatest single power any human being has is to choose where they place their focus. The greatest single revelation any human being has is to recognize that what they see impacts everyone around them. No one does this walk alone.

the very first painting in the Yoga series. It was an experiment, a walk of discovery. It's also about being alone

the very first painting in the Yoga series. It was an experiment, a walk of discovery. It’s also about being alone.

It’s easy to place a focus on an obstacle. It’s very easy to fix a gaze on the problems. It’s easy because, left alone, believing we are alone, that’s where most people default. Place yourself in a community that knows there is something bigger, something more important to see and serve, and the field of possibilities becomes easy. My company members of so long ago didn’t know what they couldn’t do so they did everything they imagined. That was only possible because they imagined it together. So, answering a question with a question, to you, what’s the important stuff?

 

Focus On The Important Stuff

an offer from TwoArtistMakingStuffForHumans

an offer from TwoArtistMakingStuffForHumans

A note from the temporary site of TwoArtistsMakingStuffForHumans:

The waxing moon was muted with fog. It made the air shimmer. Avalon was near. Although it seemed too soon, there was a hint of autumn in the air. We sat next to a chiminea talking to friends. Monica told us of her daughter working in villages in South America. She told Monica that, by our standards, the people there have nothing. They are possession poor. But, they were happy, genuinely happy. They didn’t have much money or stuff but they had the essential thing that many of us lack: peace of mind. They focus on different, more important stuff.

It brought to mind my experiences in Bali. When I arrived all I could see was the poverty. By the time I left several weeks later, I’d have given everything I own or will ever own to have what they have: presence. Ease of mind. They weren’t looking for fulfillment, status, or living for retirement. They were living. Life was fulfillment. In a world where all things are sacred, status is gained by the quality of your giving and not by the size of your piece of the limited pie. It is a different focus.

There is a hidden cost to what dominates our focus, the things that take our attention…as opposed to the things we pay attention to.

As artists, both Kerri and I believe the work of our lives has been, one way or another, to help people focus on the important stuff, to see the extraordinary in the ordinary moment, to find inside what people seek outside. We’ve both worked across the boundaries of business, art, and the fine art of living everyday, there is no lack of necessity to refocus the eye, mind, and heart.

In a few weeks we will be launching our business (details to follow). All the many aspects of our work – if you can call art a product and performing a service – are intended to support, exercise and pay forward a focus on the important stuff, the important moments…sometimes the teeniest things that in the chaos pass unnoticed.

We want to do for others what we do for each other. Check out our pre-launch coaching offer. Take us up on it! Or, if you know someone who might benefit from working with us, pass it on, pay it forward.

Meditate On Mistakes

taking advantage of my mistakes: a detail of my latest painting in progress called Weeping Man

taking advantage of my mistakes: a detail of my latest painting in progress called Weeping Man

A meditation on mistakes:

Actors know. In performance, when they forget their line, they come alive. The exhilaration of forgetting shocks them into presence. The mistake achieves the essential thing: presence. The audience may not be aware of the lost line but they cannot help but come into presence when the actor does. That’s how it works. Presence begets presence. Actors also know that, in such a moment, tension is their enemy. Panic is counterproductive. Relaxation is the only path back to their play.

Mistakes wake us up.

Many years ago, I produced a summer theatre company. In the middle of a performance, a storm blew out the power to the theatre. The performance stopped. The emergency lights came on. The actors looked at the audience and the audience looked at the actors. And then, in the ghostly blue-white light, the actors continued their play. It was the one and only time that the play was riveting. Actors and audience alike became invested. They were together in an experience that was unique. It was, as are all true mistakes, unrepeatable.

the under painting and sketch.

the under painting and sketch.

The playwright John Guare wrote that a writer must write ten bad pages to arrive at the one good page. The writer must value the ten bad pages for the single good page to be possible. The ten bad pages, what educators, locked into testing regimens, might call mistakes, are necessary. Up front expectations of perfection are guarantees of mediocrity. No process is perfect – and that’s the point. Perfection, like happiness, comes after the fact. It is the blossom of a rich process. It ensues and only becomes available when mistakes are valued, when exploration is encouraged. A rich process is alive with trial and error, with strong offers that may or may not work. The strength of the offer, the capacity to make a grand mistake, learn, adjust and boldly offer again – is a great definition of freedom. It is otherwise known as vitality.

It’s what artists understand. When nothing seems to be working, when the most powerful offers fall flat, when paintings turn to mud, relaxation is the only path forward. There is comfort in knowing that the single good page is out there somewhere if only you keep making grand, luscious, brilliant mistakes.

Be An Avid Catcher Of Your Thoughts

TODAY’S FEATURED IDEA FOR HUMANS

Be an avid catcher of your thoughts

This notion is the heart of change. It is the practice of self-awareness. Listen to the story you tell yourself about your self.  It is ripe with ideas, dreams, and yearnings. It is also ripe with fears, doubts, and comparisons. Capture the ideas. Listen to the dreams. Follow the yearnings. It’s a muscle. Develop a focus for the creative. Capture what’s useful and let the other jabber go.

Screen Shot Avid Catcher

TO GET TODAY’S FEATURED IDEA FOR HUMANS, GO HERE