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.

 

Make Purple

Polynieces and Eteocles

I dug out an old drawing this morning. I’ve been thinking about it for days and finally decided to heed the impulse and find it. I drew it years ago, a study for a large canvas I intended to execute but the timing wasn’t right or the thought was not complete. I can’t remember. It would have been a statement piece, based on a myth. Polynieces and Eteocles, two brothers fighting for control of the kingdom after the death of their father, Oedipus. They refused to share the riches. They lost sight of the kingdom in their lust for control and killed each other in their battle. Both lost.

I remembered the drawing after reading the daily news. It popped into my head as an image that seemed relevant as I listened to the intensity and insanity of the blues and the reds. These days I hear a lot of rhetoric about what is good for “the American people” and I am certain – it is among the dwindling things I am certain of – that these diverging rhetorical paths are not good for anyone. The kingdom is nowhere to be found, so lost are we in the power struggle, the alternative-truth-games and all of the accompanying hyperbole.

Recently 20 came over for dinner. He read to us a disturbing article from the newspaper and asked, “So, do you think we have it all upside down?” It was, of course, a rhetorical question. The article was from a February 12th issue of The New York Times, Husbands Are Deadlier Than Terrorists, by Nicholas Kristof. It was an appeal to stay focused on what matters in the midst of so many smoke-and-mirror-power-play intentions. It was a plea to not be lost in the diversions:

            “Consider two critical issues: refugees and guns. Trump is going berserk over the former, but wants to ease the rules on the latter….In the four decades between 1975 and 2015, terrorists born in the seven nations in Trump’s travel ban killed zero people in America, according to the Cato Institute. Zero.

            In that same period, guns claimed 1.34 million lives in America, including murders, suicides and accidents. That’s about as many people as live in Boston and Seattle combined.”

           It’s also roughly as many Americans as died in all the wars in American history since the American Revolution….”

There is, admittedly, much to fear in this world but it is rarely where we pin the blame. Insanity almost never recognizes itself.

According to the myth, Oedipus put a curse on his sons. That was the reason they could not peacefully share the rule of the kingdom. It was a curse. They couldn’t help it. So, it was their fate. No lesson learned. No growth possible.

We have a long legacy of using inequity to create and reinforce division. Perhaps that is the curse we inherited? That is the “reason” we cannot find common ground and shared governance? Is it our fate to murder each other and project the danger onto the people least capable of defending themselves: the current wave of immigrants? It seems lazy but certainly appears to be effective.

It might now be time to execute my painting. I’ve lately been focusing on grace and images of internal peace. I seem to be out of accord with the times in which I am living. According to the data we are killing each other faster, more efficiently and more eagerly than any external threat. All the while our ruling class seems singularly devoted to keeping us in primary color-coded camps rather than working with the creative tension that moves divisions in a unified direction. And, we seem singularly devoted to playing along, not a hint of purple to be found.

Art is, after all, an expression of who we are and I can find no other more relevant American image. It will, of course, be a symphony of reds and blues.

 

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Stand At The Intersection

2mayyoubepeace-jpegI find myself once again standing at an intersection of seemingly unrelated conversations and experiences and am in awe of the common thread.

Yesterday was Ash Wednesday. The imposition of the ashes is a reminder of mortality: we came from dust and to dust we will return. Last night I watched the ritual from the choir loft. It is new to me and beautiful – a lifelong fascination of mine – to witness the power of people gathering to participate in their rites of transformation. Life made vibrant through the realization of its limits.

After a long hiatus, this week I picked up my art discussions with Horatio. He is wise and I have sorely missed my conversations with him. During my Seattle years we often met downtown for coffee and talked about all things artistic. We’d compare notes, challenge assumptions, share inspirations, complain about obstacles, wax poetic, and laugh at the fears and foibles of life on an artist’s path. A few days ago we scheduled a call and picked up our chat as if no time had elapsed. He is an accomplished visual artist and filmmaker and told me that finishing a drawing (or film) always feels insignificant, anti-climactic. “There is no such thing as completion,” he said. “The product always feels empty. Doing the work is vibrant and alive. The life is in the process!” Horatio told me that he disappears when he goes into the studio. I know that feeling well. It is not an experience of losing your self, it is the experience of transcending your self. It is a ritual of transformation

This morning I read in our local newspaper that the University of Wisconsin, Parkside (the campus in our town) launched an initiative to inspire peace through the arts called “PeaceWorks.” They were inspired by this quote from Eleanor Roosevelt: “It isn’t enough to talk about peace. One must believe in it. And, it isn’t enough to believe in it, one must work at it.” I read that there will be over 20 artistic events from all disciplines that deal in one way or another with peace – or the absence of peace. Peace is likely to be found when a community gathers to participate (not just witness) in the transcendence of self. There are few things like the arts that can facilitate that.

One of the latest paintings from The Yoga Series

One of the latest paintings from my Yoga Series

The ride is limited. The achievements of this life are of little importance if the process (the moment) is missed. Peace, inner or outer, like all high ideals, begins with an intention and is usually possible when, looping back to the beginning, we realize that this ride of life is finite and precious.

 

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Row

may-you-be-small-crop-jpegSometimes the way forward is akin to rowing a boat: facing backward is the only way to get proper leverage. Today, to stir my pot, to get some leverage and new energy, I revisited three books that I wrote but never published (or limply offered to a tiny audience). It was a revelation. It’s as if the man who wrote those books in the past meant for me to read them today. The man who wrote them was not ready or clear enough to birth them. The man who read them today knows just what to do (including rewrite some odd bits). Here is the introduction to the first of the three books:

I’ve generally stepped in every pothole, tripped over every opportunity, broken the family dishes, and made every mistake a person can make. I feel fortunate to be alive. I used to try and hide the mess behind a veneer of “knowing.” Eventually I realized that in order to find what I was seeking I had to stop pretending that I knew what I was doing. I didn’t. I now recognize that the more I learn, the less I know. Life is not about knowing stuff. Life is vibrant when engaging with the un-known. Seeking is messy business. Being human is messy business. To pretend otherwise is…well, to pretend.

One day, while exhausting myself pretending, I realized that I was telling myself a story of fear. I realized that I was the only person invested in my fear story. I realized that I’d cast all the other people in my story as dangerous characters. I believed that if they really knew me they’d shame me. I realized that I was the only person in my story feeling pain, frustration and exhaustion. So, why was I telling myself this story? This was not the story that I wanted my life to tell. That day I began changing my story.

At some point, each of us comes face-to-face with the story of our lives. When we do, we have the choice to retreat further into hiding or to take off the mask, turn around, and walk toward the thing we fear the most. This is to seek the bear.

Every human being who has walked the face of the earth has come to the same crossroad; those that faced their bear left behind clues about how to do it. They left us messages about how best to stop hiding, how to turn and walk toward fear, what to do when it is time to stand in front of the bear’s cave and how to welcome the encounter. The clues and messages are found in the stories they left for us. The stories are maps for navigating our inner geography.

Our ancestors understood that stories are a participation sport. Our lives are mirrored in the tale of adventure. We know what to do in our personal story because we identify with the heroine/hero in the story. Their journey of transformation is a guide to our journey of transformation. Their follies and foibles give coherence and direction to our messy passage. Their death and rebirth is a map for our death and rebirth. Their story is a call for us to step more fully into our adventure-story.

As is true in all life-lessons, it’s a perfect loop. I’m back where I started (apparently) only with new eyes and a few more years of experience. Order from chaos, chaos from order, I suspect we are all, one way or another, rowing in a perfect circle.circle-peace-earth-jpeg

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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.

 

Protect Our Diversity

Many years ago, sitting in a Starbucks, my brother told me that I should be careful because not everyone wanted the diversity I was promoting. His warning struck me as odd. At the time I was partners in a business that facilitated diversity training and change dynamics. I was traveling to many places in this nation, north, south, east, west, and places in the middle, to work with people in corporations and schools and communities who’d come up against the startling reality that all people do not share the same reality, that equality is an ideal not yet realized, that we are a nation defined by our other-ness.

When I was in school I was taught that the USA was a melting pot, a hot crucible into which people of many backgrounds, creeds, and colors were transformed into something stronger. I was taught that we were a nation of immigrants. It is printed on our currency: e pluribus unum. Out of the many, one. Why, then, would I need to be careful? Diversity was not something I was promoting, it was (and is) our circumstance. It was an identity I was helping people navigate in their workplaces and communities.

I read somewhere that the real challenge of the American Experiment is that we have to reinvent ourselves everyday. Because we are not (and never have been) able to share a common ethnic-religious-origin story, we must strive everyday to create a shared story. We create our story. We were, at our inception, an experiment in other-ness. To insist that we were meant to be singular – white and Christian – is a concoction. Our shared story begins with the single common thread that runs through most of our ancestral paths: we came from some other place seeking freedom in one form or another: religious freedom, freedom from persecution, the freedom to pursue opportunities. What binds us, the single story-blanket under which we can all crawl, is our diversity. Out of the many, one.

There is and always has been a tension in our story creation. Each new wave of others is resisted and often persecuted by the previous wave. When, in a nation of diverse backgrounds, in a country made strong by its multiplicity, does one actually become an American? And, what does an American look like? And, how far are we from living the ideal of all being created equally? With liberty and justice for all? It’s a moving target at best. It is a worthy ideal and worth the struggle.

The Experiment, like all experiments, has had some miserable failures. It has taken some giant strides forward. It is riddled with paradoxes and often runs into a hard wall of hypocrisy. We’ve torn ourselves in half and pasted ourselves back together. We’ve had our share of hate-mongers and xenophobes. We have one now. And, we always transcend them because we do not run on fear or anger but on promise and opportunity. The conservative impulse is always at odds with the progressive desire. It provides the heat for the crucible. It provides the tension for creativity and growth.

The greatest centers of innovation and entrepreneurship in the history of humankind have all been crossroads, places where many cultures cross paths and come together. Difference is a great opener of eyes and minds. We are an intentional crossroads, a meeting place by design. Our make-up of differences might be the single reason why we have grown as a nation of invention, advancement, and possibility.

In one aspect my brother was right: I should be careful, we should be careful to protect and keep the ideal in the center. It is worth marching for, it is worth challenging the fear-mongering and stepping in the way of a leader who plays on anger to create division. We should be careful to honor and steward The Experiment forward to the next generation of diverse Americans.

 

 

 

Escape The Freak Show

Very is the most useless word in the English language and can always come out. More than useless, it is treacherous because it invariably weakens what it is intended to strengthen. – Florence King

Tom used to say that watching television reminded him of going to the circus as a kid to see the freak show. He’d pay his nickel and step into a dark tent filled with oddities meant to repel and repulse. The attraction was the revulsion. I feel that way every day reading the news of the latest antics of the current occupant of the White House. We now open our news apps several times a day and routinely exclaim, “You aren’t going to believe this one!” It’s either a freak show or the latest installment of Game of Thrones. Though, the real horror of our current national predicament is that we can’t exit the tent.

I do not need the news to interpret for me what is actually taking place in our nation. I only need listen to what is said. Language matters. How we ask questions matters. How we frame our arguments matters. The labels we use to define our experiences matters. In today’s Washington Post op-ed piece, E.J. Dionne Jr. wrote: As George Orwell taught us, how people talk offers a clue about how they think and what they value. Our language, he wrote, “becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.” He added, “If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”

A president whose language band width is limited to doubling his adverbs (for emphasis, I assume), i.e. very, very, or can find no other adjectives beyond the simple polarities of bad or great is not only troubling, it, as Orwell taught, reveals a lazy mind. Very, very lazy. We should not be surprised that his preferred mode of communication is Twitter and that he’s confused governance with signing executive orders. A bully knows no other way.

Today Michael Gerson, the conservative voice in Washington Post, wrote in his op-ed piece: “Stepping back, cooling off a bit, displaying some strategic patience, taking the long view: The first two weeks of the Trump administration have been the most abso-friggin-lutely frightening of the modern presidency.”

Abso-friggin-lutely! Now, there’s an adverb! And, frightening is an apt adjective.

Building a wall that is already a boondoggle, spending millions to investigate corruption where none exists, picking fights with allies, obsessing over crowd size, vote counts, and television ratings, issuing an ill-conceived travel ban directed at Muslims, abusing a judge for doing his job,…. Frightening. And, like any good freak show, it is drama for the sake of drama. It is governance by threat.

But above all, this: language matters. It is how together we define our reality. Debate (a complex use of language to clarify points of view, make law, challenge laws, express values,…) is the crux and crucible of our system. Our lazy-mind-in-chief routinely defines his own reality and then expects others to conform to his delusion. Bad. Refuse to conform or challenge the sentiment and risk a nasty tweet. Right now, all the other children on the playground are afraid of the sting of the tweet-stick but soon, as happens to all bullies, the kids, red coats and blue alike, will start talking and realize that together, they are more powerful than the angry boy with the simple solution.

It would be comical if only we could escape the freak show tent.

Substitute damn every time youre inclined to write very; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be. – Mark Twain