Notice The World

my latest painting. another addition to The Beach Series.

It’s a constant source of the giggles for me now. So many things that used to seem so complex and unknowable, so serious and weighty, have morphed into utter simplicities. And, I’ve unwittingly accumulated or created shorthand phrases, adages, that encapsulate the simplicities.

Stephen used to ask me, “Why don’t people see how important art is? Why don’t people value the arts?” He is a prolific and gifted painter and, like most artists, was struggling financially. I used to sit around with other artists and actors asking the same type of questions. Why don’t they value us. Our conversations made us into a frustration-club, so certain were we that we carried in our art pouch the cure for the worlds’ ills. But the world, they, were not noticing us. No matter how great our play or heartfelt our paintings or how loudly we proclaimed and marketed our work or trumpeted our capacity to help people to think or feel more deeply – to change the world! – the community (they) seemed mostly inattentive (to us).

Art as castor oil. Non-profit non-prophet.

Wearing my corporate consulting hat, I taught this core principle for years: you can never determine what other people think or feel or see. And, it took years for this simple adage to penetrated my life – especially my artist life (we do, in fact, teach what we most need to learn…).

I still believe in the importance and great power of the arts but not in the same way I did all those many years ago. I actually believe in it more than I once did only now it seems so simple: ‘Do what you love…,’ so the saying goes. Do what you love because you love to do it. That’s all. The world (how’s that for a sweeping generality!) does not need to be saved or changed. Mostly, it needs less frustrated artists waving to be noticed while perpetuating the narrative that they are undervalued. The world could do with a wee bit less of ‘us and them.’

The simplicity: I would much rather root my energies, my focus, my creative powers in the love of it all. Frustration makes the well run dry. There is no us and them when standing solidly in the love of creating. The real power of the arts – the only real power of the arts – is to open access to the commons, the shared space beyond separations (real or imagined). At best, artists reach across boundaries, not create them. In the end, artists (I believe) are mirrors, not medics.

Kerri gave me this new adage for my collection (and I giggled): It’s not about the world noticing you. It’s about you noticing the world.

Change Nothing

a detail from In Peace I Pray.

Thoughts from the mountain.

I grew up with these mountains so it should come as no surprise that I get quiet the moment I step into them. Like a too-tight coat the chaos I wear in my day-to-day life simply drops off; stepping into the mountain is to step out of the noise. Literally and figuratively.

Tom once told me that people change when they are ready. Rich once told me that people change when the pain of staying the same grows greater than the pain of making the change. Change when you are ready, change when you are in pain. Skip taught me that a business intending to change people was destined to fail. It is a fool’s errand. Business is about business not change. I loved this bit of advice from Skip because he is a natural-born change agent, a mentor of mentors (and, poetically, entrepreneurs). In a moment of frustration Kerri told me that people don’t change, they simply become more of who they really are. The masks drop off and we unwittingly reveal ourselves. Change as revelation.

As I hike through the snow toward the summit I wonder if change, at least the human notion of change, is as made-up as the rest of the stories we tell. It is in the forest, which is a festival of the cycles of life, that ideas of different ways of Being seem…superficial. Disconnected. Within seasons there are plenty of changes that roll around and around and around again. Perhaps this thing we call ‘change’ is nothing more than a recognition of the cycle, a readiness to release our dedicated resistance to life? A readiness to release our stories of limitation and division.

Kerri caught me staring at the mountain

Toward the end of his life, Joseph Campbell said that he suspected that all life (energy) was consciousness. There is 1) energy and 2) the forms that energy takes. Although seemingly disparate, seemingly separate, all forms fall back into energy. He said, “The universe throws forms up, then takes them down again.”He might have said that change is nothing more than the cyclical movement between energy and the forms it expresses.

Jim taught me that the art of acting was the art of being present. I know that when I stand in front of a canvas and begin to work, all notions of time disappear. Another day on the mountain, sitting in an adirondack chair midway up the slope, basking in the sun on warm day, we watched Kirsten snowboard. She flew by us several times. When she rides, it is clear, there is no other place, there is no past or future. There is now. She is vital, alive. In that place, riding the present moment (the only place that actually exists), the noise drops off. I know, and Jim knew, when fully in this moment there is no need to pester yourself with misplaced notions of being somewhere else, being anyone else.

 

a blast from the waaay past: August Ride. I lost track of this one and if you know where this painting is, let me know.

Find The Way Home

holdtheworldinpeace-lowerfontcopy-jpeg“Our search for truth must be wide open, even when it takes us in directions we preferred not to go. This is the difference between propaganda and truth. Propaganda has a certain end in mind, and so it marshals and manipulates the ‘facts’ to support its conclusion. Truth weighs evidence, seeks proof, is appropriately skeptical of authoritarian claims, welcomes questions, and doesn’t fear dissent.” Philip Gulley, The Quaker Way of Living*

Kerri and I often read books aloud to each other. On cold winter days we sit beneath a blanket, Dog-Dog at our feet, BabyCat snoring by our side, sip coffee, and read. We like to discuss and compare perceptions, ask questions, and re-read passages for clarity or the simple poetry of the language. Sometimes we savor a book, moving through it slowly. Sometimes we devour a book and go back to reread especially potent sections.

Propaganda resists close inspection and must continually be defended. Truth welcomes doubt and skepticism; indeed it is best served by questions, suggestions, and corrections.”

I am guilty of burying my head in the sand. My move to Wisconsin came with an intentional unplugging from the news. I was tired of pundits shouting each other down. I was weary and wary of conversations with family and friends that seemed to be territory-guarding regurgitations of our news-channel-of-choice. I was using the language given to me by my news sources and rolled my eyes at the predictable language leveled by the “other” side. One day as I raged at family members to pay attention to how they were being manipulated by their news source, I thought that it was probably a good idea for me to do the same. At the time, unplugging, stepping out of the toxic stream, seemed the only option to clear my mind.

The search for truth begins within the seeker, for if we are not honest with and about ourselves, we will find it impossible to be honest with and about others.”

On a recent trip to Indiana, Bill and Linda suggested a book for us, The Quaker Way Of Living by Philip Gulley. They read it with their church group and found it compelling, especially given our corrosive political climate and collapse of civil discourse. We bought it when we returned home and a few days ago started reading it together. We couldn’t put it down. It asks some powerful questions. It doesn’t pretend to have answers [that, I’ve learned, would be the antithesis of the Quaker Way] but it does speak directly to the quandaries of personal and communal integrity in a climate of self-righteousness, blame, and distrust. It is hopeful and funny and places the onus of creating a better world squarely on the shoulders of each and every one of us. It reminded me that burying my head in the sand is not very useful while also affirming that their are options beyond planting a flag in the sand.

“To say a person has integrity means several things. Most commonly, we mean the person is honest, that his or her word can be trusted…. But there is another level of meaning that has to do with the integration of our values and lifestyle. In that sense, to say we have integrity is to say the separate parts of our lives combine to form a unified whole. What we believe is consistent with how we live. Our beliefs influence the work we choose, the way we use our time and spend our money, the relationships we form and the goals to which we aspire. This integration is critical for inward peace.”

While reading, I’ve been thinking a lot about a conversation I had a few years ago with Jim Marsh, one of the people I most admire in this world precisely because he walks his talk. He told me of an issue in his community that had deeply concerned him and that he’d been grousing about for long time. One day he’d had enough and to move forward he recognized that he had three options: First, to stop complaining (he said, “to just shut up.”). Second, to move away. Leave. Get away from the source of his irritation. That didn’t seem like a healthy option. The third was to strap on his boots and do something about it. To act instead of complain. But, (and here’s the reason why I adore him) not to act against, but to work to create what he wanted. His responsibility was not to fight or resist. It was to create.

“We preserve our integrity and wholeness when we are aware of what threatens it and then choose to act deliberately and prudently when tempted. When we fail to do this, we disintegrate, creating a chasm between who we are and who we wish to be.”

I practice tai chi and had the good fortune to have, for a few years, a master teacher, Saul, whose teaching transcended the specifics of tai chi. He was teaching me how better to live. One day, while I was in a fit of resistance, he quietly showed me the power of looking beyond my “opponent” and placing my focus, instead, in the field of possibility. I understood (intellectually) that the opponent was always of my own making and my dedication to having an opponent (inside or out) would always pull me off balance. In other words, as long as I invested in resistance I would always pull myself off balance.

“Integrity isn’t conditional…There is a seamless nature to integrity that transcends situations and relationships. Integrity does not present one face in public and another in private. It delights in transparency, having nothing to hide.”

Now, with my head freshly out of the sand, I understand Saul’s teaching beyond my thinking (I’ve had a lot of time to meditate on things with my head in the sand) and, taking my cue from Jim, I recognize that I have three options but only option-number-three holds the promise of integrity. The best news: no one creates alone…

*all quotes in this post are from the chapter on Integrity from The Quaker Way of Living by Philip Gulley

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THE WAY HOME on itunes – Kerri Sherwood-Track 13 on THIS PART OF THE JOURNEY

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Cut A New Path

ComfortNow

The latest in my Held In Grace series. This is Comfort Now

It seems to me that most of our days on this earth are spent moving through patterns, conscious or unconscious. These patterns are the rituals of our lives. Some of the rituals are easy to see. For instance, what is the sequence of actions you perform before going to bed each night? What about your ritual of rising each day? The care and feeding of Tripper Dog-Dog-Dog and Babycat are central to my rising and retreating rituals each day. We move through the same actions every morning and evening and I delight in the warmth of the ritual.

Some of the rituals are not so easy to see. Researchers tell us that most of the thoughts we think every day are the same thoughts we had yesterday. We mostly think in patterns (it makes sense once you recognize that language is constructed of category and pattern). We talk to ourselves, cutting paths through the forest of our minds and, once we’ve established a trail, we like to stay on it. Easy is often unconscious. There’s nothing wrong with staying on the easy trail if the path you’ve cut, your repetitious thought-ritual, is self-loving. The rub: ritual paths of self-loathing and self-limitation are also easy, well-worn paths and that makes them both unconscious and hard to leave.

Cutting a new path through the mind forest begins with recognizing that new paths are always available. They just aren’t easy to establish. They require new practices. They require surrender and the first bit of surrender necessary for cutting a new path is the ritual giving-over of needing-to-know-anything; new paths, by definition are unknown.

New paths are not comfortable precisely because they require attention, consciousness.

My teachers taught me that all stories worth telling are stories of transformation. The main character or characters will know something at the end of the story that they did not know at the beginning and the new knowledge will be hard-won. That’s what makes the story worth engaging. Hamlet is a much different character in Act 5 than he was in Act 1. His peace was difficult to come by. He had to learn to surrender. To cut a new path he had to make a practice of peace.

The same ideal applies to the stories we live off the stage.

 

Change Your Focus

a watercolor from 2003, House On Fire

a watercolor from 2003, House On Fire

Life can change in an instant. There are collective moments. There are personal moments. For years, my dad kept articles about the conspiracy theories swirling around the Kennedy assassination. It was the moment that marked the end of things as he knew it. Life would never be the same. For many years I shared his fascination because my first memory is an image from John F. Kennedy’s funeral which we watched on black and white television: a soldier leading a horse with empty boots reversed in the stirrups. I suspect that the image was potent for me because it was potent for the adults caring for me as they watched the funeral of the president.

Many years later, on a beautiful September morning in 2001, I sat in front of another television set and watched the Twin Towers fall. I thought, “Life will never be the same.”

With the recent anniversary of that day, on another beautiful September morning, Kerri and I read aloud to each other a book, 102 MINUTES: The Untold Story of the Fight To Survive Inside the Twin Towers. I was surprised by my reaction to the book. It felt a return to the place where we got lost. Like my dad, I missed the innocence that vanished in a single day (doesn’t each generation experience this loss? I imagine my grandfather yearned for a world before the atom bomb).

Throughout the reading, two potent and related metaphors would not let me go. First, a two-part metaphor for what I believe ails our nation. With a hyper focus on profitability, many long standing high rise safety precautions were minimized in the Towers. Less escape stairs meant more rentable space. Structural fire prevention measures are costly so they were either written out of the code or ignored. No one believed these twin Titanics could fail and when they did, the greatly reduced escape routes were either severed by the planes that hit them or were inadequate to accommodate the evacuation of the buildings. Additionally, communication between the police and fire departments was broken – they had the capacity but lacked the will. They did not use their updated systems because they were fighting over who would be in control. Their polarization crippled them on the day that they most needed to communicate.

So, the metaphor. One of the themes of my life (and, therefore, this blog) is the importance and necessity of a conscious placement of focus. Where you focus matters. Focus is a creative act. Our hyper focus on profitability took down the world’s economy in 2008. We’ve deregulated our financial institutions, removing all the safety precautions so that we might, as my pals in the financials services once told me, “Print money from nothing.” And the structure weakens. The wealth of the nation is in the hands of a shrinking few even though, as I learned in Economics 101, a healthy capitalist system is built upon a healthy middle class. No one believes this Titanic can sink. Communication between those who are supposed to be looking out for our safety, The House, The Congress, etc., are famously polarized. They have the capacity but lack the will and do not exercise their communication in the fight over who will be in control. In the meantime, we need them to communicate; waiting until the Tower falls will be too late to start. Our focus is on the wrong stuff.

 A sketch working out some details for House On Fire

A sketch working out some details for House On Fire

Which, brings me to metaphor number 2. This is the metaphor that cures us. The other story of those 102 Minutes is a story of kindness. People reaching for other people. When the disaster struck, the gap between custodian and CEO disappeared. The social divisions were irrelevant. People helped people simply because they needed it. They recognized that they were living a common story, a shared story, not the story of division that predominated a single moment before the planes struck the buildings. Everything changed in a moment. Or, perhaps everything became clear. People died to help other people. Their focus changed.

 

 

 

Laugh More

my idea book for our coming-soon cartoon, Chicken Marsala

my idea book for our coming-soon cartoon, Chicken Marsala

There is laughter coming from the next room. Across the way, a woman bursts into tears and a man with a ponytail leads her away from a group. They whisper. He tries to calm her. He makes her laugh. She wipes her eyes and they walk back to the group and all act as if nothing had happened. And, maybe nothing did happen. I am too far away to know the circumstances of her tears. I know the circumstances of her laughter.

Today it rained. I sat at my drafting table and worked on a cartoon strip. Tripper Dog-Dog-Dog sat at my feet. For the first time in over two years I streamed NPR and listened to the day’s news and some other stories. There was a story of a hunger strike in Chicago over the closure of a school. There was a story on public figures and apologies. There was an age-old story of the division in congress. I felt the same way listening to the news as I just felt watching the woman in tears. I am too far away to know the circumstances. I am too far away to know with certainty the truth of any of it. I’ve developed a healthy distrust of news reports. All I know with certainty is that truth is relative, truth is a point of view. I inked my drawings and listened as I might listen to a book-on-tape.

There is more laughter. It is coming from a meeting. I find comfort knowing that a committee in charge of anything can laugh. I hope that they are laughing at themselves.

Ann once told me that they key to success was to find a need and fill it. This world seems to have no shortage of needs. It does seem to have a shortage of laughter.

Recently, David shared with me his thoughts of Plato’s analogy of the cave. Perception as projection. It’s all shadows. Once I watched a Balinese shadow puppet master perform. The performances always take place in the outer ring of the temple and are meant to remind people that what they see in this life is a shadow, a projection merely. One of the messages: we are too far away to know Truth. Another message: our projections are worthy of our laughter and not much else. The puppet master had us rolling on the ground. His characters were mostly tricksters, stooges, and in their over-serious pursuits they were hysterical in their folly. Another message, perhaps the most important: the quickest route to the divine, to the connective tissue, is through laughter.

 

 

 

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.