Embody The Symbol [on DR Thursday]

Everything in the Japanese Garden is symbolic, intentional. Pine trees represent longevity. Rocks, I’ve learned, represent the bones of the earth. They are as necessary in the design as are the “ephemeral blooms of the iris, rhododendron, and plum.” The symbol is not complete without both.

“The ephemeral existence of human life and the timelessness of nature.” Balance.

Entering the small yard of the Shoin House at the Chicago Botanical Garden is instantly calming for me. The small house is designed to “merge the outdoors with the indoors.” It is closed to the public but always beckons. I want to sit in the alcoves and write. Or do nothing at all. In the garden, I am instantly “connected.”

“Connectivity” is a word that has moved to the center of the work that I am currently doing. Amidst our ubiquitous capacity to share (Facebook, Instagram, Tiktok…email, chat, tweet, slack, text…) we are less and less connected. As Neil Postman wrote, we have made the irrelevant relevant and the relevant irrelevant. We share but do not connect. Shared information is not – and never will be – shared meaning.

Symbols empty of meaning when a community ceases to understand, honor, tend or acknowledge the significance of the symbol. And, symbols are the glue of a community. They are the physical, tangible location of an ideal. Disconnect from the symbol and the house falls apart.

I think that is why I am drawn to the Japanese Garden. There, beauty is intentional. The symbols are so well tended, so intentional, that one need not know the specific meanings to enter the symbol.

And, that’s the point. Connectivity happens when people, together, embody their symbols. They enter them. They become embodiments of their symbol(s).

It is the artist’s job to bring people into a shared moment. To give them access to a unified experience. To help them transcend the splinter symbols that divide – and see them for what they are. To help people step back and take a good look at what they, together, are creating. A garden? A desert? Balance? Imbalance?

read Kerri’s blogpost about THE ROCKWAY

prayer of opposites © 2006 david robinson

Re-Connect [on Merely A Thought Monday]

The latest addition to my “Terms in this Unknown Land” document is TL;DR. Too-Long-Didn’t-Read. I laughed aloud when I heard this new acronym in a meeting. If there is a sign of our times, an identifying marker of our era, it is this: TL;DR.

We communicate through text and emoji. Chat. Twitter is a thing because it mandates brevity. Scrolling the news app is a study in cramming the full story into a brief headline. Marketers have mastered the 5 second ad. Businesses are liberal in their use of “narrative” and “story” but have no time to actually hear one. A short synopsis will have to do. Get to the point.

As a member of my culture I find that I scan more than I read. If I can find it on Youtube, I’d rather watch it than read about it. When I began writing blogposts ten years ago, the “rule” was 800 words or less. The rule has adjusted with our attention spans and now the target is between 400 and 600 words. Often, when I receive links to articles, they come complete with an estimate of how many minutes are required to read them. Yesterday, I read advice from a marketing guru that suggested we restrict paragraphs to two sentences or less; more than two sentences is a red flag: too much information. Less than two sentences is…a sentence.

So much information is coming at us all the time, we have no time or thought-space to take it all in. I wonder if we can discern relevance from dreck. A quick look at our leaders leaves me with a resounding “No!” Relevance is lost in the dreck and, since they represent us, they are us, our information inundation has rendered our attention spans tiny and blunted our acuity. We are awash in information while wisdom has gone missing.

Each week I attend meetings; the central concern is explicitly or implicitly about helping people connect. It reminds me of the conversations I heard in graduate school: while living in a city of a million people, the concern was about how to create community. So many people. So little community.

I ponder these things every day. With our ubiquitous technology, we couldn’t be more connected. Through social media, I know what people had for dinner or what cute thing the kids said. I receive advertising that confirms my devices are listening to me. Yesterday, for-the-hell-of-it, I said, “Machu Picchu.” Today I am awash in travel ads for Peru.

We are connected. Connection to everything is connection to nothing. Relevance is hard to discern in a tsunami of information masking as connectivity.

Relationships – real relationships – take time. Values cannot be communicated in a text. They must be demonstrated and deeply rooted in lived narrative. Stories that carry relevance cannot be well-told in synopsis. Opinions are so easy to tweet. Dreck is easy to fling. It is not the capacity to share that we lose in the crush. It is not connection. It’s the capacity to be present. With presence comes the capacity to listen. Presence is not in a hurry to be some other place.

Rich connectivity requires more than quick consumption of information. Sharing, real sharing, the kind beyond pressing a “send” button, is a two-way street between people who have the time to invest in each other. Once, it was called relationship.

TM;CL. Too much. Can’t listen.

read Kerri’s blogpost about TL;DR

Take Note [on DR Thursday]

Although it may not be at first apparent, this is a map for product development. A single stout stalk that supports shoots of replication that explode in support features. One clear central intention. Multiple expressions that return nutrient to the stalk.

Although it may not be at first apparent, this is a map for healthy community. A single stout story stalk that supports shoots of replication, diverse paths that explode in seeming individual expression. One clear central narrative. Multiple expressions sending sunlight back to the root.

Who hasn’t seen the time-lapse films of plants growing, forms expressing and then retreating, the accelerated motion of people commuting on a city street, what seems like chaos is, at speed, cooperation. Those people on the street in real time, walking to work, a to-do list on their mind, are mostly unaware of their symphony of togetherness.

It’s easy to forget the stout stalk when standing at the individual expression point. I have been witness to the demise of many organizations who turn against the stalk in favor of the feature. For instance, the fastest way to kill a non-profit organization is to attempt make it run like a for-profit business. It will forget its story-stalk and lose its heart and mind in a spreadsheet.

The quickest way to destroy a community is for its branches to forget that they are individual expressions of a single stout story. They are not separate as much as extensions. To focus on the multiple tiny expressions as if each small branch is a stand-alone truth is absurdity-creation. Chaos masked as convention. Inverted, the plant dies.

In our literature we are riddled with advice to turn toward nature. Existential crisis? Lost? Go to the meadow, find the woods, take a hike. Get quiet. We go there because…we are there. Alan Watts wrote,”We don’t come into the world, we come out of it.” We are not separate from the stalk; we are expressions of it. Occasionally, the map to sanity that we seek is hiding in plain sight dressed as a platitude. Go to nature. You cannot do otherwise. Realize it.

When I’m running abstract questions of design in my dreams, I know it’s time to take a walk. It’s time to stop, look around, take note of nature’s design, the perfection of a plant. A perfect yoga, branch-fingers reaching for the sun, root-fingers reaching deep into soil.

read Kerri’s blogpost about PARSNIPS

sam the poet, 48×48 (painted and sold a long time ago)

sam the poet © 2004 david robinson

Imagine The Possibilities! [on Two Artists Tuesday]

Mastering others is strength. Mastering yourself is true power.” ~ Lao Tzu

I’ve had this quote sitting on my desktop for months. I’ve been on a Lao Tzu kick, a Kurt Vonnegut kick, a Rainier Maria Rilke kick…all at the same time. They are, not surprisingly, in alignment on many topics, among them self-mastery. “The secret?” they whisper. “Stop trying to control what other people think or see or feel and, instead, take care of what you think and see and feel.” Their metaphoric trains may approach the self-mastery station from different directions but the arrival platform is the same.

It’s a universal recognition: take the log out of your own eye.

Sometimes a penny drops more than once and so it is with Saul’s advice to me. “Look beyond the opponent to the field of possibilities.” “And, just what does that mean?” you may shout at your screen. It sounds like new-age hoo-haw.

Ghandi said, “Nonviolence is the weapon of the strong.” It is the height of self-mastery to bring ideas to the table rather than a gun. It is the height of self-mastery to bring to the commons good intention and an honest desire to work with others to make life better for all. Power is never self-generated but is something created between people. Power is distinctly different than control. Power endures since it does not reside within a single individual. Power lives, as Saul reminded me again and again, not in throwing an opponent but in helping the opponent throw themself. “Focus on the possibilities,” he said again and again. Throw yourself to the ground often enough and, one day, it occurs that there may be another way.

Work with and not against. It seems so simple. The bulb hovering over my cartoon head lights-up. Work with yourself, too, and not against. Place your eyes in the field of all possibilities. Obstacles are great makers of resistance, energy eddies and division. Possibilities are expansive, dissolvers of divisiveness.

I am writing this on the Sunday that Christians celebrate their resurrection. The day that “every man/woman for him/herself” might possibly and-at-last-transform into “I am my brothers/sisters keeper.” All that is required for this rebirth is a simple change of focus; a decision to master one’s self instead of the never ending violent attempt to exercise control over others.

It’s the single message, the popcorn trail left for us by all the great teachers. Instead of fighting with others, master yourself. Imagine the possibilities!

read Kerri’s blogpost about THE CEILING LIGHT

Care For Your Space [on Not So Flawed Wednesday]

It seems like such a simple concept. Tom taught it. So did Paul. And, since I was one of their students, I taught it, too. How you treat your space is a reflection of what you think of your art. The concept is universal. Replace the word “art” with “work” or “life.” You and your space are not separate. We worked hard at the theatre to become better artists and produce better plays and a significant part of that work was bettering and maintaining our artistic “home.” We were proud of our work and it showed -everywhere. Our “space” included our community and our art was meant to make it better.

Yesterday it was warm so we took a walk on a favorite loop. As we returned to the car we watched a man clean out his truck. He’d come to the park, not to walk or appreciate the quiet. His purpose was to dump his trash onto the paved lot. In an earlier time, pre-gun-gun-everywhere, we might have said something. Instead, we stared in disbelief. His space,I thought, does not extend beyond his truck. Neither does his community.

Yesterday, after the walk I received a text from Mike. He was a big part of my long-ago theatre. He’s realizing a dream and opening his own theatre. He’s led a company for a few decades but they didn’t have their own space. Now, they do. He – the artistic director – was mopping the floor and paused to send me a text. It’s the other part of the lesson from Tom and Paul. And Demarcus. And Quinn. There’s no hierarchy. There’s no above and below. Loving the space, loving the art that happens in the space: no separation. One and the same for everyone involved and everyone needs to be involved.

You and your space are not separate. The care you take of your outer space is equal to the care you give to your inner space. And, vice-versa.

[visit Justin’s to see how a company can make a better world]

read Kerri’s blogpost about NEAT EARTH

Porch Sit [on KS Friday]

Quinn used to say that two things ruined western civilization: salad bars (serve yourself) and attached garages. “It all went south when we started inviting our cars into our homes,” he mused. To his list I might add air conditioners. Porch-sitting and the neighborhood evening promenade, with accompanying neighbor conversations, went away with the invention of cool indoor air. Imagine what we might be able to solve if we actually talked to each other on a regular basis. Imagine what nonsense might dissipate if we pulled our heads out of the television and, instead, strolled the neighborhood to see what was going on.

We look for porches. And, when we don’t have one, we create it. I knew I would be with Kerri forever because (among other things) she had two Adirondack chairs sitting in the grass outside the front door of her house. Early in out time together, we sat out front, sipped wine, and waved and chatted with people walking by. She’s dedicated to greater things than cold-air comfort.

When we travel, our airbnb’s almost always have porches. A porch is on the list of requirements. It never fails. The porches in our travels are always sources of good stories, special moments, new friendships. They are not magic. They were invented for peace and polite conversation. They are liminal spaces, both public and private. People wave and greet each other. People stop and chat – even for a moment. You can learn a lot about a new place by sitting on the porch and asking a local carrying a pizza where the good food is to be found (a true story). People like to share what they know.

As Skip reminded us yesterday, people write things on Facebook or other social media that they’d never say otherwise. I think there’s a lot of that going around these days. Forums for ugliness. I’m certain it’s nothing that a good porch and an evening constitutional couldn’t cure.

time together/this part of the journey is available on iTunes or streaming on Pandora

read Kerri’s blog post about PORCHES

time together/this part of the journey © 1997 kerri sherwood

Look Down [on DR Thursday]

To all the rugged individualists out there living under the grand illusion that you are blazing a new trail, I have only one thing to say: look down. Someone has been there before you. It’s why there’s a path. And, more to the point, someone – a crew of someones – worked very hard to make and maintain the trail you now tread. It’s true in the forest. It’s true in the big-bad city. Every time we flick a switch and the lights come on it might not be a bad idea to recognize how many people were – and are – involved in the maintenance of our comfort and our self-reliance-fantasies.

On the Pink Bed trail there’s a boardwalk that elevates hikers over the swampy sections. I stopped in utter admiration at the section that took a hard left. Someone – a crew of someones – spent a long time making my corner not only easy to walk but beautiful. Certainly there are more efficient ways to build a turn in a boardwalk and they could have chosen any number of simpler solutions but they didn’t. They took the time to make their work functional, sturdy, AND aesthetic.

Daniel was building a house on the lake. He only builds one a year these days, mostly for fun. He invited us in. Far from being finished, the craftsmanship was exposed. The joints were meticulous. The lumber he chose was solid. The materials mattered. There was beauty in the structure and he was proud to point out the love taken in every step, even the roughest stage of the build. The eventual buyers would never see or know the care alive behind the drywall. They might never fathom the depth of effort and design involved in making their comfort – their triumphant lake home – a possibility.

Horatio and I talk often of the deep philosophical divide in these un-united-united-states. The every-man/woman-for-him/herself camp is at odds with the I-am-my-brother/sisters-keeper folks. I understand the appeal of the self-made-man/woman story but I also recognize it to be mostly a fantasy. Sir Edmund Hillary understood that standing atop Everest, celebrated as the first, was only made possible by the efforts of hundreds of Sherpa, months of expedition planning by John Hunt and team, financing, travel arrangements, government officials, 8 previous unsuccessful expeditions, and the good graces and guidance of Tensing Norgay.

We’d be better off if periodically we stopped and simply looked down.

read Kerri’s blog post about the BOARDWALK

prayer of opposites © 2003-4 david robinson

Make A Small Choice [on Merely A Thought Monday]

When we saw the sign planted on the side of the road – and then another, and another – we wondered what inspired the message and the movement. We were not surprised to learn that the community had recently experienced a cluster of teen suicides. The signs were a message to their young people, a love letter to their children.

The WHO reports that more than 700,000 people die by suicide every year. That’s more people than die by homicide or war combined. Even as I write this I am startled at how antiseptic a statistic can make hopelessness. The data of despair.

The signs appeared on the roadside because the violence-of-hopelessness had faces and names and addresses. And parents. And teachers. And friends. People moved, they pulled together. The threat transcended the numb data and became personal. They needed to talk. They needed to grieve together. They had no idea what to do so they made signs: you matter.

I thought a lot about those signs during our long drive home. Campaigns for change most often fail. They lose steam. They dissolve into abstraction. Behavior cannot be legislated. The messages we receive in the media are mostly violent. Ask most people about a blow to their self-esteem and you’ll hear a specific story. A moment of bullying, a glancing blow that altered the trajectory of their life one degree but, over time and distance, that small degree of violence made a huge difference.

In the same fashion, tiny acts of kindness, one small gestures of support, can send titanic ripples throughout a lifetime.

On the road, there was a distinct message sent to us by the people that roared up behind us, flashing their lights, riding our bumper. There was an entirely different message sent to us by the people who slowed their speed to let us in the lane of traffic. Small choices. Tiny moments. We are humans and learn to respond in kind.

Each day an opportunity. Each moment a choice. When we truly believe what the signs say, we will make certain that in small ways and large, it will be a priority to instill in each and every heart the message that they are worth more than they know. No one arrives at despair by themselves. No one arrives at hope by themselves.

I believe we actually do know what to do. It might begin with a sign or a curriculum but real hope – the intentional creation of worth – will shine through millions of small choices, communities dedicated to filling each and every day with tiny moments of support.

read Kerri’s blog post about WORTH

Laugh With It [on Merely A Thought Monday]

Yesterday we celebrated an anniversary. Nine years ago we spoke on the phone for the first time. An offer of a free coaching call changed both of our lives. Kerri said, “Just think, we talked on the phone nine years ago and all hell broke loose.” I laughed. Her comment was, above all things, an understatement. Our road together has been both magical and tumultuous.

This season we are sitting on the cusp of the new. Appropriately, before turning our eyes to what’s-next, we’ve been looking back, sense-making what-was. We’re cleaning out. Making sense of the past is making space for the future. More than once I’ve said to myself, “If I knew then what I know now, I would never have had that problem. Or made that mess. Or tolerated that situation.”

What do I know now that I did not know then? Things are messy. Most of the ogres I fought existed nowhere but in my head. Some did not, but what was true of the imagined variety, the tangible ogres also were not worth fighting. “Take nothing personally” tops the list of “best-advice-ever.” Number two on the list is “Make no assumptions.” People are crappy. I’ve been crappy. People are great. I’ve been great. That’s pretty much true of everyone so a bit of grace and understanding goes a long way.

Burned into the things-I-know-now, way beyond a Facebook platitude, is this: life is as short as this moment so it’s best to appreciate everyone you love in this moment. For us, 2021 was the year of water but also it was a year of loss. Our sweet BabyCat left us quite suddenly. Our dear H passed in the summer. Peter died. We learned that Lance died, too young. My dad passed in September. And Ruby followed not long after. There are so many things I wish I’d said or done for Ruby. There were tug-of-wars that I had with my dad – that ate up months of life – that seem utterly silly to me, now.

The boxes that are coming out of my inner-attic are stuffed with the-need-to-be-right. Justifications. Explanations. Control fantasies. Armor. They are quite heavy and I am relieved to be tossing them into the bin.

I hope I am turning my face to see what Quinn knew and tried to teach me. Relationship is a messy business. No one knows what they are doing. There’s abundant love in all of it and it’s made visible when you choose to laugh with it rather than fight with it. The important stuff is lost or found in the very heart of the mess.

read Kerri’s blog post about MESSY

Sing Red! [on Not So Flawed Wednesday]

We were awake much of the night so we ate bananas and talked. Our conversation rambled over miles and covered acres of territory. In the wee-hours, Kerri explained to me the compositional elements of a symphony, the placement of a solo in a piece, and the foundational support offered by the other instruments. In other words, it takes a village to raise a solo.

There’s a famous story of Leonardo Da Vinci, paintbrush in hand, staring all day at his mural-in-progress. Finally, after hours of staring, he approached the wall and added to his composition a single brushstroke. If you are a painter you understand that the story is not about the single brushstroke but where it was placed. Color lives or dies relative to other color. Leonardo spent his day assessing relationships.

We are new gardeners. It may seem silly to expert growers, those who’ve been around the farm a time or two, that through the fall, we jumped out of bed every morning, ran to the kitchen, to see our cherry tomatoes. When we pulled the plants at the frost, the vines were laden with green tomatoes. Not to worry, Kerri told me; put the little green orbs together in a sack (ours landed in Tupperware and never left because we delighted in watching them) and they will make the journey to red. They’d help each other to ripen. And so it was. Each day the palette changed until, one day, the entire tomato choir sang red. I am filled with wonder.

It is a cliche’ that every great journey begins with a single step. A single step and lots of encouragement. A single step and a team of support. Explorers need financing. Too often we place the accent on the single player and ignore the symphony. We get a big kick out of the crowds of individuals standing in line to stand atop of Mt. Everest, thrusting their hands like Rocky Balboa in the very-thin-air, playing conquerer of the mountain, forgetting that a Sherpa carried their gear, set up their tent, cooked their food, set their ropes, tended their wounds, warmed their tea, hauled away their waste and sometimes carried their bodies back down when they couldn’t make the round trip.

No one walks this walk alone. Individualism is like Leonardo’s brushstroke: it only works if it furthers community, when it makes life better for all. How’s that for a paradox!

We are tomatoes, all. Green and small by ourselves. But when brought together in our little Tupperware crossroads, red, red, red, red, red!

read Kerri’s blog post about TOMATOES!