What Would You Give? [on Not So Flawed Wednesday]

tim lake box copy

At the end of his life, Tom told me that, when reviewing his time on this earth, what he most valued, what made his life rich, was not the triumphant play openings or any achievement, title, or status symbol that he’d accumulated. It was the ordinary moments, the infinitely unimportant moments that gave color and shape to his story. Sitting on the porch with his aunt Bunty. Teaching his second grade class. Burning trash with his grandfather. As a boy, racing across the unplowed fields.

It sounds like a cliché’, doesn’t it? We hear it over and over again but rarely heed the wisdom. It is in the ordinary that the extraordinary is found. Pay special attention to the utterly normal and life will burst open and flow.

The film ABOUT TIME has ascended to the top of my favorites list. We watched it more than a few times this week. The quote says it all. Live everyday as if it was the final day in this extraordinary, ordinary life. It reads like a cliché’.

And yet, a few weeks ago I stared into my father’s eyes, and for a few moments he did not know who I was. Dementia is leading him away. I know that soon there will come a day when he will not come back. On that day, what might I give to simply sit and have a chat with my dad? Something so ordinary. Something beyond price.

 

read Kerri’s blog post about LIVING EVERYDAY

 

flipflopelevator website box copy

 

Step Back

On the desk there is a wire and wood sculpture of a crow, a flour sifter stuffed with colored pencils, a little tiny picnic basket containing the sisu phone, a plant from Jen, a hanging jar holding rocks and crystals, stacks of paper and notebooks – each representing a project that is in motion, pens and pencils galore, three pink post-it notes with “right,” “left,” and “a gift from me to 2 U! Pass it on!” written on them. There is also a weathered orange post-it note by the computer with this much treasured-phrase: “I Love You, My D.Dot.” If I had to surrender all of my worldly possessions except for one, I would choose to keep the orange post-it note.photo

On Friday afternoon we will help John hang a memorial art show of his father’s paintings. It is how his dad wanted his life to be celebrated. As I was in the studio painting this morning I thought that, someday, someone might do the same for me. I wondered who might think to celebrate my life with a show of my paintings. Who might read some of what I have written? And, what if all that matters in this world can be expressed on a single orange post-it note? What if it is not the paintings or the books or plays – the things I produced? What if all that really matters is if I paid attention and loved mightily during the time allotted me? What more do I need than to have lived a life that warranted an orange post-it note?

Last night we had a band rehearsal in the sanctuary. I stepped away from Kerri, Jim, and John (the real musicians) and walked to the back of the sanctuary so I could listen to the song. It was gorgeous and they were unaware of how gorgeous it was – of how gorgeous they were. They were simply working. I was captured by the moment. I literally ached with how full and rich was the moment. I simply could not believe the depth of my good fortune. Kerri sang, Jim and John played, and I cried with the power of it all.

The moment was ordinary for them, extraordinary for me – and isn’t that always the way? The extraordinary is always waiting in the ordinary, in the post-it note, in the rehearsal, in the person passing you on the street, in the hard choice, making a meal, the sigh of the Dog-Dog in the middle of the night? Isn’t this very notion – opening the extraordinary hiding in the ordinary – the reason we live and make art? Isn’t the real practice of the artist simply a matter of stepping back so we might see it – and then share what we see?

Capture The Essence

Dog-Dog and treasure

Dog-Dog and treasure

Tripper Dog-Dog-Dog gathers his stuff around him. He has two stinky blankets that he pulls from his crate each morning, a red Kong, a blue chew bone with a handy looped rope pull, another blue toy that once looked like a jack but has been chewed beyond recognition, a once-stuffed moose from Josh that is now an unrecognizable shredded mess though he carries it around as if it was precious cargo. There is also a muddy tennis ball, a raw hide bone and usually a sock pilfered from my sock basket. If Kerri and I shift locations within the house, move from the living room to the sun room, Dog-Dog’s worldly possessions will slowly migrate with us. He is subtle and I rarely see the migration in progress; I suddenly realize that I am sitting within a nest of Dog-Dog treasure.

My favorite section in The Lost Boy is a series of questions that Tom asked: 1) if you were given a cardboard box and it was all that was going to be allowed to provide proof that you walked on this earth, what would you put in your box? 2) Beyond proof, what would you put in the box that captured the essence of who you were, that distinguished you from all the others? 3)What are the collections, the things you gather around you that are somehow supposed to tell others who you are? These questions might seem simple but are surprisingly complex. How does your stuff tell the story of who you are? Or, a better question: does your stuff define you? Can your stuff – your car, your house, your granite counter tops, your clothes, your jewelry,…, – capture your essence?

Tom asked two other related and relevant questions: In packing your box, would you be tempted to scrub your life of its messiness? Would you try to eliminate the mundane, the everyday? Would you throw away your rough drafts? Would you ignore the relationships that didn’t work out? Would you explain away the ugliness, the ruthless choices? Would you burn your personal journals so that the future might never glimpse your doubt, your struggles, your frailty?

I would add these questions: What if your essence was only available to you once you value the messiness? What if, in throwing away the mundane, you actually eliminate what is truly special about you? I’ve often taught and touted a tenet from improvisational theatre: drop your clever and pick up your ordinary – most of us diminish/neglect our greatest gifts because we label them as ordinary. They come naturally to us so we don’t always recognize them. In trying so hard to be clever, to be right, to be flawless,…to be other, we regularly overlook the real treasure and relegate ourselves to that most shameful pile labeled ‘ordinary.’

Scrubbing life to a sterile, conflict-less blandness is a recipe for….boredom and, at the end of the day, a very uninteresting box. Of this I am certain: if Dog-Dog had to pack his box today, I would be proud to sit amidst the stinky blankets, blue bones and remnants of moose toy. Dog-Dog hides none of his messiness.

 

What Do You Value?

One of the windows by Max Ingrand at Saint Pierre de Montmarte

One of the windows by Max Ingrand at Saint Pierre de Montmarte

What has value? What has merit?

Or, here’s a better question: What is value? What is merit?

During our travels I looked at a lot of art and architecture from across the centuries and across many different cultures. There is a very old church, Saint Pierre of Montmarte, one of the oldest in Paris, seated adjacent to Sacre Coeur high on the hill overlooking the city. This ancient church has been outfitted with stained glass windows, designed by Max Ingrand, that I can only describe as cubist. The collision of ancient church and modern window is breathtaking and perfect. The windows were so beautiful (to me) that they brought tears to my eyes. It was hard for me to leave the church as I was so taken by the windows yet I was also aware of the number of people moving through that were not impacted at all. Later, I entered Sacre Coeur and felt nothing. To me, it was impressive, impersonal, and left me cold – yet I watched others catch their breath with its scope and grandeur. They were moved to tears.

Is value purely personal and subjective?

I remember listening to a recorded lecture by Joseph Campbell. He said that you could tell what a society valued by the buildings constructed in the city center. For centuries, churches occupied the village center. Financial institutions occupy our village/value center. Is value an agreement? Is it a focal point of worship? Take a gander at the titles in the local bookstore and you will find that money, morality, spirituality, and success are odd bedfellows. Is a good life richly lived demarcated by the size of a bank account? Tourists in the distant future will visit the holy sites occupying our village center and read placards about what we valued.

Near Sacre Coeur is the cemetery at Montmartre. We descended the hill to the cemetery and walked the paths through the monuments and graves. They fascinate me. They are essences, value statements distilled to a thick concentrate of marble and stone. There are angels and gargoyles, draped figures in repose and riders of the apocalypse. There are statements: loving father, devoted mother. There are roles: composer, writer, soldier, painter, baker, philosopher, politician. The famous are interred next to the ordinary. In a cemetery, all lives are even. Standing amidst the graves I see lives lived, dreams dreamed and realized or unrealized, and I wonder what each person valued during their allotment of days, and what they valued on the very last day.

Value is relative and passing? An extraordinary moment, when conscious, is valuable.

This is from Rumi: Spirit is so mixed with the visible world that giver, gift, and beneficiary are one thing. You are the grace raining down; the grace is you.

Value is grace? You? What surrounds you?

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Make It Ordinary

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A midnight train, an early morning taxi, and a day at the Denver airport. Trains, planes and automobiles followed by a light rail into downtown Seattle and then a ferry to Bainbridge Island. I think in a single 24-hour period I will have only skipped submarine and hot air balloon as viable transportation options, though Judy reminded me that I had not yet traveled by camel. And, the day is not over yet so I knock on wood. These days I can make no assumptions about what the next moment will bring.

The benefit of riding on the rails, in the cab and on the concourse is that I’m very productive in transit. I’m a bit shocked at how focused I can be when rocking across Colorado in the dead of night or in the midst of thousands of noisy airport travelers by day. I finished the first true draft of the book. I caught up on emails (mostly). I untangled a banking knot, I made lists and all the while I watched the amazing dramas that unfold in an airport. I talked with Horatio and Diane and Megan. I had a text fest and toasted k.erle with a great cup of java. Judy played her harp for me just before midnight and it was among my favorite experiences all day.

I’m aware of the varied and glorious textures of this day. The amazing palettes of colors of this life are available if we only choose to see them. I saw the sunrise over the plains. I watched hundreds of small kindnesses and acts of generosity. Many were unknown to the recipient. A man pulled luggage off the train for an elderly couple. A woman quietly helped a young mother herd her children through security, doors were opened for baggage laden travelers, bus drivers waited for tardy riders, a barista left her post to give directions to a lost man and all the people queued for coffee stepped out of line to help.

And think about it – it was just a day like any other day. And, no day will ever be like this one. Little generosities swirl around us. The sunrise will never be the same as it was today; it was not like any other and the same will be true tomorrow. We have the capacity to see. We have the capacity to place our focus wherever we choose. The life we experience is a direct result of what we choose to see, where we choose to stand, how we choose to interpret and what we choose to celebrate. The day can be ordinary or extraordinary and the only difference is what we decide to perceive. Why not make the extraordinary ordinary?