Look To The Living Thing

my latest, as yet un-named, painting

Kerri looked at this painting and told me it captures how she feels when our daughter is hurting and calls home. “Describe that feeling to me?” I asked. She pointed to the painting, and said, “Just like that.”

Some things are universal and understood regardless of political affiliation or religious belief. What does a mother need to know to support her child? The political investments and religious doctrines are abstractions, separations. Motherhood is direct; it lives beyond the capacity of language to capture and articulate. It is the impulse to unity. It transcends all divisions. It knows nothing of conceptions like the rational and irrational.

Jim and I just had one of our famous phone calls. Our discussion romped through many fields but we returned again and again to the notion that the important things in life cannot be rushed. For instance, relationship takes time. Relationship takes attention and tending. It is fluid and dynamic so it is nearly impossible to slap a single word-label on it. It changes. It grows. In a single day it can pass through many descriptors. Dog-Dog can drive me crazy in one moment and melt my heart the next. The important stuff, like relationship, is not static or containable. It is not a concept. It is a living thing.

So What?

The best language can do is point to the living. Language can describe experience but can never be experience. Language, of necessity, reduces while the important stuff – like relationship – like love – expands. Language, as a tool of abstraction, can never be true. It can only point toward truth. Language separates. Truth is like relationship. Truth is a living thing, dynamic and changing. To be known, it must, like motherhood, be experienced directly.

Again, so what?

Direct experience is always (obviously) personal. Truth is not so easily captured. Is it exclusively liberal or conservative? Is it Christian? Buddhist? Is it unique to Islam, Judaism, or the Tao? Leave the city lights some night, take a good long look at the stars, and realize what you are staring into.

Last week we rushed 20 to the hospital. He couldn’t breathe. He walked to the edge of the abyss and looked into it. We watched him teeter on the edge. As we watched, all other concerns, pursuits, bills, frustrations, news,…, dropped away. The stuff of separations and abstractions went to dust in the face of the actual. Ask me what I experienced watching 20 grasp for life? There are no words. Ask him what he experienced in those long hours and he will shrug his shoulders. There are no words – but it is clear in his eyes.

The important stuff, the stuff beyond words, leaps the boundaries of separation and abstraction; all else falls away. The important stuff always leads to a universal place, a common ground. It is a beautiful paradox.  As a test, try this: if language can reach it, ask this very important and often absent question: Is it really true or merely another entrenched point of view?

a detail

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

 

Listen To Randi

a detail from my latest painting in progress

a detail from my latest painting-in-progress

Randi is wise. Though, like all truly wise souls, she is completely unaware of her wisdom. She knows that she takes great delight in learning new things. She knows that her curiosity is boundless. She knows beyond the platitude of the sentiment that each new day is an opportunity to renew. Each new day is a step into unknown territory and, for Randi, there is no sense in taking timid steps. There is no sense in trying to make the day fit into a preconceived “normal.” There is no sense in watching the dance. Dance!

She squeals with pleasure when she hears a word used beautifully. “I am a lover of words!” she exclaims. She knows that words are powerful and when used beautifully will define beautiful experiences. She uses her words to define life beautifully. And, because she understands the power of words – and the brevity of life, she also understands the imperative of telling others what they mean to her. She has no problem expressing love.

another detail

another detail

We took a rare opportunity to see her, swinging north to Buffalo after traveling to Boston to celebrate Thanksgiving with Craig and Dan. At dinner, we talked of new relationships and new work and new phases of life. We talked of the necessity of creating balance amidst the tug and push of this fast moving life-river. Randi smiled, “I once heard someone speak about attempting to balance life and they said something that changed how I see it. They said that when yearning to balance the many aspects of our lives it is most often not balance we seek! It’s integration! Rather than try to bring all these separate pieces of life into a balancing act, why not integrate them into a unified whole!” She clapped her hands as if having the revelation all over again. “It’s integration, wholeness that we desire!”

Wholeness is another word for presence, and presence is the goal of the performers’ art. Quinn, another wise person, used to tell me that all spiritual teachings speak of finding the middle way, the path between poles or opposites. “Zealots miss the point!” he’d say. Life is not found in the extremes, in the separations, in the fragmented, or the isolationist’s dream. Those are aims of the controller. The rule bound. The real balancing comes in the letting go. As Randi reminded us, it is found in the integration, the middle way, the whole.

the whole

the whole painting as of 12.1.16

 

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Let’s Be Us

a detail from my painting, May You Be

a detail from my painting, May You Be

[continued from Put Down The Hammer]

It is night and I am sitting alone in the sanctuary. I’ve been setting up chairs for a performance and now that the job is complete I’m taking a moment to savor the silence and review this day.

The temperatures have been unseasonably warm and when I opened the back door this morning for Tripper Dog-Dog-Dog I was greeted by the sound of birds singing. It was an April sound in the middle of December. I was so taken by the sound that I called Kerri, “Come and listen to this!” We stood in the doorway for many minutes. It was beautiful as well as a little disconcerting. “El Niño or global warming?” I asked.

Arnie wrote a comment to my last post. He asked: Can it be that we don’t want the ‘we’ in our society – we aren’t comfortable with the ‘we’ and only feel our identity by living out the “us and them”? I am an idealist but, of course, he is right. David Berreby wrote a terrific book called, Us and Them. We are hardwired to perceive the world through a lens of Us and Them. It’s a survival imperative to distinguish between friend and foe. However, a point that is most salient to me: the delineation of Us is mutable. It is not a fixed state but largely circumstantial. That is especially true in this modern age. There is an out of fashion phrase used to describe these United States: a melting pot. There could not be a better metaphor for an ever fluid definition of US. We need not melt but we do need to acknowledge that we are in the same pot. “Give us your tired, your hungry, your poor,…” is central to our national identity (not always central to our national rhetoric) and is a sacred, central statement of an ever-changing US.

We are among the first humans in history to have the pleasure of seeing our planet Earth from space and, as it has been said, from space there are no visible borders. The definition of US depends upon how far out we pull the camera. From space WE are the human race. There are a bevy of alien invasion movies that carry a common theme: when attacked WE inhabitants of Earth will pull together. Or, said another way, until there is a THEM that invades from another planet, WE will be incapable of recognizing full inclusion in the Earth pot.

To Arnie’s point, there is a lot of responsibility that comes with WE. A few months ago, Kerri and I were in Chicago for the day and passed a homeless man, holding a filthy cardboard sign asking for help. He was young, in his early 20’s, and more filthy than his sign. He was suffering. We walked by him. On the train home we had a long conversation about our responsibility to that young man or to any member of our community that is suffering. Many years ago I was with a student group in Bali. We were invited to Udayana University and one member of our group gave a talk about homelessness in America. Our Balinese hosts were shocked. “How could a member of your community be without a home?” they asked. The concept was abhorrent to them, unthinkable. “You are the wealthiest people on Earth…,” they stammered. Later, a Balinese professor said to me, “When you came here today, we wanted to be like you Americans. As you leave, we are proud to be Balinese.”

Us. Them. We. Like me. Not like me. Me. Little words with far-reaching impact. I am not the same person I was only a few years ago. I find it infinitely hopeful – especially now – that, just like me, the delineation of US is mutable, ever changing. It begs the question, Who are WE? And, to another of Arnie’s points, the answer to the question depends upon where we decide to place our focus.

Change They to We

photo-2

the next step in my painting, The Weeping Man. He’s nearly complete

The word that’s captured my recent attention is the word “they.” I’m captivated by language choices that might at first seem insignificant but, once unpacked, are profound. “They” is one of those words.

“They” caught my attention when 20 was making us dinner. His recipe included fennel and, until we googled it, we thought anise and fennel were the same thing. While we Googled for truth, Kerri asked, “Why would they name something twice?”

“Good question!” I replied and then asked, “Who are ‘they?'”

“Good question!” she echoed as the Google oracle brought us clarity about our fennel/anise confusion (as it turns out they are two different plants). Google was not very useful in clarifying who “they” were.

So, this week I listened for samples. Some of what I heard: “Why would they do that?” (a conversation about women in another culture). “They don’t care about us.” (what else, politics). “Don’t you think they cause their own problems?” (referring to a situation in a local minority community).

“They” can be a word of distancing, a word of exclusion. If you want to mess with the meaning, simply change the pronoun. For instance: why would we do that? We don’t we care about us. Don’t you thing we cause our own problems? “We” is inclusive. “We” makes us participants. “We” makes us culpable.

a detail of Weeping Man.

a detail of Weeping Man.

What if, in our current state of mis-education for instance, we stopped asking about our policy makers, “What are they doing?” And, instead, asked, “What are we doing?” What kind of action or meaningful discussion might ensue if we simply refused to use the word “they?” What if, as artists, we stopped asking, “Why don’t they get it?” and instead asked, “What don’t we get?” Artists do not create in a vacuum. Our expression might be individual and unique but without a community to receive, debate, appreciate, revile and otherwise engage it, has little purpose. After all, “they” are “we” if our language will allow us to see it.

the previous photo/stage I posted

the previous photo/stage I posted

Experience The Miracle

From the archives: Pidgeon Pier. This painting is about paying attention

From the archives: Pidgeon Pier. This painting is about paying attention

“It has become my view–my faith–that all elements of nature have that power to produce peace. It is surely why so many are drawn away from their urban lives and back to natural places. But those places need not be grand scenic vistas. The same peace can be found in the dandelion growing in the nearest vacant city lot.

It is, in the end, a choice either to “shut up and listen” to these sources of strength–no matter how great or humble or where we encounter them–or to hurry on by.”

~Master Jim Marsh in a comment about my post, Sit By The River

There was a cool breeze off the lake this morning that slowed the mounting humidity. We were a mile into our usual morning walk, rounding the path to the rocky lakeshore, when we entered the storm of dragonflies. There were hundreds of them, hovering just above our heads, occupying a narrow band that stretched as far as the eye could see!

I gasped and stopped! Never in my life had I seen so many dragonflies. Kerri said, “They come out when the weather has been hot and without rain.” Before continuing on our way, we stood for a few moments appreciating the hovering, the methodical zigging-and-zagging. Until our path deviated from the coast, they were with us, green and purple spirits, riding the air-line where earth meets water. For me it was pure magic.

Many years ago, as a way of ending our relationship, a woman told me that it was too hard to be with a mystic. I’d never before (or since) thought of myself as a mystic so I looked it up to make sure I understood why a mystic might not be easy to live with:

Mystic (noun): a follower of mysticism.
Mysticism (noun):
1. Belief in intuitive spiritual revelation,
2. Spiritual system,
3. Confused and vague ideas.

I laughed aloud when I read the three definitions of mysticism; the third definition applied to the previous two! I left my dictionary with two beliefs:

  1. All human beings are mystics if they simply slow down and pay attention. There’s no trick to it. And, that was certainly the problem in my relationship: I have always liked walking slowly in a world drunk on racing to the next big thing. That is hard to live with!
  2. The line between a spiritual revelation, a cathartic experience, a scientific eureka, or an artistic visit from the muse, seems to me, to be semantic. In our age of the intellect we generally run from the word intuition unless we apply a label like “gut instinct” (transforming a feminine energy to a masculine gut) or “I just knew it!” (transforming the scary clarity of an intuitive feeling into a safe clarity of an intellectual experience). It’s all wordplay.

Hearts know. Thoughts babble. And the only way to sort it all out is to stand still, stop the babbling, and see the miracle.

Make It So

Pasta. Meat sauce. Warm Bread. Wine.

Pasta. Arugula salad. Wine.

Tripper Dog-Dog-Dog knows the world through his nose. He sniffs everything. It is not uncommon after we finish a meal to come face-to-muzzle with a scent-curious Dog-Dog. Lately, as the objects of his sniffer, we’re given to staring into his amber eyes and offering the menu, saying something like, “Pasta. Arugula salad. Red wine,” or “English muffin. Peanut butter with black cherry jam. Banana. Coffee.” Satisfied with our description, he moves on to the next smell-enticing investigation.

I delight in our Dog-Dog food reports. They’ve become commonplace and matter of fact; “Chocolate chip cookie. Espresso.” Our reports never contain qualifiers, so, for instance, we never say, “A great chocolate chip cookie. Delicious espresso.” We provide the minimum, the noun.

Our Dog-Dog reports have rekindled an age-old fascination of mine: the power of words, specifically, the enormous power of the labels we attach to our experiences.

Language is a sword that cuts both ways. It can liberate and it can imprison. The difference is in how it is used. Language is the primary tool we use to make meaning. Big magic happens the day a person realizes that meaning is not something that is found, rather, it is something that is given and it is given the moment we apply a word-label to an experience. Nothing is good/bad, hard/easy until our label makes it so.

Applying a label to an experience is an act of creation. It is not passive. Take note of the word-judgments you apply to yourself or to others. For a week make a game of flipping them over and applying the label “beautiful” to where you usually apply a judgment. So, for instance, instead of, “I am fat,” why not say to your self, “I am beautiful.” Both are labels. One imprisons while the other liberates. The difference is a single word.

The label determines the possibilities we see (or don’t see). In a past life I used to facilitate organizational change and I came understand that my role was to help my clients ask better questions (use different language). They always came to the table with a “how” question: how do we change without feeling any discomfort? Response: what might you see if you stopped pre-labeling what you might feel as “discomfort?”

The mantra: have the experience first, make meaning second. And then, recognize the great capacity and opportunity you have to make meaning. Why not make a better meaning? Why not take a step and let it be a step merely?

Try this: do the Dog-Dog and, for one week, eliminate the qualifiers so that nothing is good or bad or right or wrong. It just is because you choose to make it so.