Dance Without Effort

my mud-slog

my mud-slog

Last night I painted badly and I did it intentionally. I went down into the cool of the basement studio to escape the heat and humidity. A new canvas was stapled to the wall, gessoed and ready to go. I picked up my brushes, squeezed paint onto the palette and began working.

Many years ago I made the switch from oils to acrylics because the fumes were making me ill. It was a happy accident. Acrylics required me to work fast and fast meant I had no time to think. I learned by default that I am a much better artist when I’m not laboring over the details. Sometimes the process feels like an invocation. Sometimes the process feels like a rolling mess that morphs and morphs until the final moment when, like focusing a telescope, the image becomes crystal clear.

My paintings are generally big. They demand a full-body engagement, painting-as-dance. I know I am working well when I lose track of time, when the dance overtakes me, and the line between painting and painter disappears. It is pure magic: a place free of thought-obstacles.

Last night there was no magic. When I was younger the slog sessions would depress me. I believed I had to have magic all of the time and felt despair when, instead of magic, I danced knee-deep in mud. It took a long time for me to appreciate the necessity of the mud dances. Painting badly is, of course, necessary to paint well. In fact, I now know that there is no such thing as painting badly just as there is no such thing as perfection. Saying more with less is a life-long learning process for all artists. Freedom of expression is a yoga, a practice. It has as much to do with muscles as it does with minds. It is a yoga of brevity. It is as efficient as breath. It is a paradox of stepping out of the way so that you can fully step forward.

I once saw an exhibit of the hundreds of sketches and studies John Singer Sergeant did before painting El Jaleo. I loved it. He drew the same thing over and over again. He painted again and again the smallest detail. He was putting the image into his body. He was teaching his muscles to flow without tension. The finished painting (the last thing in the exhibit) was thrilling. It is a celebration of brevity, free motion without mental intervention. It made me dizzy. It made me cry because I knew how devoted he was to his practice to say so much with so little. I knew how many hours of effort it took for him to dance so effortlessly.



Hold A Vigil For Kermit

My studio moves into the light.

My studio moves into the light.

Life returns slowly. It is the time of year that the goddess Demeter ceases grieving because her daughter, Persephone, is allowed to return from the underworld. Demeter’s joy ignites earth’s renewal.

This morning we sat outside on the back porch, wrapped in a blanket, our chairs facing the sun, our backs to the wall so we could feel the radiant heat. We drank coffee, soaked up the sun and talked about everything and nothing at all.

We are feeling the stirring. We moved the studio from the basement into the light. A stalled project now has life and is arcing toward production. Inspiration and enthusiasm are playing chase through our creative sessions. A few days ago I found my sketchbook and spend time each day filling its pages. There are new canvases sitting on my easel.

It is the season of resurrection. We are holding vigil for our pond frog, Kermit. Although his name is common his story is extraordinary. Last summer, after we dug the pond in the backyard, Kermit suddenly appeared. All through the fall we checked on him. He looked out at us from his hiding place in the rocks or if caught him by surprise, he’d dart to the opposite side of the pond. This winter was harsh and the pond froze solid. We worried about his fate. When the pond melted, we found a seemingly lifeless Kermit on the bottom with the leaves.

Many species of frogs hibernate. In fact, we learned that certain wood frogs freeze solid to the core. When winter comes their bodies replace the water in their vital organs with a protective “anti-freeze.” All signs of life cease. The heart stops (it is frozen). All measurable electric impulses close down. When the weather warms, their core thaws, and they quite literally come back to life. If you’ve ever doubted the magic and mystery of this life, spend some time watching frogs.

We don’t know yet if Kermit is hibernating or not so we watch. A layer of ice returns to the pond each night. The temperatures are bobbing just above and way below freezing, so we wait, drink in the sun and good coffee. We watch Tripper-dog-dog-dog discover birds and bark at raindrops on the pond; this is his first-ever spring. We fill with hope and ourselves slowly revive from a long winter of hunkering down. We stretch our limbs, we thaw, we breathe.

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694. Join me in inspiring truly powerful people. Each day I will add a new thought, story or idea to support your quest and mine.

Old structures do not like to give way to the new. The old structure, whether it is a personal identity or organizational system, resists change.

When I stepped off the plane Moira only said, “It’s bitter.” She meant the temperature; it was 16 degrees and the wind was blowing. We laughed and she drove me to campus to stay in the Illini Union Hotel on the campus of the University of Illinois. It’s a beautiful campus even with the wind chill making my eyes water. The hotel is actually within the student union, a massive brick and white-pillared structure that shouts, “academia!” It is solid and hallowed with history.

This university like all universities is an institution of education in a time that institutions of education are being pummeled by the waves of change. The internet is revolutionizing access to information and the power of the individual to create, pursue, investigate, and participate. The very role of “teacher” or “professor” is no longer relevant in it’s old definition and the new form is yet to emerge.

I’ve heard conversations questioning the very role of a campus in the face of the new world. There is most certainly a role but what is it? It’s emerging. Tuitions are unmanageable and unrealistic. In many circles the question, “Why not to put the money into a business start up instead college?” is leading the way. Experience is the best teacher and there are great business courses online and much information is free. Why not go into debt with something that has the potential to generate income than something that will strain your income for years to come? It’s a valid argument.

In various places around the country teachers are now refusing to administer the standardized tests. Students are refusing to take them. Finally, we are asking, “Why? What is the point? And what are we trying to do?” After all, what does it mean to learn?
This is the new form starting to emerge. The old is fighting back, ratcheting down and trying to contain and constrain. It is only a matter of time.

The old structure will fight the new, even if the old is irrelevant. Even if its existence impedes growth instead of facilitates it. In this way, organizations are no different than people. The imagination is never welcome in the old house but imaginations have a way of taking over and something new, wondrous, magical, and completely unpredictable always emerges.

Open The Door

648. Join me in inspiring truly powerful people. Each day I will add a new thought, story or idea to support your quest and mine.

When I was a kid I was standing on a barrel so I could reach the pencil sharpener. I sharpened my pencil with such fury that I tipped the barrel over and landed on the pencil: it stabbed my right palm and the lead snapped off. I was in a hurry because I was drawing a picture and I wanted to capture the image before the magic dissipated. That’s how I experienced artistry as a boy: a magic door opened. I saw an image on a blank piece of paper and it was my task to bring it into the visible world before the door closed. Sometimes I knew I had lots of time; sometimes I knew the door was only going to be open for a moment and it was a race to get enough of the image so that I might complete it after the door closed. I had a muse and she lived on the other side of the door. I spent many hours staring at blank sheets of paper willing her to open the channel and send me an image.

My fall off the barrel was over 40 years ago and I still carry the lead mark in my palm. It has become a reminder of the magic. It took me 30 years after the fall to realize that I had control over the door; the magic was not separate from me. I merely had to turn the knob, I simply needed to open and receive the image. Like two people in love but afraid to reveal their feelings I came to realize that the muse was waiting for me and I was waiting for the muse. She wanted me to turn the knob and say, “I’m here.” I was waiting for her to turn the knob and say, “I’m here.”

I look at the pencil mark on my palm when I need to remind myself that there is no door; my muse and I are now one. There is no hurry. In fact, what I came to understand was “the door” opened when I became present. As a boy, staring at a blank piece of paper, counting my breaths, I unwittingly developed a nice meditation practice and when I dropped into the moment the door opened. I work with many people and what I’ve learned is that magic is not unique to me – it is available to everyone. We are magic – all of us. If the nozzle is closed it is because we stand in the past arguing for the wound or seeking a future place, somewhere out there where there is magic to be claimed. My work is to say, “Slow down. There is nothing broken so there is nothing to be fixed. Look at what is right in front of you. Stand here and nowhere else: let the world see that you are magic.”


629. Join me in inspiring truly powerful people. Each day I will add a new thought, story or idea to support your quest and mine.

The Orca returned today. The crowds gathered at the bottom of the street, binoculars pointed to the Sound. The word gets around and soon there was a crowd whispering things like, “Amazing,” or “Look!” These simple words of reverence were usually followed by an “Ohhhh” or an Ahhhhhh!” I stood with Riley the Samoyed and Charlie the black Labrador. Dogs to pet and whales to watch, the sun was shining, the water was calm; it was pretty much a perfect day. Extra magical.

After the Orca pod passed, I walked a loop through the neighborhood and was transfixed by two small trees. They’d dropped their leaves and their bark was brilliant red! At first I thought they were painted but this brilliance was natural, shockingly bright, a color in nature usually reserved for autumn leaves or feathers. Dado (my postman) joined me in my revelry. He said, “Can you believe it!” Dado is a great lover of the small moment. I’m not sure how he ever gets the mail delivered because he is always talking to someone, sharing stories, laughing, good for a joke or a shoulder to lean on. Dado is bartender to the world. He is used to finding me transfixed and always joins me. “Wow,” we whispered in unison and then laughed.

Today in class, prior to my date with the Orca and my walk, we introduced the tool of dialogue and deep listening. As a group we listened as a member of our class talked without interruption for a set amount of time. Then, as a group, we responded. In our daily lives we rarely listen because we often have agendas and, therefore, do not listen; we look for opportunities to be heard. We miss what is being said. When we give space for pure sharing and pure listening a magic thing happens: the speaker will often, to their great surprise, wade waist-deep into gratitude. They sort to the positive. They tip toward wholeness. And then, the responders, overwhelmed by the generosity of the speaker, open their hearts and celebrate their lives, too. The wound is not ignored; it is honored as the catalyst for awakening. That is what happened today in class. Our speaker, thinking she was going to bring a challenge to the group, found herself expressing her love of life after a rocky road. And we the responders, quietly released into our personal revelry of this extraordinary life. Deep listening requires space. Reverence loves a listener.

I was so moved by the class that I decided I needed to take a walk before jumping back into work. I put on my coat, walked to the end of the block and found the Orca passing by and all of the humans were holding space, listening. The entire dialogue of life is magic and immediately available when we slow down enough to listen.

Embrace Your Silly

593. Join me in inspiring truly powerful people. Each day I will add a new thought, story or idea to support your quest and mine.

Racing passed me on the apartment stairs was little Jaden and his grandma, Espy. Jaden was wearing big tiger slippers; they gave him cartoon feet. Espy whispered, “The monster is coming! I hear him!” Jaden squealed. I said, “I won’t tell the monster that I saw you!” Jaden laughed as he and Espy disappeared through the hall door. Two floors below I heard Pete, using his best monster voice, rumble, “Where are they! I’m hungry!”
Pete is Jaden’s grandpa, Espy’s husband. I waited on the landing for Pete-the-monster to discover David-his-neighbor. It was a sneak attack.

He came around the corner in full monster mode. Roaring, “I’ll find you! I can smell where you are!” he saw me and said, “Oh, hi David.” Another adult might have been embarrassed or shifted out of play mode. Not Pete. He was carrying a large sack of groceries and, like Jaden, he was wearing an enormous pair of slippers, he had cartoon bear feet. “Do you like my shoes?” he smiled, showing off his larger-than-life fuzzy feet. “We just went to the store.” He roared once more to keep the game going while buying us some time to talk.

“I’m being a monster!” he smiled, showing me how he could walk like a bear with his cartoon feet. “We were just in the grocery store and people are so serious!” he exclaimed. “At first I was thinking about being embarrassed to wear these slippers and then I was happy I put them on. They are silly and they made people smile! People need to be more silly! That’s what I’ve decided. It keeps us young,” he declared. As an after thought he added, “Espy had to drive though, monsters feet are too big and they can’t feel the pedals.” Roaring and stomping he said, “Let’s have dinner next week,” and continued up the stairs. I heard Jaden squeal and Espy whisper, “Hide!”

Yoda lives next door and he wears slippers. There is magic everywhere, even in the stairway.