Look After [on Merely A Thought Monday]

Mike and I exchanged text messages. His mother recently passed and his clan interred her ashes a few days ago. We held services for my dad last week. Columbus’ ashes will find their final resting place in the spring.

Mike is heading for the ocean. Before leaving Colorado, I had to stand in the mountains. Both are places of infinity. Stand in our smallness. Realize the ‘bigness’ of life.

What do we do after…After.

John Irving wrote that we lose people, not all at once, but in pieces. I think we find them in pieces, too. There is so much to discover in the After. Stories are told. Quiet is necessary. An anchor goes missing and then, bit by bit, is rediscovered. Inside.

After. Bit by bit.

read Kerri’s blog post about AFTER

Compose [on DR Thursday]

Many years ago I attended a workshop facilitated by Sam, a brilliant landscape painter. I was delighted and amused when he demonstrated his technique. Rather than paint what he observed, he took great pleasure in rearranging the elements. He moved the trees, altered the hills, relocated the barn. He laughed while mixing up his elements. His eyes sparkled with mischief. Rather than a workshop on painting, the day became an exercise in joy-in-art. Seeing and playing with what we see.

This morning I read that the word ‘composition’ means “putting together.” Definers-of-art-terms associate composition with freedom. “The artist has freedom when choosing the composition of their artwork.” It is a mistake to believe that compositional freedom is the sole province of an artist. If the mind is a canvas then thought is a composition. It is patterned and composed. Arranged and rearranged. We choose where we place our focus. Point-of-view is cultivated, it is not a default setting. We design the story-we-tell-ourselves-about-ourselves. And, then we project it onto the world.

The trick in both art and thought composition is not to wear ruts in the road. Sam was joyful in his art because he was constantly challenging and engaging with what he saw. Art was fun, not morbid tradition. Art was delight-full, not rule-bound or laden with the pressure to capture. Recall that stepping out of the rut was the first lesson in Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. Morning pages and artist’s dates are meant to both see the ruts and open new paths. The same process applies to the thought-canvas. See the rut. Step out of it.

As Sam taught me so many years ago, seeing and playing with what we see begins with letting go of what we think we see. It begins with a blank canvas, an unfettered mind, and the freedom to choose the composition.

read Kerri’s blog post about COMPOSITION

Unfettered ©️ 2018 david robinson

Offer The Chair [on Flawed Wednesday]

“Indeed, the effect of the forum is all the more powerful if it is made clear to the audience that if they don’t change the world, no one will change it for them.” ~ Augusto Boal, Games For Actors And Non-Actors

Many of my pals in the theatre turned their noses up at me when I began doing work in corporations. They thought I was yet another theatre artist doing improvisation-games with the terminally neck-tied. I was not. My work was more in the tradition of Augusto Boal than Keith Johnstone. Some of the best plays I’ve ever facilitated, some of the most profound pieces of theatre I’ve directed and witnessed, happened in board rooms, classrooms or conference spaces. Here’s how I know: the actors and audience were one-and-the-same. Their play was personal. When they left “the theatre” they did not leave the nice story behind and end the evening with a cocktail. They were disrupted. They had seen something that could no longer be ignored or deflected. The hard work was about to begin.

People yearn. People entrench. People plant their flags and claim the most ridiculous territory. I’ve seen teachers come to blows over an overhead projector. I’ve seen lawyers undermine colleagues to gain dominion over a swiveling chair. And, the chair or the projector are never really the issue. The issue is usually an abstraction. Pecking order. Boundaries. Alliances. People have killed each other over a pair of shoes. It’s not the shoes but the status the shoes represent. Abstraction and illusion.

People are generally unconscious about the reasons beneath their passions. I’ve met a score of dedicated meditation practitioners who meditate to control their thoughts rather than realize them. Once I led a group of teachers through the ritual they enact each morning before the arrival of their students. The question was, “What are you preparing to do in your day?” Their answer was unnerving and revolutionary: they were preparing to control the kids. Teaching and learning were secondary.

We are witness to a country-wide communal piece of theatre, an unconscious play. The issue is not the mask. The issue has never been the mask. The issue is, I suppose, people feeling out of control, imposed upon. Fearful. They are, with their bare faces, making a stand. Drawing a line in the sand. That “no one can tell me what to do” might as well be “I am losing control over my life.”

And, as is always the case, as with the office chair and the overhead projector, refusing to don the mask does not really address the real issue, it merely deflects it. The energy and action is focused on non-sense. And when non-sense rules the day, the action taken actually brings about the thing-most-feared. Loss of control. The pandemic continues, the children are being taken, the economy suffers, the community fractures. It’s a lengthy list.

The lesson in the office chair wars and the overhead projector games is always the same. No one wins. Everyone loses in a toxic tug-of-war. The chair might be yours today but it will be theirs tomorrow. The game only ends when one of the players offers the chair to the other or the projector becomes a reason to share. The same will be true of the mask wars. People will die, the pandemic will continue until the mask becomes a generosity. Then, low-and-behold, the virus will abate and real control over our destiny will be within our grasp.

I hope that, like the lawyers or teachers who were brave enough to walk into the real story, to stand face-to-face with a dysfunction, that we meet our story and ask, “Why would so many sacrifice so much over a little piece of cloth?” An overhead projector. A pair of shoes. A chair that swivels…

read Kerri’s blog post about MASKS

Choose [on Two Artists Tuesday]

“It’s a serious thing just to be alive on this fresh morning in this broken world.” ~ Mary Oliver

Were I to have been born in an earlier century I would not be alive today. Twice on my life-path doctors have declared that, “You are now a miracle of modern medicine.” Leeches and blood-letting would not have cured what ailed me.

This thing called ‘science’ is what gave me more days of life. It is the same science that developed vaccines for a pandemic but also made possible the technology that makes mass-media-misinformation possible. Here is the medicine. Here is the disease. It is exactly as Sophocles wrote: Nothing vast enters the life of mortals without a curse.

One morning, deeply tired, I arose to go do a job that I did not like. It was a means to an end and I dreaded the day ahead of me. Stepping out the door, the cold morning air stopped me in my tracks. It slapped me awake. The air was crisp and clean, the neighborhood was quiet. The light in the sky was brilliant. I drank it in. I vowed never again to dread a day of my life. In truth, I had no idea what the day held for me. Why then, would I story my day with a frame of dread? Why tell myself a tale of just-getting-through-it? Why not open to the possibilities of surprise and miracle? Why not embrace the already-stated-obvious-thing: I had no idea what the day held. That simple fact would be true every single day of my life. Dread was a choice, not an inevitability.

To be alive on this fresh morning. It is a serious thing. In this world, broken by the little story of us-and-them, the tiny tale of power-over. Choices. The miracle of the new day is present whether it is seen or not. We can cloak it in dread or gratitude, in support or division. It doesn’t care either way. The miracle of the new day, the gift of being alive on this fresh morning in a world that is broken or healed, whole or fragmented – it all depends upon the story-frame we wrap around it. The story we tell is a choice, not an inevitability.

read Kerri’s blog post about JUST TO BE ALIVE

Meet The Frame [on DR Thursday]

“There are people who prefer to say ‘yes’ and there are people who prefer to say ‘no’. Those who say ‘yes’ are rewarded by the adventures they have. Those who say ‘no’ are rewarded by the safety they attain.” ~ Keith Johnstone

A violent storm blew through so we spent the night hunkered down in the basement. We had very little sleep. Sleeplessness always leads me to moralize and for that, I apologize.

A frame of reference is a powerful thing. Experiences are interpreted through a frame of assumptions. We are witness to a time in which verifiable reality is denied because it doesn’t jive with the tribal frame.

Master Marsh passed along this quote from E.O. Wilson’s Sociobiology: “(Humankind) would rather believe than know.”

Knowledge often challenges the frame. That is the point of knowledge. Growth. And growth is always a challenge to what was formerly believed possible.

It is somehow easier to lapse into a conspiracy theory, demonize an other, deny what is indisputable, than it is to allow that the frame is just that, a frame. It’s not a truth. It’s a context. It’s a binding agent. Culture is a frame of reference. Religion is a frame of reference. What we believe of ourselves is not a fact. Identity is a frame of reference. Democracy is a frame of reference. Autocracy is a frame of reference. Supremacy is a frame. Equality is a frame. Every-man-for-himself is a frame. Brother-and-Sister’s-keeper is a frame.

None are truth. Frames are creations. Agreements. Aspirations.

Frames that allow for challenges, for growth, are sustainable. Those that do not, those that deny insight, fact, data, new knowledge, those that are threatened by opposing-point-of-view, inevitably collapse in their denial.

The fire burns. A garden hose is not an effective defense, regardless of belief. Temperatures rise relative to emissions. Rain forests disappear. A lie undermines the foundations of democracy. Believe it or not. Harry Truman sat in his cabin nestled into the mountain called St Helens. Despite repeated appeals from fleeing neighbors, repeated rumbles and tremors, warnings from scientists and safety personnel, he believed he would be safe, that his mountain would never erupt. Traces of Harry have never been found.

So it goes with the denial of believers. Frames held too tightly blind rather than reveal.

Every artist knows the transformative power of a frame. A frame can make almost any scribble look substantial. A cheap frame can diminish the greatest masterpiece.

New knowledge meets an old frame. Growth or entrenchment? Blind acceptance or emerging possibility? Yes? No? Both?

read Kerri’s blog post about FRAMES

held in grace: surrender now ©️ 2016 david robinson

In-Tolerate [on Not So Flawed Wednesday]

In theatre school, I was taught that the action of the play was driven by conflict. I’ve never been comfortable with that word. Something did not ring true with the concept of conflict. A dividing line. Battle. Fight. Kerri just suggested that conflict is not simply a line, it is bandwidth. A full spectrum of color in our human struggle.

I recently read that, through resistance, all things become visible. We see color because some light rays are absorbed and others are reflected. The light ray is filtered, separated into color bands. We see the color that was resisted. Rejected by the surface. Split off. Separated. Is it any wonder that the epicenter of most faith traditions, the driver of most origin stories, is the journey through separation back to unity?

We become visible in our birth. Separate. We become invisible in our death and are given to imagining a comforting story of reunion. Re-union. In between those two points, separation and unity, there is life made visible and wildly colorful by the separation. The filters. What is absorbed and rejected. Reflected. Learned. Ignored. Appreciated. Vilified. Visible. Invisible.

This time of pandemic has been, for us, an exercise in separation. In the distancing, we’ve nurtured, intentionally and unintentionally, an appreciation of quiet. Over these many months we’ve grown a garden of simplicity. We read together. We walk our paths slowly. We’ve found that we do not need to be entertained or distracted. We have a low tolerance for crowds and run the opposite direction when there’s too much noise ahead.

We’ve fostered an appreciation for those who walk through life considerate of the needs of others. Our circle of friends has come into focus. We’ve dropped off the plate of many and many have dropped off of our plate. The connective tissue is felt, established and hearty. In some cases, even though our actual conversations are rare, the focus is sharp. Deeply rooted. Arnie. Judy. Jim. Mike. David. In other cases, we communicate almost every day. 20. Brad and Jen. Heart-y.

Our play has become visible through resistance. What we absorb and what we reject has come into stark contrast, clear focus, through the separation. Layers of shallow tolerance have been peeled away revealing a much deeper understanding of what we desire to create in this life, how we desire to live. It is necessary to understand the boundaries set and the colors illuminated by intolerance. Said another way, it is important to be able to thoroughly sort substance from noise. Both inner and outer. I have learned that I have limited tolerance for thoughtless acceptance, for unthinking noise. My resistance. I surround myself with questioners, those curious enough to dig, dedicated to building their thought-castles on bedrock instead of shifting sands. Those few who are capable of releasing their grips on the comfortable known and step willingly into the uncomfortable question. I absorb them. Take them in.

We – all of us – walk the same path, visible in our birth. Separate. Invisible in our death. Re-union. In this we are equal. What we do, how we choose to support each other, or choose not to, in the passage between those two universal points, is all. These choices define the story we live.

The pandemic, the separation, has helped me to a deeper understanding and appreciation of this word: Intolerant. A word that used to inspire egg-shell walking for what it implied. A word held with shallow roots. Now, it is a word rich in complexity, useful in paradox, a resistance that has made so much come visible. Tolerance, ironically, is at the same time intolerance. What, in your play, is acceptable? What, in your play, will you tolerate? What, in your play, will you not tolerate? Your play is not separate from mine.

read Kerri’s blog post about TOLERANCE LEVELS

Answer The Call [on Merely A Thought Monday]

I have an old iPhone. Sometimes it doesn’t ring when people try to call. The sound of the message coming into my inbox is the first clue that someone is trying to reach me. Yesterday, when I heard the alert, I was unloading stone from the car so I didn’t check it right away. I wish I had. It was my dad.

His message was 12 seconds long and most of it was confusion and labored breathing. He is famous for removing his oxygen when no one is around and, in his advancing dementia, he will sometimes accidentally dial my number when he is lost in the story-in-his-mind. I treasure these brief touches, these calls, when I hear the phone and answer. We talk. He’ll stay on the phone and, even when he is panicked, he shares his story. My goal always is to convince him to go to the door and tell someone that he needs help with his oxygen. No one can help him with his story.

I tried twice to return his call but he did not pick up.

The theme of this season is life-cycle. We’ve enjoyed the peonies bud-to-blossom-to-fade. Each step of the process has been gorgeous. In the lingering season of pandemic we are, like many people in the nation, paying attention to our backyard. We’re making it our sanctuary and have already spent many an evening sitting on the deck, the mourning dove singing to us from the trees.

We had the opportunity to visit a local college. It is a new campus. It’s the old newspaper building, transformed. This quote is stenciled on the wall: Your life has purpose. Your story is important. Your dreams count. Your voice matters. You were born to make an impact. It’s a good message for anyone but particularly students trying to find their way into the world. People at the beginning of their story.

It’s also a good message for people at the end of their story, making their way out of the world, though it is not the same as a statement of reflection as one of aspiration. It has more punch.

Were I a teacher at this college, I would tell my students, new buds on the peony, not to worry so much about mattering. Assume it to be true.

I would teach them that they might spend their whole lives trying to make a mark and none of it will matter so much as answering the phone. Your voice will matter. You will have an impact.

No story that you tell will be more important than the story you concoct to get Columbus out of his chair, to shuffle to the door of his room, so he can say to someone, anyone, “Will you help me to breathe.”

read Kerri’s blog post about LIFE PURPOSE

See The Good [on KS Friday]

“…the measure on ones mental health is the ability to see the good in everything. Perception is the key.” ~ Kristine Klussman, Connection

If I kept a gratitude journal, my entry yesterday would be that Bruce was happy. I could hear it in his voice. Although it had been seven years since we last spoke, we talked like we were picking up a conversation from yesterday. Life has changed dramatically for both of us.

It seems we have both reached the revelation of simple appreciation. No longer focused on the big stuff, we talked of the sweet moments, the moments that feed our souls. He asked me to describe my days and I was happily taken aback to tell the tale of walks on trails, beginning each day writing posts with Kerri, ending each day with a glass of wine. Drawing cartoons. A dog that runs enthusiastic circles. Good friends.

I am reminded again and again that goodness is not found in the world. It is brought to the world. We don’t perceive what is already “there,” we wrap what is “there” in a story-blanket. We give it meaning. And then we feel the impact of the meaning we give it. Viktor Frankel famously wrote that “Happiness ensues.” It follows. Despair ensues, too. Anger, too, if that is what is brought.

Earlier this year a friend asked how Kerri and I were doing amidst the job losses and broken wrists. I responded that our circumstance was dire. It was. It just didn’t feel that way, so full was our sense of appreciation. In the midst of a dire circumstance, we started our days writing. Good friends called. DogDog ran enthusiastic circles and made us laugh. We sipped a glass of wine at the end of each day and enjoyed our simple meals. Today, things are less dire and, although we are still standing on shaky ground, we start each day writing together. We hold hands and take walks. We breathe deeply the smell of coffee in the morning. Our gratitude for our days has not changed a bit. Good moments are everywhere.

And today, Bruce is back in touch. He is happy and his happiness, like all happiness, comes from a hard decision that took tremendous courage: he decided to see the good. To bring light. To be light. He is doing the work of savoring the good moments that he now sees all around himself.

good moments/this part of the journey is available on iTunes and streaming on Pandora

read Kerri’s blog post about GOOD MOMENTS

good moments/this part of the journey ©️ 1998 kerri sherwood

Use Your Chalk [on Two Artists Tuesday]

There are two words floating around in my universe these days: structured and unstructured. Structured data. Unstructured data. Structured time. Unstructured time.

The world as seen through the Puritan lens gives great preference to structure. Unstructured anything is suspect. “Idle hands,” we are taught, “are the devil’s workshop.” Yikes. Apparently it’s dangerous to take a stroll, to sit and ponder, to clear the day and do nothing.

I suspect it explains why our notion of business is hyper-focused on the bottom line and often misses the value of relationships. Bottom lines are easy structure. Relationships, not so much. It is the same with test scores in education. Easy structure. However, stepping into the unknown – the very definition of learning – is largely eschewed because it begins in an unstructured pursuit. Creating the structure, making the meaning, discovering the connectivity is what our hearts and brains like to do. When learning isn’t merely a factory, when business is more than a bottom line, people prosper. They come alive.

Unstructured time. There was a time when time had no structure. Monks attempted to “keep” time by monitoring water through a bucket or sift sand through an “hour” glass. Sometimes the water froze in the bucket so the structure of evening prayer was disrupted. The sand clumped in the hour glass and the measure of time clumped with it.

There are moment on the stage when the actor forgets their lines. It’s called “going up” or “drying.” It is always, in the re-telling, the moment when everything becomes real, alive. It is the moment when the structure becomes unstructured. Hearts race. Eyes widen. The stakes are suddenly palpable. The actor breathes, stands in the vast unstructured universe, and the words return like a swinging bar to a high-flying aerialist. The play is infused with aliveness. Presence is mostly unstructured.

As is common in the structured and unstructured use of the English language, oppositions are easily constructed. Unstructured simply means the meaning has yet to be made. Structured data, structured time, are the tip of a largely unknown iceberg. Love, joy, despair, awe…the full spectrum of experiences, bubble in the unstructured spaces. Numbers can describe a moment in time, can orient for a moment, but will never “explain” yearning or desire or our fundamental need to tell stories (put structure on unfathomable experiences). Structure & Unstructure: they are dancing partners, not combatants.

Where do we come from? What are we here to do? I am going to die, what then? It takes a good deal of unstructured time to sit in these unanswerable questions. There are, of course, plenty of people who will gladly provide structure to your unanswerable – and therefore uncomfortable – questions. Perhaps that is why we adore our structure and demonize the empty spaces? Comfort. Ease.

Kerri cannot pass a hopscotch template chalked on the street. It’s almost automatic. Step, hop, hop, step, hop. The little girl in her connects to the child who chalked the squares on the sidewalk. A simple game. Play. It’s one of the things people do with unstructured time. Set challenges. Make up obstacles. Seek puzzles. Invent. Dream. Connect to the deeper places. Where’s the structured bottom line watching the little-girl-in-my-wife hop and skip and turn in the game-chalked-on-the-sidewalk? The laughter of remembering? The giggle and freedom of the woman hopping the scotch, just because she can?

read Kerri’s blog post about HOPSCOTCH

Look Closer [on Two Artists Tuesday]

Arnie recently sent me a book, Connection by Kristine Klussman. As is my practice these days, I’m reading it slowly, a few pages at a time. I recognize much of what she’s writing about: focus placement, meaning making, cutting through the ‘should’s’…all in the process of re-connecting to what is really important in this life. The book offers specific exercises and process steps to help readers take a closer look at their lives. To identify the gaps between espoused and lived values in order to make different choices and close the gap. Alignment.

In art school, the most valuable lesson (for me) was to learn to see beyond what I ‘think.’ I’ve written about the professor who asked us to look at our yellow #2 pencils and tell him what color were the pencils. A riot of eye rolling ensued but, in the end, he helped us to see that the simple yellow pencil was alive with green and purple and red. Our minds generalize. It requires a bit of slowing down and, dare I write, a bit of presence, to see and experience how rich and alive even the simplest things, a yellow pencil, really are. The dictum applies to each and every day of life, especially the days we generalize into boredom or “same-old-same-old.” Slow down. Look again. There’s more to the yellow pencil than you think.

When Kerri and I arrived home from our trip to move my mother into an independent living community, we poured a glass of wine and opened the box my parents had kept with the artifacts of my life. Old newspaper clippings of play reviews, playbills, gallery opening announcements, elementary school report cards, photographs that reached back through proms and school portraits to blurry black and white infant prints with “David, 4 months” scribbled on the back. It was a poignant exercise of pulling the life-camera in for a closer view. Life-fragments in a box are like the yellow pencil. They require a closer look.

I’ve always appreciated Kerri’s tendency to pull the camera in closer. She is forever taking photographs and then pulling the image this way and that, like so much taffy, looking for the most interesting slice, the most dynamic composition. In her photographic-push-me-pull-you, there is often a discovery. “Look at this color!” she’ll exclaim. Or, “Did you see this! Look at the spines on this plant!” She cultivates surprise. She understands that a closer look will always reveal tiny not-yet-seen-miracles.

Expecting surprise. Taking the time to look beyond yellow-pencil-expectations. Closing the gap between lived and espoused values. Slowing down just enough to realize that there is no such thing as “same-old-same-old.” These are age-old sage suggestions for living a rich and meaningful life. All of it, born of a tender, quiet suggestion to take a deep breath and have a closer look.

read Kerri’s blog post about A CLOSER LOOK