Meet Your Obligation

a detail of my latest – and yet unnamed – painting

“I feel like I have an obligation to live,” she said, in response to the question from the audience.

Joyce Maynard was reading from her latest book, The Best Of Us, at The Book Stall, an independent bookstore in little downtown Winnetka. Kerri has been a huge fan for many years but had never been able to attend a reading so we jumped at the opportunity. The Best Of Us is a memoir. In 2011, in her late fifties, Joyce met her “first true partner.” A year into their marriage he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and died 19 months later. Her book is the story of their all-to-brief time together.

“It’s not a book about death,” she said, “It’s a book about learning what love really is. What is truly important in life.” She added, “I don’t think people should have to pay 20 bucks for my catharsis.”

An obligation to live. I loved the phrase and all that it implied. Sometimes life collapses. This week, we remembered 9/11. We watched Irma wreak havoc on the heels of the devastation of Harvey. Fires burn homes and lives in the west. Listening to Joyce Maynard read from her book, I felt as if Viktor Frankl was sitting beside me whispering, “See! She is not looking for meaning where none can be found. She is making meaning. She is giving meaning to her path. That is the ultimate creative act!”

It is the fire that burns beneath an obligation to live. To not waste another moment of this amazing life seeking for that which cannot be found; but it can be given.

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Dance With Parallax

My favorite word of the week is ‘parallax.’ Horatio pulled it out of the word bin during our latest conversation about art and artistry. We were discussing the difference between what an artist sees in their work and what others see – and how artistic “sight” changes over time. I scribbled the word along with the phrase, “the difference in what you see and what others see. Perspective over time.” After our call I looked up the word in my dictionary:

paral-lax (noun) 1. Apparent change of position. 2. Angle measuring star’s distance from Earth.

Many years ago in a fit of vulnerability I showed my mentor, a great theatre and visual artist, my paintings. I lined them all up for him to see. I followed him around the room as he quietly studied each piece. Finally, after taking in all of my work, he asked, “What’s the meaning of the spheres?” I was dumbfounded and had no idea what he was asking. “Spheres? What spheres?” So he led me back around the room, revisiting each painting, showing me the three spheres that appeared in EVERY single painting.

“What’s with the spheres?” he repeated, knowing that there wasn’t an answer but there was certainly a vast new question. My universe spun a bit that day so astounded was I at my inability to see the unifying principle in my own paintings.

I needed his eyes to see my work. Isn’t that the point?

When I think back on that day, on that younger version of my self, I revisit the fear, the raging vulnerability I felt in sharing my paintings. I feel again the deep doubt I held against myself. I recall the nausea of inviting someone I admired into my house of doubt. I somehow believed that, to be an artist, I had “to know” what I was doing – yet knew with certainty that I had no idea what I was doing. I knew with certainty that he would see through me to my lack of knowing.

And, he did. Thank goodness. “What’s with the spheres?” Such a simple question yet it spun my universe and pitched me through the portal of a new perspective.

I learned that day that artistry has nothing to do with knowing. Life has nothing to do with knowing. Knowing is an illusion, temporary at best. Knowing has everything to do with hiding.

Making a life, as Master Marsh just reminded me, is an engagement with the unknown. It is to have experiences. It is to make meaning of the experiences. If you are lucky, you learn to have the experiences first, and make the meaning second. It is to understand that, in this dance of knowing and not-knowing, sight and blindness, chaos and order, consciousness and unconsciousness, there are no fixed points. There is dance:

dance (noun) 1. An act of stepping or moving through a series of movements.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

fine art prints available at society6.com

my original work on zatista.com

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Sit In The First Seat

 

a detail from my latest painting

a detail from my latest painting

I am living this story, as are we all. I am a lover of story so I count myself fortunate enough to know that I am living it. It’s one of the grail stories. Here’s the section of the story that I am now living:

The knight who cannot be beaten (he has a magic sword) is knocked from his warhorse. A warrior, a man with no armor or shield, no protection, emerges from the woods, challenges the knight, and in a single blow, unseats him. That’s not the worst of it: the knight’s magic sword shatters. And, that’s not the worst of it. His armor, his trusty protection through the many wars in the wasteland, pins him down. Like a turtle on its back, he is defenseless. His magic sword, his trusted armor, all that he has relied on, all that he’s built his identity and purpose upon, betray him. He is stunned. He is lost. He closes his eyes and awaits his death.

Death does not come. Well…

another detail

another detail

The warrior, the man with no armor, does not finish the job. He disappears without a trace leaving the knight stranded but alive. The knight opens his eyes and somehow manages to sit up. He weeps because his endless efforts to save the world have come to naught. In fact, fighting ogres seemed to produce more ogres! He removes his armor. He is no longer a knight. He is no longer capable of saving the world. He is, for the first time since his childhood, unprotected. He is, at last, purpose-free.

Nothing is more frightening – or useful – than to drop the armor of purpose and take a good hard look at what lives beneath all that forged metal.

...and another

…and another

At first his lack of identity drives him crazy. He has no answer to the cocktail party question, “So, what do you do?” He feels naked and exposed. Fortunately, a teacher, a hermit, emerges from the woods to help him navigate the crazies. Namely, the hermit helps him by not answering his endless questions. The hermit helps him understand that the world never really needed him because the world was never really broken. The hermit helps him relax and see beyond all of his thinking. He realizes that the wasteland came, not because the world was broken, but because he believed himself to be broken, somehow lacking.

In a life of chopping wood and carrying water he sees that his purpose has nothing at all to do with doing – or roles or achievements. He sees that the road to the grail castle is blocked so long as he believes he is defined by a role or a bank account or lost in a made-up purpose. When he drops his need for importance the grail castle appears.

...and another

…and another

Satori, in all the stories, knocks seekers from their ponies. It stops all pursuits. It pops the illusion of a purpose-driven life. It necessarily strips the seeker naked.

We are all seekers at some point.

When you are required in the workshop to write your epitaph or are somehow forced to articulate what was most important in this life, the doing, the list of achievements, the purpose-drive will always take second seat. HOW you did what you did, the relationships you tended or ignored, the moments you appreciated or missed, will sit squarely in the first spot.

 

as yet unnamed

as yet unnamed

 

 

 

 

 

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Cut A New Path

ComfortNow

The latest in my Held In Grace series. This is Comfort Now

It seems to me that most of our days on this earth are spent moving through patterns, conscious or unconscious. These patterns are the rituals of our lives. Some of the rituals are easy to see. For instance, what is the sequence of actions you perform before going to bed each night? What about your ritual of rising each day? The care and feeding of Tripper Dog-Dog-Dog and Babycat are central to my rising and retreating rituals each day. We move through the same actions every morning and evening and I delight in the warmth of the ritual.

Some of the rituals are not so easy to see. Researchers tell us that most of the thoughts we think every day are the same thoughts we had yesterday. We mostly think in patterns (it makes sense once you recognize that language is constructed of category and pattern). We talk to ourselves, cutting paths through the forest of our minds and, once we’ve established a trail, we like to stay on it. Easy is often unconscious. There’s nothing wrong with staying on the easy trail if the path you’ve cut, your repetitious thought-ritual, is self-loving. The rub: ritual paths of self-loathing and self-limitation are also easy, well-worn paths and that makes them both unconscious and hard to leave.

Cutting a new path through the mind forest begins with recognizing that new paths are always available. They just aren’t easy to establish. They require new practices. They require surrender and the first bit of surrender necessary for cutting a new path is the ritual giving-over of needing-to-know-anything; new paths, by definition are unknown.

New paths are not comfortable precisely because they require attention, consciousness.

My teachers taught me that all stories worth telling are stories of transformation. The main character or characters will know something at the end of the story that they did not know at the beginning and the new knowledge will be hard-won. That’s what makes the story worth engaging. Hamlet is a much different character in Act 5 than he was in Act 1. His peace was difficult to come by. He had to learn to surrender. To cut a new path he had to make a practice of peace.

The same ideal applies to the stories we live off the stage.

 

Reach Out Of Inner Space

Richard Diebenkorn, Ocean Park #68

Richard Diebenkorn, Ocean Park #68

Several days ago on a muddy trek through the state park, the dials in my brain spun ever so slightly and I had an epiphany. It was an epiphany that I’ve had before which, to some, might disqualify it as an epiphany but for me the important stuff seems to occur repeatedly, a new layer falls off, and I see a bit more each time. Clarity is movement to a core, a simplicity emerging from what used to seem complex. So, I had a repeating epiphany.

Last year I attended The Chicago Art Expo. To my shock and surprise, rather than being challenged and energized, I ran screaming from the building. It was disconcerting. It was disorienting. Rather than having direct experiences with art that opened my eyes or challenged my world, I had experiences with curators who were compelled to tell me why the work had merit. They felt the need to locate the meaning and value for me. There was, in each booth, an art-high- priest standing between me and the experience. In fairness, I often felt that, without the interpreter, there was no experience to be had. It was a mental exercise.

In the grand scheme of things, Art serves a purpose. It carries the common story, the cultural identity. It is necessary, not luxury. In that sense, for it to serve its purpose, it requires no interpreter. When it no longer serves its intrinsic purpose – or there no longer exists a common center – an interpreter (marketer) is inevitable.

As Quinn once told me, “If someone has to tell you that they are good, they probably aren’t.”

Joseph Campbell wrote a book called The Inner Reaches of Outer Space. Art (theatre, visual, dance, music), for me, has deep value when it serves the outer reaches of inner space. It is immediately accessible, touching a universal nerve. It has to reach. Standing in the mud and muck of the park, we took a break by the shore of a lake and listened. The wind moved the trees, the limbs clacked and groaned. Crows chased an owl. The sun warmed my face. A layer fell off and a core came closer to focus.

This is not a diatribe against abstraction. We recently saw a Sam Francis exhibit at The Milwaukee Art Museum that left me in tears. I’ve spent hours in front of a Diebenkorn, one of his Ocean Park series, and I can’t get enough of it. I visit it often, like a pilgrim on a pilgrimage. It moves something deep within me. It speaks to something bigger than me and makes me want to be better and better. Standing before it I feel a part of a conversation of hearts and imaginations and deep space calls. I feel a part of a bigger story.

Know Your Stuff

my latest and the first of a new series. Held In Grace: Rest Now

my latest: Held In Grace: Rest Now

This a note of gratitude. Unashamed and unabashed.

Yesterday was our third annual trip to Cedarburg for Winterfest. It is one of my favorite adventures of the year with some of my favorite people. The temperatures were unseasonably warm, in the 50’s, so there was no snow and the river ran freely. The ice sculptors lining the streets tried to carve but soon abandoned their too-rapidly-melting blocks of ice. I stood with my back to a brick wall and drank in the sun.

Like the rest of the crowd, we wandered in and out of the many boutiques and shops, ate brats, sipped coffee, watched the sweet -small-town-parade and cheered at the bed races, an event that usually takes place on the frozen river but this day was held on a side street. The team with the best wheels won.

The shops, like shops in every town dependent on tourism, are chocked full of trinkets, greeting cards, clothes, and tchotchkes galore. Some of the shops are so stuffed with stuff that shoppers routinely flee to the streets to avoid imminent suffocation. I am generally crowd-averse so I hovered near the door and watched the games that emerged when the rules of personal space also fled to the streets. I delighted in the dance of strangers-in-too-tight-aisles bumping bellies, stepping on toes, laughing and blushing at unintentional nose touches and unfortunate hand placements.

In one of the shops I found displayed among the stuff a book entitled, Less Stuff, More Life by Amy Maryon. Ironies abound! I laughed heartily and was surprised when I found the same book in the very next shop we entered. So, I made a game of finding how many shops stuffed with stuff carried the book about collecting less stuff. The count: I found it in every shop we entered with the single exception of the antique store. It’s okay to load up on old stuff.

Each time I found the book I assigned it as a trigger for me to turn and appreciate the amazing people sharing the day with me: Dan and Gay, Sandy, Noelle, Daena, Jay and Charlie. Kerri above all. I also made it a game of giving gratitude for the riches of my life: 20, Linda and Jim, Russ and Mary Kay, Marilyn, Arnie, my Jims, …I could go on and on. I am the recipient of infinite kindness and support, love and friendship. This is the stuff of my life – as it is the stuff of life for us all. I suspect (the author) message is that the stuff in our closets obscures the real stuff of life. The shoes and houses and dish towels are not in themselves negative, they are, in fact, nothing at all. They are stuff. And, in the midst of the stuff, if we can see the forest through the trees, is our family and friends and community. There are people in our lives that we will never meet who make it all richer, better (for instance, I’d like to hug the human that first made a cup of coffee). They are the people we read about in the newspaper who donate time to make playgrounds, volunteer at the library or to man the local firehouse. There is the woman in the shop in Cedarburg that prays that we will buy something so she can pay her mortgage and feed her children.

 

Be Clumsy

a detail of my painting, May You Be.

a detail of my painting, May You Be.

Clumsy (klum’ ze) adj. 1. lacking dexterity, grace or skill; awkward. 2. ungracefully shaped or made; unwieldy. 3. awkwardly or unskillfully said or done, ill-contrived.

“We don’t allow ourselves to be clumsy,” Kerri said. “Life is clumsy.”

Many years ago I read a commentary that suggested we moderns have a harder time of feeling good about ourselves than people of ages past. The argument went something like this: we have an impossibly high standard to meet and it is mostly illusory. For instance, our predecessors compared themselves and their successes against a relatively small village populace. We are swimming in pool that stretches around the earth. The athletes in our ancestral villages ran against their neighbors, the artists created for a specific purpose that served a tangible need in their community. Our young runners know to the hundreth-of-a-second what greatness requires. They run against the world. Our artists rarely know outside of their own inner imperative why they are creating. With no outer limit they spend a great deal of time wondering if their work has any impact or greater significance. With no outer limit it has no defined audience or community. Stephen, a gifted and prolific artist, used to ask, “Why don’t people recognize the value of art?”

The argument is largely a question of access. Our predecessors had limited and very abstract access to the news of the day, to the happenings beyond their region. We have a 24-hour global news cycle that comes to us on multiple devices that are designed to grab and keep our attention. It is not passive. On our multiple devices we are bombarded with images and messages of what we should look and feel like. Yet, almost all of the images populating our personal measuring stick are constructed. They are manipulated, retouched, powdered and Photoshopped. Legs are stretched. Wrinkles are removed. Sunsets are filtered. We measure ourselves against illusions.

Thus, intermediaries are everywhere. Interpreters abound. I rarely go into a gallery without a curator telling me why the work on the walls is important. The news of the day makes us the rope in a tug-of-war of interpretation.

Art, like life, like deep spirituality, requires direct engagement. It is made rich in the rough draft and the mistake. The broken road is interesting, vital. Learning is a process that takes time. It is messy. It is clumsy. It is not straight, paved, and has no road signs. And, it cannot be walked alone.

There is no forgiveness (of self or other) on the path of perfection; forgiveness is in short supply when the standard is both impossible to attain and an illusion. On the clumsy path, on the messy and muddy road, lives grace, generosity of spirit and deep forgiveness.

Clumsy (klum’ ze) adj. 1. Human

May You Be

May You Be