Step Into The Next [on Two Artists Tuesday]

There is a plot of ground in the backyard of my growing-up-home, as Kerri calls it, that for many years served as my father’s garden. He has not tended it nor planted it for quite some time and yet, a few intrepid carrots have pushed their green shoots up through the crusty soil. The impulse to life never ceases to amaze me.

In the back of our refrigerator we found a red onion. It was not ancient and forgotten. We used half of it in a new recipe a month ago and laughed aloud when we pulled it out and found it sprouting. In the dark and cold recesses of the refrigerator drawer, it sent out explorers to find the sun. It looked like an alien creature, these pale arms reaching, reaching from a purple half-orb.

Before we drove away, I walked through the empty rooms of my growing-up-home, touching walls, gathering memories, shedding the skin of my childhood. We’d already moved my dad to a memory care facility. Now, my mother is settling into her new apartment. Closing a chapter as another opens.  All are reaching through a necessary uncertainty for what is next.

We left Denver and drove up the mountain into and through a furious snowstorm. Cresting the continental divide, we descended again into spring. There was snow and then, within a mile, there was a blanket of green climbing the hillside. This morning, outside of our door, the birds are in full chorus. The dandelions are in a heated competition with the grass and it’s anyone’s call which will win, though, left to their own devices, I’d put my money on the dandelions.

We think we are in control of nature but the last laugh is always on us. We are nature. Our control fantasy crumbles with age, making space for new life and next seasons. Whether we want to or not, we send out new shoots of pale green from our dark purple skin, hoping to punch through crusty soil to find the sun. Either way, we change form, stepping into the next, leaving well-known houses and used skin, filled with rich remembering, opening to welcome the new. The impulse to life.

read Kerri’s blog post about THE ONION

Come Look! [on Two Artists Tuesday]

“The artist finds, rather than creates and controls.” ~ Declan Donnellan

I’m not sure when I began including floral shapes in my paintings. I’ve always appreciated the shape of symbols and shapes as symbols. One day in my Seattle studio, I lined the walls with my most recent paintings and was surprised to discover leaves and plants and stems etched into figures and the spaces. My charcoal and paint flora was generic; they were not studies of plants nor in any way representational. They were shapes. They were accidental.

Even when my plant-shapes became intentional they remained generic, improvisational. I didn’t go outside and study the shapes of leaves. It never occurred to me to step into the field next to my studio and look at the plant life. I’m slow that way.

And then I met Kerri. We walk almost every day. While my mind wanders into the ethers and gets lost in the sky, she is busy looking at life’s minutiae. She stops often and takes photographs, usually of a tiny treasure. A forest flower. The bud about to burst on a limb. A butterfly nestled into the leaves. “Look!” she exclaims and kneels on the path, camera in hand. She navigates thorns, wades into tall grasses, climbs over rocks, all to get close enough to see, really see the miniature miracle.

Because she sees, I see. She is single-handedly responsible for my ongoing Georgia O’Keeffe revival. And what I’ve re-learned as Kerri beckons me to, “Come Look!” is that my vast imagination is not capable of creating the amazing shapes and colors and delights that surround me. I’ve been walking through this intense world of marvels my whole life and noticed only the smallest slice. The best I can do is pay attention and dance with what I find.

It’s humbling – as it should be. I’ll never be a better creator than nature because I am a creation of nature. In fact, I realize again and again that my job as an artist is not to create, it is to discover what is already right in front of my face. To open eyes – my eyes and others’ eyes – to the enormity of what already exists. The wild shapes, the dancing colors, the glow of life that I’ll never be able to capture, no matter how great my technique or pure my intention. The best I can do is point to the mystery, with symbol, shape and color, and say, as Kerri does for me each and every day, “Look! Come Look!”

read Kerri’s blog post about SUCCULENTS

See The Verb [on Not So Flawed Wednesday]

Random fact of the day: my waking thought this morning was about The Geography of Thought. No kidding. It’s a terrific book by Richard Nisbett. The subtitle is “How Asians and Westerners Think Differently…And Why.” Somewhere in the recesses of my brain I must have been pondering the bumper sticker we recently saw: I’m With Earth.*

One of the points made in the book, the one that permeated my dream state, is that different languages place different emphasis on different parts of speech. For instance, many Asian languages place emphasis on the verb. English speakers place the emphasis on the noun. In listening to mothers talk to their infant children, an English speaker will say, “Look at the red truck! Do you see the red truck?” An Asian mother will say, “Look at the red truck go!” Do you see the red truck go?”

Why does it matter where the emphasis lands in a language structure? Noun or verb?

The language we use shapes our thinking and seeing. It shapes basic worldviews. Earth as a noun or earth as a verb. Earth as a stand-alone-thing or earth as a moving interrelationship. These are vastly different worldviews.

This was my thought/image coming out of sleep: earth and sky. In a noun world, earth and sky are two distinctly different things. In a verb world, earth and sky are not separate things, they are verbs, actions, interplay of a dynamic relationship. In a noun world, I am also a distinctly different thing. In a verb world, earth, sky and I are not separate things, we are a dynamic inseparable relationship. We.

The bumper sticker is a declaration: I am with earth. It makes perfect sense in a noun world because it is also possible, in a perceptual world of separate things, to be against earth. Nature needs to be conquered, tamed. In a noun world, earth, once tamed, is a resource and resources are meant to be used. In a noun world, we are capable of believing that our actions have no impact on our environment. Action and environment are nouns, separate things.

In a verb world, what you do to the earth is what you do to yourself. No separation. In a perceptual world of relationship, of verbs, it is understood that your actions not only have impacts, your actions are impacts.

We woke to the news of yet another mass shooting. This one in Colorado. As usual, we know that our community and leadership will offer thoughts and prayers but nothing really – not really- will be done to address it. In a noun world, we protect the rights of the individual, the separate thing. In a verb world, there are no mass shootings. None. Violence done to one is violence done to all. In fact, more people are gunned down in the United States in a day than are killed by gun violence in Japan in a decade. The differing linguistic emphasis extends to differing understanding of rights and responsibilities.

Language matters. Where we focus matters. What we emphasize matters. The story we tell is determined by the language we use to tell it. I am with earth. Or, I am earth. I go to worship. I am worship. I seek purpose. I am purpose. Separation. Relationship. A whole philosophy of living reduced to a simple bumper sticker.

So, when we ask complex questions like, “Why can’t we do anything about gun violence?” or, “How is it possible that people in a pandemic refuse to wear masks to protect each other,” our answer is really very simple: our language makes it so.

Perhaps in a world of nouns a declaration is the best we can do. It is a step toward the middle way, a declaration of responsibility to the commons. Black Lives Matter. #MeToo. Stop Asian Hate. I’m With Earth.

*The “I’m with Earth” sticker is from the very cool company Gurus

read Kerri’s blog post about I’M WITH EARTH

Witness Time [on Two Artists Tuesday]

I have this odd sense that time is standing still. I know it is not true though I still go outside each day to check my one sure source of proof: the ever-growing icicles. Ice damming. Without time, the icicles would not grow.

I have this odd sense that the earth is off its axis. I know it is not true though I still go outside each day to check my one sure source of proof. Through the roof, the heat of the house melts the snow and it behaves as water should. It takes the path of least resistance and flows downhill to the colder gutters and, again, behaves as water should. It slows and drips and refreezes as it reaches for earth. Snow to water to ice sculpture. Nature is still behaving according to its principles.

We are expecting snow again today. People are rushing to do their errands early. They want to be in before the snows come.

Twice yesterday, in separate phone calls, we heard the voices on the other end of the line declare that “Three weeks ago seems like a decade ago.” So much has happened. Everything seems in limbo. Both. Like the icicles, it’s hard to reconcile.

I opened the door early this morning to let DogDog out and I was delighted to hear a chorus of birds. I stood in the cold open doorway for a few moments and enjoyed the music. I closed my eyes. The chirpy sounds of spring were out of sync with the piles of snow and ice in our yard, so, with my eyes closed, I gave myself over to the moment.

There is a poignant moment in the Sisyphus saga. Death is bound to a post so time stands still. Without death, nothing moves. Nothing changes. Crops cannot grow. Water cannot flow. Eternal life comes at the expense of change, growth and uncertainty. Absolute certainty brings absolute boredom. Stasis. Icicles cannot form. Sisyphus frees Death from his captivity so water can once again behave as it should.

read Kerri’s blog post about ICE DAMMING

Go Spelunking [on KS Friday]

Arnie is among my team of wise-eyes. In response to a recent post, he wrote that he was relieved that I was stepping back into the light. “Darkness,” he wrote, “has never been the place from which I observed you to start.”

I am also relieved to be stepping back into the light. And, I am most grateful for my foray into darkness. It was necessary. It was useful. “The anger burned off a resistant layer of the onion.” I wrote in reply. “It burned away many of the resentments I was carrying, opened a channel to the voice I was withholding. Nature is not balanced in a world that makes room for light alone.” I was out of balance and needed to walk into that dark cave. Again. There is great power to be found at the dark center of the earth. After defeating the monster Grendel, Beowulf had to go into the dark forest and dive into the dark bottomless swamp to confront a more dark and terrifying monster, Grendel’s mother. He emerged victorious and forever changed.

“This above all: to thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man.” ~ William Shakespeare, Hamlet.

As the night the day. The day the night. Darkness is necessary to perceive the light. It is not possible to thy self be true without a good grasp of the whole truth, including the bits we ignore and deny. I’m only now understanding that this dance in the dark has been central to my lessons and my non-stop-pondering these many months. It is neigh-on-impossible to be true to yourself, to be whole, without embracing the full spectrum of your self. Without both sides of the moon. Self love, it seems, requires a love of ALL parts of your self. Dark and light. There’s plenty of room at the table.

Nature, your nature, is not corrupt or bad. It is nature. There is no judgment in nature, just interrelationship. Cycles and dances. Seasons of growth and rejuvenation. Birth and death. Rather than applying a scalpel it is more useful to go spelunking.

There is no denying we are living through a very dark time. It is the understatement of this young century to suggest that we are finding – again – a host of monsters in our very dark cave. We can, as we have in the past, run from the truth that we find, or, we can at long last pull up a chair, sit with our monsters, and have a chat. Monsters tend to transform when given some time and attention. When light is brought into darkness and darkness is led into light.

It is symbolically perfect and appropriate – deeply human – that the darkest night of the year is the time when many traditions celebrate the return of the light. It is natural, this progression into darkness. It is natural, this journey into light. Roots gather energy during the cold dark months. We rest, knowing that, with the return of the light, there will be much work to do. New crops to plant. New thoughts to harvest and share.

read Kerri’s blog post about NATURE SETTING THE STAGE

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Wash Your Spirit [on Two Artists Tuesday]

“Keep close to Nature’s heart…and break clear away, once in a while, climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.” ~ John Muir

I did not know how badly my spirit needed a good washing until we were hiking the Ditch Trail. The aspen trees were just beyond their autumn peak so the mountainside popped with islands of orange and vibrant yellow. The only noise was the breeze murmuring through the trees, quaking the leaves. I literally felt the world of angry people drop away. I breathed deeply the air, the sun warmed me to the bone. The cleansing commenced. Silence of the mind.

Jim once told me that people go to the seashore to experience the eternal. The tides were coming and going long before your birth and will come and go long after you are gone. It puts everything into perspective.

The mountains are like that, too. They are perspective-givers. This week Horatio told me “This life is short so we better get out there and do what we want to do.” The mountains are in constant motion but our lifespans are too short to see the waves rising and falling. On our last day in Colorado, while climbing above timberline, I realized (again) that in my short life I have been less and less concerned with what I want to do and more and more interested in how I want to be. Standing at the edge of Lower Lost Man Lake with Kerri and Kirsten, a bitter wind watering my eyes, I wanted nothing more. The spirit washing continued.

Driving back to Wisconsin, we mused that our re-entry into the world of people would be difficult. It was nice to be out of the fighting and the lying and the aggression. It made me wonder how the mountains perceive us. Such a small creature steeped in a full-blown-delusion-story of having dominion over all things. “Hubris,” the mountain blinks and we are gone.

In the midst of our incessant search for value and meaning and achievement and worth and dominance, our bitter fight over whose story we will tell, the mountain issues an invitation. Come. Walk awhile. Exit the chatter and stand in this moment. What else do you seek?

read Kerri’s blog post about THE MOUNTAINS

Touch Nature [on Two Artists Tuesday]

“One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.” ― John Muir

Since we’ve exhausted every mountain climbing documentary ever made, we now end our days walking an epic trail. We’ve done some serious time on the Appalachian Trail, The Pacific Crest Trail, The Continental Divide Trail and, lately, our imaginary feet have, through the magic of hiker movies, walked every inch of the John Muir Trail.

In addition to our actual walks everyday, our end of evening film walks serve as our escape. It’s how we cope. Because my pals routinely tell me that they, like us, are exhausted or anxious or chronically unfocused, I’ve started the practice of asking them how they mentally get away amid the age of pandemic, social unrest, natural disaster, and pathological lie. My question is always met with a look (or sound) of surprise. Some read. Some play music. Some exercise. Some unplug from news and technology. All seek some time out-of-doors.

Mental get-a-way.

Hands in the dirt, feet on the path. The changing sky, getting caught in the rain or facing the sun, the smell of falling leaves or pine, those damn mosquitoes, cicada chorus, a hawk visitation…perspective givers, all.

Much of the madness chasing us through our days is nothing more than the horror story we unleash in our minds. Human beings are wildly creative and for proof look no further than the fear tales daily yammering through your thought. Amidst the presence of an actual pandemic, the imagination can let loose a full gallery of monsters.

We have legitimate monsters running rampant in our world. We also have imaginary monsters running roughshod in our brains. Sometimes it’s hard to distinguish between the two. Fortunately, there is a test that helps differentiate between them: the legitimate monsters, as a people (as human beings) we will always turn toward and face. The pandemic. Climate change. Injustice. The imaginary monsters we either run from or work hard to magnify. Ignore or amplify. Why is it that human beings argue so ardently for their fears?

The folks that deny the legitimate monsters have confused the legitimate monsters with the illusory. They believe the yuck that runs around in their minds is real. In order to validate the inner yuck requires an all out suppression of the actual threats like viruses, a warming globe, systemic racism. Conversely, dealing with the real challenges leaves no space for fantasy monsters like deep states and wild-hairy-democrats-drinking blood in under ground tunnels. That’s my theory.

A walk in the woods famously clears the mind of made-up-monsters. All of our devices and politics and power games seem silly when standing among the redwoods or on a beach with infinity breaking like waves and rushing the sand to meet your toes. There’s nothing like The Milky Way to make all those inner monsters seem trivial.

There’s nothing like cresting a mountain to affirm that we are – if nothing else – united in our smallness and passing lifetimes. It is only in our minds that we are possibly bigger than the mountain or more important than the seas.

read Kerri’s blog post about NATURE TRAIL

Why Ask Why [on Two Artists Tuesday]

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A rare warm day, walking the Des Plains River trail. I should have been startled when Kerri suddenly jumped off the trail but I’ve grown accustomed to her spring-loaded-photo-impulsive-gambols. I actually love the passion of her image capturing so I’ve learned not to be surprised when she leaps and snaps. There is no danger. There is a photo opp.

“SEE!” she exclaimed, showing me the photo. “Even nature is asking ‘Why?'”

My first thought: Which “why” is nature asking? Why a pandemic?  Why so much division?

Simon Sinek has made a career of teaching people to ask “Why?” before asking “How?” It makes sense: you should probably know why you want to scale the mountain before asking, “How will I do it?” People need an answer to “why.” And, because we are human, the answer to “why” need not be reasonable or rational. “Because it is there,” is an acceptable answer to “why?” I want to. I need to know. I want to feel. I need to see what is there.

“How?” is a question that can only be answered after the fact. “How” is known through reflection. There is the plan. There is the reality that comes when the plan meets the unknown forces. The plan changes. The only honest answer to “how” is: do what makes sense and we’ll talk about it later.

Amidst a pandemic, it is only human to throw up our arms to the sky and demand an answer to our “Why?”  To borrow a lyric from Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds: “I don’t believe in an interventionist god. But I know, darling,  that you do.” In other words, viruses are intention-free. Sometimes, even though we want an explanation, there is no “why.”

There is, however, always a plan, there is a path to “How?”  How do we protect ourselves? How do we deal with it? In fact, there are layers to the question “how?” The first layer of ‘how’ is simple: social distance, wear a mask, wash your hands. Looking back from this vantage point, we know it is the best we can do short of a vaccine. Simple science.

The second layer of the how-cake is more complex and, like all ‘how’ questions, we will only be able to talk about at some point down the broken road. Maybe a vaccine. Maybe herd immunity. Maybe, maybe, maybe. Maybe we will be foolish, like the Philadelphia parade during the Spanish flu and escalate the death toll to the point that we wake up and listen to the first ‘how?’

The virus is a force like a tornado is a force. Why did it take my neighbor’s house and not mine? Why did the forest fire rage through this neighborhood and not that neighborhood?

Here’s the only “why” question we really need to consider: in the face of this virus-forest-fire, why did we rush out to light matches (pack into bars and onto beaches), parade around screaming about our individual rights instead of metaphorically rushing into the fire to save our neighbors in the only way we knew how (social distance, masks) –  as we would have done in an inferno?

I don’t believe in an interventionist god. But I do believe in intentional human beings (conscious and otherwise).

Nature need not ask “why?” We do. It’s a sure bet that our answer will make little or no sense at all.

 

read Kerri’s blog post about WHY

 

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Coalesce [on Not So Flawed Wednesday]

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Sometimes, when we are walking through the woods, I imagine myself with none of the labels that I claim as important. What if “artist” did not apply? Or “teacher.” What if none of my opinions or ideas or justifications had any merit or substance? What if they were bits of armor or heavy clothing that I could drop as I walked? So much lighter, less encumbered, who, then, would I be? Divested of my made-up-meaning and my hard-fought-for stress, what might I experience?

These imaginings, my questions – at least to me – are not nihilistic. They are the opposite. When I am walking in the woods and all the clutter and noise and the oh-so-important-to-do-list falls away, when all of my investments in my-very-important-ideas and my-resistances-to-immovable-objects drops off, when my frustrations and anxieties evaporate, I come back to my senses. Literally and metaphorically. The cold air. The limbs waving and groaning in the breeze. The quiet chatter of the brook that ambles through Bristol Wood. I become the moment I inhabit. I inhabit the moment of my becoming. That’s it. My “meaning” takes on a proper proportion, no greater or smaller than life itself.

Listening to the brook, the sound of our feet crunching the snow, I remember something John O’Donohue wrote. “The river is a miracle of presence. Each place it flows through is the place that it is…In a river, past, present, and future coalesce in the one passionate flowing.”

 

read Kerri’s blog post about THE WOODS

 

 

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Check Your Reality [on Two Artists Tuesday]

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We parked the truck in the Kemper Center lot, far enough from the shore not to be hit by the flying debris, the chunks of seawall and pavement being hurtled from the impact of the waves. Kerri has lived here for over 30 years, “I’ve never seen anything like this,” she repeated as a towering wave engulfed the gazebo, took down a piece of the wall of the art center, a hunk of coastline disappeared.

Later, after the storm, we went back. Trees were down, encased in ice. Huge sections of the walking path were shattered and tossed into the flooded mess of the parking lot behind the center. Walking was treacherous. Like the trees, the ground, the rocks, the destruction was coated in a thick layer of ice. It was beautiful and inconceivable.

Words mask all manner of reality. We have a word, nature, that can’t even begin to touch the magnitude, the power of where it points. Mother Nature. I have been thrown out of bed in an earthquake that brought down freeways like they were so much satin ribbon. Go to Pompeii or Herculeneum, visit Mt. Saint Helens, watch with disbelief any of the news  footage of any one of the tsunamis that have wiped communities off the map. Wrap your mind around it, if you can.

We are cavalier in our conversations about global warming. We impact, we do not command. We reduce it to questions of business, of protecting the beef industry. Which economy will suffer most? We make up these strangely insignificant divisions. We imagine that we are the center, holding all the controls. We imagine that it is all about us. So small, a chihuahua yipping at a forest fire.

Sitting in the truck, feeling the boom of the waves in my chest as they tore off chunks of the shore, I felt tiny. I remembered a snippet of film I saw about a man who wore a superhero suit and stood in the face of an oncoming storm. He flexed and stomped and raged for the camera. And then the storm hit. The best he could do was run for his life.

 

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read Kerri’s blog post about THE STORM

 

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ice ©️ 2020 kerri sherwood

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