Try To Explain [on Merely A Thought Monday]

It’s nearly impossible to explain. I’ve had the conversation a thousand times and I know it’s fruitless from the outset. Why did I choose a life without a safety net? A life with stability and benefits? Why was I willing to work 80 hour weeks for not-very-much-pay? I’ve heard more than once that “Artists are indulgent.” Or, “Artists are fools.”

Maybe. I’ll never know because it is impossible to explain to someone who operates from a different imperative. I’ve thought myself foolish more than a few times, and, usually, when I measure myself by the standards of 9-to-5.

For me, like all the artists I know and admire, there has never been a distinct line between work and play. Given any amount of free time, I’d rather be in the studio than anywhere on earth. When I was directing plays and running theatre companies, I couldn’t wait to get up in the morning and get back to work. The time between productions or studio time, what most people call “vacation,” was-and-is meant to catch up on sleep and fill up the well for the next project. Often, this thing called ‘vacation’ was an opportunity to visit museums, drink in art/inspiration or stand in a castle or sit in the city where the next play is set.

For most of my life, even before I really thought about artists or artistry, vacation involved a sketchbook. I sat in the back of the station wagon and drew Colonel Sanders from the bucket of chicken or tried to copy a photo from the National Geographic magazine. Fun and play involved a deep dive into the world I could create/discover through a pencil on blank pages.

I can spend hours sitting and watching people. Small dramas. Gestures. Manipulations. Kindnesses. A little burst of love that would otherwise go unnoticed. Traveling for work meant time spent in airports, a goldmine of observation-time. Work or play?

Perhaps that is why there is no line between work and play. I see it in Kerri, too. We are constantly noticing. Paying attention to what is beautiful or interesting. Feeling what is needed and what is not. We’ve talked endlessly about being empathic. Feeling what others feel. I’ve watched Kerri walk into a rehearsal and “know” where there is pain, where there is joy, know when she needs to wrap some humor around a bruised community. Many years ago, a wise-old-artist told me that I had to learn to distinguish between what was my “stuff” and what was not. What were my feelings and what was not. Sage advice. I’ve been witness to many artists imploding, carrying other people’s garbage as their own.

When we walk, Kerri takes photographs. “I’m sorry,” she says, stooping to focus on a leaf or stone. Why does she apologize for noticing? Here’s a hint: all of her life she’s been asked to explain why she stops to notice. What value can there possibly be in stopping forward motion, especially in a world hell-bent on “getting there faster.” What is the value-proposition of noticing? “Can you please explain why you have to stop and see and, of all things, make it into music?” Or a story. Or a painting. Or a dance.

“Why did you climb that tree?” the adults asked. “It’s where I write poetry,” she explained. Work or vacation? Is it play?

Every Saturday we go through Kerri’s photos from the week and choose five as prompts for our Melange. We collect phrases we hear, words that inspire or disturb. Those end up in the Melange, too. Are we working? Is this play? We delight in sitting each day and writing together. We laugh at our Smack-dab cartoon. They are fun to write and draw and color. None of this makes us any money. Is it work or is it vacation?

I’m currently drawing cartoons and tossing thought-bombs into a community of software entrepreneurs – the boss understands that I notice things and can translate what I notice into other shapes and expressions. Is there value in that? Is it work? Is it play? Will it make money?

Are there possibly other measures of value?

It’s nearly impossible to explain.

read Kerri’s blog post about VACATION

Watch Your Mouth [on saturday morning smack-dab.]

My mouth gets me into trouble. It has all of my life. Once, I told an artistic director – the theatre company was in trouble – that we could build our sets with little or no budget if they were cleverly designed. She said, “Great. You’re hired Mr. Designer.” She threw down the gauntlet. I designed a season of plays that cost nary a penny. Once a scavenger, always a scavenger.

My mouth gets me in trouble with Kerri almost every day. That’s how, over time, my mouth came to be an independent character, a persona separate from the rest of me. “Did your mouth just say that?” she asks. “My mouth said it, but I didn’t mean it,” I reply.

I have to constantly watch my mouth. It has a mind of its own and will take every opportunity to put my foot in it.

read Kerri’s blog post about my MOUTH

smack-dab. © 2021 kerrianddavid.com

Pull The Weeds [on KS Friday]

My very first painting teacher offered me some sage advice. I was painting figures while the rest of the class worked on landscapes. Being the odd-child-out I assumed something was wrong with me. She said, “Tree painters are a dime a dozen. Someday, being the only one will seem like a gift so ignore what they are interested in and paint what is interesting to you.” Jospeh Campbell said, “Follow your bliss.” It’s the same advice that Jackie Fry gave to the boy-version of me.

I never imagined myself with a back yard. And, now that I have one, I find it a place of rest and peace. This is a confession that I’ll never admit to in the future: weeding is meditative. Each day I find myself taking a few moments to go out and yank the invaders out by the roots. No thought. No other thing to do. I simply tend the garden, knowing I am accomplishing nothing since weeds are good at growing and more will appear tomorrow. We are strange allies, they provide me with a daily meditation.

If I was as an art teacher, I’d send my students into my back yard. Nature is a masterful teacher of color. Orange and green. Highlights of yellow. Barney provides subtle blues, purples, and pinks. The orange and green of the lily pop against the purple and blue of the aging piano. Warm colors come forward. Cool colors recede. It’s all there.

I read somewhere that, as an artist, “to discover” is more potent than “to invent.” See what is there, beyond what you think is there. Everything is fluid so the discoveries are endless. While I weed the sun passes beneath a cloud. Everything changes. The sun reappears and the colors change again. Not the same. Different. I’ll never be able to capture it and that is the best held secret of an artist. Another wisdom from Jackie Fry: you will never succeed. Art is a relationship, not a transaction. So, no pressure. It is a relationship, complex and dynamic. It is not about capturing an image. It is about freeing your sight and possibly freeing the sight of others. Facilitate discovery. Play to play, to become a better player. Open a small door to peek into the vast inner universe.

It’s a paradox. It’s impossible to eradicate the weeds. That is not why I pull them. It’s impossible to capture life in an image. ‘Capturing’ is not why I paint. Relating is why I paint. I do it because I’ll never create anything more beautiful than the Tiger Lily dancing with Barney. I paint so that I might see and share in the dance.

ALWAYS WITH US on the album AS IT IS by KERRI SHERWOOD

Kerri’s albums are available on iTunes and streaming on Pandora

read Kerri’s blog post about the TIGER LILY

always with us/as it is ©️ 2004 kerri sherwood

Appreciate The Moment [on Not So Flawed Wednesday]

Monumental moments in a life sometimes seem so small at the time. They pass as incidental but, in retrospect, are profound.

In his recent visit, Bruce and I reminisced about my inability and horror of singing. In the majority of my life, I couldn’t find a pitch if it was sitting on my shoulder. Kerri jumped into the conversation telling Bruce that I’d found my voice. Well, to be honest, she helped me find my voice. A patient teacher who simply taught me how to hear. Bruce’s mouth dropped open when I told him that I sang at my grandfather’s funeral. “It was terrifying,” I said.

“But you did it,” Kerri added.

When I met her, as I’ve previously recounted, I told Kerri that, “I don’t sing and I don’t pray.” And, then came the ukulele band. On the day I flew in for my third visit, Kerri picked me up from O’Hare and we rushed back to make the first rehearsal of her new group, the ukulele band. We met in the gardens of the Kemper Center, Lake Michigan humming by our side. She handed me a black uke. She taught the group to tune. We learned a chord or two. And picked and sang our way through a few easy songs. I dare anyone to avoid singing when they are in a group of silly colored ukuleles. It was my first of many lessons. I was having so much fun strumming, that I forgot that I was singing.

Such a simple moment. The beginning of challenging a faulty life-story. A self-imposed limit. Kerri was wise enough to know that I needed to begin with fun. Laughter is a great maker of courage. The first step.

Eight years ago. At the time it seemed so incidental. Following this amazing musician through her day. Playing along. Carrying her books. And, all along, it was her gentle way of saying, “Let’s challenge that obstacle. There’s a way around it and all you have to do is have fun and learn again to listen.”

read Kerri’s blog post about UKULELES

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

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

Ask The Gorilla [on DR Thursday]

I’m not the first person to use a gorilla as the teacher in a story. This gorilla, in this story, is teaching the little girl the difference between playing-to-win and playing-to-become-a-better-player. The story begins when the girl asks the gorilla, “Do you want to play?” and the gorilla responds, “Well, it depends. What do you mean by ‘play’?”

It’s not a flippant question. It speaks directly to the “why” of what you do. The reason. Simon Sinek put this question at the center of his golden circle. James Carse wrote his philosophical masterpiece, Finite and Infinite Games, about this simple distinction.

Yesterday I had a conversation about success. A conversation about the difference between internal and external motivation. External motivators, like winning-as-your-why, are necessarily grounded in fear. What if you lose? Who are you if you fail? Winning at all cost will eventually lead to quagmires not unlike where the Republican party now finds itself. Obstruct. Lie. Gerrymander. Fix the vote. Fix the game. Any and all deeper value or ethic is sacrificed. There is always a cost when the “why” is as superficial as “to win.” The body seizes-up, loses its freedom of movement when fear of losing is the central driver of action. The nation-body, too.

The path to mastery cannot run through a win-lose “why.” Failure is an essential on a master’s path. Throw many pots, the metaphor from Art & Fear, is a mantra not only for artistic freedom, but for honing skills. Getting better and better at playing. See what happens. Playing to play, to become a better player, transcends and finally removes the word ‘failure.’ The body gains more and more freedom of movement when every action is a learning experience.

I wrote and illustrated this book back in my dark ages when I was facilitating diversity and inclusion trainings. Some companies hired us because they feared being sued. They feared losing money and had no real interest in diversity, inclusion, equality, fair play, betterment for their employees. They feared losing their privilege. Diversity initiatives ask that we stop rigging the game.

Other companies hired us because they truly desired to address the inequities in their organization. They wanted to step into their blind spots and see. They wanted to become better and better players in their communities. Early on we learned to distinguish between the fear-clients and those that were sincere. We became better players by choosing to work with organizations that were honest and sincere about their “why.” Players of infinite games.

I never attempted to publish Play-to-Play, my little illustrated meditation. Over the years I’ve given away some of the illustrations. It is one of the many stones I’ve stacked, pots I’ve thrown, the many projects and paintings that are literally stacked in my studio. It seems more relevant now than ever before. Yesterday, looking again at the illustrations, I told Kerri, “I should draw this again. I’m better now.”

She asked, “Why?”

I said, “Exactly.”

read Kerri’s blog post about STACKING STONES

play to play ©️ 2005 david robinson

Free Your Freedom [on Merely A Thought Monday]

dontgrowup copy

David sends photographs of his young son, Dawson, painting. Or playing. Or just enjoying the moment. I love them. They bring smiles and a Picasso-esque reminder. Paint like a child. Play-to-play and for no other reason. Wear a cape and fly!

Adults get enmeshed in all manner of weird issues. They come to think that things like wearing-a-mask-during-a-pandemic can be an inhibitor to their freedom when, in fact, they gave away their freedom ages ago. They grew up and forgot how to play, how to mush color around with their fingers, how to roll down a grassy slope and run back to the top to do it all over again. They forgot how to play with others. They muzzle themselves.

Adults give away their freedom when they come to believe that a brand of car or the label on their clothes gives them status or makes them sexy. They confuse their money with their morality. They give away 5 days so they might live for 2 or, worse, they suffer through thirty years of toil with the zany idea that they will live life when they “retire.”

Adults get lost in illusion. They snap towels and brag about their wild-side while pulling on their uniform-stiff-collar-suit and cinching up a tie around their neck. They somehow come to think that pushing other people down will raise them up the ladder. They create odd justifications: dog-eat-dog or business-is-business or divide-and-conquer. Play-to-win and for no other reason.

Let’s face it, adults fill themselves up with fear and judgment. They can’t paint with their fingers because someone might call them childish or stupid or worse! And, horror of horrors! What if their finger painting isn’t perfect in the eyes of others?! Shame is a great inhibitor especially when it is the imagined response to fun-and-free-self-expression. The only safe thing to do is put away the dangerous color, wash the paint from your hands. The only safety is to judge others! Establish some mask of authority; become the arbiter of right and wrong. Dole out the shame so as not to receive it. Phew.

Adults mistakenly believe that power is control, that power is something wielded over others. Every child knows that power has nothing to do with control. Power is something created with others, like painting with your dad. That is power-full! Even infants know that power is a relationship of mutual support, it crackles between people. Humans-of-every-age are never more powerful than when helping others grow.

Poor sad adults have it upside-down and backwards. As I used to tell students, “Any idiot with a pistol can take life, it takes a very powerful person to give life.” There’s no real power in the taking. There’s infinite power in the giving.

Just so, there’s no freedom in the taking. There’s infinite freedom in the giving, the free expression, the playing, the laughing, the sharing. Every child knows that.

 

read Kerri’s blog post about DON’T GROW UP!

 

 

donnieandmarie uke website box copy

 

 

ChasingBubbles (full) copy

 

chasing bubbles ©️ 2019 david robinson

 

Create Calm [on Not So Flawed Wednesday]

calm copy

This word, calm, is a rare bird among words. It is a triple play of words: an adjective, a noun, and a verb. A descriptor, a thing, and an action.

If I had a superpower, it would be to calm. To create calm. To inspire calm hearts. Soothe, make peaceful, generate calm within and beyond the eye of the hurricane.

Last night we watched The Barkley  Marathons, a documentary about a wacky ultra-marathon trail race in Tennessee. Very few people finish the race. One of the racers, an unlikely finisher, told the story of how he came to be in the field. His dad did what he was supposed to do – he worked and saved all of his life so he might retire and then go have experiences. But – you know the story – he died one year shy of retirement. “I decided not to wait,” the runner said. “I want to suck the marrow from every moment of this life.”

Usually, the center of a delayed life smolders. Henny Penny races around the center-cage of a fearful life. But, you’ll know someone who is fully in their moment, who is sucking the marrow out of this tasty life, when you see them. Their center is calm. They are not predetermining their experiences. They’ve stripped off their “should” and “can’t.” Rather, they step onto the unknown field and open their arms to what comes. They play an infinite game, they play-to-play, and perhaps learn a little bit about themselves along the way.

 

read Kerri’s blog post about CALM

 

 

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classic ©️ 2013 david robinson

Turn Around [on Two Artists Tuesday]

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Jen suggested green. So, throughout the day, to keep us sane in our home-stay-life, we shared pictures of green things, surprising and ordinary, that we found around the house or in our walks. The next day was lines. Then circles. We use our seclusion to open our eyes and see what is beautiful and striking – and mostly unnoticed until now.

Late the other night, 20 and Kerri spent an hour on the phone. 20 is among the those at highest risk and has self-quarantined. There is a park close to his house and, once a day, when it is likely that few other people will be out, he walks the paths in the park. He takes amazing photographs and each day sends us his latest pictures. On the phone, he introduced Kerri to the app he uses to tweak his gorgeous photos. “This opens a whole world of possibilities!” she exclaimed.

Have you noticed the hysterical songs, art, games, mock-challenges (the is-it-a chihuahua-or-a-blueberry-muffin? challenge is my current favorite). Creativity flourishes within constraints. It is a form of paradox-magic that I’ve always appreciated. A good constraint has the power to yank people out of their daily problem solving morass and turn them around into the creative.

Robert Fritz has the best definition for this magic: problem solving is trying to eliminate what you don’t want. Creating is trying to bring into being what you do want. It is a matter of direction (wink, wink: the direction of intention). At first glance these challenges and games might seem frivolous but a deeper look always reveals something more profound. We are opening our eyes to what is right in front of us. We are sharing, trying to help each other through a difficult time. Our natural capacity for play and whimsy rises to the top. Possibilities rise to the top. Instead of asking “why?” we begin asking “why not?” We create.

Idealistic blather or pattern? Problem solving has a way of creating more problems – it is a myopic. Turn around and consider the world you want to create. Walk at that. You’ll find that your eyes open, your thoughts expand. Playing-to-play will be valued and necessary. You’ll note, with gratitude, that you are not in this creative ride alone.

 

read Kerri’s blog post about CIRCLES

 

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