Sing [on KS Friday]

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The story is famous in these parts. It goes like this: when I met Kerri I told her that she needed to know two things about me: 1) I don’t sing. 2) I don’t pray. She gave me a sideways knowing look and said, “Oh, that’s too bad.”

I had some very-traumatic-early-in-my-life-singing-experiences. Lots of shame and humiliation led me to an adamant preemptive proclamation with my musician-soon-to-be wife: I do not sing. No way. Don’t even ask. I’ll watch from the sidelines.

Of course, within a few months, she had me in a ukulele band, a choir, and a band. It turns out I like to sing. The problem, she taught me, was not in my capacity to sing, it was in how I hear sound. I hear an octave up. She taught me how to hear. I am now a confident parasitic singer (i.e. I sing just fine with others, just don’t ask me to sing alone).

I’ve spent my life teaching people to see. How beautifully ironic (or perfect) that I needed to learn to hear.

Early in the saga of Beowulf, he is caught in a swarm and blinded by bees. Because he was blinded, he had to develop other senses; his heightened senses were critical in combating and defeating the monster Grendel. Late in his life, he retired as a beekeeper. He not only made peace with bees, they become his allies. At the very end, his bees are his greatest strength. They defeat a dragon plaguing his kingdom.

The great stories are with us for a reason. They can help us navigate and craft our own life stories. For instance, the greatest wounds can be limits or they can lead to new and vital gifts. I’ve learned from Beowulf that the path you take – limit or liberation –  depends on the story you argue for, the focus you choose. When I met Kerri I was arguing for my limitation. I do not sing. Period.

Another recurring theme in the great stories goes like this: when you are ready, the right teacher appears.

 

read Kerri’s blog post about SING

 

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Imagine It [on Merely A Thought Monday]

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This is a tale of two schools, both in the same school district. It is the story of the very day when the younger version of me grasped with both hands the absolute importance of the arts, when I understood to my bones that art was not a luxury but a necessity in a healthy world.

As the manager of the theatre conservatory, I sometimes went to observe the actor outreach programs in the schools. On this particular day, two schools were on the schedule. At the first school, I followed a team that went into the younger classrooms, 1st graders. They played imagination games with the students. I saw princesses and dragons and superheroes reach into wild possibilities.

We left the first school and literally drove across the tracks to the poorer side of town. I decided to follow the same team. They played the same imagination games with the same age group but, at the this school, the children played “Where will the rent come from?” This time, instead of flying into possibilities, these children hit an imagination glass ceiling. The hard realities of life already had a strangle-hold on their creative minds. The actors had to work hard to break through the glass ceiling. I realized that, for these children, it was not safe to entertain possibilities.

Picasso once said that, “He can who thinks he can, and can’t who thinks he can’t. This is an inexorable, indisputable law.” We dream ourselves into being. That is the point and the power of the story we tell ourselves about ourselves. That is the purpose of art, to open our imagination so we might create  a better, more expansive version of ourselves. To intend and give shape to what we imagine.

This inexorable, indisputable law applies to nations and communities as well as to individuals.

We have always been a nation divided. There have always been tracks to cross. Our history is of a two party system tug-of-war. We’ve espoused equality while practicing slavery; even our rhetoric is at odds with itself. The new wave of immigrants have been subjected to unspeakable cruelty from the previous generation of immigrants. There has always been “haves” and “have-nots.” The question of whether of not we can unite in the face of diversity is at the epicenter of the American experiment. Can we imagine ourselves whole? Can we create opportunity for all? It is a question with no definitive answer because it requires us to engage with it again and again and again. We must imagine ourselves anew each and every day.

We unite when we are at our shining best. We pride ourselves on the dream of creating a new world where all people experience the freedom to create what they can imagine. Creative tension, competition on a level playing field, invites innovation and invitation. We can.

We divide when our imagination fails us. Fear always fills the void left by vapid imaginations. We are – like people of all nations in all times – easily manipulated when we lapse into fear and turn our angst on each other. It is, after all, a strategy. Divide and rule is the oldest trick in the book used by dictators and emperors to fracture an otherwise powerful populace.  It will play out as it always has and always will – a weakened nation. A collapse. People who turn in and cannibalize each other.

We-the-people are telling ourselves a miserable story. The pandemic is merely exacerbating our real dilemma. Divide and rule is filling the void, installing hard glass between us and our best imaginings. We are eating each other alive.

We are better than this. We deserve better.

 

read Kerri’s blog post about WE DESERVE BETTER

 

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Consider Levitation [on Two Artists Tuesday]

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And what does this mean, this pear sitting atop a wine bottle? Certainly this was not a naturally occurring event! No pear could possibly achieve so grand a seat without some form of assistance. Or, could it?

Levitation is a possibility but it is doubtful that this pear – or any pear, for that matter – is capable of the necessary powers of concentration required to raise itself to wine bottle heights. And, if levitation is the answer, we are still left with the primary question: what does it mean?

The pear might answer, as George Mallory answered when asked why he might want to place himself atop Mt. Everest, “Because it is there.” Meaning making does not require depth but it does necessitate curiosity. “Because I can” really means “because I want to.” The grass is always greener. Why step on the moon? Why sail to the edge of the world? Why paint a painting or compose a song? Something calls.

Because it feels good. Because it is beautiful in my eyes. Because I might learn something about myself and, therefore, the world in which I create/inhabit. Most explorations are internal journeys even if they look like mountain ascents. Soul searching leads to more experiences with soul. The best questions lead to bigger questions, like this one (last week’s winner for best question): Does the soul live in the body or does the body live within the soul?

It seems like a good time to borrow a title from Joseph Campbell: what exactly are The Inner Reaches Of Outer Space?  What are the outer reaches of inner yearning?

Does this pear have yearnings? What does it mean, this pear sitting atop a wine bottle? Believe me, I’ve asked the pear and it remains silent on the subject. Wise pear! It knows I must make my own meaning and hopes that I will never cease asking my questions and, above all, never delude myself into thinking I have even the slightest bit of an answer.

 

read Kerri’s blog post about the PEAR & THE BOTTLE

 

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Stand In It [on Not So Flawed Wednesday]

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Adding to the pandemic-time-disorientation-syndrome, gas prices dropped to a level that we haven’t seen for 20 years. I looked at the sign while filling up and asked Kerri, “Wow. Where are we?”

She shook her head. “This is weird.”

“What were you doing the last time gas was this cheap?” I asked.

“It’s ironic, isn’t it,” she replied, “cheap gas and we can’t go anywhere.” We are road tripping fools so inexpensive gas is a titanic tease amidst a stay at home order.

There are cultures on this planet that believe we move through time backwards, we row ourselves through life with our eyes firmly fixed on where we’ve been rather than where we are going.

This makes sense to me since making sense of life is a backward looking affair. And, the really great thing about sense-making is that it is never completed. The story we tell ourselves about our life and choices is…a story. A new day brings a new perspective on an old well-storied choice. Some of my dumbest decisions, the actions I have been most critical for taking, from my current view, now look wise. Or, at the very least, inevitable.

We afford ourselves more grace with a longer view and several revisions of the old story.

It has been said that the fear of death is not, as advertised, the fear of the unknown. It is the fear of the loss of what is known. We hold fast to our oars, grip with all of our might onto what we think we know and  can control.  We row our little boat in a vast uncontrollable sea.

Actors come alive on stage when they forget their lines. Suddenly the “real” penetrates the pretend. The loss of control ignites life both on the stage and off. The audience sits forward. Something real and unknown is unfolding!

Fear of losing the known. Like actors on the stage, people come alive when they turn and stare into what cannot be controlled. The now. When they forget their lines, lose their name and stare blankly into the dark house. And, the only thing to be done is to stand in it. Relax. Sit forward. Something real is unfolding.

The words will return. We’ll get a grip on the oars sooner or later. The illusion will be restored. A good actor knows that panic only perpetuates the blankness. Relax. A good actor knows the others on the stage will lend a hand if necessary. Good assurances for all of us in this pandemic play. Stand in it. Our boat is going someplace we cannot control.

Something real is unfolding.

 

read Kerri’s blog post about CHEAP GAS

 

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Touch The Chair [on Merely A Thought Monday]

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I am reading books slowly these days. Meditating on words. Sometimes it takes me months to read what I used to blow through in a few days. I am often pleasantly surprised and taken aback by how the words I read on this morning – words written months or years ago – line up exactly with the events of my day. All the time I catch myself thinking, “How did they know I needed to hear that today?”

“There was an altar upon which we could place a photo of someone who had died. Kim chose to put a picture of his “old” self; I found one of him rowing his peapod looking so happy, so strong. Beautiful. We both grieve the loss of that Kim while getting to know and love this new one.” ~ Judy Friesem, Summoned By A Stroke.

Grieve the loss. This is the fourth time in my life that world circumstance/events have drawn a hard line between ‘what was’ and ‘who-knows-what-will-become.’ What was normal and true last week will never again be the same. Social distancing. Pandemic. Disruption is scary and confusing.

I’ve many times heard the story of immigrants, preparing to leave their homes forever for some distant and unknown shore, just before leaving, circle the rooms, touching walls, running their fingers along the arm of a well-loved chair. One last look. This is who I was. Who will I become? It is necessary to mourn what is known before making space for the unknown.

In the midst of spinning change, hanging on too long to the way things-ought-to-be or used-to-be is destructive. More than once I’ve stood with a group in full denial of their new circumstance insisting that “This is the way we’ve always done it!”  Perhaps. What is comfortable today was at one time new and uncomfortable. Someday, what is now new and uncomfortable will be a well worn path. The first step: one last look. This is who we were.

“No person is a finished thing, regardless of how frozen or paralysed their self image might be. Each one of us is in a state of perennial formation. Carried within the flow of time, you are coming to be who you are in every new emergent moment.” ~John O’Donohue, Beauty

Imagination lives in the midst of “It happened to me.” One of our greatest super-powers is the capacity to imagine ourselves different, more expansive. It is what we call dreaming. We “see” ourselves” writing the book or scaling the mountain or being a better parent or working at the soup kitchen or losing the weight or…becoming the more perfect union.

Imagination requires leaving. Leaving requires imagination.

“Fate has a way of handing us what we need in order to become whole…” ~ Judy Friesem, Summoned By A Stroke

 

read Kerri’s blog post about HEALING

 

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Pick Your Star [on Not So Flawed Wednesday]

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Mike Libecki is a mountain climber. He calls the necessary suffering of his sport pre-joy. “That way,” he explains, “I get to use the word joy in all of my sentences.” There’s joy at the summit. There’s pre-joy on the way up. It’s not a bad orientation to life, everything is relative to joy.

Skip’s meditation these days is on resilience. After a horrific car accident, he has more than a few tales of pre-joy. He has even more tales of joy. Human beings have a remarkable capacity to choose their stories, to orient to a path that is life-giving or to collapse their story into a state of no-joy. Skip chose resilience. The capacity to recover. To spring back in order to spring forward. Pick your star and sail toward it. That is Skip’s lesson to me.

Judy just wrote a book, Summoned By A Stroke. It is the blog posts she wrote to her community of support after her husband, Kim, suffered a major stroke. It is a remarkable testament to the invincibility of the human spirit when it intentionally orients to joy. It is also pays homage to the magnetic pull joy has on a community. There is  no attempt in Judy’s story to deny the pre-joy; there is a deep understanding that there would be no real joy without it.

During my Seattle years, when I was feeling blue, I would jump on the ferry to Bainbridge Island to visit Judy and Kim. This man wrecked by a stroke and, my friend, Judy, his wife, never failed to lift my spirits, to fill me up with laughter. More than once, on the return ferry, I would sit in utter amazement. I told myself that I should be bringing comfort and support to them but the opposite was, in fact, the case. What I experienced with them was beyond words. So much joy. If there is a place where pre-joy and joy blend together, Judy and Kim inhabited it. Today, this is Judy and Kim’s lesson to me:

“Kim and I are learning that happiness is not about what we do or where we go but how loving we are in relationships, how open and curious we are about where we find ourselves, and how inventive we can be with what we are given.” ~ Judy Friesem, Summoned By A Stroke

 

read Kerri’s blog post on PRE-JOY/JOY

 

 

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Change Your Mantra [on Merely A Thought Monday]

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It was only after the dive that I realized my folly. Rather than enjoy it I repeated to myself, over and over, to just get through it. I’d be fine once I was back in the boat. I was afraid.

It was a very deep dive, the deepest I’d ever attempted. There were sharks swimming beneath me. There were sharks swimming above me. The Blue Hole. The wall was gorgeous, an explosion of red, orange, and yellow. Looking up was a miracle of sunlight on water. Looking down was a study in the color blue, layers of turquoise, cerulean, disappearing into a bottomless (aptly named) ultramarine.

My mantra, just get through it, was a wall between me and extraordinary beauty of it.

Later, in the boat, I appreciated it. I also appreciated that my experience was unnecessarily fearful. Rather, I understood that the only real danger in The Blue Hole was my doubt in myself. The sharks were not man-eaters. The depth was the limit for amateur divers but not extreme. The dive master was world class. I had plenty of oxygen.  I was safe everywhere but in my imagination.

The dive made me wonder how much of my life I’ve spent telling myself fear tales? Instead of having an experience of wonder, how often have I storied myself in fear? How often have I made up monsters and raced to the other side of the moment, raced to get it over with rather than be in it?

Sitting in the boat, I realized that it wasn’t the fear that I was wrangling with. Fear is natural, especially in alien environments like deep water, especially when sharks are involved. It was my mantra that plagued me. Get through it.

Next time, I told myself, I will have a new mantra. Be in it. Fear is an experience, too. It’s part of life and, at the end of my days, I will be sad if the story of my life was simply getting through it. Or over it. I want to know that I was in it, all of it; the fear, the joy, the ugly, the angry, the beautiful blues, the sad days, and the quiet wandering.

 

read Kerri’s blog post about GETTING IT OVER WITH

 

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Put Down Your Straight Edge [on Two Artists Tuesday]

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I just wrote a “Statement of Philosophy of Teaching.” It’s for an application to teach at a college that emphasizes experiential learning. If I had a dime for every time I championed experiential learning or used that phrase on a crowd of wooden educators, stony-faced business types, or boards-of-directors, I’d have no need to write statements of teaching philosophy. And, truly, think on it for a moment, what is the opposite?

Andy’s phrase: experience equals knowledge, knowledge equals confidence, confidence equals success. In other words, the only way to learn to ride a bike is to get on the bike and ride. There will be falls. We call that learning. And, the really great thing about getting on the bike and riding is that one day, after a few more falls and many more miles, you might compete in the Tour de France. You will be pursuing something other than your balance skills. Learning is like that.

The problem with shorthand phrases like Andy’s, although accurate on one level,  is that they describe a straight line. Life, I’ve learned from experience, has rowdy roller coaster phases that nearly fling you off the planet, awkward backward stepping to get out of wrong choices, chapters wandering lost in the forest, days spent sitting on the rock stripping off the armor before another step can be taken. Life is not lived in a straight line. Experience is a windy road. It only looks straight in the post-mortem. Knowledge gathering en route to confidence is no walk in a meadow. Andy will tell you that, too.

We make meaning out of our experiences after the fact. We have experiences first and story them second. It is why learning is circular. It is why a rich life is circular, why life lessons come around again and again.

 

read Kerri’s blog post about WINDING TRAILS

 

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Carry The Story [on Two Artists Tuesday]

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Next to the pool table in the basement of my grandfather’s house was a bowl of nuts and an old metal nutcracker. It was the velveteen rabbit of nutcrackers: falling apart, loose joints, the pattern worn because it was so old and so often used. When we’d visit, we’d inevitably go to the basement to shoot some pool. Shooting pool with grandpa was a ritual of fun.

That nutcracker is one of my sacred objects. When my grandfather passed, I wanted something he touched. Something he used. The nutcracker lives in a special box in my studio.

I am austere. Left to my own devices I would have few possessions (I have famously moved twice in a truck loaded with paintings, my easel, a special box, some clothes, art books and a single rocking chair).

It’s funny what carries the deep value of story. Remembrance.

Kerri is thready. She is connected to the story of objects. Or, better, the objects connect her to stories and to the people in her life. Our home is like an alter of objects that carry meaningful stories.  Rocks. Feathers. Driftwood. We have a stack of sweatshirts in the basement that remain for their story value. Early in our relationship I suggested donating the sweatshirts to the Goodwill and I will never forget the look of horror that swept across Kerri’s face. To lose the sweatshirts was to lose the stories. It makes cleaning out the house a very complicated affair.

Connectivity. The energy threads are almost visible.

Last year she was cleaning out a closet upstairs and found these slippers. They were her parents. I remember the squeal of delight. The staging of the picture. I listened to the stories the slippers invoked. We laughed. And then, the slippers went in the bag to go away.

It might be our age or having a husband dedicated to the austere, but she is loving the objects and letting them go. The threads are becoming transcendent, they reach beyond the object and are securely rooted in the deep past.

It’s beautiful when the heart carries the deep connectivity of story. Truly. The energy threads become visible.

 

read Kerri’s blog post about SLIPPERS

 

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Decide To See [on Two Artists Tuesday]

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When you come to our house, pay attention to the small things. You will find many, many, many hearts. Heart shaped rocks, heart shaped leaves, shells that are the shape of a heart. This is not an accident. It’s also not a collection of “things” – like a collection of shot glasses or figurines. No, it is altogether different.

Kerri looks for hearts. Often on our walks she will gasp, pull out her camera and take a picture. I know that she has seen another heart. Usually, she engages with it and walks on. Sometimes she picks up the heart and it comes home with us.

To be clear: she doesn’t buy hearts from the store. She is not a collector of heart shapes. Kerri looks for hearts. When we are out in public she will gasp and move toward someone, striking up a conversation. Soon there is laughter; always there is a story. Usually, she engages with the heart and walks on. Sometimes she picks up the heart and  it is in our life forever.

Since seeing the recent Mr. Rogers movie, we’ve been talking a lot about intentional thinking, about focus placement. We’ve been talking about what we look for when we go out into the world – what we decide to see. Everyone decides what they see but very few people know that they have that decision. Everyone decides what they think but very few people know that they have that decision. It’s what made Mr. Rogers so special. He knew he  had decisions and he talked about it with children. Children are capable of listening.

It’s very easy to see the gunk. The dark is an easy choice; fear makes it so. It takes some intention to see the light.  Hearts are always present but they require some attention and resolve to see. They ask that we look beyond the superficial gunk to see the heart-substance. That’s why Kerri picks them up and plants them around our home. It’s a practice. She’s built a practice of seeing the hearts. She goes into each day looking for the hearts.

It turns out that hearts are everywhere. You can see them, too, if you decide to see them.

 

read Kerri’s blog post about HEARTS

 

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