Embody The Symbol [on DR Thursday]

Everything in the Japanese Garden is symbolic, intentional. Pine trees represent longevity. Rocks, I’ve learned, represent the bones of the earth. They are as necessary in the design as are the “ephemeral blooms of the iris, rhododendron, and plum.” The symbol is not complete without both.

“The ephemeral existence of human life and the timelessness of nature.” Balance.

Entering the small yard of the Shoin House at the Chicago Botanical Garden is instantly calming for me. The small house is designed to “merge the outdoors with the indoors.” It is closed to the public but always beckons. I want to sit in the alcoves and write. Or do nothing at all. In the garden, I am instantly “connected.”

“Connectivity” is a word that has moved to the center of the work that I am currently doing. Amidst our ubiquitous capacity to share (Facebook, Instagram, Tiktok…email, chat, tweet, slack, text…) we are less and less connected. As Neil Postman wrote, we have made the irrelevant relevant and the relevant irrelevant. We share but do not connect. Shared information is not – and never will be – shared meaning.

Symbols empty of meaning when a community ceases to understand, honor, tend or acknowledge the significance of the symbol. And, symbols are the glue of a community. They are the physical, tangible location of an ideal. Disconnect from the symbol and the house falls apart.

I think that is why I am drawn to the Japanese Garden. There, beauty is intentional. The symbols are so well tended, so intentional, that one need not know the specific meanings to enter the symbol.

And, that’s the point. Connectivity happens when people, together, embody their symbols. They enter them. They become embodiments of their symbol(s).

It is the artist’s job to bring people into a shared moment. To give them access to a unified experience. To help them transcend the splinter symbols that divide – and see them for what they are. To help people step back and take a good look at what they, together, are creating. A garden? A desert? Balance? Imbalance?

read Kerri’s blogpost about THE ROCKWAY

prayer of opposites © 2006 david robinson

Sit In The Quiet [on DR Thursday]

Years ago I directed a production of Into The Woods and I wanted a set design alive with David Hockney colors. The production was gorgeous. The set the designer created was a vibrant fantasyland with the dark undertones wrought by dinosaur-size-too-big foliage. Tiny people in an oversized children’s pop-up book.

If I were going to direct the musical again today, I’d approach it through a different lens. I wouldn’t place it in the vivid palette of fantasyland; this world we journey through is fantastic just as it is. When Kerri and I walk, I am sometimes stunned to silence by the shapes and patterns and pops of color. Ominous and serene. Alive.

For reasons that have nothing to do with reason, I started using imagined leaf shapes, plant-symbols in my paintings. I know when I someday return to my easel, the plant shapes will be present – perhaps even dominant. There is no end to the eye-popping variations. Our walks in nature have me “seeing” again.

A few years ago, Brad and I talked about the deep backstory of why an artist creates. Of course, there’s not a single driving reason – it changes over time as we change over time. I know many artists who’ve set down their brushes, singers who stopped singing. They satisfied their backstory. They channel their creative juices into other forms. Based on the evidence, these days I am a writer. Lately, I spend more time drawing cartoons than painting paintings. And yet, I still think of myself as a painter.

In the past, a step away from the easel was acknowledging a fallow season, letting my batteries recharge. This time, the step away is different. My reasons are spinning, changing. The younger me-artist was finding a place to transform pain into presence. The middle-age-artist-me entered the studio because it was the only place on earth that made sense. It was a sanctuary. A quiet place.

Each day I walk down the stairs and stand for a few moments with the canvas on my easel. It’s a stranger. I hear my easel whisper, “Not yet. Soon.” I am content with soon. I feel as if I am in an extended meditation, borrowing a tradition from Japanese masters, sitting in the quiet until there is no space between me and the brush, no space between me and the motion. No space between me and the shape, the pop of color, the infinite variance of pattern. No space between me and the surprise-of-what-will-happen. No space between me and the story.

read Kerri’s blogpost about TRILLIUM

joy © 2014 david robinson

See The Signs [on KS Friday]

Although it is not quite here, I know spring is coming. How do I know? The blinds are open on one side of the room. They are closed on the other side.

During the winter, the blinds are closed on both sides of the room. During the winter, we turn in. We close out the world. All of the energy goes to the root, beneath the soil, to recharge our lives. Hibernation. And then, one day, though it is still cold, the birds return, we wake to their song, the sun plays hide-and-seek. In the morning, well rested, we open the blinds to the east.

We’re watching the squirrels. They gather the fallen leaves in their mouths and adeptly climb the maples and oaks to high notches, deposit their load, and return to the ground to gather more. Up and down. Over and over. Preparing their nests. The birds are courting. It looks like a hearty game of chase but we know the females are dodging the insistent pesky males.

Life is returning from the deep. Preparation for Persephone’s homecoming. Restless buds appear on branches. It’s close, but not quite yet.

Not quite yet. The third covid springtime. We are not yet past it and are fidgety.

We sat in the car staring at the door to the store. “I’m so goddamn tired of putting on this mask, ” I said as I put it on. We know we’ll be among the few wearing masks as we shop. No matter. It’s not over yet, this long winter of pandemic. As much as we want it to be spring, as much as we can see the signs, it’s not here yet. Not yet. Blinds open on one side of the room. Blinds closed on the other side.

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

read Kerri’s blog post about BLINDS

that morning someday/blueprint for my soul © 1997 kerri sherwood

Seed The Pocket [on Flawed Wednesday]

I’ve appreciated this sunflower for many years and until a month ago it never made me think of Ukraine. Now, that’s all I see. Thus, the power of a symbol. Sunflower seeds placed into the pockets of Russian soldiers by brave Ukrainian elders. “So, some good may come from your death.”

Walking through the antique mall, Brad spotted an ugly homemade sculpture. Golf balls with multiple screws protruding, spray painted and supported by wire rods. “Look, the coronavirus!” he exclaimed. Three years ago spheres with spiky knobs would have made me wrinkle my brow but never associate the shape with a virus. Now?

And masks? Will we ever see a surgical mask without feeling the divide in our nation? A confederate flag paraded through the Capitol? Members of the Capitol Police beaten with the stars and stripes; symbols matter.

Every year more and more our written communication is reimagined with emojis. Visual symbols. The new Ideogram. A thumbs up. A heart. Laughing face. Saying more with less or at the very least opening up our communication to broader interpretation. I find that I’m symbolically rolling my eyes more and more. Exclamation point. HAHA! Know what I mean? Winky face.

Leonard Shlain wrote some remarkable books about how our brains are wired by how we communicate; he posits that linear language, the introduction of writing drove us into our left brains and away from our holistic right. Perhaps in our movement back toward the ideogram we are rebalancing? A course correction or returning to center? It takes more than a few years for brains to rewire. Our descendants will, no doubt, either write books about it or communicate their thoughts through a combo platter of alphabet and pictograph.

Either way, we can only hope they grasp the meaning of the peace symbol. Or, at the very least, learn how to give it more preference than the dollar sign. Or, better yet, figure out how to make peace profitable. Can you imagine? Certainly there will be a symbol for that.

Until then, sunflowers in the killing fields. Sad face. Broken heart.

read Kerri’s blog post about THE SUNFLOWER

Become A Heart Symbol [on Not So Flawed Wednesday]

Almost anything can become a symbol. Almost anything can be made a symbol.

Symbols are very powerful, probably more powerful than we realize or are willing to admit. People die defending them. People die attacking them. They can serve as a moral compass. They can be a siren call and entice entire communities to crash on the rocks of devastation. Symbols can unite. They can divide. They can clarify. They can obscure. In almost every case, symbols serve as the defining line between Us and Them. They identify.

As a servant to identity, a single symbol can facilitate diametrically opposing points of view: hope and threat. It can be the taut rope in a social tug-of-war. Crazy things happen when, within a community, a symbol runs in opposite directions. We are witness to that today through the symbol of the “mask.” Some see a mask as communal responsibility. Some see it as a threat to individual freedom.

The challenge with any potent symbol is that it burns either through the heart or the guts. Only then does it run to the brain.

For instance, mask-wearers begin their symbolic journey in the heart. The symbol of “mask” is proactive. It signifies service to others and community protection. It unites in a common cause. It runs in the direction of hope. Giving. Inclusion. For them, a mask is a positive symbol. It confirms and accepts science, data, fact. It adapts to new information. It grows.

Mask resisters begin their symbolic journey in the guts. For them, the mask represents a fear of personal loss. It is a divider. It runs in the direction of threat. The symbol is reactive and signifies service to self. Exclusion. A mask, for them is a negative symbol. No amount of data or fact can assault a negative belief. A gut inception inflames the brain. It entrenches.

We’ve heard that, where mask wearing is concerned, there is a declining vigilance of the public. I wonder if that is true. I suspect the perception of declining vigilance is actually a matter of noise. Those who operate from their guts, their fear, will do anything, are capable of any and every form of cage-rattling. Theirs is a symbol of distress and is loud and enraged as is the case with most “me” focused symbols.

Those who operate from their hearts are generally quieter. They know the restraint that compassion brings. They are focused on the betterment of the entire community, including the fearful, so, as is true of most “us” focused symbols, calming the panic is an essential aspect of the action.

I doubt that vigilance is in decline. The fearful gut is screaming louder, garnering attention, daring to be made to wear a mask, cranking up the volume, loudly crying “hoax” – all the while knowingly spreading the disease.

In the meantime the quiet heart, the larger part of us, moves masked through each day. Hope need not make noise or news or announce itself. It is satisfied simply by doing the work of community, the real work of public vigilance.

read Kerri’s blog post about DECLINING VIGILANCE

Draw The Symbol [on DR Thursday]

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Sometimes drawing is like free writing. I capture the lines and images as they arise without edit or evaluation. It is more akin to following than leading. It’s a meditation. I draw for the surprise of what shows up. Often, in my free flow, symbols arise and I only see them after I put down my pencil. The symbols that floated to the surface in this drawing are Heart and Strawberry.

When symbols pop up for me I make it a practice to investigate, even if they appear obvious or I think I already know. I assume that I do not know anything. It’s a way of continuing the conversation. These two, heart and strawberry, are intertwined symbols. Venus, the goddess of love. Purity and perfection. Sensuality. Eros. Happiness. Good fortune. Compassion. Joy. Charity. There are cultural lenses and religious interpretations but across all cultural variance, both symbols are rivers that lead to love in one or all of its expression.

Yaki asked me to rewrite THE CREATURES OF PROMETHEUS – a storytelling to accompany Beethoven’s symphony – so that it might speak directly to the realities of our day. He wants it to be more obviously relevant. I have been sitting on it, watching and waiting, since we seem to be living in a swirl of chaos. My grasp of relevance in the morning is obsolete by sundown. The only consistency that cuts through the mayhem is that the circles in our communal Venn Diagram no longer intersect. Not only is there no crossover, the circles no longer share the same page. We define ourselves according to our differences rather that reach toward our similarities. Romeo and Juliet is an example, a cautionary tale of what happens when the communal circles stubbornly refuse to find crossover. The children easily transcend the division. The society crushes them for daring to love. And then the adults realize they’ve sacrificed the greater for the lesser and in their grief they reach to grasp hands.

There are hearts and strawberries in every tragic tale. The tragedy arises because the characters refuse to see it. Maybe that is the theme of my rewrite? Maybe hearts and strawberries are the tender sprouts that will emerge in our nation once the fire ceases to rage?

 

read Kerri’s blog post about HEARTS AND STRAWBERRIES

We are still in the Facebook penalty box. It is possible that Kerri’s posts may never reappear so, if you enjoy reading Kerri’s word, consider subscribing to her blog. I know we publish waaay too much but, with the minor exception of us, ALMOST no one reads everything that we write – except for Lydia and Horatio and Malta-Alex and for their dedicated perseverance, we are most grateful.

 

 

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*Shared Fatherhood evolved from a sketch about Polynices & Eteocles, brothers that killed each other in combat over control of the throne. Somehow I traveled from senseless war to shared fatherhood.

 

shared fatherhood 2 ©️ 2017 david robinson

Embrace The Mush [on Two Artists Tuesday]

butterfly butterfly spread your wings copy

We walk almost everyday. We always have. We walk to clear our minds or to stir our creative conversations. Since we work together, we sometimes call our walks “meetings.” Neither one of us is good at sitting.

Lately, we walk as an escape or a pressure release. Between job losses and broken wrists and pandemic fears and aging bodies and titanic leadership failures and civil unrest and financial collapse and missing-family-because-it feels-unsafe-to-travel…there’s very little quiet mind space. We hit the trail and have to remind ourselves to slow down. Be in it, not get through it.

It’s a life reminder: be in it. All of it.

We walked across the busy highway to the trailhead and a butterfly circled Kerri and landed at her feet. She’s been having many butterfly encounters lately. They circle her. They fly with her, crisscrossing her path. This butterfly stopped her motion completely. It snapped her into the present moment. She pulled out her camera and the butterfly hopped. She followed and the butterfly hopped again. It seemed to be leading her. It wanted her to follow. Another hop.

While watching the chase I couldn’t help myself from thinking of the symbolism. A butterfly, the universal symbol of change and transformation, leading Kerri on a chase. Perfect!

Our world is changing.

The process of becoming a butterfly requires the caterpillar to cocoon and then dissolve into mush before reforming, taking on the new shape. There’s no way to rush through the mush phase. There’s no way to rush into a thing with wings. In fact, the arduous process of busting out of the cocoon is necessary. It takes time for the wings to dry and the struggle to get free of the safe house provides the drying time. That, and the what-the-heck-are-these wings-doing-on-my-body phase of new recognition. Fear of the first step affords a few more moments of structural prep.

Going to mush takes time. Re-forming takes time.

No one willingly goes to mush. People famously grouse about changing but avoid change at all cost. I imagine that if the caterpillar had any idea of what was about to happen, it would yammer on and on about its dream of flying but would run screaming from the very idea of cocooning.

COVID has us cocooning. We are going to mush. I can only hope my country is also going to mush. A caterpillar that attempts to ward off the necessary transformation distorts and does not live long. A caterpillar that attempts to control its change process is delusional. It will rush and step off the limb before its wings are ready. Another route to disaster.

We are going to mush. Losing the known form is not easy. Living in uncertainty is uncomfortable. That’s the point. Discomfort heralds change. It opens new paths of thinking and possibilities for experience.

Watching Kerri hop after her hopping butterfly, I found myself laughing. This is what mush feels like. I’ve been here before. There will be another side, a breaking out, a fearful flapping of wings. A timely leap and a discovery. Butterflies are also symbolic reminders to step lightly and with grace in times of change. There’s nothing to be done but take nice walks, breathe a bit slower and hop after photo-shy butterflies.

 

read Kerri’s blog post about the BUTTERFLY

 

 

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greet the world ©️ 2011 david robinson

 

 

Knead And Listen [on Two Artists Tuesday]

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I am now among the legion of people that turned to baking bread during the pandemic-stay-at-home era. This loaf is gluten free, made with rice flour, since Kerri is allergic to gluten.

In truth, I’ve wanted to bake bread since I knew Brad the baker in California. He was a genuine hippie, a believer in peace and simple living. “Bread is a living thing,” he once said as I watched in fascination his kneading of the dough. You can tell a true master craftsman at work by watching their hands. They feel something in the dough or the wood that the rest of us do not.

My loaf was not made by a master. Not even by an apprentice.

Bill sent a photo of his first loaf and I asked for the recipe. It came as screen shots and I scribbled them into a recipe on notebook paper. Easy steps to follow but I knew from watching Brad that I would not find in my recipe any easy guidance on how to feel the life in the dough. That would come with time. Maybe. If I was lucky and diligent and practiced listening through my hands.

I’m not surprised people are turning to bread during this time of pandemic uncertainty. It is essential. The making of bread, the cultivation of wheat, made civilization, as we know it, possible. It is, therefore, a central symbol in many belief systems. Separate the chaff from the wheat. A time for harvest. This is my body. Eat.

Brad told me that the dough kneads you as much as you knead the dough. It’s a simple relationship between living things and requires complete focus. Mutual respect. Attention must be proffered.

Perhaps that is why we turn to bread in times like these. Simple relationships of attention and mutual respect are increasingly rare. Bread reminds us of what is possible, what is healthy. It reminds us of the patience that is required if we are to find our way to harvest. It reminds us of the necessity of knowing what is chaff and what is wheat, or remembering that there is a direct relationship between what is planted and what is grown.

 

read Kerri’s blog post about BREAD

 

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See Two [on Merely A Thought Monday]

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“Birth is painful and delightful. Death is painful and delightful. Everything that ends is also the beginning of something else. Pain is not a punishment; pleasure is not a reward.”
Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times

I am fond of symbols. A horizontal line bisecting a vertical line. Two triangles interlocked to create a star. A black and a white swirl,  coupled to form a circle and each containing a dot of the other. All symbols of opposing forces interconnected and counterbalancing.

It is a story of two. Spirit and body. Male and female. Inhale and exhale. The pull of the moon rolling the tide in and out. Birth and death.

Most of us live our lives in abstraction, that is, generally removed from the push-pull of nature. Electric light. Hot and cold running water. Food picked from a grocery store shelf. Our trash easily goes to the curb and disappears.

We do not see that life eats life. We rise with the alarm rather than the sun. Perhaps that is why we engage in the ridiculous debate over whether or not we the have impact on the environment. We somehow have deluded ourselves into thinking we are not part of nature or worse, that we are above it. Our actions do not matter. Isolated, we somehow have come to live in a disembodied story of one.

Kerri and I walk almost every day. We often walk the same trails through Bristol woods or the Des Plaines river trail. We walk them through every season. The barren snowy winter, the budding spring, the full leaf of summer, the color and fall of autumn. As we cycled through the seasons on our trails, I am reminded that these symbols were always meant to help us live and understand life here and now, to engage fully in the dance between the natural forces, the story of the two. Interconnected. Counterbalanced. A part of. The middle way.

It is only when these symbols are mis-taken within the story of one that they become warring emblems. Self-righteous. Inert and other-wordly. Out of balance. Domineering.

Tornadoes are impersonal. Forest fires are not discerning. The tsunami does not pick its direction. The sun melts the snow without ire. Judgment has not place in a story of two. Building up. Tearing down. Sunrise. Sunset.

 

read Kerri’s blog post about BUILDING UP & TEARING DOWN

 

 

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Make It Up [on Flawed Cartoon Wednesday]

space invader jpegBIG copy 2

Language is beautiful. It is referential and, therefore, easily manipulated. Not all strings of letters arranged in sequences of words point to what you might expect. Thus, my fun with space invaders! Of course, it is too enticing to wade into the current pool of nonsense surrounding the phrase ‘space force.’ If you want to entertain me you’ll send me fun images of ‘space force’ misdirection. I have a few roiling in my brain that I just might draw and share with you.

Oh, and my favorite language question of the week: how is it that a sequence of marks and noises is meaningful? Well, humans have to be good at something, right?

if you'd like to see FLAWED CARTOON copy

 

read Kerri’s blog post about SPACE INVADERS

 

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space invaders ©️ 2016/18 david robinson & kerri sherwood