Attempt What Is Not Certain

Revelry

A painting from the archives. This one goes way back…

“Attempt what is not certain. Certainty may or may not come later. It may then be a valuable delusion.” Richard Diebenkorn, Notes To Myself On Beginning A Painting

Yesterday we went to Linda and Jim’s house to do some Irish dancing. They are terrific and dedicated dancers – with a dance floor in their basement – and thought it would be fun to teach their pals a waltz cotillon. It was, as they suspected, a riot of laughter, wrong-direction, toe-stepping and left-footed-entanglements. We drank wine, ate snacks, and found ourselves boldly waltz-stepping into the great unknown. 20 called it “an afternoon of happy insanity.”

All my life I’ve been fascinated at what happens to (and for) people when they open themselves to new experiences. Generosity rises. When people allow themselves to step outside of their safe-place, challenge their need to control and open to the new, they come alive. I mean that literally. They come into the present moment, out of their obsession with replaying the past and fearing/manipulating the future, and into the place where life actually happens. Now. It is the artist’s job to open the door to the place where life happens. It is the door Linda and Jim opened for us yesterday.

Krishnamurti wrote, “Have you ever noticed that when you respond to something totally, with all your heart, there is very little memory?” Horatio and I have an ongoing conversation about art and artistry. Lately, we’ve been discussing how completely we disappear when working on a canvas. Hours go by and it feels like minutes. And, more to the point, we don’t disappear, we become present. We show up. We experience the fullness of life at the burning point. Time, that grand master of illusion, disappears.

After our dancing, standing in the kitchen with a glass of wine, I heard, “Where did the time go?” We were revitalized and giddy, compatriots and survivors of a journey into the surprises of the unknown. I smiled when there rose a rowdy chorus of, “When can we do it again?” Life had burst through – as it wants to do – and left its charge.

Stop Your Rant In Its Track

TODAY’S FEATURED THOUGHT FOR HUMANS

Stop your rant in its track

I come from a long line of ranters and am famous for ranting. Through a life of ranting I’ve learned that rants are mostly a useless exercise. They serve as a pressure release, which is say, energy that is misdirected. Miracles happen when misdirected energy is focused and released toward an intention. Rants are essentially an admission of helplessness, a scream of, “Why is this happening to me?” Redirected, the energy becomes a focused stream of, “I am going to make this happen.”

FOR TODAY’S FEATURED ENCOURAGEMENT FOR HUMANS, GO HERE.

Dance With Sherry

A painting from the archives. I call it 'Revelry!'

A painting from the archives. I call it ‘Revelry!’

Sherry was killed in a car wreck many years ago. It was ironic. She had a severe food allergy and was pronounced dead more times than she could count. Every time she went out to eat she rolled the dice. And, because she had been back and forth over that dark line so many times, she never took a day (or a meal) for granted. Death walked with her so she was awash in the appreciation of life. Sherry never missed an opportunity to laugh or dance or shock people. She was a one-person party and her enthusiasm was infectious.

She was a true friend and a colleague and took the plunge with me when I wanted to start a communications academy (teaching core curriculum through experiential processes; with students we made movies, plays, performance art pieces, poetry slams and ran businesses. It was not only a blast but hugely successful. We created things as opposed to studied things. The only trouble I ever had was getting the students to go home). Initially, the academy was a risk but she was quick to throw herself into the chaos and brought her friend Linda kicking and screaming with her. Both were extraordinary English teachers looking for a better way to teach. We were like adventurers in the wilds of education, blowing up old models and exploring new territory. It would be impossible to do today; innovators are nailed to the floor by the standardized master-tests that they must serve.

The last time I saw her she said, “This is the last time you’ll ever see me!” She had a Cheshire grin and I protested, “Why? Are you planning on avoiding me!” She leaned in so no one else might hear and said, “I doubt I’ll be alive when you come back.” I told her not to be stupid but, as usual, she was right. She also asked me to not come back for her funeral. “Let this be our goodbye,” she said.

Kerri and I have been cleaning out the house, purging years and years of boxes, clothes, and…stuff. We are making space for new things. Each load that goes out the door is matched by an opportunity or insight that flows in. Not only are we cleaning out but we are reaching back in time and visiting old friends and extraordinary moments. More than once we’ve sat to share photographs or letters, “This is what I used to look like,” or, “Remember I told you about my friend…., this is us 20 years ago.” For some reason, Sherry has been with me today. I have no photos of her and no letters but I have terrific memories. I’ve been meditating on joy all day and she was the embodiment of joy. She was the queen of mischief and bold leaps of faith. “Life is never sure!” she’d giggle. “You only have today so dance it or get off the floor!” she’d shout, punching me, her Cheshire grin breaking across her face before erupting in gales of laughter.

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Explore The Human

photo-2

my latest work-in-progress. No name yet, approximately 5ft x 9ft.

Standing on the stair to her studio, Pam said, “I’m not sure where my work is going. I’ve pulled out all of the old paintings so I can see where I’ve been, what I’ve been doing, and maybe that will help me live into what’s next.” Like me, Pam has been a painter most of her life. She’s been through this transition many times before and recognizes the necessity of fallow artistic fields. Rather than push or panic, she’s matured as an artist and knows enough to value the emptiness.

With maturity comes faith. The muse never leaves. She rests. Artistic cycles are no different than seasons. Like a farmer living through the winter months on the harvest of the fall, Pam will spend hours sitting with her old work, thinking nothing, drinking in the nutrient of her artistic yield, allowing her inspiration fields to recharge and rejuvenate. She will allow herself to go empty, creating ample space for the new work when the muse reawakens. And then, one day, she will pick up a brush and be surprised by what comes through her.

Hans said, “An artist matures when he or she ceases working from their pain and begins exploring the human condition.” Working from the wound is necessary as adolescence is necessary. Most artists in our western tradition begin in rebellion, pushing against, making statements. We celebrate the outsider, the margin-sitter and so the wound can be difficult to escape: artistic pain becomes a role, an expectation. In practice it is akin to a developmental stall. The only place to go when pain is the norm is into the intellect: to produce, to make statements. Pain isolates and ultimately, an isolated artist is ineffective. Artistry, like all things vital, must occupy a shared space. It is communal or it is impotent.

Potency comes when the eyes turn out, when the question of “we” becomes more vital and interesting than the question of “I.” Artists mature when they reorient, when instead of the art expressing their pain, they serve the art and, make no mistake, art is another word for “human condition.” Art is bubbling life in all its forms: visual, kinesthetic, aural. As Hans said, “I want to fall deeper and deeper into the music. I want to find the edges and follow where it takes me, give myself over to it.”

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Feed The Spark

Marcia, DeMarcus, and me many moons ago.

Marcia, DeMarcus, and me many moons ago.

If I’d shared a context-less photo of Lake Michigan yesterday you’d swear I was standing on a beach in the Bahamas. The water was vibrant turquoise. It was intense and stopped me in my tracks more than once. It was a 180° turnabout from earlier this week when the lake was frozen over and looked like a sea of broken glass. Things change so fast. These extraordinary moments pass so quickly.

I talked with Marcia this morning. Today is her 85th birthday and she told me that she’s working on becoming present. “I’m not very good at it,” she said, “though I think my life would be so much better if I didn’t project myself into a made-up future and worry about the well going dry.” We laughed heartily.

Marcia was a great actress in her day. And when she stepped off the stage she became an exquisite costume designer. Her father, DeMarcus, was a pioneer in the theatre and a great painter and I am the lucky to carry forward their tradition of artistry. I know my lineage! It seems like yesterday that Marcia was designing a play that I was directing; she pulled me aside and said, “DeMarcus wants you to have these.” She handed me a painter’s box with his brushes and paint. That was over 25 years ago. If my house was on fire and I could only save one possession I’d take that box. It contains some of her renderings and some of his notebooks. It is sacred to me.

I dedicated my book to Marcia and her husband, Tom. Tom was my mentor and he passed away in August. Marcia said, “I’m reinventing myself now that Tom is gone.” I asked what she was discovering in her reinvention. “The creative spark never goes away!” she chirped. “I need a good project!” She told me that the final years with Tom were like cocooning because all of her energy went to caring for Tom in his dementia and failing health. “It was hellish!” she whispered, “I wasn’t doing any of the things that keep me fed. I’m ready to create again!”

Before hanging up I asked what she was going to do on her birthday. She chortled and said, “I have an excellent day planned for myself. I’m going to put new carpet in the studio and then I’m going to put my hands in the soil and feel the earth! I’ve no time to lose so you can be certain that I’m going to feed the spark.”

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Walk Toward The Vanishing Point

679. Join me in inspiring truly powerful people. Each day I will add a new thought, story or idea to support your quest and mine.

The other day in Melissa’s class, the students were drawing pictures. They were learning about perspective. Most were drawing according to single point perspective: all lines meet at a single spot called the vanishing point. In the drawings, roads and train tracks ran toward the horizon, telephone poles and barns all followed the lines disappearing into a single point.

The lesson will continue for a long time. Now that the students have drawn lines to a single point they will begin exploring the greater implications of perspective. They will discover for themselves that things look radically different according to where you stand. They will learn that you can never occupy another person’s perspective so you will never be able to see what they see (imagine the implications); they will discover that perspective is personal and as varied at there are people on the planet. The possibilities of an exploration in perspective go on and on. We forget that at one point in history artists were mathematicians. Artists were scientists. There wasn’t the separation or the story that we tell today. Imagine the implications for education if we weren’t so blinded by subject separations and so singly prejudiced against the arts. Music is math, after all. Color is either chemistry or optics depending on whether you are mixing paint or light.

The next day, we met with other teachers, each sharing their experiences in the classroom. Beth (an amazing educator) listened to Melissa’s story and said, “I love the term, ‘vanishing point!’ There’s a whole world happening beyond that point and we just can’t see it.” She was lost in thought for a moment and then exclaimed, “Beyond the vanishing point anything is possible!”

Beth deals in possibilities. She is one of the few people I’ve known who recognizes that we actually live at the vanishing point though most of us pretend that we know what’s going to happen. Beth courts the vanishing point. She plays with it. She tries things just to see what will happen. Hang out with Beth and you will jump in puddles, race through tall grass, and take a turn down a road just to see where it leads. She knows that when you walk toward the vanishing point you walk into possibilities. Beth knows that life is vital in the direction of the vanishing point; the foreground of the picture is the present; it is where we currently stand. Beth knows it is the deepest human impulse to say to your self, “I wonder what’s over that hill?” And then follow the impulse. Beth knows this greatest of human impulses is at the heart of great education. Beth knows like Melissa knows, it is so simple and so possible when they are allowed to walk with their students toward the vanishing point instead of being forced to turn away from the horizon and pretend that there is something standardized about learning.

Go Up!

670. Join me in inspiring truly powerful people. Each day I will add a new thought, story or idea to support your quest and mine.

In airports, people are often racing to catch a plane. I have, more than once, sprinted through a concourse trying to catch my connecting flight before they closed the doors and captured me like a bug in the airport pickle jar: no way out. When I was in the Philadelphia airport, having more than enough time between flights, I found a nice perch and watched other less fortunate travellers race to their liberation. “That’s what I look like,” I thought as I spied a man wearing his too intense face, trying to reconcile his need to sprint through the crowd with his desire to not trample other people.

Coming from opposite directions, entering a knot of people, two wheelchair bound travelers, each late for a connection, spurred their airport attendee to go faster. It was like watching an old-time film clip of two trains roaring toward each other, unaware, an imminent head-on collision. They couldn’t see each other through the throng of people. The sea of travelers parted, the wheelchair riders caught sight of each other, eyeballs bulged, eyebrows raised, hands came to protect faces, and time – as it does in a spell or a moment of presence – came into a sharp, clear focus. At the last moment, in an impossible maneuver, the pushing attendees, as if choreographed, altered course. The chairs kissed, the spell was broken, and neither chair slowed down; grins of relief broke across the faces of all concerned. Mine, too. “That was well done!” one of the riders hooted to her wheelchair pusher as they sped off into the distance.

There are moments on the stage when an actor forgets their line and all pretenses fall. It’s called, “Going up.” Eyes bulge, eyebrows rise, their mind double clutches in panic, locks up, and for brief moment, without thought, they are intensely present, vitally alive. It feels like a mini-spell as time expands. And somehow, inexplicably, the words show up, moving the mouth without the assistance of the mind. The moment passes; the spell is broken, presence retreats behind the notion of control; waves of relief crash on the sandy shores of the actor. And yet, when the evening is over, the actor will tell you that moment was the most honest moment of the whole play. It was the most “alive” moment of their performance. It was the only moment that was not controlled, constrained, premeditated. It is what they attempt to master: presence on stage.

In watching the near wheelchair collision and remembering those brief moments of vitality on the stage, I couldn’t help but think that we (or I) have it backwards. The spell is not those moments of intense presence; the spell is a life that is rarely present. In those moments of near collision, when we lose control or are snapped into the immediate, the spell of the mundane is, for a moment broken, time no longer matters, nothing is measured or contained or controlled, and we enter life as we exit the predictable. I’m delighted that the wheelchairs did not collide and yet what a gift! Just like the rider I was left thinking, “For a moment, I was here and nowhere else. Well done.”