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The Longing to Work

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I have been house bound more days this winter than any I can remember. For the second day in a row the trains and busses in Boston are not running. With six feet of snow in 30 days and more coming (along with a bitter blast of Arctic cold), traveling the five miles from my home to my studio has become a daily challenge. Walk? Drive? They both are problematic.

How easy it is to take the essentials for granted—a place to work, the needed supplies, sufficient heat. I don’t have the easy portability of my writer friends—I NEED my tools and studio to do my work. My yearning can’t be satiated with just a sketchbook.

During this winter of being sojourned by the fire more days than is normal, I have thought about my longing to work through a different lens. Van Gogh’s life has been the theme of my book reading for several days, both in the form of a new novel, The Season of Migration, by Nellie Hermann, and the much-lauded short biography by artist and writer Julian Bell, A Power Seething.

Van Gogh is one of the artists whose works never grow old for me. All these years I have studied his paintings and drawings, and a million date books, tote bags, fridge magnets and umbrellas cannot kill off the unique relationship he crafted with nature. His work feels embodied, a way of bringing us to that ineffable connection we have all felt with the awesome and sublime sense of our world. Getting that sensation to reside inside a drawing or a painting however is incredibly rare. That was his gift, a deep empathy with the spirit of things, with the world. And it still moves me deeply to see what his hand brought forth during those very few years he was at work.

These two books are a well suited pair. Both authors conjure fresh views into that famous life story—the one that has been so endlessly mythologized—and bring Van Gogh into sharper focus. Neither author attempts to compete with the enormous scope of Van Gogh: The Life, by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith. But both books are gentle in their balanced presentation of his failings and his gifts.

As often as Van Gogh is portrayed as the misunderstood genius, he wasn’t an easy person. As Jonathan Lopez wrote in his review in the Wall Street Journal:

Mr. Bell’s fundamental vision of Van Gogh’s identity is heavily indebted to the work of Messrs. Naifeh and Smith, whose demystified presentation of the artist did away with the popular notion of Van Gogh as a hypersensitive innocent too pure for this world. To a considerable degree, that image was derived from Irving Stone’s widely read, fictionalized Van Gogh biography, “Lust for Life” (1934), which invented dramatic situations and dialogue loosely based on Van Gogh’s correspondence…Messrs. Naifeh and Smith revealed instead a stubborn, argumentative and often rude individual. In this they drew upon the profoundly authoritative and resoundingly boring academic biography of Van Gogh by the eminent Dutch art historian Jan Hulsker, published in 1985. There is a great deal of truth to the characterization—Van Gogh tested the patience of virtually everyone he ever met—but the underlying poignancy of the artist’s social ineptitude is not really explored sufficiently in any of the existing biographies.

For all his social awkwardness, penchant for self destruction and proclivities to drama, Van Gogh had a longing in him that was profound. During his early struggles to find his way, Van Gogh’s life was a string of failures. It took repeated disappointments and ejections for him to finally see what it was he was truly designed to do.

In one of his over 600 letters to his younger brother and eventual patron Theo (the complete set now available online here), Van Gogh said he felt obliged to express his most authentic moments of insight with drawings and paintings as a form of gratitude for the privilege of being alive. While it took him until the age of 30 to claim the position of artist for himself, both Hermann and Bell respect the complexity and struggle of the journey he had to make to find his rightful place. From Bell’s book: “The painter may be in hell, but painting is still heaven.”

A version of that gauntlet must be run by anyone who has chosen to be an artist, and those of us who have all own a version of this story. Van Gogh’s arduous life and his stunning work still hold their resonance all these years later.

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Engraving depicting Margaret Lucas Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, circa 1650. Photograph: Kean Collection/Getty Images. Margaret Cavendish (1623-1673) was an English aristocrat, poet, essayist, playwright and scientist. At a time when most women writers were publishing anonymously, Cavendish published under her own name. She wrote about gender, power, manners, scientific method, and philosophy. Her book, “The Blazing World,” is an utopian romance and one of the earliest examples of science fiction.

It’s a topic that has been discussed endlessly: The historical absence of women artists (as well as writers, musicians, philosophers and playwrights). In 1971 Linda Nochlin published her seminal essay, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” The conversation continues.

Siri Hustvedt‘s recent novel, The Blazing World, steps into that space with a fresh take on a theme that just doesn’t go away, and should not. The novel tells the story of Harriet Burden, an embittered middle-aged female artist whose experience of being dismissed and unseen becomes so unbearable that she stages three exhibits where she does the work and a man takes the credit.

Burden has the financial resources and art world connections to pull off a ruse of this scope since her recently deceased husband was a wealthy gallerist and collector. While Burden’s plan is to expose the hypocrisy and bias of the art world—Hustvedt has some exceptionally bitter passages to describe the banality of evil in that world that will make anyone familiar with that demi-monde smile in recognition—her plan backfires badly (as such schemes are inclined to do.)

The novel is constructed as a postmortem scholarly artefact consisting of various texts including Burden’s diaries, critical assessments of her work, interviews with friends and eyewitnesses. Assembled several years after Burden’s death, her work is finally being seen and applauded by the very world that dismissed her during her life. What emerges in the course of the novel is the portrait of a brilliant and creative powerhouse whose career and reputation were thwarted by the art world’s sexism and prejudices.

From Fernanda Eberstadt‘s review in the New York Times:

Whereas the homely, middle-aged Harriet had been dropped by galleries because her work was deemed “high-flown, sentimental and embarrassing,” not to mention painfully earnest, no sooner is her art signed by a 24-year-old “hunk” than it wins sold-out solo shows and critical raves. More damning still, even once Burden is outed as the true author, reviewers and gallery owners refuse to admit they’ve been had. As one journalist puts it, “A 50-ish woman who’s been hanging around the art world all her life can’t really be called a prodigy, can she?” Like so many inconvenient women before her, Burden is labeled a hysterical fantasist…

Despite her XXL personality and her formidable intellect, Burden, like many of the heroines in Hustvedt’s fiction, has spent her life fighting to win the approval of cool, remote men, subordinating her own ambitions to play perfect daughter, “wife and helpmeet.” Burden’s “burden,” we come to realize, is not simply that she is a woman but that she has chosen to marry a rich, much older art dealer. It’s no surprise if the artists she entertains in a Park Avenue apartment boasting a Paul Klee are more interested in whether her husband is going to buy their work than in asking after hers. Only when her husband, the aptly named Felix Lord, dies and the 60-something Burden has fled the “incestuous, moneyed, whirring globule composed of persons who buy and sell aesthetic objets” in Manhattan in favor of a grittier life in Brooklyn’s Red Hook does she feel emboldened to restart her own career, this time under assorted male personas.

Harriet Burden has her self destructive tendencies, so this is not a simple case of discrimination. Too tall and physically imposing, she does not possess the marketable physical presence and image that gallerists are looking to promote. She is also too smart for most of them, a quality that goes down differently from a woman than it does from a man. In Hustvedt’s hands, Burden’s brilliance is a way to play out many of the intellectual themes that Hustvedt touches on in her other books—the philosophical writings of Edmund Husserl, perception science, psychoanalysis, gender studies, the work of Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle-upon-Tyne (whose work is referenced in the book’s title.) Hustvedt’s writings tend to include a heady component, which I find enriching.

Hustvedt’s descriptions of Burden’s work and process are highly conceptual. She does not have an ear (or eye?) for the aesthetic concerns that most artists struggle through. As as result, that one aspect of the book feels slightly flat and vaguely inauthentic. But Hustvedt speaks masterfully to the peculiarities of the art world and its point of view. Here are a few passages that were particularly salient.

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From Burden’s diary:

I suspected that if I had come in another package my work might have been embraced or, at least, approached with greater seriousness. I didn’t believe that there had been a plot against me. Much of prejudice is unconscious. What appears on the surface is an unidentified aversion, which is then justified in some rational way. Perhaps being ignored is worse—that look of boredom in the yes of the other person, that assurance that nothing from me could be of any possible interest.

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From art world denizen Oswald Case:

She quoted Freud, big mistake—the colossal charlatan—and novelists and artist and scientists no one’s ever heard of. She dripped with earnestness. If there’s one thing that doesn’t fly in the art world, it’s an excess of sincerity. They like their geniuses coy, cool, or drunk and fighting in the Cedar Bar, depending on the era.

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From Burden’s daughter, discussing her gallerist father:

In order to sell art, you had to “create desire,” and “desire,” he said, “cannot be satisfied because then it’s no longer desire.” The thing that is truly wanted must always be missing. “Art dealers have to be magicians of hunger.”

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From Burden’s childhood friend, psychiatrist Rachel Briefman:

Without the aura of greatness, without the imprimatur of high culture, hipness, or celebrity, what remained? What was taste? Had there ever been a work of art that wasn’t laden with the expectations and prejudices of the viewer or reader or listener, however learned and refined?

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From Burden’s lover, Bruno Keinfeld:

After a while, the injustice of it all, the sick, sad misery of being ignored, cracked her heart in two and demented her with anger. I wanted her to fight on, but she decided to walk through the back door and send someone else around the front.

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From Rachel Breifman:

How do preposterous, even impossible ideas take hold of whole populations? The art world was Harry’s laboratory—her microcosm of human interaction—in which buzz and rumor literally alter the appearances of paintings and sculptures. But no one can prove that one work of art is truly superior to another or that the art market runs mostly on such blinkered notions. As Harry pointed out to me repeatedly, there is not even agreement on a definition of art.

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From Burden’s diary, on the 17th century intellectual (and of course misunderstood) Margaret Cavendish:

How to live? A life in the world or a world in the head? To be seen and recognized outside, or to hide and think inside? Actor or hermit? Which is it? She wanted both—to be inside and outside, to ponder and to leap.

That last question is one that every person as well as every artist must ask. This book is an extraordinary exploration into the complexities of that choice.

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The Golden Ruhl

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Sarah Ruhl

Sarah Ruhl, award winning playwright and member of the genius grant class (it’s a badge you can wear for life), has been the theme of my week. Her recently released book, 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write: On Umbrellas and Sword Fights, Parades and Dogs, Fire Alarms, Children, and Theater, is like trailing after a very verbal and intelligent friend who is, at the same time, juggling her three hyperactive small children.

That is the truth of Ruhl’s life right now, and her book has been written with that reality evident. But at no point does her dual citizenship come off as self-conscious, manipulative or fey. The two black holes of her life—those spheres where demand for attention is limitless and never satiated—are art making and parenting. And in the face of those great sucking sounds, she comes to a position I wish I had found when I was struggling with those issues years ago: Quit trying to win and just surrender.

From Rachel Cusk‘s review in the New York Times:

In these short (and sometimes very short — one of them consists of a single word) essays, Ruhl anatomizes the central drama of creativity, whereby the self and the business of living are found to contain the moral structure of everything that lies outside it. The question of gender quickly becomes germane: How can a woman writer, a mother of three children and embroiled in the domesticity that comes with them, be expected to believe that her condition of life, far from marginalizing her, is in fact bringing her closer to ultimate forms of knowledge? It is a question not just of interruptions but of that other Woolfian theme, cultural notions of importance. “There were times when it felt as though my children were annihilating me,” Ruhl writes in her first essay, “On Interruptions.” “And finally I came to the thought, all right, then, annihilate me; that other self was a fiction anyhow.” The “other self” was Ruhl’s identity as a writer, which she had been trying to cosset and protect from invasion; yet this moment of surrender, crucially, gives her back her artistic authority. “I found that life intruding on writing was, in fact, life. And that, tempting as it may be for a writer who is also a parent, one must not think of life as an intrusion. At the end of the day, writing has very little to do with writing, and much to do with life.”

What follows is a set of observations whose most noticeable characteristic is the freedom of association. Having been left with no choice but to interrogate culture from an autobiographical position, Ruhl discovers there a far greater intellectual liberty. The 100 essays represent 100 different links between art and reality, as Ruhl’s meditations on writing and staging plays find reflection in her experience of family life, friendship, illness and ordinariness.

Ruhl is smart and she is funny. Her insights into theater, writing and what matters are worthy but not overwrought. One essay, “An essay in praise of smallness,” is simply one sentence: “I admire minimalism.” In an essay entitled “Is there an objective standard of taste?” she answers, “No.”

In keeping with this Ruhl-themed week, I also saw a production of Dear Elizabeth, Ruhl’s play about Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop. Culling through the 400 letters written between these two extraordinary poets over their 30 year friendship, Ruhl portrays a connection that was deeply sustaining to both writers through their trouble-fraught, complex, often lonely lives.

Ruhl has described her approach to theater: “I try to interpret how people subjectively experience life. Everyone has a great horrible opera in them.” Ruhl’s gift is being able to reach into the “great horrible operas” that were the lives of these two poets and pull out the story of a friendship that was so elemental and life sustaining for them both. The sincerity of their affection, the depth of their artistic connection, the innocence and vulnerability they were able to share with each other—this is a rare and extraordinary storyline, one that Ruhl has carefully crafted from their own words.

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Finding Squares

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Marilynne Robinson (Photo: Big Think)

Recently I wrote about Richard Diebenkorn and described how deeply his work and approach to life informed my way of art making and being in the world. In that post I referenced Adam Gopnik‘s description of squareness:

Cézanne, unique among the masters, was utterly square. Diebenkorn, the perfect representative of a culture without irony, was square, too, but he managed to be square without being corny, which is a nice way of remaining classic. This unbending classical sincerity—a Cézannist quality—radiated from the man, and it was a trait that his friends most often admired and recalled.

I am drawn by this contrarian position as a way of navigating (avoiding?) a contemporary world of art that is overly fixated on the cool, the hip and terminally detached. Call me Ishmael? No, I’d rather be Square.

Maybe square is an apt code word for what matters most to me these days. And if square is my tribe, then I I can’t help looking for kinspeople. A high probability candidate is the extraordinary Marilynne Robinson, author of a new novel Lila and subject of a very thoughtful and sensitive portrait by Wyatt Mason that appeared in the New York Times Magazine this Sunday.

Admired by writers and readers for her exceptional literary gifts—she is the winner of many literary prizes for her previous novels Housekeeping, Gilead and Home—Robinson is a rather singular figure in literary circles for her unabashed devotion to Christianity (she is a sometimes Congregationalist preacher) and her passion for John Calvin. That interest permeates her novels as well as her non-fiction writing including The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought, When I Was a Child I Read Books: Essays, and Mother Country.

Mason is a thoughtful writer, and in his piece for the Times he is able to portray both the delicate finesse and the fierce muscularity of Robinson’s mind. These words, elicited from her during the several days he spent with her in Iowa City, are memorable:

“One of the things that bothers me is that there are prohibitions of an unarticulated kind that are culturally felt that prevent people from actually saying what they think.”

“It’s as if when you describe something good, you are being deceived or are being deceptive.”

“Being and human beings are invested with a degree of value that we can’t honor appropriately. An overabundance that is magical.”

“A lot of people who actually believe in the sacredness of life, they write things that are horrible, desolating things. Because, for some reason, this deeper belief doesn’t turn the world…It comes down to fear; the fear of making self-revelation of the seriousness of ‘I sense a sacredness in things.'”

I am drawn deeply to Robinson’s version of squareness and her willingness to “sense a sacredness in things.” But I also resonate with the part of her that stays outside of life just a bit, a tendency to stand apart.

Mason quotes Robinson on this issue:

I have always been—always from childhood’s hour, as Poe would say—in the habit of feeling quite a stark difference between myself and the world I navigated. Which was any world I navigated. And then, at a certain point, I found out that that was a) very formative and b) probably an error, although it was that discomfort that made me feel like writing, the feeling of difference.

To the extent that I was ever an unhappy person, I was happy with my unhappiness…

People do things very differently…And it probably has to do with genes and child rearing and all sorts of things. But you can feel a distance as regrettable and at the same time take a kind of pride in it. The stalwartness of the self. That it can endure. And that even though you can kind of theoretically see how you could be more like the world that excludes you, you know that you can rely on yourself not to be…Somebody who had read ‘Lila’ asked me, “Why do you write about the problem of loneliness?” I said: “It’s not a problem. It’s a condition. It’s a passion of a kind. It’s not a problem. I think that people make it a problem by interpreting it that way.”

In that same vein, Robinson reveals a few of her concerns for constructing the inner life. She shares a teacher’s wise words, valuable advice received when she was quite young: “You have to live with your mind your whole life.” Robinson elaborates: “You build your mind, so make it into something you want to live with.”

Her devotion to building an inner landscape that is sustainably compelling and companionable 24/7 is the essence of the hermit’s creed. And with proclivities towards hermiting of my own, this is just one more reason why she feels like a cotraveler.

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Finding Wild

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A woman, alone, in the landscape (This particular one being my friend Ali Ringenburg at Deer Isle)

Two excellent books, both written by women, have the same title: Wild. Sheryl Strayed is American, and her book became an instant best seller (and soon a movie starring Reese Witherspoon.) Jay Griffiths is British, and she is not as well known to American readers. But both are gifted, informed writers who felt called—with very different intentions—to journey outside the familiar as a way of connecting with something primal in themselves. I loved both of these books.

Strayed’s Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail (2013) is a personal narrative of walking the Pacific Crest Trail from Southern California to Washington State in 1995. She was 26, had recently lost her mother and was untethered and at odds in her life. Aside from just a few dramatic moments, not that much happens over the course of her journey. But Dwight Garner nails the spirit of the book quite adroitly when he wrote, “This book is as loose and sexy and dark as an early Lucinda Williams song. It’s got a punk spirit and makes an earthy and American sound.”

Griffiths’ Wild: An Elemental Journey (2006) is the account of a more mature and self-aware consciousness. Griffiths began her journey when she felt lost, suffering through a dark and pathless depression. “I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t write, and it felt as if I couldn’t survive the violence of my unhappiness.”

This was the calling, the vehement, irresistible demand of the feral angel—take flight. All that is wild is winged—life, mind and language—and knows the feel of air in the soaring “flight, silhouetted in the primal.”

This book was the result of many years’ yearning. A longing for something whose character I perceived only indistinctly at first but that gradually became clearer during my journeys. In looking for wildness, I was not looking for miles of landscape to be nicely photographed and neatly framed, but for the quality of wildness, which—like art, sex, love and all the other intoxicants—has a rising swing ringing through it. A drinker of wildness, I was tipsy with it before I began and roaring drunk by the end.

I was looking for the will of the wild. I was looking for how that will expressed itself in elemental vitality, in savage grace. Wildness is resolute for life: it cannot be otherwise, for it will die in captivity. It is elemental: pure freedom, pure passion, pure hunger. It is its own manifesto.

Griffiths is highly aware of the overplayed nature of the “solo journey,” negating any suggestion that she is participating in an old and hackneyed form (one that has often been the domain of Euro-American men). She is searching for something much deeper:

I wanted nothing to do with the heroics of the “solo expedition.” There was no mountain I wanted to “conquer,” no desert I wanted to be the “first woman to cross.” I simply wanted to know something of the landscapes I visited and wanted to do that by listening to what the knowers of those lands could tell me if I asked. I was exasperated (to put it mildly) by the way that so many writers in the Euro-American tradition would write reams on wilderness without asking the opinions of those who lived there, the native or indigenous people who have a different word for wilderness: home

From Intuit people in the Arctic I learned something of the intricate ice and how all landscape is knowledgscape. From whales and dolphins I learned how much we do not know, the octaves of possibilities, the maybes of the mind. From Aboriginal people in Australia i learned the belowness of things, how land is heavy with significance and how it sings…Everywhere, too, I learned of songlines, how people who know and love a land can hold it in mind as music.

Her adventures are many, with chapters that clump her journeys together under titles like Wild Earth, Wild Ice, Wild Water, Wild Fire, Wild Air, Wild Mind. Griffiths has many passages that capture a lyricism of voice that coexists alongside her harshly honest frustrations and her deep concern for the well being of our world. For example, on the sexuality of nature she writes, “To every monkey an erection; to every insect, sackfuls of eggs; … mushrooms conjugally fungal; every parrot on the squawk for it; every peccary rutting for it; every tendril internally sprung for it. Nothing unthrust.” On the topic of depression she writes that there is “no particularity, no peony, no pip, no piano, no parsley, no play.” On global warming she expounds, “Ice melts, language melts, a culture melts, a climate melts, and all the music, the songlines of ice-alive melt to the engineered unmusic, the silence of a melting world.”

Wildness has many layers, and it is a term and a state of mind that has many facets. Parallels run between these outward journeys taken by Strayed and Griffiths and the kind of experiences I often have while working in my studio (which of course is nothing like a wilderness setting.) The connection between these two concepts is more ethereal than direct, something that rings familiar even while being hard to describe in words. “The human mind developed in wilderness and needs it still,” Griffiths writes. She also includes a quote from the poet Gary Snyder that speaks even further into that commonality: “Wildness is the state of complete awareness. That’s why we need it.”

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Paul Éluard, surrealist and poet, famously said, “There is another world, but it is in this one.” While culling through the Slow Muse archive, I also found the two quotes below from nature writer Ellen Meloy that weave into Éluard’s thread. Some of these are perennial themes: What it means to feel a sense of home, of being a part of something larger than one’s self; our sensory intelligence, and how it can be enhanced (or numbed); our relationship with earth, others and ourselves; the proximity to the ineffable and mysterious alongside our practical every day existence.

Earth, atmosphere, landscape, materiality—that is the domain that has been the primary source for my work. It is also a profound metaphor for belonging. Certain places speak to each of us personally, and the nature of that connection is outside of reason or language. It is, for me, just as Éluard has said—another world that exists within this one. And, as Meloy warns, “a failure of attention will make orphans of us all.”

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Of all the things I wondered about on this land, I wondered the hardest about the seduction of certain geographies that feel like home—not by story or blood but merely by their forms and colors. How our perceptions are our only internal map of the world, how there are places that claim you and places that warn you away. How you can fall in love with the light.

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For a homebody surrounded by the familiar or a traveler exploring the strange, there can be no better guide to a place than the weight of its air, the behavior of its light, the shape of its water, the textures of rock and feather, leaf and fur, and the ways that humans bless, mark or obliterate them. Each of us possesses five fundamental, enthralling maps to the natural world: sight, touch, taste, hearing, smell. As we unravel the threads that bind us to nature, as denizens of data and artifice, amid crowds and clutter, we become miserly with these loyal and exquisite guides, we numb our sensory intelligence. This failure of attention will make orphans of us all.

A few geographies that have spoken to me:

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Hampi, India

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Milford Sound, New Zealand

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Layton, Utah

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Alice Springs, Australia

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Spiral Jetty on the Great Salt Lake, Utah

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Small Point, Maine

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For people who spend a lot of time alone—by design—and are avowed introverts, the concept of social activism is more of a theological commitment than a behavior. Like that person who hates going to the gym, I have an abhorrence for meetings. If a cause requires me to attend any, I’m a no. I believe in the planetary collective that encompasses all life forms, but I’m not so good with the large human gathering part. A recent post on Facebook captures that discomfort perfectly: INTROVERTS UNITE. Separately. In your own homes.

But I can read, and I do. And I can openly voice my support for what rings true.

Whether you are a brave trooper at the leading edge of societal change or a remote viewer like me, we all see a world that is in need of help. It has been a summer of difficult news, and feeling powerless is a standard response. What can one person do that really makes a difference?

My own answer to that question is actually more expansive and hopeful today than it was a week ago. I give credit fpr that shift to a “this will change the way you see the world” book, The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible, by Charles Eisenstein.

Eisenstein is a self-styled voice—he is neither a traditional academic nor a journalist—and yet he has written a book that is fearless in its examination of the large arc concerns of life. He has a penetrating and exacting mind, and he speaks truthfully of our world’s woes. But his approach is also humble, personal, transcendent and thoughtfully hopeful. The short chapters have one world titles like Separation, Despair, Miracle, Hope, but they string together and form a compelling narrative of how we collectively transition from the old, outdated story of ourselves—separateness, scarcity, fear—to one of interconnectedness and collaboration.

There is nothing new about this idea. It is almost a refrain. Anticipating the critics who accuse him of being naive and/or too New Age-ish, Eisenstein addresses those reservations head on and bravely makes a case for how to shift out of a narrative that isn’t working into one that can. The way he has framed this conversation speaks powerfully to me.

A beautifully written review of the book by Bayo Akomolafe at Kosmos captures the unique spirit of Eisenstein’s approach:

What differentiates this book from other attempts to define a finer world lies in the path that he adopts—through the soft spots of our collective feeling. Instead of academic posturing or intellectual bravado, Charles brings us a book that unashamedly ‘feels’—a well-rounded voyage that satisfies at levels often ignored by today’s prophets of change. Don’t be fooled though: I do not at all mean to suggest that this book is puff and smoke. Charles’ intellectual perspicacity will bend your mind like dried crayfish. Through our shared grief about the failed promises of modern civilization, his words seep through the gridlocks of expertise and the trapdoors of cynicism with a strange potency that is difficult to mimic. His noble intent? To guide us into what a different world might look like, to ‘trick’ our senses into believing it is not as distant as we conveniently let it be. Charles proceeds to describe, with a refreshing sense of vulnerability and self-awareness, what living in a new mythos might look like—even while confessing his relative non-readiness and disinclination to fully occupy it…

In fact, this book is a celebration of the ordinary—ennobling what seems to be the commonplace—while pointing out how unfathomable it really is. In the marketplace of glossy ideas, I think the most profound thing that can be said about a book is that it hardly begs the question of its necessity. Paradoxically, it is that very characteristic that makes it a powerful paean to your very present breathing moment and a rapturous adventure into the next.

This is not a book full of clichéd warnings and blue sky pronouncements. In fact Eisenstein self-effacingly places himself alongside the rest of us in the fragile complexity of life. We all struggle with what to do to make things better, and our response is often to do something just to be doing. Eisenstein advocates a different approach. He suggests just siting in the silence of the not knowing and listening in the stillness about how to proceed. Of course I resonate with this technique. It is one many artists learn early on and hone with time. Increasingly the silence holds the answer about where to go next, how best to move forward.

Eisenstein describes our current time as the end of the age of the guru. A new way of seeing the world is emerging in people everywhere, simultaneously. Enlightenment, he says, will be a group activity. And yet his message is very personal, a kind of blueprint for seeing more clearly where our thoughts and attitudes are still caught in the old ways. There is room in this story for everyone including the nonjoiners, the nonconformists, the introverts.

My rhapsodic response to this book has been met with a somewhat cynical eye by several of my friends. Their response has reminded me that visionary and idealistic manifestos have been seriously overplayed in our lifetime. Just another one of those? Hope followed by disappointment has worn all of us down, and moving to skepticism quickly is self preservation at this point. But I am reminded of a line from the I Ching: “Before the beginning of great brilliance, there must be chaos. Before a brilliant person begins something great, they must look foolish in the crowd.”

Every page of my copy of this book is underlined and annotated, and I have started reading it one more time. (For a horizontalist who loves to cover a lot of territory, rereading is not common.) I can already see how it has changed the way I view myself, my world and the future.

Sharing this book with others is as collective an act as I can embrace.

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“Desert Breath,” land art in the Eastern Sahara Desert in Egypt. Two spirals emanate from a circular depression 100 feet in diameter. The installation occupies over a million square feet of desert and can be viewed from the air. Artist Danae Stratou, designer and architect Alexandra Stratou, and architect Stella Constantinides created the project between 1995 and 1997. It has since been left to slowly disintegrate. (Photos: Laughing Squid)

Those who know me well know of my passion for Fanny Howe—her poetry and her prose speak to me deeply. One of my favorite Howe essays, “Bewilderment” (included in her book, The Wedding Dress: Meditations on Word and Life) is a particular favorite, and one that I go back to again and again.

In this passage she turns to dreams and how they engage with us. Her descriptions are so closely aligned with how art comes into being in my studio. There is a dialogue and a dance happening every time I encounter a surface that is asking to be engaged in the process of becoming something else.

As we all know, a dream hesitates. it doesn’t grasp, it stands back, it jokes, it makes itself scared, it circles, and it fizzles.

A dream often undermines the narratives of power and winning…

A dream breaks into parts and contradicts its own will, even as it travels around and around.

For me, bewilderment is like a dream: one continually returning pause on a gyre and in both my stories and my poems it could be the shape of the spiral that imprints itself in my interior before anything else emerges on paper.

For the spiral-walked there is no plain path, no up and down, no inside or outside. But there are strange returns and recognitions and never a conclusion.

Spiral walking! I love that phrase. Howe then combines the concept of the spiral with the mystic tradition of the maze, another invitation to be in bewilderment:

The construction of high-hedged mazes is a concession to bewilderment, just as Robert Smithson’s spiral jetty rises and sinks under the weight of Utah’s salt water—both site and non-site—a shape that must turn back or drop off—that can climb and wind down—that has noetic as well as poetic attributes, miming infinity in its uncertain end.

The maze and the spiral have aesthetic value since they are constructed for others—places to learn about perplexity and loss of bearing.

And even if it is associated with childhood, madness, stupidity, and failure, even if it shows not only how to get lost but also how it feels not to return, bewilderment has a high status in several mystical traditions.

The definition of bewilder is “to cause to lose one’s sense of where one is.” It is a collapse of the referential and an invitation to sustain tetherlessness. Bewilderment “breaks open the lock of dualism (it’s this or that) and peers out into space (not this, not that.)

Mystics get this. I think many artists do too.

[Note: You can view Desert Breath from Google Earth here.]

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Rebecca Solnit
Rebecca Solnit (Photograph: David Levene for the Guardian)

My respect and admiration for the writer Rebecca Solnit is long standing. The author of many extraordinary books, she posted a short essay online a few years ago that went viral immediately. No wonder, since the title captures in one phrase an experience that every woman I know has had, and continues to encounter in spite of everything that has happened over the last 50 years: Men Explain Things to Me.

In a new collection of seven essays that takes the first as its title, Solnit has allowed gender to be a leitmotif that strings these insightful explorations together. As much as I enjoyed the title essay in Men Explain Things to Me, my favorite in the collection is Woolf’s Darkness: Embracing the Inexplicable, a rich blend of the fearless probing that characterizes the minds and writings of Solnit, Virginia Woolf and Susan Sontag. And because the inexplicable has been a leitmotif for me these eight years of Slow Muse posting, exploring the realm of the inchoate in company with these three is pure pleasure.

Solnit begins with a Woolf quote: “The future is dark, which is the best thing the future can be, I think.” The future is an unknown and should be just that, a radical idea in a culture that longs for control, prognostication and predictability. Solnit then quotes wilderness survivalist Laurence Gonzalez: “The plan, a memory of the future, tries on reality to see if it fits.” It is our nature to be fearful of the unknown ahead, and often it feels easier to choose to be oblivious. When a plan (or a belief, or a relgion) becomes your safety net, you see what you want to see. It is the job of artists and explorers, says Solnit, to let go of preconceptions and to walk into the unknown with eyes open. Relentlessly.

When it comes to the work we do and the positions we take, we cannot see the larger arc of these actions. Solnit shares a conversation she had with Sontag about taking a political position:

I had just begun trying to make the case for hope in writing, and I argued that you don’t know if your actions are futile: that you don’t have the memory of the future, that the future is indeed dark, which is the best thing it could be: and that, in the end, we always act in the dark. The effects of your actions may unfold in ways you cannot foresee or even imagine. They may unfold long after your death. That is when the words of so many writers often resonate most.

Every artist who is digging deep in the work they do comes up against that unknowingness with every gesture, with every word. Solnit’s insights resonate for me as an artist, but they also speak to anyone struggling for truth, justice and equality. You know who you are.

To me, the grounds for hope are simply that we don’t know what will happen next, and that the unlikely and the unimaginable transpire quite regularly. And that the unofficial history of the world shows that dedicated individuals and popular movements can shape history and have, though how and when we might win and how long it takes is not predictable.

Despair is a form of certainty, certainty that the future will be a lot like the present or will decline from it; despair is a confident memory of the future, in Gonzalez’s resonant phrase. Optimism is similarly confident about what will happen. Both are grounds for not acting. Hope can be the knowledge that we don’t have that memory and that reality doesn’t necessarily match our plans; hope like creative ability can come from what the Romantic poet John Keats called Negative Capability.

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Detailed views of some recent paintings that I hope suggest a layered and complex reality

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Science has always wrestled with the idea of an immaterial will, or agency, at work in the universe, and for centuries it was thought to be expressed through the “laws of nature.” God might be dead, but he rules on, or so it was thought, through his immutable laws. It turns out, however, that those laws are at best crude averages, rough generalizations. Take a more fine-grained look, or develop more sensitive instruments, and things get more interesting. At the smallest, quantum, level, there are no laws at all, only probabilities. An electron can be here, there, or both places at once, very much as if it had a choice in the matter…A hint of—dare I say?—animism has entered into the scientific worldview. The physical world is no longer either dead or passively obedient to the “laws.”

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The closer and more carefully we probe, the more [the universe] seethes with what looks like life—runaway processes driven by positive feedback loops, emergent patterns, violent attractions, quantum leaps, and always, as far ahead as we can see, more surprises. There may be no invisible creaturely “beings” afoot, either symbionts, parasites, or predators. But there are uncountable algorithms at work in the physical world, writhing and reaching, pulling matter and energy into their schemes, acting out of what almost seems to be an unquenchable playfulness.

These two passages are from one of my favorite recent reads, Barbara Ehrenreich‘s Living With a Wild God (which I wrote about in more detail here.) This book has been met with mixed reviews, and some of Ehrenreich’s longstanding fans of her approach—no bullshit, straight shooter—consider this book a wrong step into the mystical and the non-substantiated. For many, science is the religion of our era, and Ehrenreich has committed a heresy.

Whether the issue is science, politics, lifestyle, religious practice or art making, I am frustrated by the concept of dogma. There is not just one way to know or understand or do, and my inner agent provocateur gets called up when that is not acknowledged. Bring up the topic of crop circles or alien contactees around physicists and scientists, and they can’t depart your company fast enough. Once they are “Vaticanized” and ordained into their profession, spending any time in the mysterious (and at times mystical) fringe would be career suicide. Science has rules, regulations and practices, and if you break out you are marked.

And even though some have expelled Ehrenreich from the clan of the anointed, it may be that the reductionist/scientific stance is actually softening just a little. Ehrenreich describes how much the practice of science has changed over her lifetime, and her insights dovetail with those expressed by another scientist willing to step into the arena of the unanswered and unknowable, Alan Lightman. In his recent book, The Accidental Universe, Lightman (who is both a novelist and theoretical physicist) devotes an entire chapter to discussing what he terms the “spiritual universe.”

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We scientists are taught from an early age of our apprenticeship not to waste time on questions that do not have clear and definite answers. But artists and humanists often don’t care what the answer is because definite answers don’t exist to all interesting and important questions…For many artists and humanists, the question is more important than the answer.

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There are things we believe in that do not submit to the methods and reductions of science. Furthermore, faith and the passion for the transcendent that often goes with it have been the impulse for so many exquisite creations of humankind…The strong sense of the infinite, the belief in an unseen order in the world, the feeling of being in the presence of something divine are all personal.

Lightman has been part of a group of scientists and artists (centered in and around Cambridge MA) who explore contrasting beliefs and disparate ways of knowing. He and his friends are “fascinated by how science and religion can coexist in our minds.”

His solution has been to distinguish between the physical universe—that “constellation of all physical matter and energy that scientists study”—and the spiritual universe, the territory of religion and the nonmaterial. “All of us have had experiences that are not subject to rational analysis,” he writes. “Besides religion, much of our art and our values and our personal relationships with other people spring from such experiences.” For Lightman, the distinction between the physical and the spiritual universes mirrors the essential tension of the personal and the impersonal. While the spiritual universe is perceived by many to hover out just beyond our personal being, the evidence of that universe is extremely personal.

The personal and the impersonal, the willingness to acknowledge a multiverse of more dimensions than we can see or measure—these are expansions in thinking that have import on more than just the practice of science. As Ehrenreich put is so eloquently, the playfulness appears to be unquenchable, dogma be damned.

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