Wisdom

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Heron on the beach at Small Point, Maine

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Note to my readers: As I head back up to Small Point, I reread this post from two years ago. That beach, that heron, that quiet—they are all still there, waiting to encompass any and all. I’ll be back Slow Musing at the end of next week.
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Sam McNerney posted a piece on Big Think called Why You Shouldn’t Focus Too Much in which he highlights the results of several recent studies on focus and creativity.

We’re obsessed with relentless focus. We assume that if we encounter a difficult problem the best strategy is to chug red bull or drink coffee. Drugs including Adderall and Ritalin are prescribed to millions to improve focus. Taking a break is a faux pas, mind wandering even worse. Yet, recent studies paint a different picture: distractions and mind wandering might be a key part in the creative process.

The research McNerney describes helps explain why “prodigiously creative” people have a proclivity for generating solutions to complex problems spontaneously. As one researcher puts it, “This spontaneity is not the result of an innate talent or a gift from the muses but actually the result of the prodigiously creative person working on outstanding problems consistently at a level below consciousness awareness.”

McNerney’s conclusion:

Whatever the reasons, the research outlined here suggests that daydreaming and distractions might contribute to the creative process by giving our unconscious minds a chance to mull over and “incubate” the problems our conscious mind can’t seem to crack…let’s remember that daydreams and distractions per se never helped anyone—there’s a fine line between taking a break and being lazy (or maybe not). The more reasonable conclusion is that when you’re stuck don’t fear distraction and despite what your boss might think, let the mind wander. This, it turns out, is something creative people do really well. Thoreau might summarize it best: “We must walk consciously only part way toward our goal, and then leap in the dark to our success.”

Walking only part way. Success being a thing that is dark and requires a leap. Henry David Thoreau, I’m on it.

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Reflections of Commonwealth Avenue on a Boston University poster with a life of its own

Discovering the selfless nature doesn’t have a monumental “Eureka!” quality. It is more like being continually perplexed, the way we feel when we’re looking for the car keys we’re so sure are in our pocket, or when the supermarket’s being renovated and what we need has moved to a different aisle each time we go shopping. That experience of being somewhat dumbfounded is the beginning of wisdom. We’re beginning to see through our ignorance—the everyday vigil we sustain to confirm that we exist in some permanent way. We look at our mind and see that it is a fluid situation, and we look at the world and see that it is a fluid situation. Our expectation of permanence is confounded.

–Sakyong Mipham

This passage is from Sakyong Mipham‘s book, Ruling Your World: Ancient Strategies For Modern Life. While this articulation of life as a “fluid situation” speaks to all aspects of consciousness, it is an approach that has been of particular value to me in the realm of creativity and the act of making.

Mipham’s concept of perpetual fluidity is similar to Pema Chödrön‘s use of the word groundlessness. She has written about its importance in her classic, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times.

A few wise words from Chödrön:

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To seek for some lasting security is futile. Suffering begins to dissolve when we question the belief or hope that there’s anywhere to hide.

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For those who want something to hold onto, life is even more inconvenient. From this point of view, seeking security can become an addiction. We’re all addicted to hope—hope that the doubt and uncertainty will go away. This addiction has a painful effect on society: a society based on lots of people addicted to getting ground under their feet is not a very compassionate place.

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To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest. To live fully is to be always in no-man’s-land, to experience each moment as completely new and fresh. To live is to be willing to die over and over again.

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When things are shaky and nothing is working, we might realize that we are on the verge of something. We might realize that this is a very vulnerable and tender place, and that tenderness can go either way. We can shut down and feel resentful or we can touch in on that throbbing quality.

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Nigrassa
Nigrassa, one of the pieces included in the show at Chautauqua Institution this summer, “On the Surface: Outward Appearances,” that has been sold and taken up residence elsewhere.

Ann Lauterbach, poet and educator, is the author of The Night Sky: Writings on the Poetics of Experience. As is usually the case, her insights about poetry and poetry writing apply to other forms of expression as well. (I regularly rely on poets to articulate what I find so hard to verbalize.)

I don’t know if this is a technique that works for you, but the right book somehow rises to the top of my stack or falls off the shelf at an opportune moment. Open it up, and there is something that speaks to life at that particular moment. My erudite and book loving niece Rebecca Ricks recommended Night Sky to me several years ago, so I read the collection and left my markings on its pages before putting it on the shelf. This morning I was thinking about the show at Chautauqua that came down this week and about the paintings that have found new homes, and there was Lauterbach’s book sitting there ready to be re-engaged. A few phrases immediately jumped out at me, like the difference between seeing from the periphery rather than the center, and how the whole fragment (what a great term!) can be embraced.

These were the passages that spoke to me this morning which I hope find resonance with you too.

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To write poetry in America is in itself a subversive act, a refutation of, and resistance to, certain assumptions about what constitutes “the public” and its interests.

Poetry protects language from serving any master.

One can see better from the periphery than from the center.

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My fear is that my fragments of knowledge are just bits and pieces with too many unbridgeable gaps between them.

And so, in defense, I have come to celebrate the whole fragment.

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Linear argument, where one thing leads ineluctably to another, is of profound practical and rhetorical value, but necessarily it discourages vicissitude and ephemera, ambivalence and dead ends, ruminations that suggest a different mental economy, one that could affect conclusions beyond the restraint of reasoning logic.

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The crucial job of artists is to find a way to release materials into the animated middle ground between subjects, and so to initiate the difficult but joyful process of human connection.

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Art serves no practical purpose, but to engage with it fully is to acknowledge the (pleasurable, if often difficult) consequences of choice at the crux of human agency.
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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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Meredith Monk (Photo: Peter Ross)

Meredith Monk was an ubiquitous influence on me during my early years as an artist in New York City duing the 70s. Already an icon, she explored forms of expression that ranged wide and deep, crossing over into so many different métiers—dance, music, visual art, writing, film, performance, theater. She is the archetype of artist as shaman, artist as visionary.

In a recent interview with Monk, she makes this observation:

There are basically two kinds of artists. One is a mirror of the particular time that artist lives in. The other is more the way that I think about things, which is a more timeless kind of idea of very fundamental energies and cycles of human behavior and things that recur. We are sensitive, and we stand a little bit away from the world, enough to respond to it, but at the same time we offer an alternative.

What I’m trying to do is to offer an experience, a direct experience in the very distracted world that we’re living in, which might not be so easy. It’s very hard for us to let go of our devices and distractions, and the nakedness of the present is, for many people, very painful. The stillness, the not being entertained, and just the being in the present is not that easy, but I think that that’s what I’m trying to do in my work — to offer a situation where audience members could actually let go of the distractions, let go of the mental narrator, let go of the restlessness for a certain period of time.

Monk’s first paragraph captures a concept I have circled around for years, and she does it with such simplicity and clarity. And her second paragraph—how we manage in this very distracted world—is a succint reminder of the importance of putting down our devices on a regular basis (not just on holidays) and being in the “nakedness of the present.” May your 4th of July be full of that.

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Songwriter Bob Russell ( “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother”, among many others) wrote these lyrics for Billie Holiday back in the 1940s:

The difficult I’ll do right now
The impossible will take a little while.

The second line was the inspiration for the title of one of my favorite books, The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen’s Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear, a selection of essays compiled by Paul Rogat Loeb and published in 2004. He draws wisdom on impossible things—or so they may have seemed at the time—from many 20th century greats including Martin Luther King Jr, Nelson Mandela, Diane Ackerman, Seamus Heaney, Václav Havel, Howard Zinn.

In Daniel Barenboim‘s Norton Lecture series (collected in his book, Music Quickens Time), he brings music into this sphere of the impossible:

I firmly believe that it is impossible to speak about music. There have been many definitions of music which have, in fact, merely described a subjective reaction to it. The only really precise and objective definition for me is by Ferruccio Busoni…who said that music is sonorous air. It says everything and nothing at the same time. Schopenhauer, on the other hand, saw in music an idea of the world. In music, as in life, it is really only possible to speak about our own reactions and perceptions. If I attempt to speak about music, it is because the impossible has always attracted me more than the difficult. If there is some sense behind this, to attempt the impossible is, by definition, an adventure…It has the added advantage that failure is not only tolerated but expected.

My artist friend Gordon Waters (who sadly passed away in 2013) wrote a memoir that he coyly titled, Unless Your Picture Goes Wrong It Will Be No Good. Any writer/composer/artist knows how important the broken parts are as a work evolves.

But the difficult is different than the impossible. Art making is so full of difficult things, and there may be something emergent about just moving into the zone of the impossible as Barenboim suggests. It is a way of welcoming adventure rather than staying tethered to life-draining reparations and adjustments. It is a welcoming of failure rather than the constant vigilance to protect against it.

Sometimes the extreme is the exit out. Or in, depending on your point of view.

[Note: This post is from the Slow Muse archives. It first appeared in 2013.]

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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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Magpie’s nest (Photo: Wire.com)

Last week I returned from a two week sojourn in the desert. Everything shifts around inside when I am in that landscape, and I have been gently allowing the ballast that balances me to settle into its new positions. Luckily I found the perfect companion for that subtle transition: Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth About Everything, by Barbara Ehrenreich.

Ehrenreich is a longtime hero of mine, a tireless advocate for humanitarian causes and most especially for those living at the fringe—she took several months out of her life to live and work as a minimum wage earner before writing about the absurd poverty of that life in Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. She can be relied on for consistently brilliant writing full of insightful—and often very necessary—jabs at issues that are important but often overlooked. Living With a Wild God is quintessential Ehrenreich but with a twist, one that swings in very close to the magpie’s nest of my own handcrafted reality, a collection of sinewy bits that have held true over a lifetime and are still deemed durable.

This book is a very personal account that plumbs Ehrenreich’s formative childhood and adolescence. Most particularly it is about an experience she had when she was 17 that was so inexplicably outside her cast iron atheist, “science can explain everything” upbringing that she buried it as a secret.

Over time however the events of her life worked it to the surface. When things were going well she could “handle a world without transcendence.” But when things began to fall apart, “the repressed began its inevitable return.” The frost heaves of 50 years forced her to come to terms with that experience and the implications of what happened to her on that day so long ago.

After a night of sleeping in her car while on a road trip with friends near Death Valley, Ehrenreich took an early morning walk by herself. Suddenly the world flamed into life. “Something poured into me and I poured out into it.”

Many of us would celebrate this unexpected revelation of the oneness of life, but Ehrenreich greeted the whole encounter with disdain. For her evidence-based scientific mind (she went on to get her PhD in cellular immunology), this was an aberration, something to be buried and forgotten. At that point in her life, she was unwilling and incapable of embracing anything that even remotely suggested a mystical experience.

But her older self eventually comes to see it in a different light. As is her nature, she sought for understanding by researching similar experiences. She discovers that encounters like these are more common than she had ever imagined. While many flatly dismiss these occurrences as a chemical imbalance in the brain or a form of mental illness, an older and wiser Ehrenreich does not find this to be an adequate explanation.

What nudged her into a more expansive view of what that experience could have been was her midlife immersion in nature. Describing an exquisite sunset seen from her home in the Florida Keys, she writes:

I came to think of it as the Presence, what scientists call an “emergent quality,” something greater than the sum of all the parts—the birds and cloudscapes and glittering Milky Way—that begins to feel like a single living, breathing Other. There was nothing mystical about this Presence, or so I told myself. It was just a matter of being alert enough to put things together, to catch the drift. And when it succeeded in gathering itself together out of all the bits and pieces—from the glasslike calm of the water at dawn to the earsplitting afternoon thunder—-there was a sense of great freedom and uplift, whether on my part or on its.

She goes on to quote author Howard Bloom:

We have vastly underrated the cosmos that gave us birth. We have understated her achievements, her capacities, and her creativity. We’ve set aside will, purpose and persistence in a magic enclosure and have claimed that [they] do not belong to nature, they belong solely to us human beings.

Ehrenreich then adds this thought: “We have, in other words, made ourselves far lonelier than we have any reason to be.”

The values I was taught in my childhood were completely different from Ehrenreich’s. I came from a very confined and narrow religious tradition, full of constraints and limitations about how to live and what was possible. But underneath the restrictiveness was a foundation of numinousness. Mystical experiences were revered, and touching into the ineffable was sought after. While the via creativa was not encompassed in my religious upbringing, the numinousness at its core spilled over into my life as an artist. Uncertainty, ineffability, mystery, trust in the unseen and an easy comfort with what cannot be measured—all essential requirements for my process-driven kind of art making—are concepts that I learned from my religious heritage. While I found no reason to carry any of the theological trappings into my adult life, those fundamental qualities are hobbled into my magpie’s nest.

Ehrenreich’s family traditions were completely different, but we both have ended up with a similar view. Her final paragraph is a lovely tribute to her own journey and closely aligns with my way of seeing things:

Ah, you say, this is all in your mind. And you are right to be skeptical: I expect no less. It is in my mind, which I have acknowledged from the beginning is a less than perfect instrument. But this is what appears to be the purpose of my mind, and no doubt yours as well, its designated function beyond all the mundane calculations: To condense all of the chaos and mystery of the world into a palpable Other or Others, not necessarily because we love it, and certainly not out of any intention to “worship” it. But because ultimately we may have no choice in this matter. I have the impression, growing out of the experiences chronicled here, that it may be seeking us out.

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Somewhere in New Mexico

A Muslim prayer expresses this extraordinary request: “Lord, increase my bewilderment.”

In poet Fanny Howe‘s essay, “Bewilderment”, from her essay collection, The Wedding Dress, she describes bewilderment as more than an attitude. It is an actual approach she says, a way to “settle with the unresolvable.”

And this:

A signal does not necessarily mean that you want to be located or described. It can mean that you want to be known as Unlocatable and Hidden…

Weakness, fluidity, concealment, and solitude assume their place in a kind of dream world, where the sleeping witness finally feels safe to lie down in mystery.

Those are wise words, especially as I head to the Southwest desert for a few weeks. A bit of a walkabout, time alone in the open expanses. And Fanny has advice about that as well:

The wilderness as metaphor is in this case evocative enough because causing a complete failure in the magnet, the compass, the scale, the stars, and the movement of the rivers is more catastrophic than getting lost in the woods. Bewilderment is an enchantment that follows a complete collapse of reference and reconcilability.

I’ll be back, hopefully with stories to tell.

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Tiruchchirappalli, India

This year we celebrated Easter with friends from Athens. While a whole lamb turned slowly on a spit, the table was loaded up with fresh bread, olives from the family vineyards back home, and copious bowls of salads and vegetables. It was sumptuous and unforgettable, rendered with the mastery that comes with having been repeated over and over for years.

I have consciously shed most of the rituals that were part of my upbringing, but I am moved and drawn to the rituals of others. During a month long visit to Southern India a few years ago, we spent much of our time at ancient Hindu sites. Most temples welcome non-Hindus, so we were able to watch and sometimes participate in the ablutions, the music and the blessings that have been carried out in just that way for hundreds of years. The meaning for me as an outsider will always be different than it is for a believer, but it is still meaning, it is still a connection with something powerful and moving.

Some consider interest in other religious traditions to be a kind of spiritual consumerism, a superficial supermarket approach to seeking and meaning. But that isn’t the way I see it. When we walk through a museum, objects call to us. Regardless of their origin or history, they draw us to them. They are still speaking, with or without the context that produced them. No one tradition owns them.

The poet Carolyn Forché spent a good deal of time in her life exploring many religious traditions. In her essay, “Infinite Obligation to the Other”, (in A God in the House: Poets Talk about Faith, edited by Ilya Kaminsky and Katherine Towler) she describes herself as a syncretist, someone who “does not attempt to resolve contradictions between spheres of faith and belief.”

There is a difference, I hope, between syncretism and dilettantism. I would just play around; I would splash and play in the fields of spiritual thought—read the Zen sutras, and then jump off a cliff into the arms of something about the Dharma, and then go back to reading the Bible, and then have a certain dalliance with Judaic thought. I was always enchanted. I was always in awe of these texts. If I did this as a practice of lectio divina, I could experience these different fruits of human experience of God, without feeling there was a contradiction between them. We all get to be many people, because everything is very protean. Spiritual life is protean, too. That’s why you can’t ever really feel accomplished spiritually, because in a second, you know–you’re not. Everything is changing so rapidly.

In our culture, says Forché, spirituality is as misunderstood as poetry. “It goes unrecognized.” But the connection between the two is real for her. Forché speaks to how that connection happens in poetry (and for many of us who are in artistic endeavors as well):

The thing about writing poetry is that the more you’re there working, the more you’re there writing, the more you realize you are not writing it. The little threads and weavings that come into the poem—one is not consciously aware of these things, because something larger is working in you. This is an experience close to revelation, to the realm of prophetic language.

At the end of her essay, Forché quotes Emanuel Levinas: “Artistic activity makes the artist aware that he is not the author of his works.” Which is, in my view, an exquisite truth.

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