Wisdom

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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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The sand along the shore in Small Point, Maine: The water’s silky attention brought to bear

[Note: I had surgery on my right hand this week so my ability to type has been compromised while it heals. I am reposting from a few years ago since Jane Hirschfield continues to be a guiding force for me. And what a phrase--"honed and shaped by a silky attention brought to bear on the recalcitrant matter of earth and of life." I am so touched by that.]

I’ve posted a few Jane Hirschfield poems on this blog previously (here and here) and continue to explore her body of work. In the meantime I have been savoring her volume of essays about poetry, Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry. As is often the case, musings on poetic invention are usually very apropos for visual art making as well.

Hirschfield’s first essay is about concentration, a term she uses to describe a particular state of awareness: “penetrating, unified, and focused, yet also permeable and open.” She describes concentration that may be “quietly physical—a simple, unexpected sense of deep accord between yourself and everything. It may come as the harvest of long looking and leave us, as it did Wordsworth, amid thought ‘too deep for tears.’”

Here are a few more insights into this idea:

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Violinists practicing scales and dancers repeating the same movements over decades are not simply warming up or mechanically training their muscles. they are learning how to attend unswervingly, moment by moment, to themselves and their art; learning to come into steady presence…Yet however it is brought into being, true concentration appears—paradoxically—at the moment willed effort drops away…At such moments, there may be some strong emotion present—a feeling of joy, or even grief—but as often, in deep concentration, the self disappears. We seem to fall utterly into the object of our attention, or else vanish into attentiveness itself. This may explain why the creative is so often descried as impersonal and beyond self, as if inspiration were literally what its etymology implies, something “breathed in”.

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Great art, we might say, is thought that has been concentrated in just this way: honed and shaped by a silky attention brought to bear on the recalcitrant matter of earth and of life.

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The infinite fascination of waterdrops

Simple but useful wisdom for art making practitioners…

When asked for screenwriting tips, Greta Gerwig—actor, director and screenwriter—shared these two. As is often the case, her advice is useful for anyone engaged in a creative venture.

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Whenever you have an “idea,” as in a concept that you could explain to someone, like a hook or at worst a gimmick, that is a bad thing. It feels good, but it’s not good. The best ideas reveal themselves, you don’t “have” them. For me, anyway.

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I have gotten into baseball recently, and whenever I have trouble writing, I think about the pace of baseball. It’s slow. You strike out a lot, even if you’re great. It’s mostly individual, but when you have to work together, it must be perfect. My desktop picture is of the Red Sox during the World Series. They aren’t winning; they’re just grinding out another play. This, for me, is very helpful to have in my mind while writing.

Her words of advice dovetail with insights from painter Tom Nozkowski:

If there is one essential survival skill that you must learn, it is how to sustain yourself and your work over the years. There is really only one way to do this, and that is by loving what you do, being fascinated by your work, and by being obsessed with making art. You will get in trouble if you need the approval of others to keep your work moving forward. After all these years, the one essential element in my practice, the one thing I am sure of is that I need to be interested in and happy about what I am doing in the studio.

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Grit-Rich

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In my studio: Hand molds in a peat bowl by friend and artist Rachel Parry. Parry made both of these objects from substances she found on her land in Allihies, Beara, Ireland.

Like most of my readers, I track creativity research like a part time job I’ll have for the rest of my life. With an increased interest in understanding how creativity and innovation play out in the arts as well as in every other aspect of life, good vetters on this research are a valuable resource. And no one vets the literature on creativity better than Maria Popova. (If you haven’t yet discovered her site Brainpickings, just one visit and you’ll understand why so many of us stop in every day.)

In a recent post, Popova highlights the work of MacArthur genius grantee Angela Duckworth. As a psychology researcher, Duckworth digs deep into understanding how people use self-control and “grit”—her term for that relentless work ethic of sustained commitment to a long term goal—to achieve success. Duckworth claims that character is at least as important as intellect and that the secret of genius is doggedness rather than innate talent.

(For those who are curious, take Duckworth’s quick test for measuring your grit.)

Sharon Loudon has offered up another window into how these qualities play out in that notoriously difficult, discouraging and yet deliciously satisfying profession of visual art. Her new book, Living and Sustaining a Creative Life: Essays by 40 Working Artists, shares the very personal stories of artists who have found a way to continue doing their work regardless of the financial, emotional, relational and obligational challenges that come with that profession.

What struck me while reading each of these personal histories was how direct and honest the accounts were. Loudon succeeded in maintaining a consistent point of view that thankfully sidesteps those notorious and irritating proclivities to narcissism (A recent article by Jill Steinhauer on Hyperallergic was titled, “Want to Be an Artist? Try a Little Narcissism.” No thanks.) Published by the British press Intellect, Living and Sustaining also stands out for its well designed blending of text, image and white space.

These stories are a heartening reminder that each of us has the option to fashion a career on our own terms. None of the artists included in this collection had success handed to them. They are all hard working and grit-rich.

Those qualities, very similar to Duckworth’s research, are captured in this heartening quote from Carter Foster, Curator of the Whitney Museum, which Loudon wisely placed at the beginning of the collection:

For me, artists are driven to do what they do no matter what. It’s a very powerful ambition and they pursue it in whatever way works best for them. Artists have a practice and pursuing and developing it is always the motivating factor, not whether or not they will sell something or even find a venue in which it can be seen. In my experience, artists are among the most self-motivated, organized, the most disciplined and the hardest working people I know. Sure, some artists are lucky enough that they can make a living doing it while other artists work day jobs or supplement their practice by teaching or other means. But I don’t think the distinction is important. It’s the seriousness of purpose that I admire the most.

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Diana Nyad arriving in Florida (Photo: REUTERS/Andrew Innerarity)

I spent the past weekend quietly contemplating third acts, those moments when the extraordinary emerges from someone in their later years. Like Diana Nyad‘s momentous swim from Cuba to Florida—110 miles—at the age of 64. She became the first person to make that swim without a shark cage. This was her her fifth attempt.

Her mantra during this marathon: Find a way. Which, after several attempts in her many years as a long distance swimmer, was exactly what she did.

In Richard Rohr‘s book, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, the 70-something Franciscan priest shares some of his wisdom on the progressions that happen in a life:

There are at least two major tasks to human life. The first task is to build a strong “container” or identity; the second is to find the contents that the container was meant to hold…

We are a “first-half-of-life culture,” largely concerned about surviving successfully…But it takes us much longer to discover “the task within the task,” as I like to call it: what we are really doing when we are doing what we are doing.

What that may be can sometimes surprise us. As Rohr points out, “the opposite of rational is not always irrational, but it can also be transrational or bigger than the rational mind can process: things like love, death, suffering, God, and infinity are transrational experiences.”

On view at the American Art Museum in Washington DC is a memorable example of a project that is both third act and transrational: James Hampton‘s Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly.

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James Hampton’s Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly

Untrained as an artist and working most of his life as a janitor, Hampton took on this project and made it his life’s work. From the museum’s website:

James Hampton’s entire artistic output is this single work which he called The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly. Hampton worked for more than fourteen years on his masterwork in a rented garage, transforming its drab interior into a heavenly vision, as he prepared for the return of Christ to earth. The Throne is his attempt to create a spiritual environment that could only have been made as the result of a passionate and highly personal religious faith.

The Throne and all of its associated components are made from discarded materials and found objects consisting of old furniture, wooden planks and supports, cardboard cutouts, scraps of insulation board, discarded light bulbs, jelly glasses, hollow cardboard cylinders, Kraft paper, desk blotters, mirror fragments and electrical cables and a variety of other “found objects,” all scavenged from second-hand shops, the streets, or the federal office buildings in which he worked. To complete each element, Hampton used shimmering metallic foils and brilliant purple paper (now faded to tan) to evoke spiritual awe and splendor. Hampton’s symbolism extended even to his choice of materials such as light bulbs, which represent God as the light of the world.

Praised as America’s greatest work of visionary art, Hampton’s Throne reveals one man’s faith in God as well as his hope for salvation. Although Hampton did not live to initiate a public ministry, the capping phrase “FEAR NOT” summarizes his project’s universally eloquent message.

Passion and vision are in abundance in this work, conducted in privacy and without an audience. (Hampton’s family had no idea The Throne existed until after he died.) Like the extraordinary body of work discovered by Henry Darger‘s landlord after his death, Hampton’s Throne beguiles me with its quirky, self-defined, alternative—and magical—world.

A few more photos:

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