Wisdom

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Hunkering Down

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My street in Brookline

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Parking lot at my studio in South Boston

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South Boston icicle fest

Just about everyone I know in New England has been pushed to the edge of the weather tolerance spectrum. We’re already in the red zone and now another blizzard with a foot of snow is heading at us this weekend. As has been demonstrated repeatedly, coping requires managed expectations. Had I chosen to live my life in Antarctica, I know I would feel differently. But we have become used to reasonable winters—the ones where a snowfall every once in a while is beautiful and the disruption is short lived.

Here are three quotes that my existential self—the part of me that is better at detaching and has fewer expectations—is finding comforting in a wry sort of way. Maybe these will speak to you too, even if you are basking on a beach somewhere.

There is no other world. Nor even this one.

Emil Cioran

There is another world, and it is in this one.

Paul Éluard

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

Wallace Stevens, final lines from The Snowman

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My granddaughter Siena tangled up (joyously) in lights

A lovely thing about Christmas is that it’s compulsory, like a thunderstorm, and we all go through it together.

— Garrison Keillor

Compulsory is a good word for this time of year. So is paradoxical. While the holiday percussiveness is pervasive, I still keep looking for some quiet, a bit of solitude, a calming moment.

Prioritize quiet mind. That’s all. Prioritize quiet mind.

Stop the mental noise several times a day. Long periods of up to an hour are excellent. If not long periods then short periods are excellent. But have a plan. Ten minutes of just looking at flowers. Five minutes of cloud watching. Ten minutes of sitting with your eyes closed watching your breath. Six minutes petting the cat or dog. Read something spiritual that truly inspires you to think about your own divinity. During these times never, ever, think about what needs fixing or your “to do” list. If you have trouble keeping the “monkey mind” at bay, keep a mantra handy. Interrupt the monkey mind by repeating a phrase such as “God is love” or “I love cool water”. Give yourself permission to believe that quiet mind is a mind which heals everything.

Other than a general sense of well being, you may not notice a change in your life right away. However, after the gestation period of a few weeks or months you will gain what you have been looking for. A healed mind heals a world.

— Paxton Robey

I am heading east for a few weeks. I will return to Slow Muse in mid-January. Happy New Year everyone.


Simone Weil


Eva Hesse

The writer Simone Weil died in 1943 at the age of 34. In spite of her short life, her legacy is a rich one, spanning a variety of métiers including philosophy, Christianity, theology, social justice, mysticism. And even though her life’s work was from her point of view of a god-centered believer, the atheist icon Albert Camus described her as “the only great spirit of our times.”

Another young German woman, the artist Eva Hesse, also died at the age of 34. Like Weil, her short life had more than its fair share of difficulty and suffering. Also similar is the world’s steadily increasing interest in her body of work. With only a ten year career, Hesse was influential in the move from Minimalism to Postminimalism. Writing about a recent retrospective of her work, art historian Arthur Danto addressed “the discolorations, the slackness in the membrane-like latex, the palpable aging of the material…Yet, somehow the work does not feel tragic. Instead it is full of life, of eros, even of comedy…Each piece in the show vibrates with originality and mischief.”

I am amazed by the legacy of both of these women even though their work is not similar in nature or outlook. Each achieved extraordinary depth during lives that were improbably and tragically shortened. Spending time with either body of work is a sober reminder that suffering is perennial and life is short. That what you do each day is what matters most.

“It is necessary to have had a revelation of reality through joy in order to find reality through suffering,” Weil wrote.

Christian Wiman, also an admirer of Weil, responded to this statement in his essay Love Bade Me Welcome:

I don’t really think it’s possible for humans to be at the same time conscious and comfortable…I would qualify Weil’s statement somewhat, then, by saying that reality, be it of this world or another, is not something one finds and then retains for good. It must be newly discovered daily, and newly lost.

That last line is a Taoist-like insight: the need, every day, to break ourselves apart and start fresh. That is a concept that speaks to me deeply.

But is it true, as Wiman claims, that it is not possible to be conscious and comfortable? Maybe it is the word comfortable that leaves me looking for some wiggle room. What about being conscious and accepting, in the spirit of Wendell Berry‘s admonishment to “be joyful though we have considered all the facts.” Still finding my way through that one.

Note: This post first appeared on Slow Muse in 2012.

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Vapeerine 3, from a new painting series

Most of us know that feeling of rubberbanding: the rapidity with which you can move from loving what you are doing to finding it completely unacceptable. The writer Anne Lamott (who has written in depth about writing itself in books like Bird by Bird) advises her Twitter followers to write badly, and to do it every day. This recent tweet is typical of her advice: “The writer’s life is a decison to write badly, study greatness, find out about life. It’s a difficult blessing, hard for all of us.”

Yes to that. So here’s a few reminders about how much we don’t understand. Which, when you are questioning what it is you do understand, can bring some sense of solace.

What we overlook is that underneath the ground of our beliefs, opinions, and concepts is a boundless sea of uncertainty. The concepts we cling to are like tiny boats tossed about in the middle of the vast ocean. We stand on our beliefs and ideas thinking they’re solid, but in fact, they (and we) are on shifting seas.

Steve Hagen

I always work out of uncertainty but when a painting’s finished it becomes a fixed idea, apparently a final statement. In time though, uncertainty returns… your thought process goes on.

Georg Baselitz

Mistakes, errors, false starts — accept them all. The basis of creativity.

My reference point (as a playwright, not a scientist) was Keat’s notion of negative capability (from his letters). Being able to exist with lucidity and calm amidst uncertainty, mystery and doubt, without “irritable (and always premature) reaching out” after fact and reason.

Richard Foreman

An image is a stop the mind makes between uncertainties.

Djuna Barnes

When one admits that nothing is certain one must, I think, also admit that some things are much more nearly certain than others.

Bertrand Russell

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Note: Much of this content was mined from the Slow Muse archives, circa 2012. As the title suggests, some concepts are perennials.

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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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