Wisdom

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birds

The headline in the Parrot’s Weekly read: Titantic Sunk. No Parrots Hurt.

–Katharine Whitehorn, quoted in The Artful Universe by John D. Barrow

Oh the power of a point of view…Parrots may not be your thing, but something is.

Washington’s poet laureate Elizabeth Austen speaks to our proclivity to narrowbanding in her piece, How poetry can help us say the unsayable:

WE make our world by what we choose to see.

I wrote that line years ago, and have copied it from notebook to notebook, waiting for the rest of the poem to arrive. But lately I’ve begun wondering if maybe it’s less a fragment of a future poem and more a manifesto.

At first glance, it might seem like an endorsement of confirmation bias, that all-too-human tendency to only value evidence that confirms our existing ideas and opinions.

Confirmation bias is most insidious as it relates to beliefs we’re not conscious of: We filter the world around us, selectively noticing, believing and remembering things that affirm our ideas, all the while unaware of the unconscious editing we’re doing moment by moment.

We make our world by what we choose to see.

The operative word is “choose.” We can actively cultivate—seek out, take in, consider—perspectives that complicate and expand our view and, thus, our world. Or not.

And from Ralph Waldo Emerson:

From the mountain you see the mountain. We animate what we can, and we see only what we animate. Nature and books belong to the eyes that see them.

These jewel-like mantras feel very useful, and they will fit easily in my backpack of supplies as I head to “new to me” destinations in Asia.

It isn’t hard to get caught in a life that is way too focused on tracking parrots—or whatever it is that consumes the conscious mind day in and out. And as Emerson suggests, we can animate the world anew no matter where we are. But one of the best aspects of a trip to somewhere else for me is the involuntary shift in the frame I have been using. That dislocation forces my hand, gratefully. So yes, I am so ready for a full scale reboot.

I’ll be back Slow Musing in June.

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unnamed
From Astronomy Picture of the Day:
Milky Way over Erupting Volcano (Photo: Sergio Montúfar)
Explanation: The view was worth the trip. Battling high winds, cold temperatures, and low oxygen, the trek to near the top of the volcano Santa Maria in Guatemala — while carrying sensitive camera equipment — was lonely and difficult. Once set up, though, the camera captured this breathtaking vista during the early morning hours of February 28. Visible on the ground are six volcanoes of the Central America Volcanic Arc, including Fuego, the Volcano of Fire, which is seen erupting in the distance. Visible in the sky, in separate exposures taken a few minutes later, are many stars much further in the distance, as well as the central band of our Milky Way Galaxy situated horizontally overhead.

After reading my previous post about hiddenness, Mike Dickman alerted me to an article by Kathryn Schulz in the New Yorker, Sight Unseen: The hows and whys of invisibility.

Hiddenness and invisibility are different of course. Schulz is less focused on the metaphysical realms of hiddenness that Jane Hirschfield explores in her book, Hiddenness, Uncertainty and Surprise: Three Generative Energies of Poetry (and discussed here.) Schulz, author of Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, is a writer with an eye for the rational. She starts her piece lightheartedly by taking the counterposition—an actual 17th century magic spell believed to bring on invisibility (“Begin by acquiring the severed head of a man who has committed suicide…then bury the head, together with seven black beans, on a Wednesday morning before sunrise, and water the ground for seven days with fine brandy. On the eighth day, the beans will sprout, whereupon you must persuade a little girl to pick and shell them. Pop one into your mouth, and you will turn invisible.”) She quickly moves back to her more rational comfort zone however, discussing a new book by the very engaging science writer Philip Ball: Invisible: The Dangerous Allure of the Unseen. The article then delves into the darker psychological implications of invisibility through a smorgasbord of references: Harry Potter (that cape of course!), Dr. Who, science fiction writer Douglas Adams and the story from Plato‘s Republic of a shepherd who finds a ring that renders him invisible (and all the trouble it causes, like sleeping with the queen, murdering the king and claiming the kingdom for himself.) As Schulz points out, “Broadly speaking, there are two reasons for wanting to turn invisible: to get away from something or to get away with something.”

But while Schulz does unpack many of the darker psychological aspects of our natures, she does not leave the sublime behind. Her final paragraphs touch into the enormity that is The Great Invisible, floating in its immensity as we are:

***
Almost everything around us is imperceptible, almost all the rest is maddeningly difficult to perceive, and what remains scarcely amounts to anything. Physicists estimate that less than five per cent of the known universe is visible—where “visible” means only that we could, theoretically, observe it, given the right instruments and sufficient physical proximity. A far smaller amount of the known universe, roughly 0.3 per cent, is dense enough to form stars. Perhaps 0.000001 per cent exists in earthlike planets. As for the part that exists in or near our own planet, the stuff that is visible to us in any literal sense: that is a decimal attenuating out almost to nothing, a speck of dust in the cosmic hinterlands.

Even here on earth, with our senses seemingly full to the brim, we see almost nothing of what matters. Molecules, microbes, cells, germs, genes, viruses, the interior of the planet, the depths of the ocean: none of that is visible to the naked eye. And, as David Hume noted, none of the causes controlling our world are visible under any conditions; we can see a fragment of the what of things, but nothing at all of the why. Gravity, electricity, magnetism, economic forces, the processes that sustain life as well as those that eventually end it—all this is invisible. We cannot even see the most important parts of our own selves: our thoughts, feelings, personalities, psyches, morals, minds, souls.

***
And more remarkable still: from our own tiny bulwark against the invisible, we have looked into what we cannot look at—inferred its existence, and, to a stunning extent, figured out how it works. It’s hard to know which is more astonishing: that the visible sliver of the universe should betray the unseen structure of the entirety, or that the human mind, by studying that sliver, could begin to reconstruct all the rest.

We can do this because the invisible, although it keeps itself hidden, makes itself felt. I cannot see the people I love as I write this, but I can sense their pull, and I act as I do because of their existence. Taken literally, that is how the cosmos works. An invisible mass alters the orbit of a comet; dark energy affects the acceleration of a supernova; the earth’s magnetic field tugs on birds, butterflies, sea turtles, and the compasses of mariners. The whole realm of the visible is compelled by the invisible. Our planet, our solar system, our galaxy, our universe: all of it, all of us, are pushed, pulled, spun, shifted, set in motion, and held together by what we cannot see.

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planetary1

Of all the poets who delve into writing, creativity and the nature of art making, Jane Hirschfield is the closest to my way of seeing things. I go back to her books over and over again. Now another to add to my library: Hiddenness, Uncertainty, Surprise: Three Generative Energies of Poetry. These three essays were delivered as part of the Newcastle/Bookaxe Poetry Lecture series in 2007.

Those three words—hiddenness, uncertainty and surprise—are fundamental elements in my studio practice. As is usually the case, Hirschfield’s explorations are salient to poetry as well other creative efforts. Her strong interest in Eastern thought and meditation also spills over into the inner life as well.

The first chapter on hiddenness is full of relevance. That which contains the hidden—a poem, a painting, a musical score—is “inexhuastible to the imagination,” Hirschfield writes. “It is their inability to be known completely that infuses aliveness into good poems.” Poet Donald Hall has used the analogy of a house that has a secret room at its center. That’s the place where that which cannot be paraphrased or verbalized is stored. That room can never be used for ordinary habitation but its very presence changes the house. That unopenable room does not exist in the world or in the work of art itself: It resides in each of us. And yet the very existence of that secret room changes everything.

In the course of her contemplation of hiddenness, Hirschfield asks a biologist friend about her views of how it plays out in nature. I loved the answer she received: “For most of life on the planet, being hidden is the default condition…visibility is a luxury. Rarely are earth-colored tones the symbols of opulence and royal blood. We are most comfortable being hidden but we yearn to be seen.” (This is the biological version of the often quoted description of an artist from the writer and psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott: “Artists are people driven by the tension between the desire to communicate and the desire to hide.”)

A few more memorable passages from the first essay, “Poetry and Hiddenness:”

***
“Heard melodies are sweet,” wrote Keats, “but those unheard are sweeter.” A fidelity to the ungraspable lies at the very root of both biological existence and what we experience as beauty; the steepest pitches of the heart and mind make their own shade. Within that cool and dimness, emotions and thoughts small as new mosses and lichens begin the slow, green colonisations of incipient life.

***
Hiddenness, then, is a sheltering enclosure—though one we stand some times outside of, at others within. One of its homes is the Ryoan-ji rock garden in Kyoto: wherever in it a person stands, one of the fifteen rocks cannot be seen. The garden reminds that something unknonwable is always present in a life, just beyond what can be perceived or comprehended…it is our subjectivity of stance, not the world, that creates the unknown.

***
Hiddenness is the ballast in the ship’s keel, the great underwater portion of a life that steadies the rest. The thirteenth-century Zen teacher Eihei Dogen described its weight of presence thus: “…there are mountains hidden in treasures. There are mountains hidden in swamps. There are mountains hidden in the sky. There are mountains hidden in mountains. There are mountains hidden in hiddenness. This complete understanding.”

More about Jane Hirschfield on Slow Muse:

It’s the Honey

Silky Attention

A Truing of Vision

Safekeeping the Not Knowing

Your Own Way of Looking at Things

Necessary Wildness

A Silky Attention Brought to Bear

Spirit and Body

Roasted Chestnuts and Persimmons

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tuttle-richard
Richard Tuttle (Photo: PBS)

The most reliable speaker about art and art making from where I sit: Richard Tuttle. In this interview with Ross Simonini in Art in America, he touches on many of the themes that are all over my writings on Slow Muse. Here are a few that are particularly important to me right now.

***
The object is important for looking. The eye, seeing the totality, is physical and spiritual—a lifelong development. I have a collection of glass objects. The eye is invited to go through, if it wants, or to stop. These are superb training devices. Objects can be made with embodied hands or disembodied hands. I like making things with disembodied hands.

Our culture is anti-hand; it thinks it’s better to work with your head. Everybody aspires to go to college, so they don’t have to work with their hands, yet hands are a source of intelligence. You divorce yourself from a part of your intelligence without them. To work with disembodied hands is perfect; you have all the intelligence, but don’t submit to the sentimentality that says handmade is more valuable. The “maker’s movement” is not sentimental.

***
Jacob Boehme, an early-Renaissance German mystic, wrote The Signature of All Things. It’s nice to pass that book on; it’s always been a kind of secret, generation after generation. His chief idea is that mystical presence exists as a signature. Every time you see something, part of what you see is the signature, which is the beauty of man.

***
One can distinguish between scale and size. Usually, we are happy with the issue of size—if it’s small, it’s small; if it’s big, it’s big. But scale is a question of the individual. Each person, everyone ever born, has a unique scale. They have it like a unique fingerprint. You can decide to find your scale. The day you find it is a day you remember. It changes your life. Your parents may determine your size, but you determine your scale. Your creative dimension allows you to create yourself in a more significant way than how you are created by your parents. Life offers each of us that possibility. It’s sad how few take it up.

***
Human experience is a constant struggle between the real and the unreal. Every moment you are faced with trying to work out an acceptable relationship between the two. Art is almost by definition a working out of real and unreal; that is its value. The world is a place where size issues need to be worked out, and this involves all kinds of quantitative issues, which can be expressed emotionally or physically, in relationships with other people, etc. But the relations between the real and the unreal are negotiated internally, where issues of scale come in.

***
Art is unreal; color is real. That’s why painting is so fascinating. Color is real when you paint, but paint is not real. Paint is one of the great inventions. It can transport you from this world to the next. It’s a major thing.

***
The first day of kindergarten, my drawing was rejected by the teacher. Now I’ve studied a bit of child development, and I see that my drawing was at genius level, which the teacher wasn’t able to grasp. Not only did I not receive praise for a drawing that was important to me, but I was marginalized, punished. I have never trusted a teacher the rest of my life. That’s good. One of my lines is, “If Aristotle can’t be your teacher, you have to teach yourself.” When I speak at art schools, I say, “I’m not here to teach how to be an artist but to say, as best I can, what it’s like to be an artist.” They are eager to hear.

More about Richard Tuttle on Slow Muse:

Richard Tuttle in Maine

The Tuttle Bump

Martian Muse and Richard Tuttle

Scale it Up, Scale it Down

Tuttle Therapy

Textilia

Go Broad, or Go Deep

Richard Tuttle at Sperone Westwater

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Fish
Meditation garden, Osmosis Sanctuary

Weather ran the curriculum in Boston this winter. The coursework included deep dives into acceptance, patience, stoic detachment and mastery in moving to Plan B (or C or D) quickly. And not getting angry or taking any of it personally. I learned a lot, but it is that course you hope you don’t have to repeat.

I just returned from a week in Northern California where spring is in full swing and the sun was bright and warm. California is weeks ahead of us here in Boston, but that’s exactly what is getting set up now, invisibly, below the snow cover that remains. It will emerge, almost overnight, and then overwhelm us with its grandeur.

Lots of us are fascinated by the parts that are hard to see, by what is in the “not quite visible” range. That liminality—one I have referred to for years as “somewhere between what is hidden and what is seen”—is at the border, in every direction. I felt that inflection while watching the pond life in the Osmosis meditation garden in Sonoma County, just as I did a few days later walking along the snowy edge of Pleasure Bay in South Boston. There’s something there, with me, that I can’t describe.

What are these circumstances, places, things that call us to an inchoate attention? I’m not sure how to answer that, but I do think those experiences have correlations with other ways in which humans sense something unseen. A recent Guardian article, The strange world of felt presences, offers some background:

In cases of hearing voices (sometimes called auditory verbal hallucinations), people sometimes struggle to describe the nature of the “voice” they hear. Because we tend to use the term ‘hearing voices’ to describe this experience, researchers and clinicians often focus on auditory characteristics (Did the voice sound like it was coming from inside your head, or outside of your head? How loud was the voice?). But sometimes, feelings of presence might accompany the voice-hearing experience, and some people who hear voices describe their “voice” being there even when it is not speaking; a voice that seems to have a presence of its own. In these cases, hearing a voice may be much more like sensing a person or being visited by an entity, rather than experiencing sound.

The article is linked to the multidisciplinary research being conducted through a group in the U.K. affiliated with Durham University, Hearing the Voice. The site has a lot of material for anyone interested in the many aspects of this topic.

In The Wasteland, TS Eliot poses this question:

Who is the third who walks always beside you? When I count, there are only you and I together. But when I look ahead up the white road, there is always another one walking beside you.

Please, walk my way.

Medgarden
Osmosis Sanctuary, Sonoma County

pondforms
Life in the pond, Osmosis

snowybeach
South Boston beach

BlueTim
Pleasure Bay, South Boston

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Irwin
Robert Irwin

The one and only Robert Irwin, saying it in his inimitable plain speak:

***
Some people call it “the inner life of the painting,” all that romantic stuff, and I guess that’s a way of talking about it. But shapes on a painting are just shapes on a canvas unless they start acting on each other and really, in a sense, multiplying. A good painting has a gathering, interactive build-up in it. It’s a psychic build-up, but it’s also a pure energy build-up. And the good artists knew it, too. That’s what a good Vermeer has, or a raku cup, or a Stonehenge. And when they’ve got it, they just jump off the goddamn wall. They just, bam!

***
It’s about presence, phenomenal presence. And it’s hard: if you don’t see it, you just don’t see it; it just ain’t there. You can talk yourself blue in the face to somebody, and if they don’t see it, they just don’t see it. But once you start seeing it, it has a level of reality exactly the same as the imagery—no more, no less. And basically, that’s what I’m still after today. All my work since then has been an exploration of phenomenal presence.

I come back to these favorite quotes constantly, holding them as a talismanic reminder of what really matters in a creative practice. Those of us who are about that work make assessments every day, repeatedly. Is this coming together? Is this moving? Is it taking on a life of its own? Maybe you get some feedback, a review or a useful critique. But in the end the process is personal, private and subjective.

The same thing happens out in the world. Some work “jumps off the goddamn wall” at me, and some does not. Walking through a museum with a friend, we each assemble our list of those that speak to us. Sometimes we overlap, but I am often surprised by the variety. What’s more, my list changes a lot over time, depending on where my attention has been pulling me.

I know this proclivity to the subjective puts me on a slippery slope. The canonical approach—works that are chosen and blessed by those in power—serves as a steadying force in the world, providing standards and guidance in all the flux and chaos. Sometimes I am in alignment with that authoritative vetting process, and sometimes I am not.

Always in the back of my mind are the artists who slipped between the cracks completely but had, in the end, undeniable wall jumping genius: Van Gogh. Henry Darger. Francesca Woodman. Vivian Maier. Ken Price. Each of us could easily add a few more names to that “Overlooked but Great” list since there are so many.

Market forces come and go. So do fads and trends. What remains steady for me through it all is the commitment to just stay curious. It is the mindset I need in my studio and in the world. That one concept is the most powerful antidote I know to tendencies we all struggle with: narrowing categories, drifting into discouragement, thinking we have it all figured out. Staying curious keeps me looking, asking, learning and considering. Better at navigating than the straight up canonical, curiosity is my most valuable tool.

Satha
Staying curious with my own work: My latest painting, “Satha,” 66 x 72,” mixed media on linen

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Hunkering Down

amorysign
My street in Brookline

parkinglotSB
Parking lot at my studio in South Boston

SouthBoston
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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LightsSiena
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.

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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
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

____
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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