Wisdom

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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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My daughter Kellin, clamming at Duxbury

Some people are more certain of everything than I am of anything.

Robert Rubin, In an Uncertain World

Susan Cain used this quote at the start of one of her chapters in the very engaging Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking. I am loving this book for so many reasons, but this quote captures a primal distinction that becomes starkly evident whenever I spend time in Utah. Because of its religious history, this is a place full of people who embrace certainty with extraordinary zeal. That is not necessarily a criticism so much as it is an issue of temperament, a concept Cain also spends time delineating in her book.

We went clamming today in Duxbury. Walking out on the beds in the morning light, we have to go with guesswork about where to rake and dig. But that is part of what I love—finding those treasure troves of bivalves quite by accident. Living outside the predictable is delicious.

A few thinkers agree with me.

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

An image is a stop the mind makes between uncertainties.

–-Djuna Barnes

The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty; not knowing what comes next.

Ursula K. Le Guin

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The Great Salt Lake Shorelands Preserve, Layton Utah

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Layton

My mother grew up less than a mile from what is now a Nature Conservancy preserve on the Great Salt Lake. This landscape has fresh water and salt marshes, ten foot high grasses, ponds and pools, mudflats and fields. The colors and textures change constantly throughout the year, so every visit is a surprise. I have never been to the cemetery where my mother is buried (just a few miles north of this place) but coming here feels like the best way to commune with what was my mother’s earthly substrate.

The preserve is also an important stopover for all kinds of migrating birds, a rest area for pilgrims winging their way from Canada to Central and South America. How appropriate. Many creatures come here before continuing on journeys that cycle rather than terminate, perpetuate rather than complete. This spot is my personal sanctuary of remembrance, my way of staying connected to what has been.

And lucky for us, there are so many ways to do that. It is often hard to describe, and sometimes you just have to be with it rather than talk about it. I had that feeling over and over during my time in Utah and New Mexico. Two weddings, each with specific rituals to sanctify and seal. The desert landscape, full of evocation and imagination. The quiet power of the little village that harbors El Santuario de Chimayó, a pilgrimage site outside Santa Fe. Crosses. Saints. Roadside altars. It is an immense net of remembrance and sacredness.

In All Things Shining, authors Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly explore how literature can help us reconnect passionately with the world. They take us through a tour of meaning from the works of Homer, Aeschylus, Augustine, Dante, Kant, Melville and David Foster Wallace. (The chapter on Moby Dick should be required reading.) In redefining what is sacred, they quote DFW:”You more have to come at the aesthetic stuff obliquely, to talk around it, or to try to define it in terms of what it is not.”

Dreyfus and Kelly add this point:

This glancing approach is inclined towards reconciliation instead of purification. It involves a fully human notion of the sacred that lives not in the repudiation or transcendence of pain and boredom and anger and angst, but rather in the recognition that these difficult aspects of our existence live together with the sacred moments, that they complete one another, and make sense of one another.

Meaning is afloat, in the grasslands of the Great Salt Lake and the desert skies over Chimayó. Leaning into reconciliation rather than purification feels right to me.

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Inside a church in Chimayó

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Altar in Chimayó

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Remembrance in Chimayó

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Crosses on a fence in Chimayó

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After enough years, the crosses placed on this tree have become embedded in the bark

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Desert sky (This is not painted. Amazingly.)

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and to follow a spark on the wind with your eyes;
and to keep on not knowing
something important.

–Wislawa Szymborska

The idea of fragments and incompleteness was the topic of a blog post I wrote two weeks ago (Pieced Cloth) but it became the predominant leitmotif for life this past week. Tiny fragments found on the streets and rooftops of Back Bay, thousands of photos taken by spectators, eye witness snippets were all assembled by experts to piece together a comprehensible picture of what happened at the Marathon last Monday. Bit by bit a profile emerged of two unlikely protagonists who lived right across the river. And as the net closed in on Friday, millions of us were asked to shelter in place as this week long, “this is a bad movie I can’t stop watching” came to a close.

But a close is not a conclusion. Many of us who have been unable to talk about much else for these five days are still unsettled by a sense of something that is missing. We all live every day “not knowing something important,” but sometimes that sits more easily than it does now.

The Korean Zen master Ko Bong taught, “If you attain don’t-know, that is your original master.” In the “don’t know mind,” ignorance is the seed bed for curiosity and discovery, a willingness for that not knowing to be OK. Not that I’m good at getting there, but that quiet invitation is more appealing than more talk and more conjecture.

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Projections on BAM this week (Photo: Laughing Squid)

My previous post, Paying Attention, was written just one day before the Boston Marathon Bombings. Paying attention? Indeed.

Since the events on Monday I have been left feeling the deep sorrow that hung palpably over this city. That’s all any of us have been talking about. But at the same time, I have been left feeling…wordless. Thousands of condolences have appeared on Facebook, on Twitter, and in my email inbox as well. But a response beyond “thank you for this” would feel forced and redundant. Words have felt inadequate.

This morning author Dennis Lehane wrote an op ed piece in the New York Times, Messing With The Wrong City.

Here’s a passage:

But I do love this city. I love its atrocious accent, its inferiority complex in terms of New York, its nut-job drivers, the insane logic of its street system. I get a perverse pleasure every time I take the T in the winter and the air-conditioning is on in the subway car, or when I take it in the summer and the heat is blasting. Bostonians don’t love easy things, they love hard things — blizzards, the bleachers in Fenway Park, a good brawl over a contested parking space. Two different friends texted me the identical message yesterday: They messed with the wrong city. This wasn’t a macho sentiment. It wasn’t “Bring it on” or a similarly insipid bit of posturing. The point wasn’t how we were going to mass in the coffee shops of the South End to figure out how to retaliate. Law enforcement will take care of that, thank you. No, what a Bostonian means when he or she says “They messed with the wrong city” is “You don’t think this changes anything, do you?”

Trust me, we won’t be giving up any civil liberties to keep ourselves safe because of this. We won’t cancel next year’s marathon. We won’t drive to New Hampshire and stockpile weapons. When the authorities find the weak and terminally maladjusted culprit or culprits, we’ll roll our eyes at whatever backward ideology they embrace and move on with our lives.

Reading this short piece was like a quickening, bringing me back into the arena of life. Lehane is so direct, so expressive, and his tone captures that peculiar toughness that attracted me to this city in the first place. Boston is full of people who are notoriously outspoken, brusk, opinionated, fierce, ready to battle anyone or anything. It was that feistiness that made me feel like I belonged here over 30 years ago when I made this town my home. I’m ready to reclaim it.

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George Saunders (Photo:Damon Winter/The New York Times)

Joel Lovell has written the cover article for the Sunday New York Times Magazine about the writer George Saunders. Much more than just a portrait of Saunders—which is reason enough, certainly—Lovell’s article is full of interstitial wisdom, a handfull of small but meaningful vignettes, and a respectful generosity of spirit in bringing the personal to bear.

Lovell seems to have a singular gift for connecting with a particular kind of artist/writer. Best exemplified by the iconic work of David Foster Wallace, these are creatives who do their work while carrying a fully loaded viewfinder of how life is being lived in this complex, paradoxical, unjust and baffling world. To create while holding that burdensome reality is taxing and exhausting. It is also at the opposite end of the spectrum from the intentional isolation I seek in my studio. But I have great respect (and frankly, awe) for anyone who can hold that position. It produces work with a deep moral center that has the gravitational weight to hold the heavy, harsher truths as well as those fleeting bosons of redemption.

Saunders is such a writer, and so is Kenny Lonergan who Lovell also wrote about here in the Times Magazine a few months ago. Lovell has an unselfconscious ease with these kinds of people. That Saunders is a practicing Buddhist is mentioned in passing, but Saunders’ Buddhist detachment—deep caring about the world but not attached—is respectfully represented in this portrait.

Here are a few passages from the piece on Saunders that capture some of that quality.

Saunders shares his experience of being on a commercial flight when a serious malfunction had everyone on board sure that a crash was inevitable.

“For three or four days after that,” [Saunders] said, “it was the most beautiful world. To have gotten back in it, you know? And I thought, If you could walk around like that all the time, to really have that awareness that it’s actually going to end. That’s the trick.”

You could call this desire — to really have that awareness, to be as open as possible, all the time, to beauty and cruelty and stupid human fallibility and unexpected grace — the George Saunders Experiment. It’s the trope of all tropes to say that a writer is “the writer for our time.” Still, if we were to define “our time” as a historical moment in which the country we live in is dropping bombs on people about whose lives we have the most abstracted and unnuanced ideas, and who have the most distorted notions of ours; or a time in which some of us are desperate simply for a job that would lead to the ability to purchase a few things that would make our kids happy and result in an uptick in self- and family esteem; or even just a time when a portion of the population occasionally feels scared out of its wits for reasons that are hard to name, or overcome with emotion when we see our children asleep, or happy when we risk revealing ourselves to someone and they respond with kindness — if we define “our time” in these ways, then George Saunders is the writer for our time.

This is an elegiac yet painful description of real life:

“I saw the peculiar way America creeps up on you if you don’t have anything,” he told me. “It’s never rude. It’s just, Yes, you do have to work 14 hours. And yes, you do have to ride the bus home. You’re now the father of two and you will work in that cubicle or you will be dishonored. Suddenly the universe was laden with moral import, and I could intensely feel the limits of my own power. We didn’t have the money, and I could see that in order for me to get this much money, I would have to work for this many more years. It was all laid out in front of me, and suddenly absurdism wasn’t an intellectual abstraction, it was actually realism. You could see the way that wealth was begetting wealth, wealth was begetting comfort — and that the cumulative effect of an absence of wealth was the erosion of grace.”

And lastly, this metaphor for art making which I found so memorable:

“I began to understand art as a kind of black box the reader enters,” Saunders wrote in an essay on Vonnegut. “He enters in one state of mind and exits in another. The writer gets no points just because what’s inside the box bears some linear resemblance to ‘real life’ — he can put whatever he wants in there. What’s important is that something undeniable and nontrivial happens to the reader between entry and exit. . . . In fact, ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’ seemed to be saying that our most profound experiences may require this artistic uncoupling from the actual. The black box is meant to change us. If the change will be greater via the use of invented, absurd material, so be it.”

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