In the Bewilder

Nagala,” mixed media on linen, 54 x 78″ (one of a series painted a few years ago)

My friend Tina Feingold, reliably epigrammatic and to the point, sent this message to me today:

Time is slow. Days are slow. But life is fast. 

This feels so apt even though I don’t understand how it works. To be honest, I am baffled by so much these days that I do not expect much meaning to be made. (“I’ll be all right in a minute, I’m just bewildered—by life…” says Amanda in Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie. Hell yes, girl!) It’s like the frame where life stretched out its Cartesian map just became horribly twisted and skewed, and now all the coordinates are off. Time, consciousness, connection, meaning—these “ever with us” concepts—feel altered in the 2020 Siege on The Normal. Being alive has a very different texture now. And it all came about rather quickly, with no user manual provided.

Texture is a word that sits well with my life right now. It is a bit poetic (given license to wander off the path) as well as a non technical term that can remain, gracefully, open and a bit undefined. It also reminds me of another story that also speaks to how subtle shifts in perception matter—that of the “wayfinders,” the Polynesian sailors who traversed the Pacific Ocean without the use of navigational tools or instrumentation. Setting sail in small canoe-sized vessels, they relied on their own ancient mariner tradition, one that was based on paying close attention to every variable. The wayfinders tracked the stars, read the clouds, observed the subtle differences in the quality of the water. They could detect differences in the texture of the ocean water depending on where in the Pacific basin they were at any given time, a distinction they used with amazing accuracy.

I particularly like this part of the story. Europeans first visited the Pacific Islands in their large sea going vessels, and they completely misread the truth of the people who lived in these island kingdoms. European sailing technology was not built around careful observation of the ocean environment, the kind of intimacy one has when the water is at eye level from a canoe. They relied instead on navigational charts, astrolabes and quadrants to circumambulate the globe, tools that worked well for their purposes.  In a telling colonial moment of “normal is me,” the Europeans utterly dismissed the possibility that these islanders were connected with each other or that they had any sea faring expertise. Their boats were deemed too small, and they lacked the essential navigational equipment needed to make the long voyage to other remote islands in the Pacific. It was many years before it became clear how extensively connected these dispersed people actually were. The  Polynesians were exceptionally proficient sailors, traveling thousands of miles to maintain a network of island cultures. They did this without fanfare, by staying closely tuned to the earth’s nuances and clues. For those who pay close attention, water does have texture. 

Time, like water, could be described as possessing texture as well, full of variations in structure, feel, flow. This isn’t a new idea. The Order of Time, by Carlo Rovelli, is a poetic and philosophical exploration into the highly subjective nature of time, written in the linear and logical manner befitting a physicist. A similar message about time’s subjectivity is presented by psychologist Marc Wittmann in Felt Time. He also describes research exploring how our individual perceptions of time are actually connected to consciousness itself (a notion that will make sense to anyone who has had experiences outside “consensus reality.”)

I am increasingly embracing the Korean Zen Buddhist notion of the  “don’t know mind.” Because I really don’t know what to think, how to feel, what to do during this interstitial time. (Interstitiality—as described by the Interstitial Journal—“is the space between one boundary and the next…Existing within and between entities, interstices challenge conventional understandings of boundedness, inviting us to rethink the space between objects and ideas as an erupting site of transformation.”) We are somewhere between what was and what will be. And in the words of Winston Churchill, we cannot afford–and have no right—to look back. (Is Andrew Cuomo becoming a Churchill, speaking truth to power during this willfully deceptive, leaderless COVID era? No one says what must be stated any better IMHO.)

Meanwhile practical wisdom is emergent. Variations on the message, “there is no one way to do this” is being offered up by people living through every variation in circumstances.  After being complimented for her tireless creativity with a 4 year old child and no backyard during 50 days of lock down in Florence,  my daughter posted this generous response: “We are all doing the very best we can. Have patience with yourself and everyone around you.”

That message is simple, but my energy shifts just a little bit upward every time I encounter it. It is also a much needed reminder that circumstances are all different, and empathy is needed more than ever. These words by an unknown author have appeared repeatedly online:  

I heard that we are all in the same boat, but it’s not like that. 

We are in the same storm, but not in the same boat. 

Your ship could be shipwrecked, and mine might not be.

Or vice versa.

One friend describes our current collective circumstances as moving from living lives on the land to living lives on the water. In these new conditions, many of the old rules no longer apply. Concepts like root systems, aborescence and grounding are no longer useful. We need new skills like rhizomatic learning, developing sea legs, finding new methods of navigation. A lesson from the Polynesian wayfinders sits in the middle of that metaphor.

After just six weeks of life in these much altered conditions, I feel the call to dig even deeper into the not knowing. Artists are encouraged to develop an intimacy with uncertainty, and much of my writing on Slow Muse has been advocacy for sitting with mystery, the unseen, the undefined. 

This is a much more radical tour of duty than my previous desk job however, one that I could conduct in my studio by just letting the process take me where it will.

Poet and friend Fanny Howe describes bewilderment as more than an attitude. It is an actual approach she says, a way to “settle with the unresolvable.”

She writes:

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.

And that my friends, feels as close to the truth as I can get. Today.

10 Replies to “In the Bewilder”

  1. Kellin’s reply to the compliment on her parenting in locked-down Florence is the best piece of wisdom I’ve heard since this all began.

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      She will be so flattered by your words Michael. And all the compliments she has been receiving are so deserved, spoken with the objectivity of a mother (!!!)

  2. siobhan o'hehir says:

    You make so much sense…thankyou for this wonderful post.

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Siobhan, Thank you so much for connecting with my view. I really appreciate having a cotraveler!

  3. Rebecca Salt says:

    Kellin’s fierce courage and profound advice is the guiding star for my small boat in the sea.

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Thank you Rebar!

  4. Sleeping witnesses lying down in mistery and developing rhizomatic communication skills !
    What a beautiful poetic project for artists – and for all of us as well ! Thank you Deborah for your message of welcome and for this site dedicated to art and to wisdom !

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Thank you for your words here Hazló. I think we are drinking from the same stream.

  5. Mickey Neeley says:

    This was a wonderful and moving post Deborah. I am the family planner. Planning vacations, investments, weekend trips, etc. I’m the one who keeps our life in some semblance of order. Now I find myself just trying to imagine what’s next. I really have no idea how the ‘new normal’ will be or feel. It’s been a liberating feeling to embrace not knowing.

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Mickey, I do know you are a planner par excellence, so I am sure this is a disruption of your usual MO. Not knowing, living with uncertainty…we are all being asked to explore that state of being with more depth, more respect.

      Thank you so much for leaving a comment here. I so look forward to meeting up with you and Tetyana again, in a beautiful future world that is kinder, more conscious and safe.

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