QUINTESSENCE

Gatherings

November 18, 2014

Tags: family, love, art and creation, the moderns, presence, finding joy

We artists are mythmakers, and we participate with everybody else in the social construction of reality.
- Helen Mayer Harrison

Thanksgiving is near, and many of us turn our thoughts to upcoming gatherings. We may grow thoughtful as we noodle over grocery lists, our thoughts preoccupied by the complexities of hosting relatives from afar. Or we may be the ones to pack our bags, steeled for that bumpy emotional ride that so often comprises family immersion. The personal challenges and issues are real, but our anxiety is frequently intensified by overthinking. We are erecting moats, laying in reserves, presenting an obligatory delegation in lieu of our hearts.

Our modern century is tough on connection. We crave relationships, a sense of belonging that will endure. We need this. When we come together in celebration, let us bring our goodwill. Let us avoid the stresses of elaborate planning and impossible expectations. Oscar Wilde remarked, "Simple pleasures are the last refuge of the complex." Be simple. Take each moment as it comes. Tilt the table whenever possible toward joy and contentment and away from conflict. Thorny issues are not resolved over dinner tables.

Here is a Quintessence post from November 25, 2012 that opens on powerful words from poet Philip Levine:

Some things
you know all your life. They are simple and true
they must be said without elegance, meter, and rhyme,
they must be laid on the table beside the salt shaker,
the glass of water, the absence of light gathering
in the shadows of picture frames, they must be
naked and alone, they must stand for themselves.


- from "The Simple Truth," Philip Levine

The beauty of love is that it is capable of great patience and tremendous tenacity. Love stretches, it attaches, it builds, slow like bone. This life is a journey. Moving and changing, we experience the gestation of new forms of connection and partnership, new expressions of family. We evolve new ways of being, new shapes for the lives we lead. It is the simple truth to say living is ever-becoming. And while this process is neither easy nor pristinely beautiful, imperfect in process in fact, the becoming is perfect in intent - grounded in the earth and in the heavens. We find joy when we reach beyond the self. The human heart is a warrior and a monk. And it speaks a simple truth: Belong.

The Foundation Stone

November 11, 2014

Tags: art and creation, nature, presence, solitude, intention, finding joy

The mountains are great stone bells; they clang together like nuns. Who shushed the stars?... The sea pronounces something, over and over, in a hoarse whisper; I cannot quite make it out. But God knows I have tried.... At a certain point you say to the woods, to the sea, to the mountains, the world, Now I am ready. Now I will stop and be wholly attentive.
- from "Teaching a Stone to Talk," Annie Dillard

Fierce winds and bitter cold descended from the north last night. It is bright out today but the winds push and push against the house windows and whip in the trees. Oak and maple leaves, the last to fall behind the yellow birch and dark chestnuts, twist and snap loose. Drifts of leaves. Sailing ships. Crisp papery curls whirling on the wind down the road. Early this morning when I awoke, ice had formed on the bird bath and frost covered the picnic table. Ruby berries cling naked to the trees, gray squirrels in the branches.

There is a presence to the white cold, blue-stone dark of winter that invites contemplation for me. But not yet. First we yield the fire hues. Leave behind the late liquid gold light. Color and warmth are scoured from the earth.

What is left is elemental. Profound. Foundation stone.

This is the time when reflection deepens. The fallow time is upon us. Listening to the wind scrape the bare branches across the roof I feel the weight of mistakes, of yearnings unfulfilled, and all that I have gleaned throughout the year. Perhaps these cycles of the earth invoke cycles of growth in our souls. Dare we embrace the wind? The winters that clear bedrock of season after season of slow, tangled growth? There is much for me to contemplate in the bare silence of winter: quiet wisdoms and glimmers of insight, the genesis of creative projects, the deepening truth in my relationships.

Pruning away what is unnecessary reveals the essential: the bones of who we are. Are you pruning? Sweeping your steps clean?




Uphill From Here

November 4, 2014

Tags: presence, art and creation, loss, intention, patterns, finding joy

MOVING
Our aunt, hunched over her hands stiff
with arthritis, squints out the window as the car
moves east under the shadow of a cliff
above the Columbia. It is not far,
eighty-two years, from the sweat and stink

of the farm to the nursing home in Spokane.
The sun lights her white hair to the pink
of her scalp. She doesn't complain.
When she turns to whisper, we lean near.
Yes, scrub for miles, and blue sky forever.

We packed her clothes with care. She said
to leave the photos, the Danish flag. We think
to bring dark glasses for her to wear.
She nods, settles into the ride.
It is all uphill from here.

- Mary Ann Waters

The most engaging thing about reading the words of another happens in our willingness to receive and engage with the pictures painted in our minds. A good poet, playwright, fiction, or nonfiction writer knows language is, as Barry Hannah once said, " the thing the deepest mind adores." When you read Mary Ann Waters's poem, did you not feel that vague ache in your knuckles, the hot sun on your scalp? The aunt's lostness - gazing out at an endless empty sky? Words, the narratives of others. Words selected for their freight of emotion, and their edged, specific sense of story. These are the muscles that heft us into the poem, buckle us into what eighty-two and leaving one's familiar life behind feels like. Keen in the details - the photos, the Danish flag - we know there was a life, a different life, a unique life here. We feel the loss. How the gentle acceptance of dark glasses convey all that is surrendered in changing from a life once lived to the unknown of what lies ahead. In this poem we are giver and the receiver, the aunt and the narrator.

I am what is around me.
- Wallace Stevens

When we write, we shake our bones, hard. Most writers suffer their creativity, convinced that only the profound or the dazzling bon mot is good enough. In the fight to be excellent, worthy, acknowledged by others, it is easy to forget Gloria Naylor's admonishment,"You're the first audience to your work, and the most important audience." Why is this important to remember? Because writing, like all creative work, and all good work period, must come from a place of authenticity. The human mind catches fire from the spark of truth in the lives of others. We take in what we recognize as deeply genuine. We are corroded by what is not. The soul's bedrock, as Polonius mused in Hamlet, is built of character, "This above all, to thine own self be true."

Sharing one's truth is an act of witness. Granting permission. Accepting an invitation to paint the world, your way. It is also intensely difficult: the soul fragile, shy. We are afraid of judgment, our own and that of others. When first we speak of our dreams, it is to ourselves in whispers. It is in the act of writing ourselves into words that we begin to openly inhabit our world. Cynthia Ozick declared, "If we had to say what writing is, we would define it essentially as an act of courage." To successfully craft a life, one built on choice, whether embraced by design or stumbled upon by luck, opens the road to satisfaction. The act of defining for oneself is an act of courage.

We are always "moving." Leaving things behind, Working new beginnings. We wrangle with chance and circumstance to hang on to the details, to sustain narration, to inhabit ourselves and live large. Shake your bones. Look deep. In the earth of us is our answer.

I don't know what the nature of the universe is, but I have a good ear.
- Mary Gordon

Trust The Hours

October 29, 2014

Tags: art and creation, patterns, nature, loss, intention, the moderns


An extraordinary poet passed today, Galway Kinnell. This Irish-American poet's work was awarded both a Pulitzer (for "Selected Poems," 1983) and an American Book Award. An ardent individualist, Kinnell stood apart from his peers and the literary influences of the Twentieth century; his a unique voice amidst the prevailing trends. As a poet and a citizen, Galway Kinnell immersed himself in the gritty issues of his day and was a passionate advocate for freedom of expression. A poet of almost photographic sensitivity, his poetry pulses with an exuberant love of language, a lyrical style distinctly his own and possessing a rare gorgeous musicality. Listen as you read -

RUINS UNDER THE STARS
by Galway Kinnell
1
All day under acrobat
Swallows I have sat, beside ruins
Of a plank house sunk to its windows
In burdock and raspberry canes,
The roof dropped, the foundation broken in,
Nothing left perfect but the axe-marks on the beams.

A paper in a cupboard talks about “Mugwumps”,
In a V-letter a farmboy in the Marines has “tasted battle…”
The apples are pure acid on the tangle of boughs
The pasture has gone to popple and bush.
Here on this perch of ruins
I listen for the crunch of the porcupines.

2
Overhead the skull-hill rises
Crossed on top by the stunted apple.
Infinitely beyond it, older than love or guilt,
Lie the stars ready to jump and sprinkle out of space.

Every night under the millions of stars
An owl dies or a snake sloughs its skin,
But what if a man feels the dark
Homesickness for the inconceivable realm?

3
Sometimes I see them,
The south-going Canada geese,
At evening, coming down
In pink light, over the pond, in great,
Loose, always dissolving V’s-
I go out into the field,
Amazed and moved, and listen
To the cold, lonely yelping
Of those tranced bodies in the sky,
Until I feel on the point
Of breaking to a sacred, bloodier speech.

4
This morning I watched
Milton Norway’s sky blue Ford
Dragging its ass down the dirt road
On the other side of the valley.

Later, off in the woods, I heard
A chainsaw agonizing across the top of some stump
A while ago the tracks of a little, snowy,
SAC bomber went crawling across heaven.

What of that little hairstreak
That was flopping and batting about
Deep in the goldenrod,
Did she not know, either, where she was going?

5
Just now I had a funny sensation
As if some angel, or winged star,
Had been perched nearby watching, maybe speaking,
I whirled, and in the chokecherry bush
There was a twig just ceasing to tremble.

Now the bats come spelling the swallows,
In the smoking heap of old antiques
The porcupine-crackle starts up again,
The bone-saw, the pure music of our sphere,
And up there the old stars rustling and whispering.


Did you hear those leaping phrases and alliteration? Sink into the imagery of "great/Loose, always dissolving V’s"? The thread that connects is the slender steel power of Kinnell 's mastery over the expressive word. The imperceptible balance of image with emotion. Never too much, always exactly enough. Poet, translator, essayist, teacher. Galway Kinnell wrote about life, and death, and the fragility of beauty. His obituary in the New York Times (October 29, 2014) concluded, "Through it all, he held that it was the job of poets to bear witness," ending on the words of the poet - ''To me,' he said, 'poetry is somebody standing up, so to speak, and saying with as little concealment as possible, what it is for him or her to be on earth at this moment.'"

I invite you to explore his work if you are not already familiar with Galway Kinnell.
To close, from “Trust the Hours” (Wait) -
Wait, for now.
Distrust everything, if you have to.
But trust the hours. Haven’t they
carried you everywhere, up to now?


Galway Kinnell was 87.

Untrodden Ways

October 22, 2014

Tags: nature, art and creation, love, intention, presence, finding joy


SHE DWELT AMONG THE UNTRODDEN WAYS
by William Wordsworth

She dwelt among the untrodden ways
Beside the springs of Dove.
A Maid whom there were none to praise
And very few to love;

A violet by a mossy stone
Half hidden from the eye!
~ Fair as a star, when only one
Is shining in the sky.

She lived unknown, and few could know
When Lucy ceased to be;
But she is in her grave, and oh,
The difference to me!


Nature's transcendence over human life was a powerful theme for William Wordsworth, an English poet whose life straddled the turn of the eighteenth to the nineteenth century; a fluid time of traditions in neoclassicism and romanticism and growth in rational thinking and science. This beautiful, emotionally-compressed elegy, a poem written in 1800, is one of Wordsworth's famous "Lucy" poems.

Wordsworth muses at greater length on transcendence in "Three Years She Grew." In this poem celebrating the entwined relationship of life and nature, surrendering to the fragility of human life in an otherwise omnipotent universe, the poet's reconciliation takes predominance over grief. The poet accepts the sovereignty of Nature, a pastoral realism captured in this opening line, "Three years she grew in sun and shower." In a following stanza in "Three Years She Grew," Wordsworth yields to Nature's claim on Lucy -
"The stars of midnight shall be dear
To her; and she shall lean her ear
In many a secret place

The poet then concludes the poem with, "The memory of what has been,/And nevermore will be." Returning to the personal, and acknowledging the final passing of a beloved physical presence into memory.

Return for a moment to the opening poem: What I appreciate about "Untrodden Ways" is the simplicity of language and emotion Wordsworth used to capture a universal truth - that loss takes place in a context of invisibility to the world at large. We are pained by our personal sorrow amidst the mute indifference of others. "The difference to me!" - Wordsworth's ending line - makes a powerful and poignant statement. Love is always personal, and yet in most ways, invisible to others. If you have loved and lost someone very close, you know the edged emotion expressed by Wordsworth in, "few could know/ When Lucy ceased to be." The truth that although any of us may "dwell among the untrodden ways," we shine "fair as a star" to those that love us.

Yesterday a short story I wrote inspired from a single line in an obituary I read a few years back was published online in an international journal, The Stockholm Review of Literature (www.thestockholmreview.org). The theme of this story keeps company with Wordsworth's Lucy poems - observing the ways we accept and inhabit our vulnerability loving others. An online link to "Sunday Dinner" is copied below, as well as to a poem "Coffee and Keys" featured in the same issue. You may copy and paste these links into your browser to read, or click directly to the story and poem from my home page where I include live links under New and Notable.

I hope you enjoy this recent work.
"Sunday Dinner"
http://thestockholmreview.org/the-soderberg-section/sunday-dinner-by-glenda-burgess/

"Coffee and Keys"
http://thestockholmreview.org/the-stagnelius-section/glenda-burgess/

Sing Your World Into Being

October 15, 2014

Tags: art and creation, intention, nature, patterns, presence

Shadow, Licata, Siracusa
Think about place - the places you know, long for, disdain, the places that frame your life and make you what you are... What's real to you? Where would you rather be right now? Where would you most like to never set foot again? (Ironically, those places have a tendency to stick in your mind like flies on flypaper.)

Melville's geography was ships and the sea; Alice Adam's, her beloved San Francisco and her remembered American South...if it's yours, it's
yours. You can't really fake it. You can travel places to widen your horizons literally, as Jospeh Conrad went to Africa and Christopher Isherwood went to Berlin, or you can stick with what you've grown up with. Think of Larry McMurtry's Texas (he changed his hometown's name, Archer City, to Thalia, but he had to keep the real name of that mean little line of mountains outside of town, Misery Ridge). Waking outside Archer City in the soft buzzing underbrush, you can almost see where Gus and Lorena pitched their tent, taking those cattle from Lonesome Dove all the way to Montana.

Your world is as important to you as Conrad's and McMurtry's were to them; it had better be because it's the one you're living in. As Australian Aboriginals might say, if you don't "sing your world into being," no one else will.
- from 'Making a Literary Life," by Carolyn See

The idea of geography as theme is very dear to me. I wrote an entire memoir with geography, my childhood geography, as the frame for translating my early adult choices and midlife hungers. It seems we are always running from or to something. It's worth knowing what, even if the end game is not to write about it but simply to understand.

In my life, growing up in a family constantly on the move had a very big impact. I became both acutely aware of place and part of none. "Place" had exceptional importance to me, possessing almost a Holy Grail element of elusiveness and rescue. If I only knew where I belonged, life would fall perfectly into place and the outsider's restlessness leave me. As you might have guessed, restlessness is my place. I am the outsider. I was born into it, lived it as a child and a young adult, inhabit it still. Addressing what Carolyn See identifies as the personal "real" in her excellent book, "Making a Literary Life," emboldened me to articulate and finally make the truth of my life work for me: what's yours, is yours. Own it, work it, create from it.

Time, place, and geography in all forms of art can be real or imaginary. One can expand time forward or backward, place into the ideal the truth or the imagined confronted with reality. We can speak of geography from the muted hues and pastoral wildlife of grasslands and lakes or the fierce inner landscapes of emotion and pain. What is important, I feel, is to know our place on the map. To be sure of our footing first, and then brave enough, if we can, to step off the path. To look far into the valley or around those trees obscuring the corner.

Once you own your territory, surprise us with what you know and what you imagine - but begin from a place we trust. A truth we believe because it is a place you are sure of. Your reality. As See goes on to say, "No one else has your information - that's the great part. Your geography cradles your work, rocks it, beings it alive, makes it real."

As we construct our fictions and poems, line out our plays and essays, geography stands as important as point of view. The literary debate about plot, or character, and which comes first, which does the heavy lifting of our narrative, begs half the question. Where does the drama take place? I have found in both my own work and work I love that the unique framing of time, place, and geography offers the authentic twist that brings plot and character alive. Where would "The Princess Bride" be without the journey across the rocky moors, or "Heart of Darkness" without it's untamed merciless river? Unless grounded however indirectly in the personal, in authentic truth, what will your work offer?

Carolyn See reminds us, "sing your world into being." And if not you, then who? Spend time getting to know your history. Your narrative begins with you.

Permission

October 8, 2014

Tags: art and creation, solitude, patterns, intention

Sled Carving, Viking Ship Museum, Oslo, Norway

I feel that art has something to do with the achievement of stillness in the midst of chaos. A stillness which characterizes prayer, too, and the eye of the storm.
- Saul Bellow

To honor our dreams and to honor our loved ones and to honor our rituals and our lives is precisely what literature is endlessly trying to teach us.
- Allan Gurganus




Permission to express our inner drive and creative vision is perhaps that one thing that most mysteriously holds the scientist, writer or artist back. Permission to begin, to commit, comes from within. Articulating a decision to take action - to do something - creates accountability. This can be intimidating. We are deeply afraid of failing ourselves. And secondarily, failing those that depend upon or observe our ambitions. William Styron stated the whole concept of his novel Sophie's Choice was the result of a dream, a kind of waking vision. What if he had never written the vision into words? Dreams we merely toy with fragment and fade, whereas dreams hammered into projects are testament to attention and hard work. Allowing commitment - permission - is what separates the two, and sometimes permission represents the hardest part of the idea-product equation.

The writing process itself is part inspiration, part mental compost. Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges wrote that it is written in the kabbalah that when words in a dream are loud and distinct and seem to come from no particular source, these words are from God. I personally don't know if the source of such inspiration is a higher being or an awakened inner wisdom, but I do practice receptiveness. Nicholas Delbanco describes it well when he writes, "The writer gleans wind scraps; he listens wherever he can. Each day is full of instances; what counts, as with all stimuli, is the sympathetic response." In other words, allowing the idea or insight to seed, and actively encouraging its growth.

What follows is not a volley of thunder from the heavens or celestial illumination. Work unfolds. Within work burns creativity - whether in the routine of the farm, at a desk in an office, or in the cockpit of a plane. Here is how Eudora Welty described her writing work day: After she got up, had her coffee and "an ordinary breakfast," she went to work until at the end of the day, around five or six o'clock, she'd stop, have a bourbon and water and watch the evening news. Put in the hours, write the words, build the book.

Why is work that honors the creative important? Why bother at all? Because to honor our creative impulses is to honor the impetus of the soul to do more and be more. The human psyche craves expansion, greater personal growth, discovery. Refusing to honor the push forward sinks us where we stand. We are done with life when we cease to engage with our dreams.

In closing, consider this beautiful set of opening lines from W.S. Merwin's poem, "Losing a Language" -
A breath leaves the sentences and does not come back
yet the old still remember something that they could say


Links Between Lives

October 1, 2014

Tags: the moderns, art and creation, intention, solitude

Let me begin by sharing this private letter from 1955, from one writer to another. The book of short stories above and this letter connect for me: taken together, they define something of interest between a writer's courage to do the work and what validation is worth.

[December 1955]
Bellapaix, Cyprus

Dear Henry -
A brief line to thank you for the two great parcels of books which arrived, followed rapidly by two more. It was wonderfully generous of you, and its good to have something to read in this fragmented life. I'm pushing my book about Alexandria along literally sentence by sentence. I'm dog-tired by the time I get home in the evening, but every waking moment is possessed by it so that by the weekend when I type out my scribbles I usually have about 1500 words. I feel like one of those machines for distilled water - it is coming drop by drop, running contrary to physical fatigue etc. This is really writing one's way upstream with a vengeance! Never mind - i remember your struggles and blush to think of my own.

I'm writing this at 4:50a.m. A faint lilac dawn breaking accompanied by bright moonlight - weird. Nightingales singing intoxicated by the first rains. Everything damp. In a little while I take the car and sneak down the dark road towards a dawn coming up from Asia Minor like
Paradise Lost.

Love,
Larry

- from "A Private Correspondence: Lawrence Durrell & Henry Miller," edited by George Wickes

In 1935 a young Brit, Lawrence Durrell, wrote a letter to the then 43 year old American writer Henry Miller, living in Paris, in praise of his new novel, Tropic of Cancer: "I have never read anything like it. I did not imagine anything like it could be written; and yet, curiously, reading it I seemed to recognize it as something which i knew we were all ready for." What followed was an animated friendship devoted to an exchange of ideas, reactions to art and writing and the damnation of censorship. In 1937 the two met in Paris, and a life-long personal friendship was forged. Miller was often the encouraging mentor Durrell needed; "Now don't my dear good Durrell, ask me to weep with you because you are alone. That's in your favor. You can't be alone and be with the herd too. You can't write good and bad books...The toll is disintegration."

We all need our own. Those people who have our backs, support our work, encourage. Good folk that open doors and pick up pieces. Scientists to farmers, astronauts to teachers, we push and define our work from within. Artists, perhaps more than others, depend on a tight, small community of like-minded others for more than just company: beyond pounding back a beer at the end of the successful mounting of a new play or coffee at the corner after a bank account, a book, and a relationship have gone up in flames. The peaks and valleys of the creative struggle are real. Life in the unpredictable, rarely financially stable "arts" takes guts. But generous people hold us together.

It is ordinary kindnesses - the generous word, a positive outlook, sometimes even that unasked-for-validation from a competitor in our field - that floats the solitary human boat. Henry Miller was right: it is challenging to "be alone and be with the herd too." In today's digitally-connected world in which we can form community across the globe, at the end of the day many work alone. I am most familiar with books and writing, so I think of the writer at her desk. The manuscript written word by word, in solitude. Self-employed and self-motivated, the artist, without market or capital, struggles "one's way upstream." The painter at the easel, a dancer at the barre, a sculptor welding in the barn, a violist running scales - whoever we may be and whatever our artistic or life pursuit, we work in a piercing dissonance of determination mixed with doubt.

On Monday in New York City, a local Spokane journalist at our regional newspaper, The Spokesman Review, won a prestigious national literary award for his debut short story collection: Shawn Vestal's Godforsaken Idaho is the 2014 winner of the PEN Bingham Award. I know Shawn and am a huge fan of his short story collection. I couldn't be more happy and proud for him. He's a humble guy, a hardworking journalist, a devoted father. (We last said hello at Aunties Bookstore, where he attended a Harry Potter Birthday Book Party with his son.) Recognition from peers and leaders in the publishing industry is priceless, but at the end of the day, a box-full of solitary hours went into producing that genius work - as in any difficult creative challenge for that matter, building design to lab science.

All of us depend on one another for validation at some point - whether the fan letter Durrell sent Miller amidst the critical uproar following the publication of Tropic of Cancer, or the box of books Miller mailed to Durrell to sustain him in his isolation on Cyprus. Why not send some validation out today. Just my nudge, but why not go to a bookstore or click on the book image above and order Vestal's Godforsaken Idaho. Any book you feel strongly connected to deserves your voice of support. Claim what is worthy in the world.

Poetic Drama

September 25, 2014

Tags: art and creation, intention, presence, loss, love, the moderns


It is a function of all art to give us some perception of an order in life, by imposing an order upon it. The painter works by selection, combination, and emphasis among the elements of the visible world; the musicians, in the world of sound. It seems to me that beyond the nameable, classifiable emotions and motives of our conscious life when directed toward action - the part of life which prose drama is wholly adequate to express - there is a fringe of indefinite extent, of feeling which we can only detect, so to speak, out of the corner of the eye and can never completely focus; of feeling of which we are only aware in a kind of temporary detachment from action. There are great prose dramatists - such as Ibsen and Chekhov - who have at times done things of which I would not otherwise have supposed prose to be capable, but who seem to me, despite their success, to have been hampered in expression by writing in prose. This peculiar range of sensibility can be expressed by dramatic poetry, at its moments of greatest intensity. At such moments, we touch the border of those feelings which only music can express. We can never emulate music, because to arrive at the condition of music would be an annihilation of dramatic poetry. Nevertheless, I have before my eyes a kind of mirage of the perfection of verse drama, which would be a design of human action and of words, such as to present at once the two aspects of dramatic and musical order. It seems to me that Shakespeare achieved this at least in certain scenes - even rather early, for there is the balcony scene of "Romeo and Juliet"- and that this was what he was striving toward in his late plays. To go as far in this direction as it is possible to go, without losing contact with the ordinary everyday world with which drama must come to terms, seems to me the proper aim of dramatic poetry. For it is ultimately the function of art, in imposing a credible order upon ordinary reality, and thereby eliciting some perception of an order in reality, to bring to us a condition of serenity, stillness, and reconciliation; and then leave us, as Virgil left Dante, to proceed toward a region where that guide can avail us no further.
~ T. S. Eliot, POETRY AND DRAMA, The First Theodore Spencer Memorial Lecture, 1950

Here is the challenge with which drama must come to terms: To go as far as it is possible to go without losing contact with the ordinary everyday world. The meat of all art lies in that single sentence. Eliot defines a powerful philosophy of creative endeavor - "For it is ultimately the function of art, imposing a credible order upon ordinary reality, and thereby eliciting some perception of an order in reality, to bring us to a condition of serenity..." And? And? Leave us. On the edge of an unfathomable abyss of the undefined; intuiting an understanding for which words fall short.

I am musing today on favorite works of art and music. Books I have read for which this alchemy of order-imposed-upon-mystery rings true. You must have them as well. This morning I am listening to a recording of Puccini's Madama Butterfly. Is this the voice of poetry? Hear the secrets. The weighted crack of heartbreak - the single clear notes quivering in the air. I am lost in the farewell aria Addio Fiorito Asil. She is singing, "The boy's name is Trouble, but he will be renamed Joy upon his father's return..." And then I glance at my bookshelf and think of the description of winemaking in Anne Carson's prose poem, The Beauty of the Husband, that lays forth all of what she will say about love in one devastating sentence - "An ideal wine grape/is one that is easily crushed." Or of late, closing the book on Anthony Doerr's exquisite All the Light We Cannot See, "Every hour, she thinks, someone for whom the war was memory falls out of the world."

The perception of an order in life: words and images, a nuance. A tangible thing composed, danced, hammered, sketched, or sung from the everyday ordinary. The world arranged for us in transcendent verse. Awareness gathered in a glance, from a tear drop, plucked from a tide pool abandoned by the sea. The hint of possibility.

If you can, take a moment. Study the way light falls across the stubbled field. Hear the wind worrying in the birch leaves. Speak aloud the words of a love letter. Follow a painting in, in through the artist's eyes. All that life is, actually is, lies at the edge of comprehension. There but not there: the lingering strands of a dream. Find your way. Seek the brave unknowing. As Virgil left Dante.


Fast and Slow

September 18, 2014

Tags: art and creation, patterns, solitude, intention, finding joy

North Sea at Sunset

There are times to work rapidly and times to go slowly. In the beginning one sets a fast pace, blocking it in, pushing the paint or clay around - large forms, areas of color. Later on in the work, one makes subtle refinement - details, smaller forms - the pace slows down and a meditative state takes over.

When all parts of the work start coming together, a renewed excitement is generated and builds until the harmony and balance of what you have been trying to accomplish work. You feel like a conductor bringing the full sound of an orchestra to its grand finale. You have reached the peak experience toward which all artists work. It is at these times you can see me back dancing, clogging, discoing, and Indian tribal dancing around my studio.

- "Art & Soul: Notes on Creating," Audrey Flack

I woke up with Scotland on my mind. The English and Scottish threads of my family heritage have always been happiest entwined, and so I personally hope these two countries stay united. But change is always difficult, and its value impossible to discern from that hundred foot balcony safe above the tumultuous zone. "Both feet in," my Dad used to say, right before he tossed us in the water to practice our swimming. He had something there. Nothing is worth a bean, half-assed. Right or wrong, what we commit to should at the very least have our whole-hearted engagement. Arm-chair quarterbacking the play can be saved for later. For now, are we in or not? Is what we are doing THIS VERY MOMENT receiving our full attention and effort?

This question relates to what Audrey Flack has to say about creating, in that life change - personal change - is akin to creative work of any kind: it comes fast and slow. There may initially be a pile on of ideas, a surge of wants and dissatisfactions, an itch to move on. We study the ground, and then build new framing. Slow, we layer thoughts in; translate our ideas into elements. Energy compounds. Integration. The momentum in our undertaking physically redefines the shape of our lives. Shift happens.

I am contemplating a large change in my own life: committing to an undertaking I am unable to really evaluate properly beforehand. I only sense this new direction needs to be explored; and even so, I may not accomplish what I set out to do. How does that make me feel? Wracked by doubt. Nervous as hell.

In the midlife years the rush of all that is passing - the essential zeroing out that is expiring time - reaches the level of continuous white background noise. In this noise floats a quiet question: Is this moment, this action, this decision, the right choice among all the possibilities for this one life I have to lead? When we are young we are growing, our real challenges yet to unfold. In the middle years - in the prime of adult capability and prowess and courage - what we let go, choose not to do, has as significant a weight in our happiness and fulfillment as what we do choose. We feel the truth: Now is when the most can and may be accomplished; and when a thing is let go, it will not circle by again. Poised on the edge of the diving board we curl and bend deep and then push off, rocket high into the air to execute - what? Choose, choose.

I've had some laughs at myself lately, making my way with all the sideways, suspicious scoot of a tidal crab into this sea of change. We forget that until our last breath, life is an adventure. Somewhere along the way we wobble into our ruts, dig ourselves in deeper, and eventually roll to a stop. Yet to begin is as simple as possessing the courage to want to. Whether we are speaking of Scotland and what may be an uncertain future, my writer's life the next few years, or any one of us, tomorrow, placing our hand on the doorknob of any door we both dread and need to open - be brave. Begin. Be slow. Let the harmony and balance of what you are endeavoring to create come gently, intentionally together. Let it be crazy. Open to the dance.

When you're in the studio painting, there are a lot of people in there with you. Your teachers, friends, painters from history, critics...and one by one, if you're really painting, they walk out. And if you're really painting, you walk out."
- Philip Guston