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QUINTESSENCE

An End to Old Regret

Provence, France

I thought of all the pain and how we met
Late in our lives yet lavishly at ease,
Having assumed an end to old regret..."

- from "The Balcony," May Sarton, 1980

Old Regret. Losses carried forward. Sorrow chipped away over the passing years, perhaps by forgetfulness or forgiveness. Bitter sorrow buried intact in the back of our mind. Large hearts of darkness. Is there an end to old regret?

These few lines of May Sarton's poem "The Balcony" expose rich layers of meaning. One voice, of a couple, of a certain age perhaps or world weariness, acknowledging the accidental accumulated joys and pains of life. Words that hint to the years past, to damaged relationships, losses. Perhaps longed-for opportunities swept away with the passage of time. "The Balcony" ends with this final tribute, And out of deprivation, a huge flower. Exquisite image. The heart, in its layered translucent suffering, fully comprehended. From the wisdom of acceptance, extravagant beauty.

There is a thread of durability in Sarton's observer. How is it we find within ourselves the strength and desire to carry on? To begin again. To start over from the disappointments of the past. John F. Kennedy once described his father after the elder man's stroke, saying, "Old age is a shipwreck." From Sarton's words, perhaps old age is neither the limit nor the context. We are always beginning. Over and again. In life, in work, in love. The passage of time has worn the lines on our foreheads, to be sure. But time - lost, burnt, wasted, empty, wronged, violated, hurt - needn't be the melody of the heart. I love the thought that once regrets are released and thrown over our shoulders, we blossom, "lavishly at ease."

Mistakes have their ends. Beginnings follow. The bridge between them? Acceptance. Ease on into your day, leaving your regrets behind you. You may find cupped in your hands a bloom of startling joy.

THE BALCONY
by May Sarton /after Baudelaire

Lover of silence, muse of the mysteries,
You will remember how we supped each night
There on your balcony high in the trees
Where a heraldic lion took late light,
Lover of silence, muse of the mysteries.

The big dogs slumbered near us like good bears;
The old cat begged a morsel from my plate,
And all around leaves stirred in the warm airs
Breathed from the valley as the red sun set.
The big dogs slumbered near us like good bears.

I thought of all the pain and how we met
Late in our lives yet lavishly at ease,
Having assumed an end to old regret
In the eternal presence of the trees -
I thought of all the pain and how we met.

There every night we drank deep of the wine
And our love, still without history,
Yet the completion of some real design
Earned with much thought, muse of the mystery.
There every night we drank deep of the wine.

While out of deprivation a huge flower,
The evening's passion, was about to bloom.
Such intimacy held us in its power
The long years vanished in a little room,
And out of deprivation, a huge flower.


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Retreat

Ghost Ranch, Abiquiu, New Mexico

If ever I should wish for a retreat, whither I might steal from the world and its distractions, and dream quietly away the remnant of a troubled life, I know of none more promising than this little valley.
- Washington Irving, "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow."

Bless the private interlude. A solitary chair under a tree. A corner of the kitchen table in a slant of sun. The third floor east corner of the library. Window table at the coffee shop. The car. Any space we beg, borrow, call our own.

A door. An island. As Virginia Woolf famously put it, "a room of one's own." Personal space dedicated to thought, to creativity, to the inner self. The poet Mary Oliver built herself a cabin in the woods of rough timber; the painter Jackson Pollock emptied a barn behind his cottage to which he retired day after day, contemplating his canvas. Entire books have been devoted to artists and writer's huts, islands, cafes, closets, desks, lofts, libraries.

The private and the solitary. Personal contemplative space is a deep human need.

Empty space stands as an invitation. Come. Fill this void with vivid imaginings. A naked wall for the experimental, a safe space for the difficult and inscrutable, room for preliminary constructions, a protected silence for the focus and uninterrupted work itself. An arena for inspiration and angst. Private witness to the struggle, to dreamt success, pained failure.

Do you have such a space? What icons, what meaningful symbols have you placed within? A beloved parent's worn cardigan? Shells from distant beaches? A broken violin bow? Paintings that invite you into alternate landscapes of shape and color? Favorite books or music, a stone from another land? A catcher's mitt, a broken bell? Strange things inspire us. Georgia O'Keefe laid animal skulls and wind scraped rocks on her window sills at Ghost Ranch. Stark shapes that brought her subject, nature, directly into her studio. Above my writing table hang black and white photographs that plays with the shapes of objects; on the table, a playful glass zebra that reminds me not to take everything so seriously, a basket of fossils and bones that remind me of both durability and impermanence.

Take a day. Take a moment.
A corner by the cookbooks. The window over the kitchen sink. The worktable by the tool chest.
The riverbank where the heron stands.
The place inspiration flows without bidding.
Namelessness, spirit.
Permission to imagine.
The element of recharge.
Retreat to reengage.
Breathe. Listen.


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Stuck

The Matterhorn, Zermatt, Switzerland

Artists don't get down to work until the pain of working is exceeded by the pain of not working.
~ Stephen DeStaebler

Blocks produce in the artist an attitude of pessimism and defeat. He loses that necessary touch of arrogance; the drive to produce new things fades; the mind is blunted.
~ Lawrence Hatterer

A creative block is the wall we erect to ward off the anxiety we suppose we'll experience if we sit down to work. A creative block is a fear about the future, a guess about the dangers dwelling in the dark computer and the locked studio. A block is a sudden, disheartening doubt about our right to create, about our ability, about our very being. And the cure? A melting surrender, a little love, a little self-love, a little optimism, and a series of baby steps toward the work.
~ Eric Maisel

January can feel like a month stacked in "fresh start" pressure: time to reboot, dive in, focus, bootstrap full-on motivation. And then the days stall out. Our ideas are not quite gelling. Or worse, lie prone in the ditch. Road kill. Nothing fresh here, folks. Move along. Inertia. Excuses. Diversion. Frustration.

David Bayles and Ted Orland wrote a small chapbook in 1993, "Art & Fear: Observations of The Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking." A refreshingly honest, insightful exploration of the creative process, the workplace experience, and the potholes and bridges between. In the introduction the authors write, "Making art is a common and intimately human activity, filled with all the perils (and rewards) that accompany any worthwhile effort. The difficulties artmakers face are not remote and heroic, but universal and familiar... This book is about what it feels like to sit in your studio or classroom, at your wheel or keyboard, easel or camera, trying to do the work you need to do. It is about committing your future to your own hands, placing Free Will above predestination, choice above chance. It is about finding your own work."

What comes next stopped me in my tracks. The authors observe, "Those who continue to make art are those who have learned how to continue - or more precisely, have learned how not to quit."

Did you reread that? What a powerful statement in support of tenacity. Quitting, the authors argue, is different than stopping. Stopping happens all the time - an idea runs dry, an attempt is scrubbed at the point of diminishing returns. But quitting happens just once. Quitting marks the last thing the artist does. Baylee and Orland go on to identify pitfalls that lead to blocks and defeat. Stalemates. Obstacles. Potential failure points that cling like lint around two very specific moments: When artists convince themselves their next effort is already doomed to fail; and when artists lose sight of the destination for their work, the place their work belongs.

Making art can feel dangerous and revealing. It gives substance to sense of self as well as the corresponding fear that one is not up to the task, not real or good. That we have nothing to say. "Making art precipitates self-doubt," write Bayles and Orland. "Stirring deep waters between what you know you should be, and what you fear you might me." Doubt can be enough to stop the artist before he or she even begins, and often appears again and again throughout the cycle of making, and then releasing work to critical review in the world. The key, according to the authors, is to learn to challenge that fear every step of the creative process from initial vision to execution, imagination, struggles with materials, through uncertainty. To continue anyway.

Losing sense of place, losing confidence, can mark the precise moment a driving goal is achieved. Success frequently and easily transmutes into depression because the artist feels abruptly lost. Embracing a new project means leaving behind the comfort of the loose thread. Setting aside that unresolved creative idea or issue to move forward into the next piece. Beginning fresh.

Tolerance for uncertainty is a prerequisite for working in the arts, according to the authors of "Art & Fear." Creativity is not about control. Uncertainty arrives unannounced at critical junctures in the creative process. What did I start out to say? Were the materials right, the length of the piece? Is the way I've done this right? Tolstoy rewrote "War & Peace" by hand eight times. (Heh, this is a large book.) He was still revising galley proofs at press. Art happens between the artist and something else - a chunk of stone, a slant of light in a landscape, a subject, an idea or technique. Creativity is unpredictable. The working artist learns to respond authentically, challenge to challenge, each step of the way.

Which brings me back to creative blocks, those frustrating mental tar pits. Bayles and Orland identify endpoints - shifts in destination or goals - as creative tripping points. Ease the transitions between stages, drafts, critiques. If we take psychologist Eric Maisel's advice, we should address our fears and anxiety over our works in progress by initiating baby steps toward engagement. Write two lines a day, then two pages a day. Put one brush stroke of color dead center on the white canvas. Mar that empty perfection and free your fear.

Can the artist find a way through almost perpetual uncertainty? Yes.
Intention requires strange and uncomfortable openness. Receptiveness. Belief. Tenacity.
Do not quit.

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Open Window


DUST
by Dorianne Laux

Someone spoke to me last night,
told me the truth. Just a few words,
but I recognized it.
I knew I should make myself get up,
write it down, but it was late,
and I was exhausted from working
all day in the garden, moving rocks.
Now, I remember only the flavor -
not like food, sweet or sharp.
More like a fine powder, like dust.
And I wasn't elated or frightened,
but simply rapt, aware.
That's how it is sometimes -
God comes to your window,
all bright light and black wings,
and you're just too tired to open it.


This small poem is from a chapbook by Dorianne Laux titled, "What We Carry." The poems here remind me allegorically of the potent imagery from Tim O'Brien's short story collection, "The Things They Carried," stories exposing individual lives in a platoon of soldiers from their smallest possessions. Who we are, who we were before. . .ported forward into an uncertain future. Although not about war or anonymity, the poems in this slender volume are sharp, tight: transparent yet troubling. As though each poem, each moment or memory, has become an object in the poet's pocket.

I intended to begin 2016 on Quintessence with an upbeat poem: something about a clean slate, new possibilities. Instead, I found myself drawn to the flow of existence, of glimpses of truth from one moment to the next, My 2016 is also 2015 - as well as every accumulated year prior - just by another label. This idea that I am continuously silting new experiences, year to year. It will never be a "new" me, but a more layered me. More depth at the bottom. More debris and lost gold.

Someone spoke to me last night. . . Laux captures the experience of that rare awareness at the core of a chance conversation. In quiet, or sleep. We brush up against the profound. No words but a footprint. Laux tastes the truth, and it sits light, insubstantial; a micro imprint of muted history. Exhausted, vulnerable, she knows. She feels it, and lets it go. But she remembers the essence, and it settles within.

I look to this new year hoping the nuggets of truth discovered and absorbed along the way stay with me. That bright light and black wings find me. Praying the crack in the window widens, until finally and fully, I understand. To exist within the flow, and release what floats, absorb what lies still, sift the layers deep within. Is it not possible life will be ever more nuanced, meaningful, profound, if we honor the work and the fatigue of ordinary living? Open windows.

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