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QUINTESSENCE

sacrament, mystery, light

"How to Build a Cathedral," Cildo Meireles, 1987 copper pennies, cattle bones, pavers, wafers, black cloth. The Blanton Museum of Art, University of Texas, Austin

 

Does a poem enlarge the world,
or only our idea of the world?

- from "Mathematics" by Jane Hirschfield

This image is of a 2013 art installation at The Blanton Museum of Art in Austin, Texas. The installation occupied (at that time) an entire room of its own. A room within a room, in which the art work, "How to Build a Cathedral," filled the entirety of the subdued space.

The light dim, the atmosphere quiet. The visitor is permitted to step inside the installation, which is curtained on four sides by filmy ceiling-to-floor black mesh curtains. Inside the closed mystery of the curtains, one may stand or walk the square perimeter of the installation upon an interior border of plain gray pavers. The ceiling within the space is constructed of a mammoth "chandelier" of cow bones suspended in uniform order from the ceiling and lit from above. The white bones funnel downward to join with a thin central cord constructed of stacked Eucharist wafers, and downward still into a sculptural seabed of shiny new copper pennies.

This art space has all of the sacramental hush and reverence we associate with the interiors of cathedrals, composed of the metaphoric elements with which we erect them. Rock. Bone and muscle. Ritual. Money. And death.

Sacrament, mystery, light.

Cildo Meireles has conceived an experience for us that improbable as it would seem, is made profound by our innate human inclination and worldly cultural intention to honor what we believe to be sacred. A space for contemplation. A space constructed of the elemental world. What is sacred, born of the ordinary.

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How Much Still Remained

And the longer he thought
the more plain to him how much
still remained to be experienced,
and written down, a material world heretofore
hardly dignified.

And he recognized in exactly this reasoning
the scope and trajectory of his own
watchful nature.


- from "Roman Study," Louise Gluck

Fog has filled the valley and spilled over the rim of the bluffs I live on, threading, gray and impenetrable, through the bare trees. In this shifting uncertainty of cloud and cold I take my early walk. Through the neighborhoods, past houses with families gathered at breakfast tables in kitchens that spill yellow light. Harried parents load preschoolers into warming cars, bundled against the cold. The asphalt sparkles with frost and I push my hands deep in my pockets, thinking about this year, 2017. The past year has been both wonderful and extremely tough on some of those I love, difficult overall for our country.

Are these twists of luck and suffering part of a larger meaning, or simply accidental? Life so often feels composed of chance, of fortune both good and bad. Surely this mortal journey is more than a grand roller derby of messy and spectacular collisions. How in the midst of a careless random are we to make successful choices? Seek right outcomes, make peace with the truly awful?

My late husband Ken used to say of his outlook on life, "I work at the art of reasoning away bad luck." I think about this often now. He was teasing me to some extent, as I tend to cling to a faith in greater things to come, especially through sorrows or tragedies I do not understand. He pointed out you can't change what is, but you can choose how to deal with it. Your way. Even now, I still throw prayers out like a fisherman's net, hunting meaning in misfortune, convinced there must be an eventual breakthrough into a wiser, if not better life.

The best I've come up with is life is a sailboat tacking across open waters. The seas and winds change, and with shift, the set of the sails and tiller must change as well. We are at our best if our hand stays steady, gaze fixed on the horizon regardless of the conditions we navigate.

I embrace the spirit of the poem. Life is lived forward. The fog lifts. How much remains to be experienced.

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Warrior, Monk

Bust of Alexander, Museum of Athens

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


I have shared this stanza of Philip Levine's poem "The Simple Truth," before with you. If you are not familiar with Levine's work, please, when you have a moment, read through the entire poem. And then, perhaps, browse the complete poetry collection by the same title. Levine's poems are pithy, fibrous. Earthy and powerful. They sear in your brain. They move your heart.

Distinct and subtle, Levine is sometimes referred to as the working man's poet. A tribute to his attention to the ordinary hours, to working lives, his curiosity and empathy for the fates of others. The stanza above speaks to me as a reflection on loyalty, fidelity, love. The musculature and the power of attachment.

The human heart is capable of great patience, tremendous tenacity. It stretches, builds ever so slowly like bone in the body. All is a journey, this life. Connection and partnership. The hand-bricked construction of that we define as family. Our layers of self, like the rings of the oak, evolve continual ways of being. It is the simple truth to say that living is about ever-becoming. And while neither easy, nor pristinely unmarred, and certainly never perfect in process, for each one of us becoming is whole and perfect intent. Perfect in joy. Grounded in earth, heaven, and the unending soul. The human heart is a warrior and a monk. And speaks a simple truth. Belong.

As we enter the quiet months of winter, listen to the song your life is singing. Speak the things you know to be true. Make these truths the pillars of conscious living.

Let the beauty we love be what we do - Rumi



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Years That Answer

The Matterhorn, summit elevation 14,692 ft. Zermatt, Switzerland.

There are years that ask questions and years that answer.
- Zora Neale Hurston

Welcome 2017.

I must say, I hope you are the kinder, gentler sister to 2016. Last year was a rough one, and I really think we collectively, the world of us, need an easier stretch now to catch our breath and regroup. The quote above, by Zora Neale Hurston, is one of my favorites. It speaks to the feeling I think we all have that sometimes we're lost, simply swept up in a maelstrom of events and calamities, doing our best just to hang on. But eventually, there will come a time when the dust settles, the water stills, and reflections clear. The answers distill from the questions.

But what if the questions themselves feel overwhelming? Outside the frame we are familiar with or consider even rational? Beyond our ability to articulate or seek answers? This is the territory of faith. Some would say grace. Religions offer many different definitions of these concepts. To me, grace is an undefinable sheltered state of being. The strong unseen hands that cup the world. Second chances granted from outside of ourselves. Enlightenment. Faith is a belief in grace. In trusting we have a soft place to fall.

Whatever your personal interpretation of faith and grace, I believe this is a year of answers. That if we hold to our questions, trust in the future, and perhaps most importantly, proceed with hope, there will be grace. Welcome 2017. May our questions find answers and our faith in grace be justified. May we be blessed by a year that answers.




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Light

Haleakala, sunrise

11/10 again
by Lucille Clifton

some say the radiance around the body
can be seen by eyes latticed against
all light but the particular. they say
you can notice something rise
from the houseboat of the body
wearing the body's face,
and that you can feel the presence
of a possible otherwhere.
not mystical, they say, but human.
human to lift away from the arms that
try to hold you (as you did then)
and, brilliance magnified,
circle beyond the ironwork
encasing your human heart.

Dear A,

I learned of your death this week. I was stunned. Bereft is too small a word to describe the pained sensation of the absence of your presence on this planet. Others have said your death was a perhaps a gift, a release from a more difficult illness. But I know it was, and always would be, too soon.

You have meant many things to many people, A. Theologist, professor, mentor, friend, father, lover, student of knowledge. You had many gifts, but I deeply admired the way you opened yourself to others and gave of your heart. You had an ability to forge human steel. To hammer together that blend of compassion and conviction that made the people around you stronger and good.

To me, you were my friend. It doesn't seem so long ago that we first met through my husband Ken. As the leader of a small group of entrepreneurs struggling to do better, be better, in the often souless corridors of Silicon Valley, you became both mentor and dear spiritual confidant to Ken. When Ken became ill, you left the boarding line of a flight to Paris - leaving with your lovely wife on a much deserved vacation - and instead flew north to sit and talk with Ken at his hospital bedside. Who does this? Many of us think we would for our closest friends. You actually did. You engaged with Ken in the deep questions, the unanswerable mysteries. You sat with him and wandered into the dazzling light that is not enough time and too much time all in the same moment.

You hugged me and let me scream at God, angry and desolate to my core. You were large enough of heart to carry all these things. And when the time came, without qualm you accepted Ken's request to co-lead his funeral, along with R, another member of your close friendship circle. And that was just what you did for us.

In the years after when I was alone and raising our children, you were always there. My quiet cheerleader. A note arrived each year, remembering Ken on the day he left this earth. Generous always, you stood up on my behalf as I sought to reconstruct a future. I treasure one particular memory: A visit here, with M at your side. We lunched, shared a good French wine. I felt nurtured in your company. There you both were, the embodiment of love and completeness in the presence of one another, and I warmed in your light.

I like to think of you on the bay. Taking a break in the late afternoon sun on your sailboat. I imagine you looking up at the sky. Surrendering all the world's heartbreaks along with your own to the quiet painted layers of blue on blue that deepen to night. You walked your faith on this earth, A. Stood for all that is beyond our understanding and yet particular to each of us. Even me, devastated and angry. You saying to me simply, God is big enough for your hurt.

God has surely welcomed back to his side one of the finest men I have ever known. Your gifts to others shine here on this earth. Your leaving us has stopped the clocks. I think of W.H. Auden's poem, Funeral Blues, and these lines, Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun/Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood. To those of us fortunate enough to know you, A, you were everything that is good.

Love and friendship,
me

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Synergy and Healing

Sculpture Garden, gate detail, Bergen, Norway
FOG HORNS
by David Mason

The loneliest days,
damp and indistinct,
sea and land a haze.

And purple fog horns
blossomed over tides -
bruises being born

in silence, so slow,
so out there, around,
above and below.

In such hurts of sound
the known world became
neither flat nor round.

The steaming teapot
was all we fathomed
of
is and is not.

The hours were hallways
with doors at the ends
opened into days

fading into night
and the scattering
particles of light.

Nothing was done then.
Nothing was ever
done. Then it was done.


We are in the midst of a bitter and exhausting national election season. Who isn't exhausted by the level of negativity and conflict around us? Add on a recent minor surgery at the end of long months focused on the completion of a new novel, and I have had time to think at some depth on the meaning of body-mind synergy and the nature of depletion. What healing is, and is not.

I, like most of us, exist in my mind and forget I dwell in my body. And so it is often hard to appreciate the synergy of the two halves of personal wholeness. That is, until the body requires the full attention of the mind to navigate its needs. Only then do we understand the sustaining embrace of this partner in life, the body. Then does the mind release its instinctive drive, dwell in the present, and nourish the physical self.

This synergy is not always perfect. When our bodies are fit and whole, our thinking expands. When the mind undertakes a major accomplishment, when our labors see us through, the body resonates. At times however the body does not fully heal but holds the mind within its scars. When stasis hits the red zone, our power depleted, do we know what to do? Is healing made of states of compartmentalized well being, or is it holistic? Can we heal the self in one area and continue to struggle in another?

We generally do limp along in some degree of dependence on a spare tire. But what struck me deeply recently is that very little of this healing work is intentional and it should be. We instinctively seek well being, but only tend to physical health as needed. When the world around us becomes actively oppressive and depressive, as it has this presidential election year, do we step away and disengage as necessary? Do we choose peace of mind for the benefit of the entire self?

Body wellness is the foundation of so much else. A wounded body derails a sharp mind. I had no choice but to embrace healing. I rested from the manuscript. I turned off the news and stepped away from media broadcasts. I focused on body healing. And then I returned to work.

As the poet concludes, Nothing was ever done. And then it was done.

I finished my novel.

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One Wing of the Silence

Ortigia, Sicily

XLIV
by Pablo Neruda

You must know that I do not love you, and that I love you,
because everything alive has its two sides;
a word is one wing of the silence,
fire has its cold half.

I love you in order to begin to love you,
to start infinity again
and never stop loving you:
that's why I do not love you yet.

I love you, and I do not love you, as if I held
keys in my hand: to a future of joy -
a wretched, muddled fate -

My love has two lives, in order to love you:
that's why I love you when I do not love you,
and also why I love you when I do.


The last heat of summer glances off the hard enamel sky and the late summer grasses are bleached the color of dust. All the tender green on the trees has been leached away by the hungry sun. I walk the bluff, thinking about the human heart and our desire to protect it, and keep its secrets, and yet somehow remain open and willing to trust.

We yearn to be in a state of love yet fight against the vulnerability of surrender as does the drowning man combat the surf. The heart seems to always be searching. Turning over each leaf, each stone. I once thought this search was uninformed, reflexive, blind. I suspect it is anything but. In time we learn to trust the instinct at our core and to translate what the heart has found.

The human heart takes the hand and leads the way when rightness is present. Rightness meaning alignment. When the centeredness of our being resonates as a whole. No division of soul versus ego, or mind versus emotion. Think of how the willow switch vibrates over the course of hidden water, so too does the heart divine love. The human brain seeks reassurance in equations, spreadsheets, cross-lists, the satisfaction of endless rationales: the heart vibrates within us like the tuning fork at perfect pitch.

Heart and mind are frequently at odds. We make mistakes, omissions, blunders of innocence, and sometimes ignorance. We extricate ourselves from things our brains advised but our hearts never blessed, things our egos crave when our hearts fold closed. Perhaps, and worst of all, we leave behind the very thing the heart most desires because the mind is not convinced. There is no harmony of self.

Under the soles of my shoes, red dirt rises in little dust devils that settle on the dry leaves of the trees along the trail. The mistakes of my heart are also as dust rising from my steps. They both mark passage and are the mark of time. Footprints through life. What comes of our hunger for love, is in the end, a matter of interior mystery and personal history. The answer for each of us lies in the place our steps begin and end.

A word is one wing of the silence.
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Make This Place

World Peace Flame, The Hague, Netherlands

GOOD BONES
by Maggie Smith

Life is short, though I keep this from my children.
Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine
in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,
a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways
I’ll keep from my children. The world is at least
fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative
estimate, though I keep this from my children.
For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.
For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,
sunk in a lake. Life is short and the world
is at least half terrible, and for every kind
stranger, there is one who would break you,
though I keep this from my children. I am trying
to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,
walking you through a real shithole, chirps on
about good bones: This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.


This poem by Ohioan poet Maggie Smith was published recently in Waxwing Literary Journal. "Good Bones" then flashed across Twitter, reader to reader. Here was a poem that acknowledged risk yet expressed gritty, guarded optimism about life. How we needed this, reeling, tumbling, weeping through waves of terrorist attacks and violent shootings.

Smith's poem echoed the unspoken fear I felt twenty-seven years ago, when my eldest child was born. I remember looking at my tiny newborn infant, her head cradled in my palm, her small body resting half the length of my forearm, and thinking, Dear heavens, what have I done. I had brought innocent life into the world. But into a world of opportunity and love, or darkness, without hope of joy? This was 1989 and long shadows fell across history. In my work overseas I had experienced tremors of global unrest and growing sectarian violence and terrorism. Home in America, we had yet to experience 9/11. Today, fundamentalist intolerance and terror are at levels that threaten to choke out the quieter voices of peace. Everything is "at least half terrible" as Smith writes, "and that's a conservative estimate."

What tore up my gut all those years ago was feeling forced to question the essential goodness of the world. The moral rightness of bringing children into a world of certain risk and chaos. What "gift" do we bestow upon our children at their birth to protect them? There is no invincibility shield.

The secret, as Smith shares, is that life is delicious. The gift we bestow is joy. To pursue pleasure in a thousand risky ways. At every turn we may be disappointed, scammed, a victim, grow ill. Yet the good and the bad and the ugly are entwined together. Risk, mortality, and the joy of being alive. It must be enough to believe each child might find a good life in the midst of a world in crushing disarray. Each child brings the potential of change.

Maggie Smith's poem ends on promise. It ain't much, but things can be done. This, this is how we build the world. Lift it up and fix it, again and again. Not only for ourselves, but for the future.

Good. Good bones.

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Packing for the Journey


All large tasks are completed in a series of starts.
- Neil Fiore

Better by far to write twaddle or anything, anything, than nothing at all.
- Katherine mansfield

There you sit. Your notes are lined up, you've been dreaming the scenes, jotting down dialogue in the middle of the night. You fall asleep, thinking, Tomorrow is the day. Definitely the day. Only you wake up standing at the far edge of yourself. Your computer sits open, humming, waiting for you to give your work wings. You make another pot of tea, stand at the window of your work space and consider the sky. In time you walk to your desk, sit down and drop your head on those stacks of perfectly arranged notes and research.

Not today.

I think the difficulty of starting a major work or undertaking a chunk of new work on something already in progress is different than the experience of procrastination. Procrastination, for me, suggests a deep-seated discomfort or dislike of the work itself that renders any other activity or errand vastly more appealing. We procrastinate our taxes. We procrastinate cleaning out the boxes in the basement. We procrastinate caulking the tub. Writing is something I LOVE to do. A way of stepping out of time, riding the electric current as far and fast as it will take me. So why am I right this minute avoiding the start of a major revision?

Art psychologist Eric Maisel notes that many, if not most artists have trouble starting. His opinion is that "It is not the journey that daunts so much as the packing for the journey; not the writing of the song, but the packing away of the untidy doubts, fears, and self-recriminations."

This hit home.

Packing for the journey. Emotional readiness. In my case, staring down a third-pass revision. Managing an intricate reworking of characters and plot, and developing as-yet unimagined new material into the core of my story. Shoot me now.

I have the skills. I know how to do this. I have done it before. I also know this is a process that wholly consumes my mind and my time. Dinners are not made, sleep is scant, the telling ache of carpal tunnel creeps back into my wrists, I miss the sun as it rises and sets. Day after day I tap away on my keyboard, butt numb in the chair. This is about going under, going deep, holding my breath as long as I possibly can and getting as much done on each dive as possible. Urgency hovers in my thoughts. Fear of losing a promising thread or floundering in a firehose of inspiration. Life flows somewhere above the surface of this project, marching on without me, leaving me behind in the time I am down deep, deep in the dark murk of what I will have to trust my instincts to navigate and that alone scares the hell out of me. After all, instincts get you to a draft, and that gets you to revision, but all along you're making mistakes and only occasionally hitting the mark. The work doesn't stand as a whole yet. We mine in the dark.

Maisel is right. This thing that has me dodging my office in favor of sorting the junk drawer in the kitchen is fear. Fear of not getting the words right; of working hard and coming up empty - or worse, wrecking what I already have. It is fear of not being good enough, trained enough, or capable of the herculean challenges ahead. Of wasting time. A lifetime. Fear crouches on the moment we open the paint tube, label the word document, adjust the camera aperture, declare ourselves ready to begin. It feels impossible to pack enough courage and faith.

We circle the entrance to the maze, unable to step in.

The antidote to fear is faith. Faith in the work. Trust we will accomplish what we set out to do. Da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa's mouth many, many times. Not because the painting was difficult, but because there was something more to be said. He worked to capture an expression he had yet to paint to his satisfaction. And because of this, the Mona Lisa's originality haunts us. Picasso famously declared, "To copy oneself is pathetic." We admire the bull-headedness and willingness to take risks of writers and artists like Ernest Hemingway and Pablo Picasso. When I think about the novel revision ahead, my goal is no less determined. My intention is not to produce patches and fillers but more daunting and intangible: getting the story right.

But personally, if I ever felt good enough to copy myself I'd be thrilled.

Let me leave you with this quote from Hemingway to Robert Cantwell in 1950, addressing criticism but more to the point, the importance of answering only to the critic within:

Book is truly very good ["Across the River and Into the Trees"]. You pan it to hell if you don't like it. That is your right and duty. But I have read it 206 times to try and make it better and to cut out any mistakes or injustices and on the last reading I loved it very much and it broke my fucking heart for the 206th time. This is only a personal reaction and should be dis-counted as such. But I have been around quite a while reading and writing and can tell shit from the other things. . . But pan it, ride it, or kill it if you should or if you can.

By the way, "Across the River and Into the Trees" is soon to be made into a major film. Hemingway knew his work would stand the test of time. So pack your bag for the journey. Leave your doubts and worries in the drawer. Take only what you need to make the most of your time in the deep end. As for me? I start tomorrow.
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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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