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QUINTESSENCE

Archeologists On Site


I have looked and looked
for myself,
not sure

who I am, or where,
or, more importantly, why.


- Mary Oliver, from A River Far Away and Long Ago

My daughter graduates from medical school next week. From California and from across Washington we will gather at her hooding ceremony as she receives her degree with honors in medicine. I will be filled with thoughts that if they weren't so familiar to all of you... What a long strange journey it's been. The years bound up in talismans and objects, symbols and charms.

I thought back to a post here, written exactly two years ago. I was having a conversation with my daughter on the ways her college major in Art History prepared her for medicine. The study of art was a path of joy for her, a genuine, lifelong passion, and midway through her medical studies, she noted the unexpected ways one passion had bridged to another. Art History had become her foundation for the study of medicine. She spoke about the ways understanding, cataloguing, researching, and appreciating art taught her to notice details; trained her to retain enormous amounts of relevant, sometimes incomplete data; underscored the importance of provenance (source and diagnosis); and developed skills in correlation and interpretation. "Learning to see," she said, "comes before knowing what it is you're looking at."

This thought has stayed with me. I had the experience, as many of us have, of helping someone close down a house awhile ago. As I helped to sort and toss, piling things for charity, for the dump, for storage, I thought about all the ways "stuff" stands as this great, strange emporium of our lives. A map of experiences and transitions. A personal imprint left behind. A room of 1000-piece puzzle boxes... Owned by someone who loved intricate challenges, or an extremely lonely person? Baby gifts in their original wrapping, never given. Canning jars in multiples; light bulbs, winter tires. A wine cellar with an impressive collection hidden behind a messy and cluttered junk room. A grand unfinished library. A cross-bow. A broken violin. Bulk stale chocolates. Mismatched diningware and drawers and drawers of holiday tea towels. Fake flowers with the price tags on. A dog's ashes in an unmarked tin canister on the mantle.

Personal belongings speak a strange truth: what we are drawn to, once found precious, what things we ignore or leave behind. Some of us believe everything, even junk, has value and nothing of value should be dismissed. Or we are minimalists - too burdened by objects to invite them in. Maybe we are sentimentalists carrying the objects of generations around with us - human "family attics."

Kristine Trego, PhD, Professor of Classics at Bucknell University and underwater shipwreck archeologist, spoke to a group of us in the Mediterranean about her work on ancient Greek trading vessels off the coast of Turkey. From the most mundane daily objects in a sunken ship's galley she was able to gain insight into the daily lives of people from long ago: a weighted candle cup, a remnant of navigation, small good luck charms. Foods from multiple lands suggest the origin of the crew or the ship's trading path.

Dr. Trego was fascinated by the human tendency to collect: a passion shared with other species as it turns out. Inside an almost perfectly preserved amphora found on the sea floor, her divers disturbed a small octopus. Inside his watery pottery "home" were artifacts from a nearby shipwreck the archeologists were interested in recovering. When they reached into the jar remove an item, the octopus snaked out an arm and pulled it back. This tug-of-war went on without end, much to the amusement of the divers, finally prompting the crew to make a rule in honor of this creature's tenacity: No one was allowed to catch or eat any of the critters inhabiting the objects of the wreck. Bad karma, their thinking went. The sea dwellers were the "archeologists on site" before the humans were.

I've often wondered at the public appeal (and melancholy) of anonymous thrift stores, yard sales, and auctions. Curiosity and sadness lies in the exposure of the contents of our "jars." When we are gone or move on, without context these once-important things seem to diminish and lose their luster, take on a worn fragility. We turn the objects over in our hands, wondering what on earth someone would do with a can of bent nails.

As my daughter packs up her student life to head east for residency, she is thinning through the objects - the stuff - in her young life. Parsing memories from objects, aligning value and function. Wrapping with care. As the great British designer and curator William Morris, the focus of her thesis, famously said, "Have nothing in your homes that you do not know to be useful and believe to be beautiful."

It's not a bad rule for the inside of our heads either.
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Transience and Imperfection

Gardens of Kyoto: branch supports, moss, cherry blossom petals

THE SOUL FOX
by David Mason

My love, the fox is in the yard.
The snow will bear his print a while,
then melt and go, but we who saw
his way of finding out, his night
of seeking, know what we have seen
and are the better for it. Write.
let the white page bear the mark,
then melt with joy upon the dark.


My recent travels throughout Japan and her islands have left me with a profound appreciation of the Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi, as indelible to the Japanese expression of beauty as classical composition and line is to the Greek.

Often described as an aesthetic infused with the beauty of "the impermanent, the imperfect, and the incomplete," wabi originally referred to the loneliness of living in nature, remote from society, and sabi meant "chill", "lean" or "withered." Wabi now connotes a gentler rustic simplicity, freshness, or quietness of both natural and human-made objects. An understated elegance. It can refer to the unexpected unique: the marks or anomalies in construction that add originality and elegance to the object. Sabi is that beauty or serenity that comes with age, when the life of the object and its impermanence are evidenced in its patina and wear. Sabi encompasses the imperfection and its visible repairs. I think of a cracked piece of worn pottery. The 300 year old branches of a pine tree leaning on man-made supports across the pond. Wabi-sabi mirrors the inherent integrity of the natural world. Extended to the arts, or to a philosophy of life itself, wabi-sabi connotes elements of the unique, asymmetry, asperity, austerity, simplicity, intimacy, modesty. The appeal and the flaws in all that is organic.

Buddhist author Taro Gold has described wabi-sabi as "the wisdom and beauty of imperfection." Several definitions of wabi-sabi address the lingering emotional impact of the artistic world I experienced in Japan. Performances from drumming to geisha dance, curated objects of both the ordinary everyday and those of prized rarity. Extraordinary landscape gardens both grand or intimate, and the elaborate but intriguing meal presentations. "Wabi-sabi," Richard Powell writes, "nurtures all that is authentic by acknowledging three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect." Andrew Juniper succinctly addresses what I frequently felt throughout Japan, "If an object or expression can bring about, within us, a sense of serene melancholy and a spiritual longing, then that object could be said to be wabi-sabi."

Understanding emptiness and imperfection is honored as the first step to satori, or enlightenment. In today's Japan, the meaning of wabi-sabi is often condensed to "wisdom in natural simplicity." In art books, it is typically defined as "flawed beauty." For me, wandering through zen gardens perfected in moment by moment evolutions...where the smallest corner of a garden holds a rock basin of rain water reflecting leaf and sky, wabi-wabi carries within it a sense of presence. Attention to the moment; to existence in all its profound renewal and decay. And to balance between what is natural and man-made design. The raked white rocks of the Zen meditation garden are not to be trod upon but to invite reflection. The fallen pink cherry blossoms scattered by the breeze on the forest moss are a distinct beauty: a perfection separate from the riotous bloom of the blossom upon the tree. When we pause to appreciate the patina of an antique, the weathered barn, the accidental poetry of birdsong against a thunderous sky, we experience wabi-sabi.

The Japanese venerate the old. The poignancy of time on all things. What I brought home with me from my travels was a sense that everything is at all times in transience and imperfection. This asymmetry, this attachment and release, is our deepest sense of understanding of what it is to exist.

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Traveling

Musician, Berne, Switzerland

The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.
– St. Augustine

There are no foreign lands. It is the traveler only who is foreign.
– Robert Louis Stevenson

The use of traveling is to regulate imagination by reality, and instead of thinking how things may be, to see them as they are.
– Samuel Johnson

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.
– Mark Twain

All the pathos and irony of leaving one’s youth behind is thus implicit in every joyous moment of travel: one knows that the first joy can never be recovered, and the wise traveler learns not to repeat successes but tries new places all the time.
– Paul Fussell

Five quotes about traveling. Five ways of looking at the world from the perspective of first glance - of experiencing what it is to be a "stranger in a strange land" as Robert Heinlein penned so succinctly. As Johnson and Fussell would have it, the importance and education of travel is to know things as they actually are, in all their strangeness or surprise, and perhaps, recapture some of that lost innocence and sense of adventure left behind with youth.

Travel promotes self-reflection. The more we place ourselves in the unfamiliar, the more we see the edges of ourselves. We begin to experience displacement and struggle; test identity and belief in our opennesss to the new. Travel keeps our feet firmly grounded not in our differences but in our common humanity. Cultural and ethnic diversity offer all of us things we delight in and appreciate, ancient spiritual beliefs to textiles and spice palates. But it is our commonality that allows us to absorb the differing wisdom and knowledge of the world's peoples.

All my life I have been a traveller. I grew up in the military system - eighteen addresses by the time I was twenty-one. I then joined the US State Department and continued this trek through the amazing world, discovering the more we are different, the more we are the same. To be a citizen of the world is to understand our differences reflect our constructs, our culture, our geography. Our sameness defined by our humanity.

I have traveled with my children from the years they were very young to a planned upcoming trip with my daughter marking her completion of medical school. Travel has opened their hearts and minds to the enormity of the planet and all of its wonders and struggles.

These past two years for me have been a Herculean journey as a writer. I feel the need to step back, assess, recenter, and recommit. When personal changes are in the offing, when they are necessary, travel is one way to shake loose the old and crack open the brain. Next week I leave for two weeks - exploring Japan and her surrounding islands by land and sea. Digging deeply into the history, the art and the culture, from war to state-of-the-art ecosystem innovations, maiko apprentice to geisha, robotics, Kibuki theatre, Bullet trains, the sea and cuisine. Somewhere in there, I will also visit South Korea. And when all is done, my mind and my soul will be refreshed, reset, and engaged.

My next blog will be sometime on my return in May. I'll send a picture or two along the journey via twitter or FB. After my return, I'll post more images of the unique and wonderful things I've encountered, even as I let the complexity of the experience settle in. It is my hope this trip will be the basis of my next writing project, and deeply refresh my soul. What we bring home from our wanderings is not only what we have seen and learned, but a new personal map. A new pin, placed somewhere in the geography of the self.

Sayonara for now.

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A Crooked Letter

Olive trees shading a stairway to The Acropolis, Athens

PRAYER 26
by Eva Saulitis

Why? Why is a crooked letter, my mother-in-law used to say. She held
no truck with useless inquiry, superstition. Buck up. Be present.
Suffer

no fools, no dogma. When she died, I sleuthed her shelves. She read
everything - Buddhist philosophy, AARP magazine.
The Art

of Loving, Hawaiian poetry, books on aging, Asian painting,
and dying. She stopped short of a PhD in English lit, took acting. No

shrinking violet, she wore tennis whites on Sundays, permed and dyed
her hair various reddish shades, waited for her husband weekdays with

wine glasses frosted in the deep freeze.
You little ingrates, wait till your
father gets here. Protested his pollarding of her ornamental trees

in the garden. A closetful of peacock-hues to counter his muted same-same.
Years after he died, we found the glasses, the bottle of cream sherry still

frozen. She never gave his clothes away.
You better know how to laugh
at yourself, she said. Afraid she'd take me for the shrinking violet, the

suffering fool, tucked into the shade of a summer day,
why, my crooked
angel, I kept quiet, secretly studied her takings, finger along the spine of books

and facts. Her sons sang her past the last breath, hospital bed on
the living room's shag. In the mail we got her Hiroshima prints, a 1950s lamp,

a volume of bad Hawaiian poetry, costume jewelry, one conundrum - wooden
statute of mother Mary praying. To her tough and inscrutable hide, I offer up this day.
- 1.11.2013


Our days are a carousel of change and chances. We feel we are at last approaching some hard-earned purchase on the slope of our lives, only to lose our footing on the hard scrabble and helplessly fall away. We try again, we work at it, we latch on, and what happens next always surprises us. This haunting, intimate poem by Eva Saulitis, poet and biologist from Homer, Alaska, is from a book of poetry titled, "Prayer In Wind," published by Boreal Books, an imprint of Red Hen Press. The book's flap copy reveals to the reader:

"After a devastating diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer, biologist and poet Eva Saulitis found herself gripped by a long buried childhood urge to pray. Finding little solace in the rote 'from the fox-hole please Gods' arising unbidden in her head, she set herself the task of examining the impulse itself, waking every morning in darkness to write poems, driven on by the questions: What is prayer? What am I praying to? What am I praying for? Who is listening? Each day's poem proposed a new and surprising answer as, over two years, she traced the questions back to her origins..."

What is comprised by this book of 58 numbered "prayer poems" is nothing short of a deep and openhearted song to living. To ancestry, geography, context, accident. To all that connects us to the earth and to one another; to the small stories that make us the quirky, eccentric souls that we are; to what we leave behind in the hearts of others and what we keep from those we love. It is never not the right time to pause in our ceaseless climbing and look out from where we find ourselves. Take in the expanse of life, the shadows of the forests left behind. What beckons on the horizon.

Ask of life again, Why?

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Rewaking

Cypripedium acaule - lady slipper

THE REWAKING
Sooner or later
we must come to the end
of striving

to re-establish
the image the image of
the rose

but not yet
you say extending the
time indefinitely

by
your love until a whole
spring

rekindle
the violet to the very
lady's-slipper

and so by
your love the very sun
itself is revived.


- William Carlos Williams

The renewal of spirit, heart, and mind has a beautiful resonance for me. The limning of new green on the branches outside my study speak to budding hope. There is something about early spring that nudges us to get on with it. To pluck our rusty dreams up and tinker them back into play. To rethink the impossible, or the challenging. To build a bridge to somewhere. To throw the window open and breathe deep of sunshine and renewal.

William Carlos Williams' poem "The Rewaking," composed April 1o, 1961, reminds us joy may be continuously cultivated through love. Reality, and what we think of as the meaningful real, shift with perception. Souls lost in the darkness of winter, in the pressures of work and responsibility, need only trust in the innocence of what is future. The eternal essence capable of reviving even the sun.

The presence of happiness reshapes all things. Restores, what in world-weariness we believed lost - all optimism, lightness, ease, and hope. Drink of violet. Permit the tender shoot, "the image the image of the rose."
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Sojourn Through Stillness and Push


The incremental arrival of spring. A cycle of winds, light rains, brief stillnesses and squares of sun. Stillness and push. Reflection and awareness. The gravid lull that awaits transition in the seasons. A strong sense of push. The change in daylight and energies now. There is much to do, more to accomplish. Tender green shoots break earth beneath skies that battle for dominance between light and dark, cold and warm, stillness and push.

We are sojourners on this earth. Humanity born of a nomadic people's intimate knowledge of estrangement: a thinking people's intuition of loss. For we are strangers before thee, and sojourners, as were all our fathers: our days on the earth are as a shadow, and there is none abiding. Are we not endlessly traveling the days and seasons, essentially animal? And inventing and imagining, seekers of meaning? We find ourselves uncertain of our ground of being.

We don't know where we belong, but in times of sorrow it doesn't seem to be here, here with these silly pansies and witless mountains, here with sponges and hard-eyed birds. In times of sorrow the innocence of the other creatures - from whom and with whom we evolved - seems a mockery. Their ways are not our ways. We seem set among them as among lifelike props for a tragedy - or a broad lampoon - on a thrust rock stage.
- Annie Dillard, "Teaching a Stone to Talk"

"Teaching a Stone to Talk," is fittingly subtitled "Expeditions and Encounters." Dillard's essays tease out the subtleties in nature, the hidden truths of human dislocation. Her thoughts on human solitude and our mysterious role as "sojourners of spirit" on a harsh, physical planet, reminds us the earth's seasons express the unambiguous truth of the elements.

Wind, rain, dark, light.


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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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Operating Instructions


There is no person without a world.
- "Autobiography of Red," Anne Carson, 1998



The manual on you. What do you know about your own operating instructions? There is no author's note. The expert on you, is you.

We are one complete and unique universe - patterned from spirit, bordered by skin, powered by the mind, guided by thought, and infused by heart. The Reference Text on Me - the schematic of how each of us functions - lies somewhere over there on the shelf. Dusty, dog-eared, coffee-stained, tear-stained, face-down and the spine broken. Consulted again and again. . .or perhaps not at all anymore.

Beryl Markham, the daring aviator and adventurer, renowned for her fearless explorations throughout Africa, once said, "You can live a lifetime and, at the end of it, know more about other people than you know about yourself." We putter along like wood moles, blindly nosing down familiar ruts in search of life's delicacies and hidden secrets. Often enough the best experts on our inner lives are the people we live with. How clearly they see our inanities. Point out our predictable, vulnerable weaknesses; affirm our quiet and simple strengths.

We share vast continents of ourselves with our loved ones, but only we know the many facets of our innermost wishes and dreams, the languished old wounds, misgivings, regrets. In truth, the complex reality of one person's world is known fully only by that person. Yet 360* of self-awareness is not necessarily a place of understanding each of us is sure to summit.

Become acquainted. With you. Update the manual. From time to time delete information that is outdated, add new chapters that speak to major changes. And with each rereading, share wisely some of what has shifted with those that have the "old you" on their shelves. Have we not ourselves been surprised by changes in a family member or a friend after an interlude apart? That more than an address or hair color is radically altered? Changes may be so subtle we need to look closely, or highlight for others what they may have grown too familiar with to see. The manual basics may remain unchanged, but the troubleshooting section is certain to be frequently consulted.

We are each a "work in progress." In a good way. A story that adds to itself, edits and highlights, and on occasion leads down an untrod path only to circle back out again and dive off to the side.

What's new in your world today?
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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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One Life


ONE LIFE TO LIVE
by Billy Collins

This is the only life I have, this one in my head,
the one that travels along the surface of my body
singing the low voltage song of the ego,

the one that feels like a ball between my ears
sometimes, and other times feels absolutely galactic,

the life that my feet carry around like two blind
scholars working together on a troublesome manuscript.

This is the only life I have, and I am standing
dead in the center of it like a man doing a rope trick
in a rodeo, passing the lasso over his body,
smiling inside a twirling of ovals and ellipses.

This is the only life I have and I never step out of it
except to follow a character down the alleys of a novel
or when love makes me want to remove my clothes
and sail classical records off a cliff.

Otherwise you can always find me within this hoop of
myself,
the rope flying around me, moving up to encircle my head
like the equator or a halo or a zero.



What a dazzling sketch of imagery. Billy Collins's One Life to Live swoops us from the rodeo grandstands down into the dirt of daily existence. Man against beast. The mundane wrestling the extraordinary. What are we breaking, what are we taming? Our wants, our transgressions? Collins's poem breaks open a nugget of strange truth: to be human is both small and "absolutely galactic." How self-limiting and limited by the self the experience of living may be. Our days and thoughts, our sense of self, loop in continuous gyration. As if this one life were a tilting, dizzying, ticket to ride.

We end one year and begin another - an arbitrary division of breaths if there ever was one - and I imagine that poetic lasso whirling, whirling, circling endlessly over our heads. Is this the year the hoop will drop and there will be no further evolutions of time? Or is this to be another year of halos and zeros...a haphazard, inadequately appreciated journey through the day by day? Perhaps this is the year of mastery, and the lasso sails around with ease.

I'm not a fan of year-end lists, "best of" summations, resolutions, or fresh starts. But I do welcome the idea of a personal review: a long moment of reflection and contemplation. An aware acknowledgement what is past is behind us, and what is yet to come whirls above, a rope trick in the making. As we stand within the oval of this life, this one life we have to live, we command the equator of both potential and actual, good and failed, promise and regret. This "one life" is forever an act in progress. A flick of the wrist. A halo around the ego. Me. You.

If you celebrate the New Year, then I wish for you in 2016 the joy of belting out your own song, finding perfect pitch and an endless chorus when days fade or grow weary. Let life be that tune you hum in your head, the beat that carries you along, what holds you in the center of your evolutions, in the sweet spot of this one life.


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