Mastering It

 

 

 

how to live

Around here we claim two Masters of The Purposeful Life Through Unusual Living. Once a year I read The Outermost House, Henry Beston’s record of his time in a cabin on Cape Cod’s outer beach, one of the most beautiful books ever written about the experience of place and nature. And then there’s that guy from Walden Pond. He cried out, “Simplify!” and lived the word. And also got some stuff written.

Their Creativity had to be made by a letting-go of other Life options. They followed the pull of one tugging string into these spaces. Or, as those with metaphysical joy remind us, the space is already there waiting for us and doesn’t need to be made. Then it needs to be excavated.

We learn change is inevitable when it’s forced on us, but sometimes we move along in an illusion of stability that seems necessary. As deeply as I could covet a year in the outermost house, I’m not prepared at this moment to give up Everything and make a break for it.

In a book on the Japanese tradition of wabi-sabi, Robyn Griggs Lawrence describes an exchange between Gandhi and Richard Gregg, recorded in the latter’s “The Value of Voluntary Simplicity.” Gregg expressed his guilt at not being able to renounce his books, and the wise man told him that too-intense sacrifice is actually an obstacle to simplicity. Gandhi told him, “Only give up a thing when you want some other condition so much that the thing no longer has any attraction for you, or when it seems to interfere with that which is more greatly desired.”

Do you ever get a little frustrated when the Great Answer is just so damn reasonable? When you’re trying to rev yourself up to strive, only to be reminded that moderation is the path? Yeah, me, too.

How do you sustain whatever Simplicity makes time and space to be a CPT, in this un-simple society? You’re not alone in a cabin, and every message that comes at you from any source is basically saying, “Say Yes to this! a) You have to. b) You want to.”

So far for me, Gandhi is right. A lot of familiar patterns seem just to be changing, more organically than I thought possible. And that is, in fact, scarier and more complex than having to struggle to change. It’s possibly due to my writing for a paycheck, when new patterns have to take over, but part of it is still this new indifference to many familiar, taken-for-granted-as-just-reality things.

Indifference working its way toward positive Difference. The sneaking suspicion that a CPT life might not be about struggle, but about the ease of a Right Life being lived. That’s different, and positively startling.

Thanks to the fabulous Brian Andreas for his wonderful art that I shamelessly borrowed.

 

 

 

Bronte-Spoiling

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SPOILER ALERT: Jane Eyre

When an artist creates a character willing to bite someone to death, that’s not an artist I’d piss off. If I were you. Penguin Classics.

Consider yourself Called Out by a CPT.

It’s not enough the cover of your edition of three Bronte novels features those faces, all rose-blush cheeks and dewy eyes, borrowed from paintings by men. Then on the back flap, you offer a seven-line biography to cover three authors, and it says this:

Charlotte Bronte…wrote some of the most poignant romantic novels in the English language…Anne Bronte…was also a novelist and poet, whose works were chiefly influenced by issues of social injustice.

Charlotte Bronte assaulted, killed, maimed, set multiple fires, and struck things with lightning, just in that one novel. What is wrong with you? If you consider Jane Eyre a romance (no, not a Romance, which is a literary movement: you didn’t capitalize it) and not a book about “issues of social injustice,” then I suggest you switch over to Dick and Jane until you, like a newborn blind kitten, get your eyes open.

What are the CPT goals in posting this topic? Perhaps it is to defend a fellow-artist who also knew life challenges and financial struggle. But for whatever reason, I’m here to defend some honor. Not that there’s anything wrong with romances or genre writing: I’m a big mystery fan myself. It’s just that Jane Eyre isn’t a romance.

That label implies to me that she chose to write love/relationship-centered fiction. What I see is a complex work about human motivations and limitations, centered on the living of a 19th-century female life. That would include marriage (or not), and a strong sense throughout of having your selfhood and your value dictated to you by a society in which you have no voice.

The characters of all genders who represent that society in the novel do not recognize Jane Eyre’s personhood, her autonomy as an individual. If it were just they, it would be a great novel. But some of these characters do see and even love her, and still “epic fail” in this area. That’s what makes it more, makes it a vision of society, and that’s where Penguin lets her down.

Maybe artists can easily empathize with Jane Eyre over those same struggles: for economic stability, for fulfillment, for relationship, for authentic living despite the challenges. Some days I have had enough of being broke, of bad weather, and of annoying people with authority. She’s a sister in Up-against-it-ness, as was her author.

And Charlotte Bronte was as skillful as her sister Anne Bronte in viewing the world clearly from where she had to stand in it. Having limitations does not equal being limited, and they both prove it. They wrote what they saw, and it was unflattering to Power of many kinds. And it was boldly expressive of the female, the disenfranchised, the outsider.

Sure, Jane Eyre has a happy ending, albeit one slightly clouded by amputation and death. She winds up in a place where she can be herself and be in relationship, as much as actually possible. It’s relative, but still a victory. As a CPT, I like the ending: not “It will all work out just great”, but “Keep on. It will all work out reasonably ok, ok enough, considering you live against the current in the society you do.”

So Penguin Classics, you unjustly represented an artist whose representation we need. Shame on you, you know. The Brontes would write books about it.

 

 

 

 

 

HI-iiiiiii!

gloves

Hello again. That was quite a break on my part. To be exact, it was a few breaks, all in the bones of my left wrist, the one I need for Writing and for half the keyboard. Since mid-March, I have been able to hold a pen enough to take skittish notes, and I learned to type with one hand. Frankly, getting the paid work done took all I had.

There has been many an excuse for not writing in my life, but it’s never been that I literally could not write. Watching the Bronte sisters dipping and scratching out lines on the recent Masterpiece program, I caught myself envying their speed. Yikes.

Last week I was able to write a draft of this post, and I’m currently typing it normally, albeit with pauses for “shaking it out.” So here’s what I’ve Got:

My city, and my walks through it, include several community gardens, some only a building lot in size. I love them. Our string of formal green spaces here is called the Emerald Necklace, and I like to think of the community gardens as a string of colorful, hand-made beads. I passed by a favorite small one not long ago, a week before it opened for the season. It was one of my first long walks since I healed and the ice melted, but I still found myself in a sooty haze of vulnerability, hand sweaty under the Velcro splint I wear outside.

The Garden, like me, was not then productive. Lopsided cubes and cones of protective wire mesh filled the plots, and old stalks lay bent or smooshed on the cold soil. The ice and snow did a job on them, too. All that mesh must have been neatly unrolled last fall, but winter tipped it into the shape of drunk tornadoes or the weird shape of houses in children’s drawings. Everywhere was a sense of inactivity, a sense of work not visited. Just like me. And here’s more: it was beautiful, sculptural, creative in its own way, full of potential. Yeah, I know. But be nice to me about it: I’ve been Injured.

My next visit was after opening day, and change had bloomed, if not much else. The wire had all vanished, along with the patterns of leaf litter. The plots were clean, newly opened spaces. The birdbath and the trellises had been leaned upright, and garden gloves waved from the posts where they were drying, hands suddenly present and ready to be used. A clump of daffodils spun yellow to match the bright metal bench across the way. A violet was growing rogue in the border area, and here and there other spots of deeper purple poked up, including in a pinwheel.

It’s too trite to say unto everything there is a season, and we just bloody have to Live With That. But I felt okay in the garden because my own creative tool was making its comeback. A CPT Life can have dull seasons brought on by so many things. It was surreal for me not to be able to write, but I could feel at home in the brown garden knocked over by snow and ice. And then again in the one full of new things growing and garden gloves doing jazz hands.

I didn’t want to make a clichéd Metaphor here, although I think it’s too late. Let’s call this a more literal bonding of a place I like and me, a snapshot of various creative tools forced into disuse, now back on the Creative Track. So there.

 

Sometimes

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Sometimes being Creative is giving the world your attention for a moment, and maybe letting another artist’s experience speak to you inside your own.

There’s a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons –
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes –
Heavenly Hurt, it gives us –
We can find no scar,
But internal difference –
Where the Meanings, are –
None may teach it – Any –
‘Tis the seal Despair –
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the Air –
When it comes, the Landscape listens –
Shadows – hold their breath –
When it goes, ’tis like the Distance
On the look of Death –
Emily Dickinson  [320]

See?

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In certain sunlight, the craggy tops of the Himalayas look as delicate as roses. I enjoyed Matthieu Ricard’s book of photographs, Motionless Journey, taken when he lived there for a year on retreat. (M. Ricard is a Buddhist monk and French translator for His Holiness the Dalai Lama.) His book records the beauty of many moments in the same place.

It inspired me to look at my own everyday places with the same attentive, present looking. Less dramatic than his, one of mine is the Fens, the elongated, scruffy, lovely park in my neighborhood.

Early in the morning, first light is a rich pink grapefruit color, carried overhead on the bellies of herring gulls while I still walk in twilight. But later in the morning, when the light has found its daytime sharpness, it can catch a flock of pigeons on their pale bellies, and be stark white instead of soft rose, erasing their dark backs from view.  A flock of thin white butterflies appears.

Another day, leaning over the stone bridge, I found the great blue heron on a snaky log just a couple of feet below me. It heard me coming, but I was startled and thrilled to look right into that ringed yellow eye. Then it flew off, a little disdainfully I think, all bent wires and slow grace. Later, on a smaller bridge where I like to pause, I met a male mallard’s dark eye, as it stood by its sleeping mate. We looked. No thought, nothing imagined, no blog in the making. Two Beings. Or one. There was only the looking.

I think of that moment of stillness when I remember standing in that spot to watch two mini-flocks of Canadian geese approach just above me, from opposite directions. Just above me. Opposite directions. I think I panicked before they did, but suddenly the honking started from both sides, Boston morning rush hour in flight. It grew more intense, but neither group veered into another path. I don’t know why. Ever heard the sound of two small-grazing-animal-size birds crashing overhead? Feathers shmeathers. That was muscle colliding in that epic thud. No one was injured, except their dignity. They flew on, leaving a violent, charged memory in one of my most peaceful places.

Even the Muddy River, sinewy as it is, changes. When gulls are the rose fingers of dawn (thank you, Homer), the river is still the night sky. Later on a fall morning, the wind plays rhythm on the surface, spinning the reflection of wood-colored reeds into a windmill. After an autumn rain, the river rushes at its center where the current flows. The brown and beige oak leaves get caught in that flow, creating a second river of leaves. Or Muddy seems to arch a backbone of spiky brown fur.

In winter, on a colder, quieter morning, the windmill site is a frosted window hiding a sleeping house, and the reeds are stuck together and crushed down like a sagging haystack. Nothing moves but my eyes.

Except on the morning of our recent Nor’easter, when the river’s surface spread like crisp sheets of paper scattering in the wind. The ducks looked blown one way by the flapping of the wind gusts and driven another by the choppy water. They and I opened our eyes wide at the world, and they moved on into the silver-gray beauty of the storm. Before I did the same, I held the railing of the bridge and felt it shake and hum. As an ancient wrote:

When I pass over the bridge,

Lo, the water floweth not, but

the bridge doth flow.

Change is the world’s breath. A CPT can go with the flow and experience endless Creativity. I will take the time and attention to look. To resist the dark clamor of our days now. Because of it. It will not control my mind or my spirit. I will walk back toward reality, toward the world, and write down what I see.

Nasty Language

alphabet

Last Sunday, about one hundred of us got comfortable on the floor of the Boston Public Library, because they are finally letting us move in and live there. Kidding. We were outside the downstairs lecture hall, already full ten minutes after opening, for the Writers Resist Event. Organized here by PEN New England, a diverse group of writers spoke up and shared Creative Work. We were all there to resist fear, intolerance, indifference to social/environmental justice, and anything else that felt important.

Talk about being creative in a brimming-over world. Young people read poems about other young people, injustice, and hope. Someone read poems by a political prisoner incarcerated for his views. Writers quoted others writers who gave them ground under their feet. One that stuck I will half-quote and half-paraphrase, with apologies to James Baldwin, because I want to share what I remember. He said that to Love means taking off our masks, the ones we don’t feel safe without, the ones we can’t live within. That was Love facing off against fear, no pun intended. Well, I did intend it. You know that.

And the friend I was with did it, there on the floor, in a moment of Creativity. She’s a writer and an environmental activist, and she mused and fused those two things together. We need another language, she suddenly said to me, to talk about what we’re doing. We always use the vocabulary of battle: the fight and struggle for the environment. There was a stillness and a vulnerability in her face as I leaned close to hear her. She said, as if seeing something in the glare of a bare bulb, we need new words. I asked if she meant words like love for the planet and care for one another.  She nodded, but we both think of words pretty easily, and nothing had been answered by that. But she took off her mask and willingly let go of familiar, empowering language, and she looked into that empty space where the work needs to be done. She was willing to unmask and look at it. An act of language and an act of love.

And last week I had a long talk over coffee with another friend, a painter, a person as gentle as grass and as resilient as stone. The whole question of What Do We Do Now came up, and he asked how we escape feeling inadequate in these days. My other friend had just showed me the power of showing her face, of being present. I guess we need to Practice adequacy as people and Artists: do the work in front of us to do. That work is probably going to be dire, difficult, and absolutely essential.

Not knowing What To Do signifies Attention, not inadequacy. As a teacher I love suggests, be steadfast, even when it doesn’t feel adequate. Show your face. Your Creative Work is one of your voices. Tomorrow many of us will be gathering, Marching, and speaking up. We have to Act in numbers, as One. But I find I believe in the small daily stuff a lot right now, whether Creativity or Kindness. We need to find the “languages” that let us, and help others, keep going.

 

Shriek and Spit

Yes, 2017 is here, and like some, I’ve been troubled by what exactly I’m doing with this blog in this world. When I gave you my elevator pitch of “being creative in a brimming-over world,” I had little idea what kind of Brimming Over was brewing. I don’t want to be pithy here, and I’m having trouble finding a new, significant way to say it’s time for Artists to make sure they are present, because every act of love, connection, and clarity counts. But if I can start this blog up again, then I think I Mean it.

As poet Elizabeth Alexander wrote for another Inauguration Day eight years ago:

“In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air,/anything can be made, any sentence begun.”

To get started again, I’m going back to some pure, basic lessons in Creativity I learned from the wisest of the wise. I encountered both these Amazing Creatives by accident, at different times, and was fortunate to witness their work. I don’t know their names, but I think they were both two, maybe three, years old. You thought that “Shriek and Spit” title was some sort of metaphor, didn’t you? Nope.

The first Teacher crossed my path in the central atrium of the Boston Public Library. Four stories high, it was once a cavern that matched the rest of the plain, concrete-is-king-era architecture. It was fine. Now that the big Renovation is complete, and the library around it is badass (but cozy) red and purple, the atrium has become a wonder of soaring simplicity. Suddenly I find it irresistible, but unlike my Wise Teacher in the stroller that day, I didn’t know what to do with it. He/she/they did. (Yeah, I don’t even know.) Right in the middle, and the kid waited for it like the master he/she/they was, out came, through a wide smile, one perfect, Loud, high-pitched, single note of air-slicing shriek. And it flew upward and echoed like the work of art it was. The kid knew it would, and the little face glowed with pure joy and smug triumph. Like any artist. Then the stroller-pushing adult said, “Ssshhhhh!” Really.

The second Teacher I met in hot sunshine, while meditating in the middle of Boston with Thich Nhat Hanh (yes, I DID) and several hundred other cross-legged people. A couple in front of me had a wee girl, standing behind them and doing Her Own Thing, oblivious to the mob of silent adults around her. She had realized that if you gather enough saliva, lean over a little, and go carefully, you can release a long, long string of spit that reaches the ground, if you are rather small and a total Master of your Art. I was fascinated. I couldn’t help it. It was great. And I couldn’t help noticing her steady, perfect concentration as she just did the thing she was doing, present to her moment, creating her gleaming thread. Simply enjoying herself, she had gone, naturally and completely, somewhere every adult there was practicing to reach.

It’s important for CPTs to remember that Creativity can burst or flow out of simple moments of openness and attention, and right now, every moment like that counts. So whether it’s mouths, hands, or whole bodies, keyboards, canvasses, cameras, kitchens, kilns, stages or streets…shriek, spit, and speak!

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