Why Not?

Sissinghurst

In one of her books, Natalie Goldberg says a writer writes no matter What, no matter Where. Such as waiting while someone you love is in the ER. Why not write? No surprise if her example inspired…a varied response. Her point, though, is not to put Art ahead of all else, although some artists succeed doing just that. She is trying to describe writing as a practice, like her Zen practice, something one just does every day. I understood that, yet still did not…concede easily. I don’t know if I do now. I do know I’m not wherever she is.

This summer I spent many hours, over several weeks, not writing in a series of uncomfortable chairs in the ER, various hospital rooms, and a rehab facility. And frankly, if I did manage a few words in the cafeteria, I was not caring about this blog. And I do care about this blog. So I’m trying to be compassionately interested in the Not Writing and in the question of Why Not? Only answer so far: after I thought about juggling two jobs, meeting my deadlines, maintaining two households, and which direction I was going on the train between states at that moment, I didn’t want to think anymore. If you want to shout that Creativity doesn’t require Thinking all the time, yeah, I know, I’m working on that. My instinct this time was to power down and preserve any reserves I had left.

Poor instinct. Because, as many people surely do in a crisis, I let go of what most sustains me to do what I had to do. That’s what I did. That’s what happened. I neither offer myself excuses nor ask myself for an apology. Both are useless. What is useful, and skillful, is to learn things from this summer about what I Need and how to Live. And practice.

An image just popped into my head from early 1970s Sesame Street, so if you’re young, Bear With. In his roving reporter role, Kermit The Frog would go interview Don Music as he was composing his latest song. Don was a wild-haired version of the Guy Smiley model. (Oh, look him UP, babies.) High-strung and forever stuck on a rhyme, Don would play notes and taste words thoughtfully before suddenly slamming his head on the keys, with a full neck-swing wind-up, shouting, “I’ll NEVER get it! NEVER!” And we Wee Ones would laugh every time. So I guess I can laugh at myself, too.

Keep playing, practicing, going. Just go. And quote slightly obscure literature to the people! The novelist Vita Sackville-West also wrote a newspaper garden column. She gardened at her home, Sissinghurst bloody Castle, thank you very much. In one column, she wrote, “…I get letters from owners of very small gardens, asking what to do about them… ‘Our plot is the usual commonplace rectangle…but I am resolved not to have a commonplace garden.’…They are restricted as to space, but not restricted in their imaginative ideas. Why, indeed, should anyone have a commonplace garden…Endless variations are possible…Naturally, every garden must be a law unto itself.”

Very Small. Resolved. Not restricted. Not. Restricted. Endless. Possible.

A law unto itself: that last bit is somehow great comfort and a real statement of challenge to our Creativity. Step up, Artists, I want to shout.

Learning from This. And hey, I gave you Muppets and an early 20th-century novelist’s garden writing, right? Not commonplace at all.

*The photo is of Sissinghurst Castle garden in Kent, England.

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So Creative, It’s Scary

elvis skellylicious

The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston’s exhibit of Richard Avedon’s photography focused on his fashion work, with evolving style and glamor over the decades it covered. He used the camera over the years to say many things about humanity, and even these images had his Creative Muscle in them.

We’d just seen the last gallery and were thumbing through the coffee table books on the benches by the exit. The long wall near us contained an unusual photo shoot, with the models posed in an urban, post-apocalyptic world that I remember as windy-looking and trash-strewn. But artfully. The couture, of course, was flawless as they posed together, one model a lovely young woman and the other a skeleton in male attire. She seemed not to notice.

I liked them because they worked well as, and also laughed at, fashion photography. But if I’d been a little kid, I would have run. Petrified of skeletons back then, I would have felt the earth shake beneath as the nice museum betrayed me with this unexpected Terror. The photos brought back that old fear of coming upon skeletons in museums and historic sites. I could laugh in the gallery, but once upon a time, it wasn’t funny.

There was a little girl, about five, in the gallery with us, looking with her adults. She was wearing a pretty little dress, the sort of outfit that makes girls look all sugar and spice. After viewing these images, she walked back to where they started, gathered herself, and began an assertive stomp-march along the wall. Marching with as much attitude as any runway requires, she pointed up dramatically at each photo and declared, “Scary! Scary! Scary! Scary! Scary!” Her tone was 10% outraged complaint and 90% putting these pictures in their damn place. And then her work there was done.

Wasn’t I vindicated. Maybe an Art Critic was born. But also an artist: this was performance, with space, action, and dialogue carefully planned and executed. It was splendid.

I have no conclusion or message to add here. Two expressive people impressed me with their Creativity, one in answer to the other. I think I’m writing about it just to join a Creative conga line I admired. I guess sometimes Inspiration can be the feeling of “I want in on this!” The only thing better than going to spend time with a Creative you know is suddenly meeting a new one while you’re at it.

The image is of Production Design by my Creative Cuz Elvis Strange, of Designing with Strange, Inc. Skellylicious, and used with his permission!

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.

 

 

 

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

dsc04857

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?

dsc04714

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.