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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Safety in Numbers

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I will be writing posts again very soon, but for now, I will borrow words from the mighty Toni Morrison:

“This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair…no need for silence…We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.”

Here’s to creative ways to stand up, resist, express, support, interrogate ourselves, grow, and love.

Stay strong and together, CPT and CFT cousins everywhere. Peace.

That’s it, You’re Grounded

rain

As my Kind Readers know, my good CPT habits have been challenged lately. I’ve been roughing it in Rough Draft Country, where the white noise in my head has been falling steadily into waist-deep snow between me and any finished piece of writing. That’s something stress does, because I’m one of those people who mentally chews on it, which leaves me wearily stranded far away from my better habits. But sometimes our own Deeper Currents float us back towards our Creative Selves, and I recently bumped into a shore.

I had some time to spend between a meeting and teaching, so I went to a downtown coffeehouse I hadn’t visited in a while. Finding an armchair free, I took out a lined pad I hadn’t used all summer to do some class prep, and a couple of folded sheets slipped out. One contained some writing done in the spring, months before, the last time I sat in that particular coffee place, tucked away and forgotten. Yeah, I know, but it did happen. I had noted The Cure song playing that day, taking me back to college-adjacent years:

However far away
I will always love you
However long I stay
I will always love you
Whatever words I say
I will always love you

I wrote that his sweetish, melancholy rasp blended perfectly with gray steel, warm smells, and the wide plate-glass view of Boston rain falling on a worn side street.

I read it with strange pleasure those months later, on another rainy day, looking at the same view. Bruce was inviting me to The Rising in the background, and that indeed fit the moment. Yeah, I know. An almost uncomfortable feeling of comfort settled on me, and I felt grounded, with a foothold again in my Working CPT self, swept by rain and habit into this déjà vu. You have whatever sparks you, and for me, an unexpected connection works like champagne bubbles up the nose: sudden, itchy, delightful. A forgotten creative day suddenly falls into another and lands on the same floor. I get a flash of Why it would be Awesome to teach Jane Eyre, Their Eyes Were Watching God, and The Haunting of Hill House in the same course: whoa! I meet a  gentle, aura-exuding organist at the church where I work, and suddenly there’s Sherlock Holmes explaining that his new client is NOT a typist as he first thought because of the shape of her fingers; she has an ethereal look, so she must be a musician. And I just met the lady. I realize I can blog about my morning walks framed by a French Buddhist monk’s photography in Asia.

When these connections hit me, I feel obliged to and pressured by my own working mind, but that one in the coffeehouse was soothing and asked nothing back. The CPT Me felt fairly present, as it slipped out of hiding in an embarrassingly clichéd way. But there it is. Yeah, I know, but a CPT can sometimes use a Little Pat on the back from herself, a little reassurance in a brimming-over world.

First Love

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I clearly remember my First Time, and it was with someone very special. I always have and always will love him. It was a stormy summer night, outdoors in a park, and we got rained out halfway through.

I’m talking about Theater, Darlings. My first real Major Playwright relationship was with Edward Albee, and we’ve been at it since 1982. And when I say “at it,” I mean he was writing, being a Towering Pillar, winning Tony and Pulitzer awards. And I was adoring him, reading him, watching him, among others, working backstage (creatively) part time, and coming to love his and all related art forms.

The thing I can tell you that all the recent articles and obituaries could not is how lucky I am to have someone like this writer come early into my creative (part-time) life. That play in the rainy park, and I did get to see it whole and dry on another night, was my first experience with live, non-musical American Drama. It was The Ballad of the Sad Café, based on the short story by Carson McCullers. I was fifteen, a novice without context and with a blown mind. I learned from him that the Uncanny is where Humanity is, not just with Victorian people on darkened moors. He taught me the huge, truthful power of the utter Absurdity of Us, and the possibilities of a wide-open imagination. He still reminds me that language is a precision tool, an echo chamber, and an animal howl, All at the same time. I met Beckett, Brecht, Sartre, Marina Carr, August Wilson, and probably even Salvador Dali, holding his hand. He touches my shoulder with a finger when I write, gently directing me away from what I think other people will understand and accept easily. His first lesson, that writing for the theater is writing for the THEATER, not WRITING for the theater…well, I seem to have annoyed a lot of people in academia with that one, but I hold up my little banner and always will.

Rest in peace, Edward, and thank you.  I’m glad you’re the one I met at the door because it made me want to stay, and it’s a fabulous party.

(BTW, my First Love that I actually knew personally is in the picture. Theater’s so great.)

Morris Dancing

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“Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”

Nineteenth-century artist and designer William Morris summed up a lot of his Life’s Work with this excellent piece of advice that has been steering me forward. The part of my brain that stores and puts together words has seemed  interested lately in trying out the No-Time Creative life.  My writing went the route of the Massachusetts drought, so I’ve been obsessively exploring anything creative that makes me feel woken up. (I know, I know. Write. Anyway. I’ve been stressed. I’m human.) I denuded the Boston Public Library of their style books on the funky blogger/found objects/simple living end of the spectrum. They taught me about color, scale, scaling back, and about my own style, which seems to involve boho peaks that flow easily into Zen-simple troughs and back again.

By the way, there are wonderful books and blogs out there! It delighted me to spot the same room in two books, once in a chapter on spare, clean-lined bohemian style and once in a book that describes the room as “maxed out.” Isn’t that great? Dear homeowners Emily and Adam: your driftwood lighting fixture rocks my soul. Can I hang out with you?

The thing is, I live in a Fairly Tiny apartment. Not the tiniest, but small enough to make the Tiny House lifestyle a good way to go. So, in trying to be at least creative with my hands, and hoping for a new atmosphere that would coax my Word Brain out of hiding, I took on Mr. Morris and his advice. Was everything around me where I live and mostly write useful and/or beautiful? Yeah, stop laughing. The question invited me to look at things I don’t even usually see anymore, and that felt Creative, especially exploring What I Find Beautiful.

It became clear that I possess much that has neither of those qualities.  And a lot of the non-beautiful is stuff of which I DO have beautiful examples. Too many coffee mugs, Dear Ones. Too many stones, shells, odd bits of furniture, plates, old clothes…the list goes on. I enjoy thrifting and beach-combing, but it’s good to practice Morris dancing, too. At the risk of this post becoming How I Edited My Mug Collection to Avoid Writing, I want to share how surprised I was by the clutter I just let become part of my habitat. It was enjoyable to pack mugs away for the charity shop. It was an aesthetic experience to dump a bowl of shells onto a towel and look at each of them, understanding what I find really beautiful, and putting only those back. The bowl is now something I see again. In the dull, stressed, humid world of this August, that’s something I appreciate.

I’ve been looking at many photos of tiny houses, small spaces, funky decor, and Zen as Habitat Principle, seeking the levels that make me feel at ease. What is the balance of simplicity/spaciousness and bohemian verve that welcomes a quiet spirit trying to have a productive CPT Life, but also welcomes a blue and purple, open-mouthed fish sculpture? The style authors and bloggers who say that one’s environment is a Work in Progress, thus setting it firmly into the Realm of Practice, make me smile. It’s been a creative, useful experience, and I recommend it for new perspectives and new inspiration. And anyone who can give me a lift to the thrift store with all this stuff, lunch is on me.

 

Hey-la-di-la, my blog is back.

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Hello. I’m back. I haven’t posted in recent weeks, and I also haven’t

  • gone on vacation, pilgrimage, or silent retreat.
  • faked a plunge down a waterfall with my archenemy in my grasp, and then traveled in disguise while my dear Watson thought I was, um, done for.
  • entered a peaceful writers’ colony somewhere mountainous or ocean-adjacent.

What I have done is Live Out a particular aspect of being a Creative Part-Timer, and now I’m going to blog about it, which is awfully convenient for me.

A couple of weeks ago, I was out in picturesque Waltham, MA, where I visited the wonderful More Than Words Bookstore and Cafe, where they do good community work with young people, and where I bought a used copy of Take Ten: New 10-Minute Plays, edited by Eric Lane and Nina Shengold. Short plays have long interested me as an art form, partly because I’ve been lucky enough to see so many good ones, and partly because, unlike full-length plays, they don’t Terrify me as a writer. My contributions to theater have been mostly backstage, but several years ago I drafted some plays under the influence of that delicious drama-feast of Shorties that is the annual Boston Theater Marathon. Then I heard me just spinning my wheels, didn’t like the sound, and drifted away. I do that.

I read my new book straight through, play after play, with no performances to take my attention from Exactly What the writers were Doing. Turns out it was an excellent way to absorb the pure craft. Mind you, reading plays can give you the how-to’s, but that’s not the whole enchilada . You truly know plays by watching them, just as you know people by being with them, not just by looking through their clothes closet. Sure, you get an impression of who they could be, but you’ve never actually met them. The craft I cracked while reading these experienced people was how to write a play For Performance, not for Good Writing. That’s a shift I had to make, and it helped mightily that I am a seasoned, loving theater audience. Just saying.

I took out my drafts from years ago and got excited because they aren’t bad at all. I need to chill out as the wright and ask them to do a lot less. And I need to make my characters stop talking like me when I teach, saying everything 1 ½ times to make sure it gets across. Actors’ job, getting things across.  So I made marks and notes. I revised and wrote new bits. And I forgot all about you, Kindly Readers of the blog. That’s the CPT experience, emphasis on Part-Time, that I’m back to comment on.

As usual, I had only so much time to write, and I used it on those plays, which left me focused and full of joy. “Honey, love the one you’re with” is a credible working philosophy. Yet I didn’t write other things that sat patiently waiting, including the blog and my “Daily Grind” work. That bothered me, but I quickly acclimated to feeling bad about them. I do that.  I did not sacrifice pleasure-reading, Jeopardy, or wasting time to create more time to Be Creative. And there it is, the best of CPT and the worst of CPT: everything I accomplished tumbling into the abyss of what I did not write, and all the unwritten blog posts spilling out in a few play characters suddenly alive and speaking. Now that I have the blog, a binder full of poem drafts, notes for two big projects, AND four plays in progress, what choices am I going to make about what gets how much time? Same or different? What will I learn about being a CPT and an artist from those choices?

 

 

An Ordinary Post on Creativity

Rose 1

 

College instructors’ mental abilities often wither after spring semester like drought-stricken leaves. Mine took a long time to sprout again, a possible sign of burn-out, as is the smoke coming from my eyeballs. I have been writing, sort of, although stopping teaching suddenly freed up time to be tired, detached, and uninspired. It was easier to write when the alternative was urgent lesson plans or grading? Writing got harder when there was more free time, and the alternatives were a novel or a nap? That should not be true, but Alas.

Yes, Gertrude Stein did say that geniuses have to sit around a lot doing nothing. Yes, I quoted her in my other post. But I believe when she said “really doing nothing,” she meant Really Doing Nothing, not watching The Big Bang Theory re-runs. And yes, a major shift in routine can throw off a person’s…routines. I found it hard to regroup, and I think it’s because my CPT identity and my writing had become so important this spring. Art and my spiritual practice were the “special” parts of my day. That Special, separate status I gave them is what the late Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki would call “a mistake.”

Sometimes I have good reading instincts. (Sometimes I claim the Boston Public Library’s Copley Square branch is sentient, cares about me, and makes sure I land on the books I need. If you’ve spent time in that building, don’t tell me you don’t believe it.) I felt urged to read, at the same time, Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind and Natalie Goldberg’s memoir about waking up as a writer and Buddhist, Long Quiet Highway, especially when I learned his lecture collection inspired the format of her first book. So I’ve just read them together, and the thing they emphasize about the practices they teach, Zen and writing, is that both are immensely Ordinary. Apparently I needed to hear that good and loud.

The habit of treating Creative Work as Special creates weird pressure, and it’s where the excuses spring up: I’m too tired, too depleted, not focused enough, not talented enough to Do It Right today. That’s been my recent experience. While confessing their own struggles, SS and NG reminded me, just do what you do. He said when you sit to meditate, Just Sit, with things as they are, without trying to attain or fix anything. She said, write to Be Writing, if you ever want to write. Both are ordinary practices, like washing dishes or earning a living, not glorious quests for which you need to be sanctified.

Simple, yet not simple when tangled in my own CPT thinking. Oh, I want my Art to be special; after all, I sacrifice to make time for it, and it’s Who I Am. I don’t want it to be unbrilliant, unproductive, not as good as other people’s….Whoa. Stop. The sound overhead is the Ego, tap dancing at full speed on a concrete floor. Hey, people are trying to write down here!

I trust SS and NG to know, but I could have read a hundred books. Until I experienced the reality of what they said, it was going to mean nothing. Being quiet with my own dilemma, I Experienced It. I have to practice the ordinary every day anyway, breathing, walking, and brushing my teeth as I do. I’m never too uninspired to pee. Writing does not need to be Carved Out of the ordinary day, but Added In to the ordinary day. Start with that perspective, and do your practice.

Poet Jane Hirshfield once asked, in a documentary about Buddha, what could be MORE miraculous than coffee in a blue mug. All things are ordinary and equally extraordinary, the secret prize in this cereal box of realigned understanding. Writing is ordinary, and my hands make these marks that signify my thoughts almost before I think. Wow. And as I drink morning coffee, every leaf on the tree ripples silently in a breeze that my skin feels as cool while my mouth holds milky heat. Across the room, little round things I shoved into wet dirt have sprouted live green things reaching for the light. On my walk this morning, the eyes of a mottled rabbit watched me as its jaws worked side to side. And people with their loves and hurts and talents walked through my vision….And here we are in Life… Extraordinary.

How many babies are born each day? What an ordinary event, really. This post is dedicated with awe and love to the Extraordinary Rose Esther N.