Yeah, I was Inspired by a Book Again

Tenant

We’ve had major “stay in with a book” weather in New England, so I just re-read Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.  She impresses me more and more and that’s sad, because she only wrote two novels.  Death be not proud, suggested another writer, and I second that.

The post, though, is really about the Preface to the Second Edition. I’d like to quote some of it because I was moved by the way it echoed from the 1840s into today.

…I wished to tell the truth…But as the priceless treasure too frequently hides at the bottom of a well, it needs some courage to dive for it, especially as he that does so will be likely to incur more scorn…for the mud and water in which he has ventured to plunge, than thanks for the jewel he procures; as, in like manner, she who undertakes the cleansing of a careless bachelor’s apartment will be liable to more abuse for the dust she raises, than commendation for the clearance she effects.

“Acton Bell,” Bronte’s pen name, depicted a society of childish adults, bullies without inner resources or self-restraint. Not that you’d need those qualities back then if you were a wealthy landed gent with no natural predators. Or if you were a movie producer, or an ill-coiffed business tycoon with a red cap. Wait. Did I just mix things up? What we were talking about? Oh, a society that produced and valued this sort of thing, that criticized someone more marginalized for speaking up about it.

As the story of ‘Agnes Grey’ was accused of extravagant over-colouring in those very parts that were carefully copied from life… so, in the present work, I find myself censured…O Reader! if there were less of this delicate concealment of facts—this whispering ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace—there would be less sin and misery…

That last sentence laid me out flat: With the privilege of a white-skinned/cis/nondisabled/hetero/American-born citizen, I often get to whisper “Peace” at will, both in Life and Creatively.

Some accused Bronte of indulging in the “coarse” and “brutal.”  They were probably extra-shocked that the journal of a female character records that coarse brutality. Helen Graham struggles to protect herself from oppression and abuse, but it still becomes her story because she writes it down. In Bronte’s novel, Graham and her journal survive by acting against the conventions of society. Other emptier, seemingly more powerful people disintegrate from the inside out. Creative check-mate. Food for thought.

 

(For Ali Smith and Ijeoma Oluo.)

 

Advertisements

A Weird One

Freaks

 

Sarah Knight’s first two books have in their Creative titles what we kids growing up in Rhode Island used to call “sweeaahs.”  The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*ck and Get Your Sh*t Together are two reasons I have foreseen a better life, hurt myself laughing, and gracefully (almost) created time to write this post.

Her third is You Do You. It’s about crossing the street when conventional “wisdom” appears, productive ways to break rules, and how to Do Weird with kindness to yourself and others. And knowing that’s all OK. It’s Creative Living for the Unconventional at its finest. And lots of sweeaahs.

She affirms the power of embracing your Weirdness. Weird is Creative as well as empowering, as I’m sure she’d agree. So I began to ponder the Big Three, and here are some things Creative, Weird, and OK with me:

  • That there is a shade of red paint called Baked Beans. That my cousin had her bathroom done in it, and then added a gold-painted tub. Can’t wait to soak.
  • The co-worker whose response to a busking Beatles cover band in a city square was to hold out his arms and skip-spin in a widening circle. I was humbled to think such a person liked me.
  • All that embroidered, powdered, wigged, short-trousered frippery that men wore in the 18th century? I find it…hot. A double C/W/OK for clothes and me!
  • Soy milk, frozen blueberry, peanut butter smoothies. A risk that paid off.
  • Edgar Allan Poe. My man.
  • The 1960s haute couture muumuu. It was a thing. It had Presence.
  • The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Like I was leaving This out.
  • The Bro Hosts of Ghost Adventures on the Travel Channel. They wear night-vision glasses in haunted places even though the camera lights are on. They record ghost voices. They are where old B movie style meets yelling “Dude!” at the Dead. Love. Them.
  • Students of mine practicing Thesaurus use describe a hypothetical sky as “amaranthine-azure” and “peach-cerulean.”
  • Queens. Great Britain: Rock ALL the hats, Your Majesty. Drag: Icons of Creative and OK, and Weird if they wanna be. Ellery: Creative. Weird. OK.
  • The word “hoolet,” an archaic name for a baby owl, in a child’s rhyme quoted by author John Hanson Mitchell, who is C and OK, but may not be W. Students rapidly tiring of being addressed as My Hoolets.
  • The old-timey actual advice to “pump…chopped feathers and hot molasses into a worn tire to extend its life.” Described as “Messy in case of a blowout.” I kid you not.
  • Solving crime while never leaving your brownstone where you keep 10,000 orchids, and the whole Great Tradition of Great, Weird Detectives.

Some things that are C and W but most definitely NOT OK with me:

  • Putting pitted black olives on your fingertips.
  • Wax museums.
  • The 18th-century recipe that enthusiastically explains how to cook and serve a chicken…while it’s still alive. The sound effects are apparently to be savored. Oh, my fascinating, gorgeous, disturbingly unrestrained favorite century, I will never, Ever get over reading this.

Please feel free to fly your own freak flag in the comments. Love to know your C/W/OK or Not OK list entries!

And thanks to the staff of Boomerangs (Jamaica Plain location), the thrift store that supports AIDS Action, for letting me photograph their sign.

 

 

Unrest

Unrest

An intelligent-looking, attractive young woman goes upstairs in her home. She looks fine, but she crawls up on her hands and knees without even the energy for bodily rhythm.  Watching her feels like a terrible invasion of someone’s vulnerability, but she’s the filmmaker responsible for the scene, Jennifer Brea. Her documentary is called Unrest.

Shown at film festivals and on PBS stations, it’s available online and on Netflix.

Brea has ME, the worst illness you may not know about, Myalgic Encephalomyelitis. Perhaps triggered by a virus, it’s chronic: inflamed brain, immunodeficiency, impaired cognitive function, a screwed-up nervous system, a screwed-up every system. A dire inability to make physical effort, if it can be made at all, without disabling consequences. It’s not understood, and there’s no reliable treatment. Some don’t believe it’s real.

One of the photographed faces you can glimpse in the film is my cousin’s.

But this post is about Brea’s Creativity, not her illness. Her film is bold, even harsh, in its depiction of people with ME, while being very tender to them, and offering portraits of full human beings. The illness controls everything, but they are still far more than their ME. Although she cannot see this topic from the outside, being literally dragged down by it herself, her Vision as a film artist stands firm.

There is startling Creativity in how folks articulate the bizarre experience of losing their lives while still being alive to witness the loss, to paraphrase one person. It’s also in the ways they fill the empty space where their lives used to be. A short walk in nature becomes a pilgrimage, or floating in a pool becomes an act of poetry and freedom.

They speak and make posters for rallies and sing and write as they can, as acts of resistance and education, as well as of creativity. Brea sometimes treats ME almost as a realm of possibility, and that’s brave Art.  And while they do, they’re always afraid of losing even more, of collapsing in a public place as she does, of having their lives depend on medical personnel who don’t believe in or can’t care for their sick bodies.

Brea’s film mixes shocking information with moments of hope and certainly of love. It’s a balanced film meal: you may not want to swallow it, but you can digest it.

Unrest‘s ability to pull viewers into the experience of folks with ME may revolt you. It’s not easy. But your heart might open and shift along a new fault line, and make you glad it did. That’s the hard part of engaging with other people’s Creativity, or even with our own. But we do it, don’t we?

The image that doesn’t leave me is of a body that looks full of youth and sinewy strength, moving upstairs like a hundred-year-old tortoise. It doesn’t look right. It doesn’t make visual sense, like medieval peasants in movies who all have perfect white teeth. Even after many years, my cousin’s illness still surprises me, throws me, with its endless shifting surrealism. Some days the clock tells time, and some days it hangs limply over a branch in ways I struggle to process.  She’ll like the Dali metaphor, I think, because she’s a person who studied and loves and used to work in art. She may never visit a museum again, but I hope she will with all my heart.

Talk about being a CPT: Jennifer Brea got this film made, and I recommend it as one tough, compassionate act of Creativity.

Please visit https://www.unrest.film/.

OK

keats

Well, Hi.

It’s been a strange experience the last six months to write only for the Good People who pay me to do it, and not at all for me. Or for You, if you’re still out there.

To be frank, some tough stuff took up those months, too, draining body, mind, and spirit. I admire the dedication or grit or whatever it is that people have to Do Art productively while in crisis, but I just may not be that person. Or just not yet.

Know what? It’s OK. Got that? I’m telling you. If you say it’s OK to stop, to do (or not do) what you truly need to do (or not do), then it’s OK. Walk your path. There’s no other option. Disliking yourself for not doing what other people are doing? Not helpful. It’s OK to come back to your work with a beginner’s mind, not even sure what it is anymore, but curious about it and feeling love for it. If you perceive you’re less than the talents you admire, whose work habits you’re not imitating, let go of that. Be right where you are.  If anyone out there is struggling with Art or Life or any combination of those, it’s really OK.

People told me that, and I’m passing it on. While my life was smushed up against the wall it hit, taking my Art with it, I tried to stay connected to Creativity. There are some wise creative folks out there, and I’m thankful they spoke up. The field that lies fallow grows fertile. Just watch over it as if it has value. I tried to.

I’ve been reading Buddhist thought that explores Creativity as acts of slowness and stillness, of body and presence. Not as a willful act of the brain, which a lot of my life has been! These are the seeds I’m going to plant in my field this year.

I also read poet Tony Hoagland’s description of reaching a creative dead end and not writing to produce poetry for two years. He only wrote down bits of “interesting lines and language” in search of his new path. He lay fallow and used the field to play in instead, and he found it. And started to write new.

In her glorious book on creativity and the Slower Life, Christian McEwen explains what she learned from another writer’s experience of looking long and slowly at a painting: “[Marion] Milner’s encounter with Cezanne…taught me to be patient, not to try too hard, taught me, above all, the power of the pause, of receptivity. Suspending one’s judgment, that was the key, learning (that tender phrase, so frequently abused) ‘to take one’s own sweet time.’”

I am happy to have found these gentle teachers when I really needed them, and that’s the view from where I’m sitting. There’s plenty of room, if you want to join me.

Thanks to these Creative People for being there:

John Daido Loori, author of The Zen of Creativity

Christian McEwen, author of World Enough and Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down

Tony Hoagland in The Rag Picker’s Guide to Poetry, edited by Eleanor Wilner and Maurice Manning

Kay Larson, author of Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists, and student of John Daido Loori

And even John Cage, for his footsteps.

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.

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.