In the year since starting this blog, I’ve developed an appreciation for the value and joy of creating for its own sake. While I do enjoy interacting with readers, I also benefit from the practice of releasing control of outcomes. This has become a good place for me to keep learning this lesson:
Let yourself be silently drawn
by the strange pull of
what you really love.
It will not lead you astray.
One of the strangest aspects of life on the threshold is discovering that it’s possible to make room for everything—the beauty and the ugliness, joy and despair, action and passivity, compassion and destruction. Maybe this is why I find myself thinking about urban street art, even while immersed in preparations for an upcoming Restorying retreat in the woods of West Virginia.
The contrast could not be more stark between the land that rolls from the ridge of the Appalachian Trail to the Shenandoah River and the gritty London neighborhoods of Spitalfields and Shoreditch where street art flourishes. A wild natural place full of mystery and magic, and a concrete jungle dominated by human-made buildings and sounds. It’s impossible to hear birdsong in such a place, and yet it feels full of life in its own way.
The very contrast suggests a shared core of wildness. Street art is uncivilized, unlawful, out of state control. It does not respect property ownership and starts from the premise that artists have a right, indeed a duty, to splash ugly, blank walls with beauty or wit or scorn. Or questions. Street art rattles our sense of order and control, even as it amuses and delights. It follows no rules or dictums.
Street artists come out at night. They are the court jesters of modern culture, sometimes literally leaping from walls to roofs to escape apprehension by police. Street artist Banksy’s film, “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” shows a tagger out at night, painting sidewalks with the shadows cast by benches under streetlights. It gave me the idea of painting shadows of trees along a street in West Baltimore, where blocks upon blocks are devoid of trees. Shadows cast by ghosts.
It could be argued that a better gesture would be to put that energy into planting actual trees. Setting aside the practical question of who would nurture them as they grew, is it better to make a gesture that gets people thinking on a broad scale or do the obvious thing and put some real trees in the ground? (As one of my mentors would say in answer to a forced binary: yes.)
We rely on artists to poke fun, poke holes, show us that the emperor has no clothes. Art is an entry point, a mediator between people and our environment. It’s a way to wake up, to challenge unconscious assumptions, to rattle complacency, to suggest a way forward. Such art is never strictly entertaining. Once it has gotten our attention, then what? Does it move us to action? Or change?
The process of making art unrolls from individual inspiration into the wider world. Lucy Neal’s just-released book, Playing for Time: Making Art as if the World Mattered,” is stuffed with collaborative arts projects to reimagine the future, to affirm artists as truth tellers and agents of change. The very act of bringing people together in awareness and connection is the foundation of that change.
Artists are the denizens of the in-between, provocatuers of liminal spaces, practitioners of both-and. Still, I have trouble calling myself an artist. Writing regularly simply shows me that I have better days when I begin them by making something. When I bring my imagination to material form—whether writing or painting or music—I feel happier, more alive, more worthy of being here.
Conversely, when I’ve given in to busyness or resistance or others’ expectations of me, when I haven’t written or painted for a while, I feel terrible. Draggy, thick, frustrated, angry even, or jealous of others who do get to pursue regular creative work. I have a deep need for the level of connection that fuels creativity, and the surprise insights that almost always come. I love to be in that flow, tuned in, plugged in to the vital currents of Life.
I go to the forest for the same kind of connection, to encounter other-than-human beings, and to be reminded of my belonging. It is a sublime paradox to discover that we all belong to this earth, even in our ignorance and wasteful destructiveness. Even after believing our culture’s stories of human exceptionalism, of separation, of rights to resources, of control and domination. Even when we worry that there may not be a home to return to if we keep going the way we are. In the forest, all of that falls away. Unexpected things happen.
It’s not all rainbows and unicorns. It is strange to encounter these Others. Humbling. Surprising. It asks a lot of me, to suspend my culturally conditioned skepticism, to tell my overly active rational mind to rest on the sidelines. To be open and vulnerable, to feel awkward and maybe embarrassed. It’s a dangerous business to court change and transformation. The poet Adrienne Rich says it well:
“there is always the risk / of remembering your name.”
I don’t have the luxury or good fortune to live in the woods. I live in a city, along with 622,100 other people. I am part of the 53% of the world population that lives in urban areas. Love or hate them, cities are part of our environment, and they will be part of our future. I’m pleased to see movements to green cities, to transition to low-energy, high resource-efficiency living. Young people are moving into rustbelt cities full of enthusiasm and appreciation for their creative energy and stimulation.
One of the unexamined stories we live with is the false dichotomy between the city and wild nature. Expulsion from paradise is older than Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden. It’s an ancient story that casts humans out of our belonging, forcing us to build cities for shelter and protection from predators, and leaving us feeling unworthy and unredeemable.
This is not an argument or plea to “go back to nature,” eat Paleo, walk barefoot and live in caves—although any one of those activities might have its attractions. I seek only to bring awareness to this story and to shed light on the assumptions that flow from it. The city stands in as the place of reason, of science and technology, of knowledge, human will and intellect, of invention and problem-solving. The forest is cyclical, alive, mysterious, interconnected, wild, unpredictable and uncontrollable. It doesn’t take a genius to see that we need all these energies in our lives. Best if they are in some sort of dynamic and harmonious balance.
Street art and forest retreats. It’s possible to appreciate both, to live in a world that has both. And so I will go to my retreat tomorrow, bringing curiosity and a willingness to tolerate ambiguity and paradox.