In my early 20s, I went through a major Henry James phase. One of my favorite stories—the one that has stuck with me all this time—is, “The Beast in the Jungle.” Maybe you know it. The main character spends his whole life certain that an unnamed evil is waiting out there for him. Something horrible is going to happen; he can feel it. He waits and worries and abstains from engaging with life, trying desperately to stay safe, to avoid this fate. At the very end of his life, he realizes that the catastrophe he feared is, literally, nothing. Nothing has ever happened to him. He has never lived; he refused the love of a good woman and squandered his one, precious life.
Most days, I wake up feeling uneasy, like something is wrong and it’s probably my fault. One recent morning I caught myself and thought of how many days I open my eyes and feel this mild dread. It’s like all the fears and failures, doubts and embarrassment, so carefully packaged and hidden during the previous day, grow restless in the night and surface with the new day. Where else are they to go? They don’t seem willing to stay stuffed down by my oppressively optimistic self. The list-maker. The implementer who stays busy to stave off anxiety. The do-er desperate to avoid an end-of-life realization like Henry James’ unfortunate character. Continue reading
“Man, sometimes it takes you a long time to sound like yourself.” ~ Miles Davis
I know I’m a rank novice when it comes to stillness and listening to the small voice within. I’ve been experimenting long enough that I am familiar with what works for me, whether it’s journaling or yoga or piano or walking in the woods or even mundane activities done with mindfulness. Yet it’s all too easy to be pulled away, to sink back into the muck of the modern world around me, with its incessant noise and technology and blather, its crises and escapism.
This is all an easy excuse, of course. I’ve been away from this blog too much lately, and I’m out of sorts. One of my ways of cultivating the timeless and nourishing energies of creation is to write, to polish a bit and release the results into the world. With regular practice, this becomes second nature. I can count on something pouring forth or trickling in, depending on the quality of my attention. When I allow myself to go completely off the rails, I lose that flow and close up. It becomes a chore to receive gifts that were once freely offered. This toggling back and forth can be exhausting. Continue reading
Why don’t we go to the American Visionary Art Museum more often? It’s so full of energy and inspiration. The artist biographies alone contain worlds: stories of modest lives, of strange and average families, of being marginalized or anonymous or defying odds. And the art! Inspiration, desperation, madness, direct divine download, obsessive detail, love, beauty and hope. The human condition and human potential laid bare—and then bedazzled with mirror fragments, ceramics, jewels, beads, day-glo paint, and silver balloons. The whole messy reality of life as an embodied human.
AVAM is a funhouse of play and whimsy and joy-in-the-face-of . . . . I used to naively believe that such playfulness and inspired creativity was the reserve of a select few Chosen, and that they get to shine more brightly and be more loved than the rest of us. Of course, such artists experience the other extremes of despair, darkness, and depression more acutely too. There is no free lunch. Continue reading
I’m shocked that in this day and age you’re actually advising people to send their kids outside. Continue reading
Tomorrow we will debut a new feature on the blog, called “Ask Edith.” I don’t think Edith would mind if I told you I was a bit skeptical when she first approached me. Sure, she’s credentialed* to give advice, but during each of our seven coffee meetings to kick around this idea, I detected an edge. Also, she had given me four references, but one never returned my calls, one was ambivalent, and two were unable—or unwilling— to speak to her qualifications (her kindergarten teacher and a distant cousin).
You would be justified in wondering why, then, I chose to give her this platform. The reason is simple. We live in uncertain, alienating, divisive, and confusing times. People have questions and Edith has answers. The emails with these questions have been piling up in my inbox. It doesn’t take much imagination to recognize that Edith was “sent” to me via some unknowable universal force of attraction. Who am I to stand in the way of that? Continue reading
We always have the choice to choose joy and love over resentment and misery. I’ve had two great reminders of this recently. Michel Martin’s editorial on NPR makes the case for rejoicing rather than lamenting opportunities for activism. And Liz Gilbert, in Big Magic, echoes with her challenge to the cult of anguish that hangs over creativity. Martin asks why so many people who offer themselves up for leadership these days do it with an air of “Why me?” Then she holds up the example of inventors:
“When do you ever hear people say, ‘Why didn’t somebody else invent the airplane, the smart phone, solar panels, the tea infuser, for heaven’s sake, so I didn’t have to?’ We even have commercials featuring the tiny garages and attics where supposedly this inventing took place. We understand that discovery is a joy that can feel like a physical sensation.”
Under the tyranny of the Old Story of Separation, “No pain, no gain” is infused into everything we value most. War metaphors may be the currency of our culture, but I wonder if our allegiance to struggle and competitiveness is thinning what could be a much-needed flood of creativity into more of a trickle. Martin again: Continue reading
I self-medicate by making art. When I mentioned this recently to an artist friend, she responded that making art stresses her out. Her work isn’t up to her standards. And isn’t that the game we are all playing? My Muse inspires me, drives me to create. I try my best with the materials and skills at hand to give material form to that inner stirring, to share that non-material vision / impression / idea. Its only chance of being seen, of touching others, is to emerge through my hands into the light of day.
And it never—and I do mean never, ever—comes out the way it shimmers in my imagination. On rare occasions, it may surprise me with being far better. Or delight me in some unexpected way. It’s like doing Improv with myself: I make a move on the paper; I catch myself off guard; I respond with “yes-and,” and make my next move. Eventually, a scene evolves. Continue reading
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. Continue reading
I am fascinated by the power of story to sell or derail an idea. Sometimes I think of storytelling, that ancient and most connecting of arts, like The Force in “Star Wars.” Story can be used for good or for evil. Even with good intentions, it tends to be used as mindless entertainment, or for selling products or launching a mission-driven campaign. A fine example of the Dark Side of Story is found in the documentary, “Merchants of Doubt,” which jumps off from the 2010 book of the same name by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway.
These are the players who sow doubt in the public’s mind about the credibility or consensus of the scientific community around a specific topic. They do this to stall or scuttle environmental and health regulations. They started with tobacco, then moved on to toxic chemicals like flame retardants, and now are using the same proven techniques on climate change. The film employs imagery in creative ways. A sleight-of-hand magician demonstrates misdirection and murky banks of hidden files signify the “playbook” of confusion and lies. Archival footage of experts is intercut with contemporary interviews of the same people, to dramatize the passage of decades, the sweep of lives dedicated either to scientific study or to its obfuscation. Continue reading
“Logic only gives man what he needs… Magic gives him what he wants.” ~ Tom Robbins
When you steep a while in the world of Story, everything starts to seem a little less “real.” The line between fact and fiction becomes blurred. Even when I work with clients, their businesses and buildings can feel a bit staged, like a game we are all playing. I am aware that few—if any—of them see it that way, so I’m careful about what I say. The truth is, though, that I’ve always had a rather loose hold on reality, feeling more at home in a world of fantasy and imagination than in the hyper-competitive, fast-paced, dog-eat-dog world out there.
This may account for my proficiency at writing proposals and designing buildings. I can cast forward and imagine the shining whole, complete and beautiful. It’s the in-between stages that are more of a slog, with their constraints of budgets and code officials and physics. Slogging is what I was taught—what we were all taught—about turning ideas into reality. In recent years, I’ve been encountering and learning about other ways to do it, ways that reach me on an intuitive level but that mostly elude me on a practical level. These are ancient ways of relating to the world and tapping our human faculties that we moderns can learn even today. Continue reading