In the aftermath of the attacks in Paris, two themes on social media have caught my attention. One goes along the lines that eradication of all evil by violent means is the only possible response to restore safety and normalcy. The other chastises people for identifying with and feeling compassion for Parisians, but ignoring Lebanese, Syrians, and refugees of other ethnicities.
One is dangerously myopic; the other tips too far the other way by insisting that without a worldcentric perspective, your compassion falls woefully short of what is needed right now. I don’t mind having my awareness tweaked. I do object to holier-than-thou snarkiness that judges what I care about. And yet, maybe my discomfort stems from the sudden recognition that I, too, am guilty of looking down on those who don’t share my views or meet my expectations. Continue reading
In her book, Grayson, author Lynne Cox looks back to a March morning in her 17th year when she was out training in the ocean off Santa Cruz. By then she had already swum the English Channel and the Catalina Island channel. Some of her descriptions of the sea life she encounters are mesmerizing. She takes you there: the ache and tingle of the 55-degree Pacific, the glitter of phosphorescent algae in the pre-dawn darkness, the rain of 35-pound tuna leaping to feed on smaller fish, the glory of the sunrise over land.
The story wraps around her encounter with a baby grey whale, a male, 18-feet in length, who has just been separated from his mother. Cox is on her way back to shore after her long workout, looking forward to hot chocolate and a warm croissant when her friend, the bait shop owner, comes to the end of the pier to warn her. If she swims to shore, the baby whale will follow and beach himself, which would be fatal. 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
Yielding is not well regarded these days. To give in to the will of another, to allow oneself to be led in an unknown direction, to withdraw from conflict—these are all seen as signs of weakness in a culture obsessed with leadership and action. This is at odds with the messages I keep getting to slow down and be still. To, as this turtle recently showed me, pull into my shell and wait until it’s time to continue.
I am a student of the I Ching, the ancient Chinese “Book of Changes.” As an outside source of wisdom, it teaches me to trust my own intuition and be more present to the many lessons I can learn just by showing up more authentically in my life. I use it not so much as an oracle, but as a reminder to stay open to situations as they arise. Continue reading
It is perhaps timely that today’s post concerns Shakespeare’s great play, “Hamlet.” It is, after all, a ghost story. The British mythic storyteller Martin Shaw says the stories we most need now are here; they arrived right on schedule, three thousand years ago. “Hamlet” debuted in 1600, a mere 415 years ago, but Shakespeare drew from the much older medieval story of Amleth, which itself may have derived from an Old Icelandic poem.
While I’m fascinated by the impressively diverse sources of Shakespeare’s plays, I’m even more interested in how they are presented to modern audiences. I recently saw a production of my favorite play, “Hamlet,” that revealed far more of the director’s wish to be “relevant” to a modern audience than of the timeless themes and lessons inherent in the play itself. Her loyalty to our current cultural fascinations eclipsed the mythic struggle of the Prince of Denmark to live up to the pledge his father’s ghost forced from him. 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 one of those cautious people who resist speed. I harden up in fear and can’t relax into it, let alone feel the thrill and joy of being on the edge or out of control. I had a flash of insight this morning after a heart-opening yoga class that my problem with speed extends to a wish to stop time from passing so quickly. The correlation drew me in and showed me something surprising.
I had had a late night, one of those unavoidable parenting experiences that at first I resisted. Once I acquiesced, the night was quite revealing. Our 13-year-old son had taken the light rail with a friend downtown, to attend the Orioles game. The O’s (who’ve been in a long downhill slide since July) scored ten runs in the bottom of the eighth inning. That’s two grand slams and a couple more homers just for good measure. All those at-bats take a lot of time. My son’s friend had already fielded his own father’s warning that they must leave after the seventh inning or find another way home. The friend volunteered me; they stayed, and were rewarded with a spectacular homer-fest. 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
In politics and advertising, there’s an old saying: Whoever controls the story, wins. Campaign advisors speak of “framing” a story, of “getting ahead of” stories, “firing the first shot” against their opponent. This appropriation of Story to sell things—whether face cream or a financial bailout or a candidate—is a debasement of the magic and power of storytelling. One favored tactic is to reduce individuals to cartoonish generalizations, as some Presidential candidates are currently doing with immigration.
Michael Moore’s 2009 film about the financial crisis uses just the opposite technique, weaving a story from honest conversations with real people. “Capitalism: a Love Story,” is told in his signature quirky, gloves-off style. In the opening sequence, he intercuts an old classroom film about the Roman Empire with contemporary images of poverty, homelessness, backbreaking labor, and entertainments used to divert the people’s attention from the true state of things. It’s a brilliant commentary not only on how far we have fallen, but on where we might be headed if we don’t take an honest look at the stories we live by. Continue reading
“Acknowledging that the first draft is the equivalent of a sculptor going down to the quarry to buy a big slab of marble, or a mason buying a skid of bricks and 100 pounds of mortar is a very difficult thing to do.” ~ Shawn Coyne
It takes longer to write a novel than to design and build a good-sized building. Something like a church might take three or four years, start to finish. Apartments or a university classroom building maybe two-and-a-half. A house is more like a novella in size, but can take just as long, depending on complexity and how decisive or demanding the client is. A kitchen addition is a short story. It can be done in eight or ten months, give or take.
What is the use of writing a book? A building shelters thousands of people for decades, if not generations. It touches lives. It affects people. Even a bad building—say, a Target or a WalMart—serves a useful purpose. The literary equivalent might be a Nicholas Sparks novel, which is maybe why you see racks of them at stores like that. A few great buildings rise above, delighting us with their artfulness and lasting for hundreds of years. These are lovingly restored from time to time, and contain deep cultural, social and political histories. Continue reading