Agency work

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In a washed-out pasta sauce jar on our kitchen counter, I watch as a monarch caterpillar morphs into a chrysalis. I stand here in utter astonishment, refusing to blink for fear of missing a single second. When it’s all over, what had once been a caterpillar is now a self-contained, lime-green, acorn-shaped encasement hanging from a single silken thread. The whole process leaves me speechless and yet I’m moved to write about this mysterious, almost magical event, a literal encapsulation of one of nature’s finest feats, a miracle that in six decades on this planet I’d yet to witness with my own eyes.

But first I have to make sure that I’m spelling chrysalis correctly and so I quickly grab my phone to double-check and while I’m there I’m invited by the device to view photos I’d taken five years earlier. How can I resist, what with that one tantalizing photo icon of a shimmering sunset on Little Traverse Bay offered as a teaser?

So I find myself accepting the invitation to go down that memory lane and while there I get an urgent warning from my phone that my Google Drive is running dangerously low, that a number of my phone’s key functions will fail to operate properly unless I purchase additional memory.

By this point I’m frankly trying to remember what it was that I was doing before all this photo-teasing and fear-mongering began.

Our moments and our days and really much of our lives are governed in large measure by the agency we bring to our existence— that volitional energy that’s driven and propelled by our own wants, needs, interests, longings and desires. Yet we find ourselves inundated like never before by ever-expanding, multi-tiered marketing efforts in which time is money and therefore the more of our time that a phone (a site, a social-media post, etc.) is successful in procuring, the weaker our own personal agency becomes.

At the present time it appears that agency is in need of increasing amounts of muscularity if it is to do its job at directing our lives in the manner in which we ourselves choose, so that we’re able to devote our time and attention to activities and purposes that feel meaningful—be it a white paper, a work of art, a community garden, a blog post or a pleasant disposition following a self-permitted nap. Perhaps the muscle that agency needs will only come from resistance. Similar to resistance machines at the gym, we strengthen our agency by resisting the pings, pangs, pops, dazzling distractions and disproportionate warnings delivered by our devices while remaining grounded as much as possible in the real world, with living creatures, the no-legged, two-legged, four-legged and beyond.

In How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, artist, writer and Stanford University professor Jenny Odell offers this:

In the long meantime, as I sit in the deep bowl of the Rose Garden, surrounded by various human and nonhuman bodies, inhabiting a reality interwoven by myriad bodily sensitivities besides my own—indeed, the very boundaries of my own body overcome by the smell of jasmine and just-ripening blackberry—I look down at my phone and wonder if it isn’t its own kind of sensory-deprivation chamber. That tiny, glowing world of metrics cannot compare to this one, which speaks to me instead in breezes, light and shadow, and the unruly, indescribable detail of the real.

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As for muscular agency in the real world, this lovely creature shows me how it’s done. I watch as she clings to the stick that lifts her out of the jar. With unwavering determination she begins to move her wings, tentatively at first and then with fuller motion and momentum. She falls to the ground more than once but continues onward, eventually gaining lift-off in her first few low-altitude flights, then a few more and now full throttle into the neighbor’s yard and then with remarkably insufficient fanfare she’s gone. I’ve been video recording all the while but I eventually come to my senses and put down my phone.

Some memories are better in analog.

A seemingly-purposeless activity

There are times in the studio when I’m able to just let myself play. I’m not intending to produce beautiful art, not freighting the process with the expectation of delivering something frame-worthy. I’m just moving the brush wherever it wants to go and I follow along. Sometimes when I’m working like this I like to experiment, dropping this color into that one just to see how they play together. If I don’t like it, who cares? Why don’t I work like this more often? I ask myself. It feels so energizing, psychologically and even physically, to work in this way, fostering a palpable vitality that I can feel in a physical way, an openness of sorts, that fills me with a delightful sense of possibility. It tends to leave me feeling really happy.

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I was working like this not too long ago, just playing and making marks as the impulse moved me, “taking a line for a walk” as Saul Steinberg once described it. I didn’t produce anything spectacular, though I did experience an undeniable spike in energy along with a solid sense of flow.

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Sometime shortly thereafter, I was in the studio with no particular ideas in mind when this came out:

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And this:

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Many followed:

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It’s a year and a half later and they’re still showing up. I had no idea these were floating around in there and I’d never produced anything that even remotely resembles this work and yet I’m convinced that it was that initial playing around practice that loosened them up.

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Dr. Stuart Brown, founder of The National Institute of Play, suggests that humans are hard-wired for play and that we foreclose on this seemingly-purposeless activity at our own peril. In his 2007 interview with Krista Tippett, Dr. Brown noted:

At least for the last 200,000 years or so, our capacity as a species to adapt, whether we’re in the Arctic or the tropics, the desert or a rain forest, appears to me to be related significantly to our capacity as developing creatures, to play. If you look more closely, you find that the human being is biologically designed to play throughout the life cycle. From my standpoint as a clinician, when one doesn’t play at all or very little in adulthood, there are consequences: rigidities, depression, lack of adaptability, no irony — you know, things that are pretty important, that enable us to cope in a world of many demands.

Too many demands leave two of our natural resources—time and attention— in need of protection. Play, with all its seeming uselessness, can be a useful antidote.

 

When Death Comes

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When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

                                                                ~ Mary Oliver

R.I.P.  …  I miss her already.

 

 

It’s about time

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The Art of Disappearing

When they say Don’t I know you?
say no.

When they invite you to the party
remember what parties are like
before answering.
Someone telling you in a loud voice
they once wrote a poem.
Greasy sausage balls on a paper plate.
Then reply.

If they say We should get together
say why?

It’s not that you don’t love them anymore.
You’re trying to remember something
too important to forget.
Trees. The monastery bell at twilight.
Tell them you have a new project.
It will never be finished.

When someone recognizes you in a grocery store
nod briefly and become a cabbage.
When someone you haven’t seen in ten years
appears at the door,
don’t start singing him all your new songs.
You will never catch up.

Walk around feeling like a leaf.
Know you could tumble any second.
Then decide what to do with your time

~ Naomi Shihab Nye

 

There are 86,400 seconds in each and every day. May the new year bring countless opportunities to spend your time in ways that creatively fuel, nurture, and sustain you, with manageable challenges, ceaseless learning, and abiding delight. Thank you for another year of your readership. It means so much to me.

The sound of silence

 

Being tired of people who come with words, but no speech

I make my way to the snow-covered island.

The wild does not have words.

The pages free of handwriting stretched out on all sides!

I come across the tracks of reindeer in the snow.

Speech but no words.

     ~Tomas Tranströmer

 

Onward

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The trees are showing us how lovely it is to let dead things go.   ~Unknown

The practice of letting go is a challenging one for me and yet the cost of hanging on is undeniable, particularly when I consider the vast amounts of energy and attention that holding on usurps–resources snatched from the coffers of vitality, creativity, and contribution.

Onwardness is a birthright and yet there are attachments that make forward movement difficult if not impossible. Some of these attachments are small. My phone, for example. If I bring my phone into the studio (or anywhere, really), my ability to harness fuller attention is compromised, even when the phone is turned face-down and with all audible signals turned off or even when it’s moved out-of-sight altogether. The mere presence of the device, it turns out, puts me in continuous-partial-attention mode, the opposite of embodied wakefulness and presence and all the concentrated benefits that state can bring.

Other attachments feel much bigger. My loved ones’ health and well-being. The future of our planet. Tomorrow’s election results. Yet the sane, sober refuge is always the same–do what I can, all I can, and then let go, orienting myself, my energy, my fullest attention along with my hope in the direction of what’s ahead.

Unnecessary limits

Overheard on a flight from L.A. to Chicago, an exchange between a young mom and dad and their very young son who sat between them:

Mom (to dad): It’s late. I’m going to get him into his pajamas.
Dad: He can put on his own pajamas. He’s a big boy.
Son: I can put on my own pajamas. I’m a big boy.

(Pause)

Son: I can put on my own pajamas. I’m a Jedi.

It was mid-August when John came home and announced that he’d found the perfect spot for The Well Within Workshop, a storefront in an old building in downtown Batavia, a city 6 miles west of our home. Though the structure “needed a little work,” he proposed that we buy the building.

But we’re not “buy-the-building” type of people was my first thought, and a curious one at that. After all, what constitutes a “buy-the-building” type of person?

I’m not sure The Well Within Workshop needs 1500-square-feet came soon thereafter. What was I thinking? If I was to allow my vision for the workshop to be as big as it needed to be, with working studio space and a reading library and utility sinks and a lounge area, wouldn’t it need every inch of 1500-square-feet?

The trifecta of no came during our walk through the building. Despite its beautiful bones and 116-year-long history, it became undeniably clear that nothing short of a complete top-to-basement overhaul would save this place.

As I turn to my husband to ask him whether he’d gone out of his mind, he turns to me and he’s radiant. Beaming from ear-to-ear, he declares, “Isn’t it great?!!”

.     .     .

Creativity is great. Whether it’s a renovation project, a painting, a sculpture or a workshop, you dive headlong into the deep unknown, having no idea what you’re getting into or how it’s all going to unfold. You come up against your edges and your limits again and again. Yet in spite of the cacophony of resistance that’s urging you to stop, you don’t.

My own next edge comes on August 28 when I present to the Batavia City Council The Well Within Workshop as a creative space where, using simple materials and simple strategies, folks can come home to themselves by learning to tap their own well within. I’ll underscore the proven health and well-being benefits available to anyone who learns how to invoke that force built into all of us through millions of years of evolution, a force that allows us to discover our most essential selves, to be healthier, whole human beings in mind, body, and spirit.

May the force be with you.

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