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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Favorable conditions

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There was a wonderful old man up in Woodstock, NY, who had a piece of property with these little chicken coop places he would rent out for twenty dollars a year or so to any young person he thought might have a future in the arts. There was no running water, only here and there a well and a pump. He declared he wouldn’t install running water because he didn’t like the class of people it attracted. That is where I did most of my basic reading and work. It was great. I was following my bliss.

~ Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth