Elevated spaces

I pull into one of the few empty parking spots in the lot at the mall and walk with brisk anticipation through the front door of what used to be a Sears department store. The former home of Kenmore appliances and Craftsman tools now welcomes this:

and this:

and this and this and this:

I would’ve loved to have been in that heady room when this brainchild of an exhibition was born, swaddled as it must have been in the sure cloth of unbridled imagination and expansive possibility. 

Bringing 21st century digital technology to this moment of now-palpable hunger for beauty both ancient and enduring wherever it might be found, Michelangelo’s larger-than-life Sistine Chapel frescos have been brought down to eye level in an exhibit scheduled to travel the world, for a moment landing in Oakbrook, Illinois. Some viewers will no doubt find themselves captivated by biblical themes so passionately portrayed. For me, standing in such intimate proximity to these majestic, sometimes haunting figures with their billowing, colorful robes, animated gestures and evocative expressions, to witness this artist’s discerning command of storytelling and darkness and overarching light and to encounter all of this while standing in the same close proximity that Michelangelo himself stood as he created these works, is daunting to describe. I’d studied fine art in Rome as an undergrad and saw many of the most famous works by Michelangelo, da Vinci, Rembrandt and others in what might be considered their proper places, their true homes. This experience was an altogether different kind of immersion. The sheer feat of 5000 sq feet of painting, the painstaking, neck-aching 4-1/2 years to completion, the imaginative reach that propelled this genius’ magnum opus, and in turn the exhibition itself, with the works themselves all so improbably near, felt awesome in every sense of the word. Like being able to reach up into the sky and pull down Orion or Saturn for a closer look.

I caught Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel: The Exhibition on the final day of its Chicago run last month. It’s moved on to L.A., leaving the former Sears store empty once again.

Empty spaces are invitational, aren’t they? Too, works of art on almost any level have the power to elevate a space. It happened here—a place that once carried Craftsman now ascended to house the work of a Master Craftsman. Michelangelo took note of all of those empty, divided spaces in that 60-foot ceiling and allowed himself to imagine how they might be filled. Imagination itself is a space, with a ceiling that can always be raised.

The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short, but in setting our aim to low and achieving our mark. ~Michelangelo

Make your mark.

Why does the simple act of filling tiny squares with yellow ochre, raw umber, moss green, dots and dashes, circles and lines feel so soothing and restorative?

If for only 15 minutes you were to step away from the abstracted worlds of thought and digitalia, to distance yourself from the seemingly-intractable sister habits of go-go/do-do, and instead immerse yourself in the easy practice of mark-making, with lines, shapes and color flowing easily from your pencil, brush or pen, you might experience as I do an incomparable level of engagement, often with a feeling of full presence and inexplicable contentment. 

Mark-making is one of the most accessible portals into that enriching alternate universe known as be here now. While I’ve been fortified for over two decades by an imperfect meditation practice, I find that I can as easily (and sometimes more easily) get “there” via mark-making—not to be confused with “art-making” and all the pressures and stress that the prospect of making art can bring. Lynda Barry invites her students to avoid freighting their own marks with the burden of having to be beautiful, instead recognizing their lines, circles and color splashes as “a record of what your hand did on that day.” 

Making one’s mark has a long, illustrious history and it’s possible that vestiges of this primitive practice continue to deliver their soothing, comforting influence even to this day. In conversation with Krista Tippett, Robert Macfarlane talks about how our prehistoric ancestors would place their palm on the wall of the cave and, with fingers spread wide and with a mouthful of yellow or red ochre, blow the pigment on the back of their hand, leaving what’s known as a ghost print, a signature of sorts that says, “I was here.” 

I’ve often wondered whether it’s from this ancient lineage that our own lines are born. Isn’t it possible that the dashes, dots and lines that show up on the page today are impelled from a kind of primordial wellspring running through the ages and arriving here at the present, through our arms, down to our hands and onto the paper or canvas? The deep comfort, groundedness and connection that many experience from the simple practice of mark-making might be understood as our creative elderhood reaching out via lineage and line to a future that they knew they’d never see, the same as your own marks and lines might offer proof of your presence to those who’ll follow you.

Patagonia ghost print image courtesy of Dreamstime.

Solvitur ambulando

Bauhaus artist Paul Klee famously described his drawing process as “taking a line for a walk.” In all likelihood, he wasn’t referring to walking as so many of us practice it today—fuel-injected, over-committed, hoofing with a pre-determined purpose, a clear destination, running late. Instead, Klee invokes the sauntering, meandering approach made famous by the likes of Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman and Muir, those first-order naturalists who approached walking as an art form in its own right.

In her scholarly, thoroughly lovely World Enough & Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down, professor, poet and author Christian McEwen illuminates the role played by slow, ambulatory movements led by curiosity and fascination in the creative life.  McEwen notes that novelist Willa Cather “worked at her desk all morning, then wandered the woods and trails all afternoon in search of wildflowers. She told one of her friends that she needed ‘almost to dissolve into nature daily in order to be reborn to her task.’”

Ah, where have they gone, the amblers of yesteryear? Where have they gone, those loafing heroes of folksong, those vagabonds who roam from one mill to another and bed down under the stars? ~ Milan Kundera

McEwen offers that walking in this gentle, unencumbered way taps our own innate interconnectedness with the world around us via chronobiology–our body’s entrainment to the ancient, powerful rhythms of the larger universe.

Poet, philosopher and scholar John O’Donohue carries our chronobiological connection to the land ones step further. In Walking in Wonder: Eternal Wisdom for a Modern World, O’Donohue offers that the body is in some primordial way comprised of the same raw material as the landscape itself:

One of the lovely ways to pray is to take your body out into the landscape and to be still in it. Your body is made out of clay, so your body is actually a miniature landscape that has got up from under the earth and is now walking on the normal landscape. If you go out for several hours into a place that is wild, your mind begins to slow down, down, down. What is happening is that the clay of your body is retrieving its own sense of sisterhood with the great clay of the landscape…To put it in a theological way, I feel that the landscape is always at prayer, and its prayer is seamless. It is always enfolded in the presence. It is a high work of imagination, because there is no repetition in a landscape. Every stone, every tree, every field is a different place. When your eye begins to become attentive to this panorama of differentiation, then you realize what a privilege it is to actually be here.

Thoreau was unbridled in promoting the many benefits of his wandering practice. In Walking he writes, “I think I cannot preserve my health and spirits unless I spend four hours a day at least—and it is commonly more than that—sauntering through the woods and fields absolutely free from all worldly engagements.”

We’ve got a number of local trails and forest preserves near my home and, with the spillover from the year we’ve just moved through, I find myself spending increasing amounts of time in these hallowed spaces.  I welcome the feeling of coming back to my senses—metaphorically and literally—that these pristine parcels of earth provide. I enjoy the break from thinking and the ways in which answers to questions I didn’t even know I had present themselves, seemingly all on their own—solvitur ambulanto, Latin for it is solved by walking. There’s something about immersing myself in nature as a whole that can beckon a feeling of wholeness and completeness within myself, of being held and supported. A feeling of coming home.

Are you walking much these days? What about walking without a destination, or your phone? A walk with just your two eyes, two ears, two hands and two feet is an altogether different kind of experience, possibly one worth repeating. 

I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out till sundown; for going out, I found, was really going in. ~John Muir

The majesty of small things

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Hummingbird nest, DuPage County Illinois–held together with sticky threads from spider webs.

Think, for a moment, about the tiny treasures in your home. Is it the aesthetics of these beauties that you like? The stories connected to them? Maybe both? If you wanted to hold one of these finds in your hand right now, where would you find it? Stuck in the back of a drawer or out where you can see it?

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1901 spoon, 4 inches long

 

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Maple seed pods

 

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3 inch tall face, carved into the handle of a hand-crafted broom

Unadorned by deep-pocketed branding campaigns and maybe just sitting there in all their unassumingness, tiny, beautiful things have a way of turning a tabletop into an altar, a corner shelf into a shrine.

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Handcrafted pottery, Petoskey, Michigan, 2.5 inches tall

My own small gems hold history, craftsmanship, and warm imperfection, having come about either through the work of human hands or the determined handiwork of Mother Nature or one of her industrious creatures. I love the way these wee treasures telegraph their own fundamental sense of completeness, as if to say, This is all there is, and it’s enough. 

I find that I’m able to bring a concentrated, saturated type of attention to a two-inch tall forged brass bell, with its scattered spots of tarnish and intricate leaf motif, in a way that’s just not possible with, say, the Taj Mahal, Grand Canyon, or any number of the more expansive splendors. Too, small spots of magnificence— just-opening seedpods, hand-carved broom handles—have a way of inviting any one of us out of the abstracted world of our own over-churned thinking and planting us more deeply right where we are, smack dab in the middle of the here and now.

Circa 1945 5-inch hand-crafted paintbrush
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3-inch glass disk, a gift from a now-longtime friend

How to be what Saul Bellow referred to as a first-class noticer?  Small things can be particularly gratifying to notice, worthy of full, undivided attention and found quite literally everywhere, quietly regal in their presence and often bringing with them, if even for a moment, a welcome, much-needed diversion from whatever it is that’s laying claim to you right now.

Winter’s invitation

Here we are in February, the longest month of the year.

A good-humored, middle-aged client I worked with many years ago, a spirited gentleman who returned to treatment around this time of year for help with seasonal affective disorder, opened each of his weekly February sessions with this pronouncement. As I worked with him through a handful of Februarys, I associate this month with him, along with a few other clients for whom the mid-point of winter proves especially difficult. 

And here we are again in Midwest USA, nearing what Marv Hiles refers to as “the very bottom of winter.” Even as intimations of spring hide in plain sight, nature doesn’t privilege the warmer seasons the way many of us might. She allows each to offer what it will, to unfold seamlessly and effortlessly, one leading into the next in a continuing, life-sustaining, cyclical choreography.

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What is it that winter offers? And might we allow ourselves to accept the offering, as other living creatures and life forms seem willing to do? Is it possible to accept winter’s invitation, especially now, fresh on the heels of the year we’ve just moved through?

In her book, Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times, Katherine May writes:

Plants and animals don’t fight the winter; they don’t pretend it’s not happening and attempt to carry on living the same lives they lived in the summer. They prepare. They adapt. They perform extraordinary acts of metamorphosis to get them through. Wintering is a time of withdrawing from the world, maximizing scant resources, carrying out acts of brutal efficiency and vanishing from sight; but that’s where the transformation occurs. Winter is not the death of the life cycle, but its crucible.

It’s a time for reflection and recuperation, for slow replenishment, for putting your house in order. Doing these deeply unfashionable things — slowing down, letting your spare time expand, getting enough sleep, resting — is a radical act now, but it’s essential. 

As essential, I think, perhaps in any winter but particularly so in this one, might be our willingness to allow for the unfolding presence of normal human sadness. When you consider the abundant, unbidden aloneness of the past year, with so much of our previously-relied-upon cycles of daily living so dramatically disrupted, and for so long, if not lost altogether, and with so many whom we’ve collectively lost, it makes good sense that we’d find ourselves invited if not impelled into a place of sadness. We are perhaps among the most feeling of creatures, certainly so with regard to conscious awareness of feeling, and so making room for sadness, especially now, here, in the very heart of winter, could be to our benefit. The hollowed, hallowed inwardness of winter may be uniquely designed to invite us in, to help us bear the weight of our sadness and also our collective grief.

But won’t opening the door to sadness lead to depression? Maybe it’s better to keep a stiff upper lip, compel cheeriness and soldier on.

Depression and sadness are two different things. While depression is a serious clinical disorder with clear symptomatology and often requiring treatment, sadness is woven into the fibers of being human. In our eagerness to champion chipper-ness, even sometimes within ourselves, we can forget that  fears are real, losses hurt, and sadness, along with joy and hope, lives at the very heart of humanity. In the Pixar classic, Inside Out, sadness was the star of the show. 

I realized that in depression, nothing matters. And in sadness, everything matters. ~Gloria Steinem

Being able to accept feelings of sadness, and then tending to ourselves in ways that nurture and comfort and heal, can over time give way to what some experience as an enlivening of the human spirit, allowing for a sense of fullness and wholeness, as if all of our collective emotional parts now have a place and a purpose and even a welcoming. We can expend enormous amounts of energy in our attempts to ward off feelings of sadness, resources that would otherwise be harnessed for productivity, creativity, and so forth. Best perhaps to just let it in, and even to welcome it, especially in times like these, when its presence makes so much sense.

Katherine May adds:

I’m beginning to think that unhappiness is one of the simple things in life: a pure, basic emotion to be respected, if not savored. I’d never dream of suggesting that we should wallow in misery or shrink from doing everything we can to alleviate it, but I do think it’s instructive. After all, unhappiness has a function: it tells us that something is going wrong. There will be moments when we’re riding high and moments when we can’t bear to get out of bed. Both are normal. Both in fact require a little perspective.

Sometimes the best response to our howls of anguish is the honest one. We need friends who wince along with our pain, who tolerate our gloom, and who allow us to be weak for a while, while we’re finding our feet again. We need people who acknowledge that we can’t always hang on. That sometimes everything breaks. Short of that, we need to perform those functions for ourselves: to give ourselves a break when we need it and to be kind, to find our own grit, in our own time.

Looking more closely at winter’s invitation, within the architecture of cold and stillness and silent white, we see the unmistakable evidence of a coming spring.

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In the midst of winter I finally learned that I had within me an invincible summer. ~ Albert Camus

 

Darkness and light

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I loved the word chiaroscuro from the moment I first heard it, back in 1979, sitting in Prof. Michael Fink’s Italian Art course as an undergraduate studying fine art in Rome. In his inimitable style, Dr. Fink elucidated the term (an Italian word that roughly translates into “light-dark”) as an artistic technique that captivated some of the most renowned painters of the Renaissance. Employing extreme lights and darks, chiaroscuro offered artists a novel way to illuminate volume, dimensionality, and beauty. 

Drawn to its smooth sounds juxtaposed against those hard C’s, I’d practice saying chiaroscuro silently and aloud. I still do this. There’s something in the cadence of the word that sounds like music to me and, more broadly, I’m drawn to what the concept intimates, even now. Maybe especially now.

This eventful year, with its immeasurable darkness and its persistent, promising light, comes to a close here in the States in less than six hours. London, Wagga Wagga, and Shanghai have already bid 2020 adieu. What are we to do with the many shadows left behind as this passing year departs for good?

It might be helpful to remember that the Italian Renaissance was historically preceded by the Dark Ages, a time when the country found itself gripped by war, famine, and the Black Death pandemic that killed 20 million people across all of Europe. Some historians have gone so far as to suggest that the Dark Ages were responsible for the birth of the Renaissance, bringing with it the philosophical, intellection, scientific, and artistic contributions of da Vinci, Descartes, Galileo, Copernicus, Chaucer, Dante, Shakespeare, and Michelangelo.

Civilization has been here before. Might it be possible for us, as a nation, as a planet, to harness those shadows that 2020 leaves behind, offering us a kind of motoric force that could carry us across the threshold to a renaissance all our own, one with global proportions and possibilities? As wombs and mushrooms and history have taught us, darkness can give birth to so much unprecedented life.

May your new year bring you and your loved ones plenty of life and light, health and hope. I thank you for being here with me for another year—we’re all with boundless reading options and so your time and your attention mean so much to me.

A celestial event

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Saturn puts a ring on Jupiter tonight (or at least that’s how it’ll appear) and, with 2020 vision, we’ll bear witness to this lovely engagement. May your Winter Solstice be the beginning of ever-increasing light, wherever you may need it.

Give your teeter plenty of totter.

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We’re inundated on a persistent basis by toppling amounts of information, five times the amount consumed daily in 1986. This is tantamount to reading 174 newspapers a day, cover to cover. So says Daniel Levitin, Ph.D., neuroscientist and the author of The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in an Age of Information Overload. Are you keeping up?  Silly question—the reasonable part of us knows that’s no longer possible. 

Try telling that to your brain, though, sold as it’s been on the merits of binge information consumption, often combined with multitasking—that well-marketed illusion that obscures the fact that the brain is primarily designed to focus on one task at a time and, when it’s called on to multitask, it does so at a cost. Productivity, accuracy, and levels of personal and professional satisfaction all suffer. There’s a neuropsychological price, as well; extreme periods of unrelenting brain on-ness deplete glucose and other metabolic resources, vital neuronutrients that would otherwise be used for deeper, soul-feeding levels of immersion and focus.  In Dr. Levitin’s words, “Multitasking is metabolically expensive.” From the vantage point of the human spirit, it’s downright dispiriting. 

Add to this the ballooning number of choices we’re called on to make in our increasingly-congested marketplace—podcasts, cold-pressed drinks, phones, news feeds, pens, IG posts, running shoes, microbrews, etc.—against a backdrop of the too-often alarming soundtrack of our broadcast and social media and you can begin to hear, if you listen closely, the unmistakable sound of your own besieged, beleaguered brain begging for relief.

Fortunately, you know just where to find it. You’ve known this all your life, having mastered these kinds of skillful reprieves as a young one romping in the park, darting through the forest, or losing yourself in the reveries of your own imaginings, those days when your curious, meandering mind led the way in the direction of the possible.

The brain is like a see-saw, Dr. Levitin offers, shifting naturally between two modes of attention: task-focused and mind-wandering—the brain’s day-dreaming mode which, Dr. Levitin suggests, is the mind’s natural state. We’re born into this mode, inhabit it for much of our early life, and often carry an overarching, aching wish to return. In mind-wandering mode, there are no performance goals or productivity benchmarks. Instead, the mind freely roams, led by the allure of piqued curiosity and unquenchable interest. That initial spark of insight that often precedes task-focused problem-solving and creativity is most likely to occur in mind-wandering mode. Perhaps most important, this meandering, dreamlike mode replenishes and restores supplies of essential neuronutrients drained by too much think-think/go-go/do-do.

The benefits of mind-wandering are indisputable if we’re to bring full mind capacity to those tasks commanding our attention. And yet, we can find ourselves treating the meandering mode as discretionary and even disposable, “child’s play” that we can no longer shoehorn in. Yet, the research is clear: Disproportionate involvement in task-focused activities without a commensurate level of mind-wandering is tantamount to placing a foot on one side of the see-saw and then wondering why the ride is no longer fun.

It’s possible to inoculate, restore and replenish your brain and your being with ample amounts of mind-wandering and, fortunately, it doesn’t take a whole lot to make it happen. Is there a park within walking distance of your front door? How about a deep forest? When was the last time you visited? Too much rain or cold or snow or darkness to venture out? No worries—you can reap fortifying, neuronutritional benefits by mind-wandering from the comfort of the chair you’re sitting in right now, as the portal into this mode can often be found at the threshold of good reading. In her seminal work, Women Who Run With the Wolves, Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Ph.D. observes:

There is around us and about us a constant beckoning world, one which insinuates itself into our lives, arousing and creating appetite where there was little or none before. In this sort of choice, we choose a thing because it just happened to be beneath our noses at that moment in time. It is not necessarily what we want, but it is interesting, and the longer we gaze at it, the more compelling it becomes.

When we are connected to the instinctual self, to the soul which is natural and wild, then instead of looking over whatever happens to be on display, we say to ourselves, “What am I hungry for?”

Is that on the smörgåsbord? Maybe yes and maybe no. In most cases, probably not. We will have to quest for it a little bit–sometimes for a considerable time. But in the end we shall find it, and be glad we took soundings about our deeper longings.

Image:  Wassily, My Muse. Watercolor, pastel, collage





The sound of silence

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Our world is noisy at the moment. Cogent discourse, insight, and illumination can now find themselves overshadowed and over-shouted by who knows what? Opportunities to learn, to grow, and to heal remain as strong and abundant as ever, yet unfavorable conditions created by the overwhelming abundance of noise can make moving on these opportunities–and even seeing them–more difficult. And while there’s been plenty of commentary on the clamorous situation at hand, from every conceivable side, in the end, these, too, regrettably, contribute in unhelpful ways to the noise.

It’s the distinguishing feature of our mammalian species to be able to use words in the service of solving problems, to better understand, connect, and expand. What happens, though, when our words–in private spheres, including in our conversations with ourselves, but as important now, in our public arenas–find themselves appropriated by the reptilian angels of our nature? What can help?

One possibility might be a retreat into silence, stepping away from the cacophony of words that comprise the surface-level noise within and without, drawing inward to that core of deep and abiding silence that resides within all of us, wordless, that quintessential well from which we all sprang. This doesn’t require an extended getaway to some exotic destination for sanctuary, inconceivable for many now in any event. Rather, it’s something of a practice to discover within the center your own being a kind of retreat house, a reliable haven that offers comfort, peace, and quiet which can serve as a fortress and a fortification for whatever lies on the road ahead. Stillness is our native land. Silence, our native tongue.

The Quakers hold that we should speak only if we can improve upon the silence. I’ll let John O’Donohue have the final word:

In post-modern culture, the ceaseless din of chatter has threatened to kill our acquaintance with silence. Consequently, we are stressed and anxious. Silence is a fascinating presence. Silence is shy; it is patient and never draws attention to itself. Without the presence of silence, no word could ever be said or heard. Our thoughts constantly call up new words. We become so taken with words that we barely notice the silence, but the silence is always there. The best words are born in the fecund silence that minds the mystery.

Lost and found

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A Man Lost By A River

There is a voice inside the body

There is a voice and a music,

a throbbing, four-chambered pear

that wants to be heard, that sits 

alone by the river with its mandolin

and its torn coat, and sings

for whomever will listen

a song that no one wants to hear.

 

But sometimes, lost,

on his way to somewhere significant,

a man in a long coat, carrying

a briefcase, wanders into the forest.

He hears the voice and the mandolin,

he sees the thrush and the dandelion,

and he feels the mist rise over the river.

 

And his life is never the same,

for this having been lost–

for having strayed from the path of his routine,

for no good reason.  

~Michael Blumenthal