Something whole out of something secret…

two black skeleton keys on an old paper
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Leigh Bardugo says that “every man is a safe, a vault of secrets and longings.” But, I think we’re even more complicated than that. We are a horizonless hallway of locked doors. A procession of secret armories, storerooms, and depositories. A vast collection of oddities and curiosities, hidden truths and sacred relics, stowed behind barricaded entryways and combination locks. We listen alone in the expansive hush of a knowing-unknown.

There is a profundity in this silence that is beyond rational understanding and it is the task of the writer, the artist, the poet to attempt to express the truth of it’s mystery in media and form. Anne Lamott says that “Truth seems to want expression” and “Unacknowledged truth saps your energy”. This is why I write; to make an ouroboros. To make a circle out of incompletion. To bend something broken back in upon itself. To make something whole out of something secret.

Daniel Levine writes that “We all long to tell our secrets. We simply must wait for someone to come along and ask the right question.” I write because I’m tired of waiting. I am a mystery even unto myself. I am a tabernacle built in the mine field of things I don’t know how to say, and somewhere in the process of scraping words across the page, the ambiguities of who I am are made clear, even if sometimes it is only for a moment. I write to try to find the right question to ask myself, to reveal the covered truth of myself to myself.

For me, writing is not simply the means by which I say what I think, but rather it is the very the way in which I think. The way in which I discover what I think. The process by which I am thinking.

Mary Oliver writes that “It is supposed that a writer writes what he knows about and knows well. It is not necessarily so. A writer’s subject may just as well, if not more likely, be what the writer longs for and dreams about, in an unquenchable dream, in lush detail and harsh honesty.” I write what I want to know. I write about what I wish I had known ‘then’, about what I wish I could know ‘now’. I write to better know the world. I write to better know myself. “I…observe and take notes,” as Octavia Butler suggests, “trying to put things down in ways that are as powerful, as simple, and as direct as I feel them.” I give witness to the flickering sensations of thoughts and emotions. Noticing where and how a mind tries to find purchase, in the half-lotus posture of watching breath upon a page.

“[W]e are each a confluence of forces that exceed our own understanding”, Jenny Odell says. We are living Rorschach tests. Ink blots that breathe. We say and do things we don’t mean. Mean things we don’t do or say. And, we struggle with the meaning of it all, if there is even any meaning to be found at all. But, there are times and circumstances, instances and small windows that allow us to catch a glimpse of an answer to the enigma at the heart of who we are. “[I]t’s in the act of making things and doing our work”, Austin Kleon says, “that we figure out who we are.”

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Pain and purpose…

pain and purpose
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“The meaning we give to what happens in our lives is our final, inviolable freedom…If you have any sense, you will ask someone with more experience than you to help you decide what the answer means, but even then the choice is yours.”

– Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World

I believe that most pain is purposeless. A sensorial response to stimuli devoid of any overarching meaning or higher purpose. Our agony is arbitrary. Tragedy comes without rhyme or reason. Life is not fair. It has never been, nor will it ever be. Either for good or for ill almost none of us get what we deserve. “Justice”, J.M. Miro says, “is just a bucket with a hole in the bottom.” It spills in all the wrong places before it can be poured out where it belongs. At best, we cup our hands and reach out in the hopes that we can manage to catch just a few drops in between the leak and the loss.

Charles Bukowski said that the greatest teaching he was ever given was “the meaning of pain, pain without reason.” He learned the lesson, took the pain and the pointlessness of it, and put it to use. His writing was an affliction without cause held over a flame, a viscous black simmered to a sweetened reduction, a dragon chased across the page. Pen put to paper, like a needle to a vein. The drug and the recovery. Addiction and redemption.

Some of us live with a tenebrous presence in the passenger seat of our lives. We all too often find ourselves in varying states of inner turmoil and mental anguish. Sadness requires so small a catalyst. Despondency condenses into bigger drops and empties from the sky. Apathy drenches everything, and we look out to find a world saturated in a breathless shade of exhaustion and suffering. For us, the utilization of pain isn’t an option, it’s essential; a necessary resource in the effort to survive. We either appropriate the angst or be overtaken by it. We can collaborate with it or we can be consumed.

“So often the experiences that define us are the ones we didn’t pick,” says Kate Bowler. We lose a job. We lose everything we spent years building. We are forced to start over from nothing. Love, or at least what we thought was love, like everything else, turns out not to last forever. A marriage ends. We find ourselves having to begin again, again. “Life is not a series of choices”, Bowler says. It is a mound of things we never asked for, and yet they are still ours to keep. Catastrophe. Trauma. Grief. Loss. Lament. Loneliness.  But, perhaps one of the few choices we get to make in the existential shit-show of being human is, what to do with what we have been given? What to do with all the suffering we’ve been handed? The human condition is terminal, but at least we get to decide how to manage the pain.

I believe that pain can be given a purpose,  that it can be harnessed for a cause. That agony can be given an aim. That tragedy is a propellant that burns clean with the perfect mixture of oxygen and fuel in the engine of creation. Radhule Weininger explains that “Trauma rewires our brain and causes us to experience the world differently.” We become something anomalous and atypical. “[W]e come to live in an altered world and in an altered body.” But, this is a feature not a bug. An advantage not a defect. Art has always been about seeing differently, and about helping others to see differently too.

Kierkegaard said that a poet is “An unhappy man who hides deep anguish in his heart, but whose lips are so formed that when the sigh and cry pass through them, it sounds like lovely music…. And people flock around the poet and say: ‘Sing again soon’ – that is, ‘May new sufferings torment your soul but your lips be fashioned as before, for the cry would only frighten us, but the music, that is blissful’.”

To mine the ore of an insufficiency, to reach into the wounded void, to heat the hurt until it thickens, to pour the pain into porcelain casts, to turn the ache into clay, to mold it until it takes shape, until it turns into something that speaks, something we can befriend, is to be an artist crafting something from the nothing of an absence.

The pain of the process becomes the treasure of the quest. We learn to love the ache, to hope in the hurt, to yearn for the work more than any form of reward. Anne Lamott says “It’s like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony.” What you thought you needed was to be mended, to be made new, but what you really needed was to embrace the break. To attend to a fragile sanctity. To let the limp become a dance; the ballet of one of one who has wrestled and kept going, one who has striven and prevailed.

To satisfy a deeper need…

to satisfy a deeper need

I’ve become so attached to the idea of creative success, to artistic professionalization, to a career in the written word, that I’ve begun to believe my life is only half-formed without it. That I am incomplete until it’s achieved. As if a paycheck garnered from these thoughtful scribblings is the answer to it all, the cure for every scar. But, this is only half true, if it is even true at all.

Saying that I’ve become attached to the idea of a creative career and that I’ve begun to believe that I’m only a partial person without it, suggests that it is a newly formed condition. Something unprecedented and recently developed. When, in fact, it is something only recently recognized and acknowledged. The chronic symptoms of a long metastasizing sickness, now too overwhelming and pervasive to be ignored, brushed off, or pushed aside. Chasing the desire feels like medicine, and I cling to it all the more.

I suppose every addiction feels like a remedy when you’re riding the high of it. But when you come down, when you crash, when you bottom out, and you find yourself still aching and un-cured, you discover it’s anything but medicinal. And yet, the yearning doesn’t stop. It rises, crests, and increases. A tide that cuts through rock and pools in the hollow of our unseen places, where the only sound is withdrawal.

Attachment turns to craving; the greedy desire of wanting too much, too badly. The disdainful aversion to anything else, anything less, anything other. And the pitiful delusion that somehow it will fill that cavernous well, a well emptied out by the insatiable avarice of an Eldritch need. An unrest at the heart of everything I’ve yet to be. “[T]hat was what destroyed you in the end”, Leigh Bardugo says, “the longing for something you could never have.” The failure to realize that necessity is not the same as demand. V.E. Schwab says that “There is a chasm between sustenance and satisfaction”. And, I would also add that there is a canyon that exists between want and need.

Anne Lamott explains that “Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises.” It alters and expands all our expectations. Shows us the beauty in broken places. Finds the magic in trap doors and hidden compartments. “[W]riting”, Lamott goes on to say “can be a pretty desperate endeavor, because it is about some of our deepest needs: our need to be visible, to be heard, our need to make sense of our lives, to wake up and grow and belong.” The act of needling a thread through words, stranding together thoughts, and sentences, beads and pearls, until it strings together an elaborate story, reveals the truth of who we are. It can take all your shattered parts and turn them into charms. But, it also shows us the gaps, the holes, the emptiness, the shards. It shows us the ‘needs’ that we don’t actually need at all. The ones we only think we do. The ones we’re really better off without. Writing helps us to admit that we don’t need them. And, sometimes, it can help us to start letting go.

Ultimately, it’s not the lack that carves you into pieces, it’s the want; the short blade, sharpened against stone, that thrusts in deep and cuts across the gut, the want that becomes the wound itself. At the heart of the hurt of want is the belief that we are not enough.

“[H]aving books and stories and articles published,” Lamott makes clear, “will not make [you] well. It will not give [you] the feeling that the world has finally validated [your] parking tickets, that [you] have in fact finally arrived.” And, while I’ll have to take her word for it, I still can’t help but feel she’s right. If you are not enough as you are, then nothing you can have or hold, nothing you can either grip or grab, ever will be.

We have an apophenic reaction to the  constellation of particles swirling around the dark gravity of the space empty at our center; a pattern we falsely recognize as a thing we call “I”. We make vain and futile attempts to add to the pattern of accumulated debris. We try to fill the void. When, in fact, we are the essencelessness of the expanse. We are the vastness, itself.

Martin Buber says that “The life of a human being does not exist merely in the sphere of goal-directed verbs.” We are made up of so much more than the mere additions of our activities, our efforts, and their effects. Sometimes real progress is about “removal, and remediation”, Jenny Odell says. Sometimes gaining ground means holding space. Sometimes its not a matter of becoming more, but making room for less.

I can’t tell you how to believe that you’re enough, that the writing is enough, that the work is enough, that the work of doing the work is enough. I can’t tell you because I don’t know, myself. I have not felt enough, enough. I still don’t. I know there are days when I’m tired. When I feel unbearably slow. When my eyes burn, and all my atoms ache. When my skin bristles and everything hurts.  I know it’s hard to keep making things when you don’t feel like it makes a difference. But, I also know I’m only discouraged about writing when I’m not writing. I know that in the ceremonial dance of tapping out a few good words in the early morning I regain a revelatory sense of what it means to be sustained, to satisfy a deeper need, and maybe that’s enough, or at least close enough.

What is saving my life?

what is saving my life
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Everywhere we turn we are told by a soulless calculation what to read, what to watch, what to consume, what to be interested in, what to think. We are awash in what Colin Wright describes as “endless torrents of overt status-seeking, cold selling, and frenzied attempts to claim more of [our] attention”; attempts that amount up to little more than “lowest-common-denominator, value-vacant diversions.” 

Earlier this year, I decided to stop making podcasts and videos, and I took a much needed break from social media. I had gotten so caught up in the mindless angst of always-on, content production I failed to notice that nearly all of my efforts were fueling activities that had almost nothing to do with the endeavors that actually matter to me.

I started asking myself questions. Questions I couldn’t quite answer. Some I still can’t. Some I’m still trying to. Questions echoed in the searching angst of Wright’s own:

“Do I want to spend a significant portion of my life…dancing for strangers on the internet so I can maybe attract more followers and likes, which in turn might help me be more successful at other things I care about?”

And,

“Do I want to spend my time and energy coming up with clever posts and videos to increase my online social standing…or would I rather invest those finite resources in the work I actually want to do?”

I forced my feed into a hunger strike. I deleted all the social media apps from my phone, eventually deciding to permanently close my Facebook and Instagram accounts. Like Wright, I started thinking more about “how to intentionally and morally use these tools for the valuable things they still offer”. And, in the process, I recommitted myself to the things I love: reading, stillness, writing, quiet.

The algorithm isn’t your friend. It won’t give you what you’re searching for, only what it thinks you want, only what it thinks you should need. It will only attempt an answer at half the question, and it’s usually the half you’re not really asking. It may analyze your query, but offers nothing to satisfy the seeking at the heart of the question, itself. It will tell you what’s trending, but it won’t tell you what will test the limits of your thinking. It won’t satiate your sense of wonder and mystery. It functions only to further ingratiate you into the cocooned safety of an all too familiar comfort zone. It only seeks to perpetuate the cycle of infinite scrolling sameness

At best it’s ambivalent, amoral, and uncaring. At worst, it’s actively malevolent. In either case, as Seth Godin explains, “we benefit when we realize that the algorithm isn’t rooting for us and quite possibly is working against us.”

I don’t know much of anything for sure. I don’t know much of anything at all really. Maybe none of us do. But, I know that Nick Cave is right when he says that “moments of happiness are not experienced alone,” that “they are almost entirely relational and are dependent on a connection to the Other”. I know that it’s easy to become lost, and apathetic, and cynical in the vacuousness and vapidity of a culture bent on ceaseless consumption for consumption’s sake alone. But, I think that people honestly and unironically sharing and “talking about what they love and why”, as David Dark suggests, “could turn things around here, there, and everywhere”. And, I think that online spaces do still afford us the opportunity for both.

“What if”, as Jenny Odell asks, “we spent less time shouting into the void and being washed over with shouting in return” and more time listening for the still, small voices that open us up to something noumenally bigger? What if we became less interested in being influencers and more interested in facilitating conversations about what influences us to keep hoping, to keep going, to keep growing? What if we became less interested in gaining followers and likes, less interested in getting somewhere, and more interested in giving attention to the people, places, and things that, as Barbara Brown Taylor suggests, help us to become “more fully human [and] trusting…in the real world”.

What if we became what Seth Godin calls “curators for ideas”? There is a rich swath of writers, and artists, and poets, and ideas that will radically alter the way you see yourself and the world around you, that an algorithm will never put in front of you. But, someone who has embraced the cost of curation can. We can. Austin Kleon points out that Facebook blandly and indulgently asks you to answer questions like “How are you feeling?” Or “What’s on your mind?”. And Twitter asks “What’s happening?” But, what if we started asking ourselves better questions? What books taught us to breathe again? What songs made our souls sing? What art, poems, podcasts, blogs, articles, or films helped make it easier for us to be alive? What if the fulcrum of our relationality and our connectivity to the other rests upon our ability to share the various ways in which we each seek to answer the question: “What is saving my life right now?”

I don’t have it all figured out. I haven’t even figured out a way forward. For now, I just have field notes. Just thoughts and observations. But, maybe that’s how all solutions start. And, this smattering of musing is simply part of what is saving my life right now.

The past…

the past
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No amount of regret can bring reconciliation. “Nothing erases the past”, Ted Chiang says. “There is repentance, there is atonement, and there is forgiveness. That is all.” We can hope for mercy, without promise. We can seek redemption, without assurance. We can work toward restitution, without a guarantee. We can do nothing else. It isn’t much, but perhaps it’s just enough, maybe even more than.

Most things that are broken can’t be mended. Some things, once poured out, can’t be put back. Nothing spoken can ever again be unsaid. “[M]oving on is a myth”, Suleika Jaouad says, “a lie you sell yourself on when your life has become unendurable.” 

The sacred canon of the clean slate is the unholy “delusion that you can build a barricade between yourself and your past”. But, the past is never somewhere else. Never far away. Never a distant yonder. Never a discarded ‘over-there’.

“The past is not one separate place”, says Matt Haig, “It is many, many places, and they are always ready to rise into the present”, always-already present. Everywhere hope emerged and fear shattered through. Everywhere you were hurt, and where you did the hurting too. All of it. The pangs and twitches of an absent-presence. The vacancy that becomes a revenant. Always there.

And, there is no ideal-you. No Platonic realm of perfect forms in which to discover your faultless self. One that is clean and whole. One that is unblemished and unscarred by every tool that chiseled you into shape; every trauma, every misfortune, every mistake. It never leaves.

You are never just one thing. Never just one self. You are not only “Your current self”, John Green says, but also “all the selves you used to be”. You are legion. You are many. The addict and the sponsor. The drunkard and the preacher. The saint. The sinner. The prophet. The whore. “[W]ho we were and what we did and what was done to us”, says Holly Black, “we don’t get to shrug that stuff off and become some new shiny person”. We are the atomic weight of the things we carry. The mass of who and what we have been. An arithmetical expression of the elements that make up who we are.

We dream about starting over. Wishing for ways to make amends. But, “Fresh starts”, Ali Millar suggests, “are a lot more complicated than they look.” Sometimes things that look so solid turn out to be made of straw. Sometimes straw can be spun into gold. Sometimes what looks like a house of cards can withstand a storm, and sometimes we’re dealt a bad hand that we do our best to play. Hope has always been something supple, and almost always bends beyond reason.

You can be both broken and complete. Perhaps, the very best of us are. Paradoxical anomalies turned into logical proofs. Proof that you have struggled and prevailed. Proof of your refusal to be the sum of your faults. Proof that yours is the name given to striving and strength. That you are the word used to describe the wrestling.

Perhaps there will always be a darkness that traces your steps and matches your stride. A darkness that you would prefer to either control or cast aside. In every shadow there is fear, there is remorse, and there is regret. But, within it there is also love, and there is hope, and there is a friend

When it comes to the past, you can’t ever really lay it down. Can’t ever really let it go. But, you can learn to hold it loosely, knowing that “somewhere out there,” as Millar says, “there’s something better worth beginning again for.”

There is a door…

there is a door
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Depression turns the world into something small. Turns you into something smaller still. It blinks out the stars, blackens the sky, blocks out the sun ,and cloaks everything in varying shades of night. We adapt to surviving in the environment of the dark. Closed-in, closed-down, and boarded-up. We learn to live in little rooms. “Rooms the shape and size of every role [we are] supposed to play”, says Lee Kravertz, “Rooms [we’ve] either outgrown or [we] never fit in to begin with”. A claustrophobia so thick you can taste the weight of it in the air. You don’t know how you got here, and you don’t know how to get out. The entry is invisible, and the exit is even harder to find.

And yet, there is a paradox that sharpens to a point in the closeted space. An anomaly that punches a hole through the heavy fabric of the black. A secret comes to light. A secret becomes the light. “[The] secret of the universe,” Frederick Buechner says, “is a room where life is reborn out of death. A room where you are commissioned in darkness. A room where…morning after morning you are given back to the world.” A place where the suffering becomes a candle. Where the hurt becomes a gate, and the pain becomes a door.

There is an opening in even the smallest of enclosures. A handle in the dark. The trick is to find it. To know where to look. To search for the seams. The tiny crevices where the warmth of something overlooked cuts through the cold.

Carl Jung says that “The doors to the self are few”, and sometimes difficult to see, often because they are in places we either don’t notice or would rather not look. He says that “If you have a deep scar, that is a door. If you love the sky and the water so much you almost cannot bear it, that is a door. If you yearn for a deeper life, a full life, a sane life, that is a door.” There are moments of rapturous hurt, ache, and longing, places of breach and breakage, places calloused from the constancy of a familiar suffering. These are the places of profound openness. In the fractures of ourselves, where the ecstatic joy of sun-soaked wonder seeps in, we find the deepest of truths. We discover, as Thich Nhat Hanh explains, that “The suffering inside us reflects the suffering in the world”, and “if we can transform our suffering” then we can transform that of the world’s as well. When we open up, the world opens too.

“Every room”, no matter how cramped, no matter closed, no matter how small, says Anne Lamott, “gives us layers of information about our past and present and who we are”. Even the darkest corner of the most confined quarters shows us “our shrines and quirks and hopes and sorrows, our attempts to prove that we exist and are more or less Okay.” We run our fingers along the edges of our unseen things; “the clutter and the cracks”, the “bleakness” and the “brokenness”, says Lamott. The things we lost. The things we carry. The things left undone..

Between recollection and reconnection we walk a labyrinthine prayer around a black-sun center.  A pilgrimage of murmurs circumambulating our inner-court. Weaving through what Tamsyn Muir calls, “that microcosm of eternity between forgiveness and the slow, uncomprehending agony of the fall.” That’s where we find it; a door.

In every little room there is a door. There is an opening. An opportunus. A porta fenestella; a small window where providence comes to speak. A tonglen. A sending and a taking. A place where suffering compresses, and compassion starts to breathe. Breathing in the texture of constriction, and breathing out into vastness and enormity.

There are entryways to awareness that connect us to everything. There are locks, but there are also keys. Where the light comes in. Where the darkness flees.

My year in books: Nick Hornby

My year in books: Nick Hornby
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Like most people, I’m good at coming up with an idea, good at starting a project, good at setting a plan into motion, but not always great at seeing it through.

About two weeks ago I started a blog series with the intent of highlighting some of the insightfully inspiring books I’ve read this year, and the blog posts that they helped me spark to life. I only made it through two installments of this series before getting distracted by other blog ideas.

I always succumb to a small burst of serotonin laced excitement when I finish a book, because I get to start a new one. Even within the rush of dopamine that comes after I crack open the cover of a new book, there is the sensational thought of what book I’ll start after this fresh one. At the beginning of a book I am already pondering the next one. I am much like Pamela Paul in that “I am always…pining for the next book”, always lusting after “the forward movement,” lost in ecstasy and “the anticipation of what book comes next”. Not long after my Matt Haig book reading bender, I was looking through my bookshelves trying to decide what to start. Itching with the need to chase the dragon, I noticed I had a books by Nick Hornby that I hadn’t read yet. I burned through one, and before I knew I had gone through another two.

I started with A Long Way Down, and quickly followed it up with About a Boy and Funny Girl. I won’t lie, Hornby’s books didn’t hit in quite the same way Haig’s, but they were refreshing and delightful.  They are fun to read. They filled with interesting and quirky characters that are flawed and fucked-up in the most glorious and hopeful of ways, and they find their way to meaning and belonging not in spite of their many faults and foibles but because of them, because of their ability to own them, to embrace them, and to recognize them in someone else too.

If you’d like to read the blogs I wrote that make reference to Hornby’s books, you can find them below:

Short thoughts on ‘A Long way Down’…

…everything after August…

An altar at the checkout

an altar at the checkout
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Love is where you focus your gaze. Compassion is how you choose to see. Both are acts of intentionality, and both are ultimately creative. Both ask us to probe deeply into the strange and magical uncanniness found in even the most mundane moments of being here, of being present, of simply being. To transfix  and to be transfixed in a world alive with color, texture, and composition, to revel in a moment of time that reveals the sacred history of light and awareness is to be an artist, a mystic, a poet, a friend. It is to recognize that everywhere you stand is ground that has already been pronounced as holy, to see the face of every one of our fellow inhabitants as something always formed in the shape of the ineffable and wondrously Other.

I swing wide when it comes to humankind. I regularly bask in the exquisite beauty and brilliance of our species, but still find it difficult to tolerate people. Some days I think humanity is poetry personified, and on others I’d call us a plague. Somedays I praise our splendor, our ingenuity, and our tenacity. Somedays I pray for the Sun to burn out. To be fair, humanity, itself, seems to vacillate widely between ecstasy and atrocity. We are egocentric and oblivious, greedy and short-sighted, reckless and depraved. And yet, on the rare occasions when we can summon the capacity to be observant and unselfish, we are nothing short of exceptional.

Each one of us has the task of cultivating creative ways in which to regain a clarity of vision that opens us up to the full panorama of reality as a whole, a reality revealing that we are each part of a wider whole. If there is any cure for what ails us, individually and collectively, it is attention. Pema Chodron says that “In the elevator with a stranger, I might notice her shoes, her hands, the expression on her face.” In that moment “I [can] contemplate the fact that just like me she doesn’t want stress in her life. Just like me she has worries.” And that it is “Through our hopes and fears, our pleasures and pains,” that we realize just how “deeply interconnected” we are.

We are never passive observers. No matter how aloof we try to make ourselves. No matter where we are. We are always, and at all times, active participants in the unfolding everything-ness of all we observe. Even “Standing in the checkout line,” Chodron goes on to explain, “I might notice the defiant teenager in front of me and make the aspiration, “May he be free of suffering and its causes.” 

Reality is participatory. Collaborative and co-creative. Both particle and wave, dependent upon the ways we bear witness to it. There is a “yes, and” available in every moment. There is acceptance and there is expansion. “I can choose to force myself to consider the likelihood that everyone else in the supermarket’s checkout line is just as bored and frustrated as I am,” says David Foster Wallace, “and that some of these people probably have harder, more tedious and painful lives than I do.”

Attention is an arduous endeavor. Seeing, really seeing, isn’t easy. Looking deeply takes more effort than we can imagine, and somedays despite our best attempts to do so, our sight will remain shallow and short. Somedays all we will be able to offer the world is a cursory glance.

“But most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice,” says Wallace, even if you can’t muster the strength to see deeply “you can choose to look differently”. You can at least choose to look, at all. You can take a small moment to consider. And, “if you really learn how to pay attention,” Wallace explains, “then you will know there are other options.” There are a near infinite range of possibilities within your experience. Within what you experience and how you experience it. Options within the experience of your experience. A perpetual chain of openings and passageways. Wallace says that “It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.”

We live in a universe of flux and malleability. Nothing truly fixed. Nothing solidly concrete. “The only thing that’s capital-T True”, explains Wallace, “is that you get to decide how you’re gonna try to see it.”

We can draw the curtains, close the blinds, avert our gaze, and shut our eyes. We can choose to pretend not to see, or we can look around. We can decide to notice and how. We can call where we place our feet consecrated. We can take off our shoes, and as Barbara’s Brown Taylor suggests, we can “set a little altar in the world”. We can build a shrine right where we stand. We “can stop what [we are] doing long enough to see where [we are] who [we are] there with, and how awesome the place is.” We can know that surely the numinous was here, and we did not know it.

Trust the truth and pick at the bones

Trust the truth and pick at the bones
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You know it’s going to be a good book when you’re making notes in the Foreword.

As part of the ongoing adventures of my two-person book club, we started reading Aldous Huxley’s, Brave New World. The goal being to examine the ways science fiction explores philosophical ideas. If I’m being totally honest, the book has never really been on my radar and I was indifferent towards starting it.

While I relish works within the Sci-Fi/Fantasy genres, I tend to shy away from those of a dystopian nature, not because they seem unlikely or far-fetched but because all too often they feel all too probable, all too much of time. I look to books to help soften the sting of the things I need to see, but I also need them to help me escape, at least temporarily, from the harsh reality of what appears to be our impending doom.

And yet, within the opening paragraph of Huxley’s prefatory remarks, my scribbling was already filling up the margins. Huxley is candid regarding the shortcomings of Brave New World. He says that “It’s defects as a work of art are considerable.” He says it lacks “a philosophical completeness” and demonstrates a “vast and obvious failure of foresight”. But, he notes, correcting it would mean rewriting it. And, this would not only rid the story of its faults, but also its merits. Instead, Huxley chooses to resist “the temptation to wallow in artistic remorse…to leave both well and ill alone and to think about something else.”

He says that “To pore over the literary shortcomings…to attempt to patch a faulty work into the perfection it missed at its first execution…trying to mend the artistic sins committed…is surely vain and futile.” A writer instantiates a commitment to truth. A commitment to the pursuit of truth, to truth-telling. Truths that include the bitter, the banal, and the benevolent. It is the slow and dependable process of carefully stacking brick upon brick building a tower of “trust”. Trust in the work. Trust in the process. Trust in one’s self. Trust given, trust received, and trust exchanged. Without it everything falls.

Part of that trust includes the truth that every work is a work that fails and falls short. Art, after all, is failure perfected. Work that is flailing and infirmed creates the conditions for something beautiful and true. A creation, broken and misshapen unearths unseen parts of ourselves that we never knew.

The best way to seek penance for the faults and failings of previous work is to turn the page. Sharpen your pencil. Take up your pen and begin again. Move on to the work of what comes next. Try to do it better and try to see it through. “The next great inspiration will come along,” says Chuck Palahniuk, “but until it does, clean up your desk…Make room for the new arrival in your head.”

But, turning the page, doesn’t mean tearing it out. Clearing your desk doesn’t mean setting it on fire. Starting again doesn’t always mean cleaning the slate. Sometimes it just means learning to work in the wait.

Rollo May says that “the creative act arises out of the struggle of human beings with and against that which limits them.” Sometimes progress is what we create, sometimes its what we remove. An artist is equal parts vulture and visionary. We aim to make something new, but we do so by circling dead things looking for what can still be consumed. Trust in your commitment, trust in the truth, and don’t be afraid to pick at the bones.

The middle…

the middle
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Ann Lauterbach says that “the crucial job of artists is to find a way to release materials into the animated middle ground between subjects”, in order to better “initiate the difficult but joyful process of human connection”.

To be an artist is to live in liminality. To understand the space between. The space between hope and fear. The space between the already and the not-yet. The space between what has transpired and what is to-come. The space between who we have been and who we could still be.

I make things as a means of exploring the betwixt parts of the world and the equidistant pieces of myself, where seemingly discordant things start to seep into one another.

And, yet there are instances in which I’ve missed the middle way more times than I care to admit.

Last week I posted an excerpt from an article I wrote for The Tattooed Buddha exploring just such a meridian of tension. In the attempt to balance the scales between belonging and being alone, I often err on the side of withdrawal.

I’ve recoiled in response to so much loss that I think I’ve become increasingly uninvested in the awareness of our unavoidable interbeing. In an effort to save myself from the suffering of further loss, safety turned to severance, and almost all my sentences start to center on the word “I”.

Community is a pivotal paradox, especially for an artist. We try to be adjoined in a manner that can also “protect each other’s aloneness”, Parker Palmer says; coming together “in ways that respect the solitude of the soul”.

We relish the quiet seclusion of our inner worlds, but we also require the replenishment of connection in order to see the many splendored beauty of reality all around us. Solitude is necessary in order for us to make work that is significant. But, so is “solidarity”, and we have to do our best to live in the in-between, to muddle through the middle.