A friend called to day, sharing coffee and gratitude though many states apart. She shared a thought experiment: what if everything, what if I were completely perfect right now, in this moment? What if the fear, disappointment, worry, grief were all lifted from our shoulders, without effort, right now.
If it crosses our mind, it is possible. By imagining this state, we can achieve it. As I believe, so I become. At the speed of thought. (Remember Jonathan Livingston Seagull? “Perfect speed is… being there.”)
What if peace what right under our nose? What if beauty was blazing away, and our eyes were too busy to see?
Rarely do I hear them: the wild turkeys. But when I do, these huge birds make an alarming racket! The tom may flare his feathers to look even bigger, while his flock melts silently into the woods.
Did I really see them? Look, there’s a feather, on the path in the morning frost.
When you lose a dog, you not only lose the animal that has been your friend, you also lose a connection to the person you have been.
I hit 62 this year- old enough to qualify for senior housing. I walk with a cane, slowly. I’m grateful when I can remember your name. And at each wave of aging, there’s a wash of nostalgia/regret for what used to be.
It’s hard on me, losing a pet. This year my bright spirit Charlee (above right) was suddenly killed by a passing car. Four years ago I lost my old black dog- she presided over an important and eventful 15 year slice of my life. At 44 I had so many options to work with. Now I feel doors closing, firmly closed, on chapters in my life. It’s sobering.
I still have my Young Dog, Lily (above left) At 11, she’s considered old now, her vision dimming. Can’t see the squirrels to chase anymore.
I’ll never be the globe-trotting artist I was when Seneca was young- not again. I’ll not careen around the city on my bike. I’m most likely past my last great romance, and glad for the lack of emo drama.
My Wiccan priestess would challenge me: “look for your unfolding challenges! The crone has plenty of important things to learn.”
Okay. Perhaps it’s just year-end blues, all this looking back with poignant feeling. And the cold and darkness that Winter brings. Let’s light a lantern and look ahead.
Dear readers: I have started several posts since last week’s election results and haven’t decided which impassioned essays will live or die. In the mean time, I come bearing gifts, this one from Nicholas Kristof of the (notoriously liberal) NY Times.
Traumatized by the election results, many Americans are asking: What now? Here are steps that any of us can take that can make a difference at the margins. Onward!
1. I WILL accept that my side lost, but I won’t acquiesce in injustice and I will gird for battle on issues I care about. I will call or write my member of Congress and express my opposition to [the issues I care about]
2. I WILL try to do small things in my own life, recognizing that they are inadequate but at least a start: I will sign up on the Council on American-Islamic Relations website, volunteering to fight Islamophobia.
3. I WILL avoid demonizing people who don’t agree with me about this election, recognizing that it’s as wrong to stereotype Trump supporters as anybody else.
4. I’LL DO my part to support the society I’d like to see.
6. I WILL support refugees, one of the most demonized groups in the world. Help refugees through this I.R.C. portal.
7. I WON’T let it slide if a friend makes degrading comments about a minority or women. Even if it’s over Thanksgiving dinner, I’ll push back and say something like: “Come on! You really think that?!”
8. I WILL resist dwelling in an echo chamber. I will follow smart people on Twitter or Facebook with whom I disagree.
9. I WILL do what I can in my own life to make sure that the needy aren’t forgotten in the next four years
10. I WILL understand that progress may unfold at the state or local level, and I will engage there. It’s encouraging that voters in 4 states passed minimum wage measures, and in 3 states approved gun safety measures.
11. I WILL take on sexism and misogyny, which in forms like domestic violence, sexual assault and sex trafficking affect women and girls across the country.
12. I WILLnot lose hope. I will keep reminding myself that politics zigs and zags, and that I can do more than shout in the wind. I can fight for my values even between elections.
Back in September I applied for an artist’s residency at Big Bend National Park, an opportunity to live and work for a month in one of our largest and most remote wilderness areas, right on the Mexican border (image above.)
As I worked on the application, I gained a new understanding of why I paint the way I do:
My painting is both objective and reverent observation, a deep, active appreciation of the natural world. My aim is to inspire others to look more deeply and develop a more profound appreciation for our world.
I wrote quite a bit about why painting on the Border would be important to me, and I’ll explore that in a later post.
I didn’t get selected for the residency. When I got the email I was mildly surprised, as if I really believed I would. In the email from the National Parks Art Foundation was a personal note that I was one of the finalists. Which felt really good.
Last year’s Artist in Residence at Big Bend was painter Dawn Waters Baker. I fell in love with her work instantly. I feel it beautifully captures what I had imagined creating at Big Bend.
Dawn talks about ‘the emotional landscape’ – not what is there but how we experience it, what we feel. That really comes through in her luminous paintings. They are filled with awe and a deep respect for the space. And she called the final show Reverence.
I’ve never been one who takes rejection particularly well. But this was a whole other experience. I got to know myself better by applying. I looked forward to bigger, more spacious paintings and the magic of a desert landscape. I enjoyed dreaming about how I would fulfill the residency requirements. And then I fell in love with Dawn’s paintings.
I feel complete, or pau as my Hawaiian healer friend Carol Burbank would say. It’s all good.
When I come downstairs in the morning I open the door for my two critters, who trot happily out the door. They always greet the day with tails held high, so delighted to greet the world. I sip my coffee and come to consciousness more slowly.
In fact I’m cautious how I approach the day. Will I get it right, make progress, be successful? Or will I fail to complete enough tasks to feel at peace? Did I do well enough yesterday? Will I be ready for tomorrow? These processes are running constantly, just below my regular awareness.
Yesterday I was reading a list of affirmations from my therapist. I mentally knock them off: nah, not me, unh-uh, not for me, nope—then I come to one that hits a nerve:
“The present moment is perfect, even if I don’t like what’s happening.”
Somehow this one stops me, For a flash I see it: a perfectly beautiful world, my pets here with me, blue sky, soft green grass, the shimmering water beyond. I hear birds and feel the soft air on my skin, and think “how could I not see this a moment ago?” and with that, a shadow falls over my thinking again, doubt and judgement resume their program.
I felt a cloud of negativity lift, and I saw the world clearly, just for a moment. It was a bit astonishing. I’ve worked hard at keeping destructive thoughts at bay. I’ve learned to rely on my higher power and find peace in uncertainty. But this – this grey film over my reality, I don’t want to see the world through gloom colored glasses!
“Expectation and Disappointment are dance partners. Better that we dwell on Willing, its dual meaning of intention and availability.”
Now that I’ve seen beyond the veil, I can’t lose this: a brighter world is right there, just behind that grey. That if I feel low, hopeless, or worthless it’s only my old distorted view, and I can shift perspective. That I can upgrade my thinking by deciding where to focus.
How do we learn to live with people who aren’t like us?
Mahzarin Benaji researches unconscious bias at Harvard. She discussed her fascinating and important research this week on the podcast On Being.
Dr. Benaji uses the word “implicit” instead of “unconscious,” because of
“the implication that the unconscious is this incredibly motivated, smart process that is constantly trying to do things that are in my interest and shove away the deep dark secrets of my childhood that I don’t wish to remember. And the science has not produced good evidence for that.”
“‘Are you the good person you yourself want to be?’ And the answer to that is no, you’re not. And that’s just a fact. And we need to deal with that if we want to be on the path of self-improvement.”
Who is ‘Other’?
According to Dr. Benaji’s findings, distrusting the ‘other’ has provided, until recently, an evolutionary advantage: discernment about who to embrace into one’s community was a useful filter in an agrarian culture.
But in today’s global world, this inner program doesn’t serve us when we are, for instance, hiring someone, or choosing the best candidate for a program. Someone who looks and speaks in strange-to-us ways is quite often the best choice. Yet those who haven’t experienced multiple cultures in a community like a university, urban life or the workplace still operate from this ancient, implicit view. This might explain some of the Trump phenomenon.
Apparently without direct experience of ‘others.’ we are not inclined to consider their humanness. In the wake of the horrifying Orlando shooting, teaching tolerance is clearly an urgent need.
Instead of the word tolerance Dr. Benaji prefers the word understanding. Understand comes from Old English and is literally stand, read as viewpoint, and under meaning beneath or unconscious.
You are the Unreliable Narrator!
For an example of how unreliable our automatic perception can be, have a look at the Selective Attention Test video. If you haven’t already, watch the vid and follow the instructions carefully.
Are you willing to challenge your automatic assumptions?
It’s for a lot of reasons. Some come from a good place — they think, hey, we want better for you. The life of an artist is hard. Be a bricklayer, a doctor, a ROCKET LAWYER, something, anything. Art is how you lose. Art is how you die. Don’t be an artist, because we don’t want to see you struggle, starve, and go mad.
Some of the reasons come from a deeply cankerous place: jealousy (“why do you get to fritter away your hours MAKING ART and I have to sell toilets?”) or misunderstanding (“art isn’t work, it’s just lazy piffle for lazy losers”) or alien menace (“ART GIVES HUMAN BEINGS HOPE AND IT MAKES THEM MORE RESISTANT TO HOSTILE TAKEOVER FROM EXTRATERRESTRIAL FORCES”).
Some governments don’t want artists because art is truth, even when couched in illusion or deception. Some schools don’t want art because how do you test art, and everything is about the test, goddamnit. Want to get a mortgage? Tell them you’re an artist and ha ha ha oh shit.
Art is a hobby, art is a waste of time, art is a thing you do when you’re in elementary school or in the retirement home. It isn’t a life. It isn’t a career. FUCK YOU, NO ARTING.
Chuck Wendig’s blog goes on to explore where his will to persist arises from. For him, it involves a lot of fierce defiance, a big don’t-tell-me-what-to-do with a lot of cursing. And, I get that, being infuriated by this ignorant culture and the stacked deck that creatives seem to face.
But what if that “F-you” attitude doesn’t really energize you? What if your art needs to be about connecting and caring? What if you really DO care what other people think?
To some extent Chuck is absolutely right, Nobody wants you to be an artist. There’s plenty of discouragement to go around.
But listen inside: YOU DO. YOU want to create, pursue, invent, explore.
Then get to work.
Forget perfection. You can’t control success. You aren’t anybody else. You are you. It doesn’t matter if anyone believes in you. Let their disbelief charge your batteries.
You can believe in you.
Focus on today. Not tomorrow. Not next year. Make something. Create something.
That’s the place I need to dwell. I want to paint. I live for creating. So, back to work! I have buttercups to paint. It’s great work if you give it to yourself.
“You have to not-turn to anger, not-turn to resentment.”
That advice comes from a man who spent 26 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, to kids who find themselves entangled in the juvenile justice system. He’s helping them know themselves through writing, and to learn to manage their chaotic lives and hopefully survive the system.
I was intrigued by his negative verb: ‘not-turn.’
What is the parallel positive equivalent? My friend pointed out that ‘not-go’ is really ‘stay.’ But stay where?
I think when we’re anxious or angry or stressed, the place we seem to be in isn;t a good one. And we don’t necessarily wake up to what’s happening until we’re already reacting. If we wake up at all.
So where is it we’re supposed to stay? That’s where the mindfulness comes in. In my own story, it has taken me many years to become aware of the vicious self criticism that undermined my sanity. It operated without my awareness, defeating my confidence at every turn. I looked in the mirror and I looked terrible. I created something and it was pathetic. I offered myself to people and awaited harsh criticism, because that’s what I lived with all the time, inside my head.
Clearly I couldn’t ‘stay’ there!
I’ve finally learned, imperfectly, to ‘not-turn’ on myself, ‘not-turn’ to the excoriating self-talk. In order to do this, I had to learn go back to before it was activated, so I could halt the process before it got underway. Which was tricky when I believed that self-critical voice to be a true part of me. That voice seemed so real when I began this quest. Which is why it was so difficult to gain control over.
I am Not My Thoughts
Through meditation, particularly mindfulness techniques and body centered methods, I learned to be with myself in a way that allowed me to observe the self-talk arising. It’s a process of recognizing a mind pattern and realizing that it’s ‘not-me.’
You’ll find some heartfelt examples there. And I bet you can think of people in your own life who deserve more love and credit for goodness than they give themselves.
Let’s give it a try. First, spend a little time considering what you need, and see how you can give yourself more. More peace, more time, more love, more patience; more compassion. And look for ways to share this gift with others who need a little, or a lot, of encouragement to honor themselves.
I’ve been grumpy about the unseasonably warm weather – over 70° leading up to Christmas just didn’t feel right. But heading into the end of the year, Voila! And it’s so crispy cold that the bay has frozen.
There is a beauty to the frosted morning, a certain chilled pink and blue glaze over lawns and hills. White clouds lift from chimneys like weightless cotton candy. I don’t think of the water as noisy, but the hush when the bay freezes is palpable.
I love winter. It has it’s place in the cycle of life, for hibernation, rest, reflection. It’s a time of meditation, reading and stirring a cauldron full of veggies to warm the belly. For a cat in the lap. For contemplation and planning, for reviewing and resolving to move ahead.
Welcome, winter. Thanks to the Solstice we know your time is limited. I will enjoy you while you’re here.