Creative Wandering

To step away from daily obligations and wander without a particular purpose is hard to justify. We don’t often grant ourselves permission to be aimless wanderers, and the world doesn’t much encourage it, either. The very meaning of those two things—permission and wandering—pull against each other.

One is about boundaries, authority, accountability, productivity. The other resists those means of imposing order and goes exploring, looking to find what’s out there, experiencing unfamiliar situations, sometimes discovering new aspects of the world and of ourselves. Wandering seems irrelevant to the work at hand, the life to maintain, the deadlines to meet, the goals to reach, the responsibilities to live up to, the expectations to fulfill. Wandering doesn’t get any of those things done, at least not in any predictable way.

 

And yet. To step outside the boundaries of what is required is to enlarge the world. To go where there is no reason to go can mean finding a connection that changes everything. The seeker and the artist have much in common. They fulfill their role by resisting the constant pull of their communities, by not being entirely caught up in day-to-day life, by cultivating the perspective that allows them to offer something of unique value.

But what does it take to slip away, beyond the fence, for no good reason we can name? Is it strength? The strong rarely say so. It’s only recognized as strength when we return with something worthwhile. Is it a sense of calling? Only one that is recognized after the journey has served someone else. Is it laziness? It might look that way when tasks are left undone, though the effort to roam those distant hills requires dedication and perseverance. Is it rejection of the people in our lives? It sometimes looks like that when we require time spent separate from those we care about. Is it selfishness? It looks like that, too, though we spend ourselves on pursuits that have chosen us and not vice-versa, endeavors that may never serve how the world sees us at all. We wander, searching, hoping our work serves something higher than ourselves, and rarely being sure.

In India there are roaming sannyasis, pilgrims who have left home and family to travel to holy sites or live as spiritual seekers in the forest. They are familiar, they are tolerated, by some they are understood and affirmed, or even envied by those who wait their turn for the freedom to make the same renouncements. What do the sannyasis look like in our culture? Do we recognize them? How can we learn from their search, and benefit from their wisdom? Can we learn to be just a little bit like them?

Work is Love Made Visible

Years ago, when I was doing a lot of calligraphy, I lettered a gift for my son’s elementary school teacher. It was a line from Kahlil Gibran: Work is love made visible. As an at-home mother doing unpaid work, I found encouragement in those words. They also spoke to the way this wonderful teacher gave so much of herself to her students. She brought out the best in them, and inspired me as well.

My Calligraphy Tool Drawer

I happened to see her last week at the gym, where she told me that she still keeps that piece of calligraphy on her desk. I’m touched that she still values it after all these years. The idea of work and love being connected remains meaningful to me, though I think about it in broader ways now that my children are grown.

Gibran not only speaks of where the best work originates, but offers a different way of understanding the purpose of work. His is a world view that values the heart more than remuneration. It views life as more than a market exchange, and sees work as an offering, not a commodity.

This perspective is a lifeline when we’re trying to create something new. In a world that measures the value of work by the price it brings in the marketplace, creative effort with no guarantee of reward can look like a waste of time and energy. Showing up to work when there’s no certainty of the outcome requires ignoring the clamor of the buying and selling, and placing ourselves in the service of something else. It can feel pretty risky.

Gibran understands that submitting to the work we are called to do is an act of devotion. We manifest love of life, of other people, of art, and of the divine spark in creation, when we undertake our work. What I’m realizing these days is that an artist’s work, too, is love made visible.

In Matthew, Jesus is quoted as saying, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” Materialistic priorities get in the way of seeking a rich spiritual life, or what he calls the kingdom of God. Over and over, he tries to get people to see that through dwelling more fully in the spirit we find not only our truest self, but the essence of life, and joy, and meaning.

His teachings help us focus on the work in front of us, apart from its material reward: “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”  We can’t make the world praise or even accept our work; we can’t expect the market to validate our efforts. We can only do our best at the effort we’re making today.

We’re all asked to look at the world with love, to listen for the ways it calls us, and to respond as best we can. That call and response depends on where we meet the world, on our gifts and circumstances. It can take unlimited forms.

But in whatever way we respond, answering that call becomes more meaningful, and perhaps somewhat easier, in remembering that we are trying to manifest a spark of the divine—to find a way of making love visible.

Art and Sanctuary

Last weekend I had the pleasure of hearing a folk music performance that happened to be given in a church sanctuary. The setting had me thinking about the idea of sanctuary and how it is created—or at least invited. Even more, as the evening progressed I was able to experience the mysterious arrival of that sense of sanctuary as it permeated the room.

I didn’t know the music of Iris Dement before I saw her perform, but I was immediately charmed by how she connected with her audience. She shared how vulnerable she felt coming out from behind her piano to face the crowd with only a microphone stand and a guitar to “hide” behind. And when she mused aloud about her songwriting prowess, asking “What is the opposite of prolific? Because whatever that word is, that’s me,” I was taken by both her understanding and her acceptance of herself.

The venue was the historic downtown First Presbyterian Church, where stained glass and ornate wood carvings spoke of the long traditions that shape Christian worship. “This pretty room,” Iris Dement called it, in a way that appreciated her surroundings even as she resisted their traditional gravity.

She spoke of her family, and the songs she shared about them honored those lives who so clearly informed her own. She alluded to her spiritual journey, remarking that in reading back through the stories in the Bible, “I found that I didn’t love them as I used to” except for the one she wrote about: the parable of the good Samaritan.

In sharing so much of herself as well as her music, she drew her audience close. She exuded both humility and strength, presenting herself simply as she is. I don’t know her story, but I know that kind of firmly rooted stance is hard-won.

The architecture and design of the space we were in brought forward the idea of sanctuary, a word that sets out the spiritual aspirations for the place. It’s meant to offer a respite from the clamoring world, a place where we can hear the still, small voice that reminds us who we are and where we can find the heart of life.

But on that evening, the experience of a sacred space apart from the world was ushered in by this talented musician whose maturity as a person as well as an artist enabled something rare and wonderful to happen in that setting.

Art at its best creates sanctuary. An artist who grapples with what matters most, then brings skill and dedication to expressing what she encounters, offers work that can elevate our lives. Art in all of its forms invites us into a space apart from the schedules we keep and the demands we meet, where we can be refreshed by the encounter with another soul. It brings the renewal of spirit we sorely need to live our lives the best we are able.

Worship at its best works this way, too. It’s an art form in itself, enriched by architecture, music, language, and dramatic ritual. Good worship depends on good art. Meaningful worship, like meaningful art, is soul work. The encounter that happens through that work, whatever the setting may be, is where we find sanctuary.

Sanctuary is a gift. We invite its presence by the deepest human work we do, but when the spirit of sanctuary descends, with the peace that passes understanding, it is a gift of grace. May we find those spaces in our lives that quiet our minds and soften our hearts. May we know sanctuary.

What to Watch

Still on the vintage jewelry kick, I recently brought home a box from an estate sale for $10. It looked to me like there were treasures among its contents, and finding them is fun. A watch with a band made of tiny links was one of the things that charmed me. Even with its worn finish it’s a lovely, well-made piece that feels good against my wrist. I’m looking for the right way to make it into a bracelet.

I popped out the watchworks and face, leaving just the crystal. I knew that as long as the face remained I would keep wanting it to tell the time. But the design of the bracelet and my own long habits keep me glancing at that clear window expecting something to be there. Something important should occupy that space, but I haven’t figured out what. It needs to reflect light if it’s going to be visible. A pearl shows up well, but that’s not the answer.

Without a focus on time, how to decide? If not the minutes and hours, what’s worth framing? worth watching?

A few weeks ago I wrote about a watch that suspends time. I could wear this one with its empty crystal and accomplish the same thing, but without the option of an instant return to temporal reality—or at least measuring it.

I like the idea of a mechanism that keeps track of the changing tides on my favorite beach, or represents the orbits of planets around the sun, or the spiraling of the Milky Way. Not that I’ve seen such a watch, but it’s appealing to consider time on a more cosmic level.

In the meantime, the crystal is a window onto the skin of my wrist when I put it on—it reads a hair past a freckle as they say. I could leave it that way as a reminder to simply be in my own skin, to not be overly concerned with schedules. But I’m still looking for another idea.

What would you place behind the crystal?

 

 

Time Suspended

Paging through the WSJ Magazine today, I happened upon this charming piece. It seems that the people at Hermès have been thinking about time and longing, expressed in a limited edition watch design celebrating the company’s 174th anniversary. Part of the Arceau collection, it’s called Le Temps Suspendu, or “Time Suspended.”

The slant of the numerals suggests the ceaseless motion of hours and minutes on the watch face, but these 174 specially made timepieces offer something to counter that momentum. They include a feature designed to evoke the sense of stepping outside of time. Press a button and the hands stop their motion to strike an impossible pose (from a timekeeping perspective), holding the “12” between them. Something like prayer position, perhaps. The date pointer hides away beneath a raised level of the face.

Voilá. If time hasn’t actually stopped, it has at least become irrelevant for the time being, which is much the same thing.

And since the time we can allow for not measuring time is limited, the wearer is reassured that a hidden timekeeper within continues to keep track. Press the button again and the watch returns to the correct time. There’s no mention of an alarm to remind you when to rejoin the scheduled world, but perhaps that would defeat the purpose.

I love the idea of a symbolic act that suspends time, shedding the schedule-driven concerns that clutter the mind and crowd the spirit. We’re at our best when we’re fully present, focusing all our skill and intuition on the thing that engages us. That timeless and exhilarating state is described beautifully by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. A ritual that invites that state of mind is invaluable.

When we reach it, time’s movement and measures fall away. The passing of time neither forces nor impedes; we move effortlessly through it. Later, once again inhabiting everyday consciousness, we look around blinking, wondering how long we spent in that heightened state. When was I last aware of the time? What time is it now? How long was time stopped? Only after the fact do we realize that we experienced an escape from time.

For those of us who don’t have $36,200 to spend on a not-watch, or who aren’t among the first 174 people in line to get one, there are more pictures and musings about the watch here. But we’ll need a different ritual for setting aside time.

Simply taking off a watch is one way to have such a ritual. It’s a sign of inhabiting a different mental space, outside of ordinary time. Another way might be to turn off the phones that claim so much of our attention. They’re a door to a wonderful world, but left open all the time they invite too much interruption.

Entering a ritualized process is another possibility: making a cup of tea, digging in a garden, participating in worship, engaging the imagination. We benefit from anything we can do to set aside time in a way that allows us to live well—to enjoy a meal or a conversation, to take a walk, to lose ourselves in something we enjoy, to create something new.

What kind of ritual helps you to suspend time?

 

Seeing the Picture

I’m remembering a dear uncle this week. Tall, gentle, and soft-spoken, his careful tamping of tobacco and patient lighting of his pipe fascinated me at family gatherings when I was a girl. Back then he was the only adult I knew who painted pictures, and I was confused when he said he didn’t think of himself as an artist.

One of his paintings was of a tree, which I remember him saying was out back of some building, in the parking lot. That was even more bewildering. How could something as special as a painting be made of something that sounded so ordinary? I would have learned an important lesson much earlier if I had been able to articulate that question, but I was a child with a thousand things I didn’t understand and no way to determine which I needed most to learn about.

Fortunately, I was able to know him long past childhood. He gave up his pipe in later years, and eventually failing eyesight took painting from him as well. But his sensibilities remained, and he appreciated the goodness of life. To talk with him was to share in a beautiful perspective on the world.

I took a break in the middle of the morning yesterday, from both the household chores I was taking care of and the writing I’ve been obsessing about for the past few days. Weary of all of it, I decided to just have a cup of coffee. Not to read or write, not to think or analyze or plan, but just to sit and look out the window and drink my coffee.

It was a beautiful day. The bright snow on the ground, the white-trimmed branches against a bright blue sky—“pretty as a picture” was the phrase that came to mind. It’s an old-fashioned idiom from a time when pictures were rare, special in a way utterly foreign to our image-flooded culture. But the phrase still evokes that sense of attention and value that comes with placing a frame around a scene. Making a picture is a way of saying this is worth noticing.

That’s what an artist can do. It’s what my uncle did when he saw something beautiful in an ordinary scene. Appreciating beauty doesn’t require a literal frame, but it helps to have some kind of reminder to pay attention. The frame could be the time it takes to drink a cup of coffee. It could be a particular place to be at a regular time of day. It might take the form of a ritual, like lighting a pipe.

It might even be a conversation with someone who can help you pay attention. Talking with Uncle Guyles often helped to frame something worth noticing. I’ll miss him.

What helps you frame the things you want to notice?

The Restorative Power of Deep Attention

This week I watched “Rivers and Tides,” a wonderful film directed by Thomas Riedelsheimer, about the art of Andy Goldsworthy. Goldsworthy works outdoors, often in the Scottish countryside where he lives. He uses elements from the natural world—leaves, stones, moss, bracken, ice—in surprising ways to create beautiful and powerful forms.

Andy Goldsworthy's Rivers & Tides

Much of his work endures only for a few hours, or even minutes, undone by elements as natural as the materials he uses. He brings to his work the expectation that it will soon yield to water, heat, gravity, wind, growth, decay, and time, incorporating nature’s claim on his creations into the viewer’s experience of the art. His ephemeral art, made of elements yielded by that particular place, are offered back to the landscape. Nature reclaims the elements of his work and once again changes their form. He says of a serpentine line of ice, made from icicle fragments and glowing gold in the rising sun, “The very thing that brings the work to life is the thing that will cause its death,” as the sculpture begins to melt.

In one sequence (you can view a clip here) he uses bleached driftwood to build a beautiful, domed structure with a perfectly round hole in the top, like the oculus of the Pantheon in Rome. He constructs it at a place where river and sea meet, the lines of the rounded walls echoing the swirling motion of the water next to it. As the tide comes in, the water washes up around the dome and lifts a few of the logs at its base. They separate from the structure, encircling it and becoming part of the circular flow mirrored by the lines of the dome. As it yields to the water, the dome becomes an even clearer expression of the motion it is made to suggest.

As Goldsworthy says in the film, “It doesn’t feel at all like destruction.” Eventually it is carried away by that very motion and incorporated into a flow it could only emulate when it was intact. He could be speaking of this circular structure later in the film when he says of another piece, “The sea has taken the work and made more of it than I ever could have hoped.”

Watching this film, I could feel my heartbeat slow, my breathing deepen, my muscles relax. When it ended, I felt the kind of inner quiet and spaciousness that comes after prayer or meditation. A sense of reverence infuses the film. It evokes a sense of wonder and of awe.

Goldsworthy’s rooted presence in the natural world, and his ability to convey it through his work and his words, are a rare gift. He brings deep attention to growth and change in nature, to the details of creation. He knows the characteristics of rocks and leaves, the path of the river, the ebb and flow of the tide. He seems to be exploring how to live in relationship with the overwhelming power of the natural world, finding ways to meet it with his own power as an artist, and working to know the world around him and his place in it.

His work is a reminder that we are part of a miraculous creation, in its enormity and power as well as its specificity and detail. Living with the kind of attention he brings helps us to be present for moments of divine clarity, when life on this earth shimmers with the presence of a reality beyond the one we can know.

What helps foster a sense of reverence in your life?

The Path Back to the Garden

I’ve recently read two good books: Women Food and God by Geneen Roth and The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. At first glance they seem to be about very different subjects—making peace with food and making art. But reading them in close proximity has me thinking about them together and finding connections I didn’t expect.

Geneen Roth’s work arises out of her experience with compulsive eating and her years of helping others separate food from the emotional issues tangled up with eating. But her insight is into addictions of all kinds. Seeking refuge in the addiction is how we abandon ourselves, withholding the attention to our own hearts that can show us what we most need to know.

She describes it as:

an attempt to avoid the absence (of love, comfort, knowing what to do) when we find ourselves in the desert of a particular moment, feeling, situation. In the process of resisting the emptiness, in the act of turning away from our feelings…we ignore what could utterly transform us.

Steven Pressfield’s work is about overcoming the resistance that arises in anyone attempting to do something new. An artist must recognize and conquer the impediments that inevitably arise when we try to shape a new creation, realize a new vision, or express a new idea. Resistance would enforce the status quo, having us abandon our risky calling and with it our highest self.

He writes:

To yield to Resistance deforms our spirit. It stunts us and makes us less than we are and were born to be. If you believe in God (and I do) you must declare Resistance evil, for it prevents us from achieving the life God intended when He endowed each of us with our own unique genius.

Both writers see the work we’re called to do as deeply connected with the divine. Both understand how easily we are kept from that work, and the heartache that ensues. Roth urges us to remain present to ourselves when we’re tempted to flee. Pressfield insists that we show up to do the work even when it feels impossible. They are connected.

Being present to ourselves allows us to do the work. Doing the work makes us present to ourselves. Both place us in the presence of God. Taking refuge in addiction is a kind of resistance to the life we’re called to live. Allowing resistance to come between us and our true work creates a false refuge in which we can never find a fulfilling life. Both are an attempt to hide when God calls our name.

An addiction cuts us off from the Tree of Knowledge standing in the center of the Garden. But as soon as we bring our attention to our behavior, to the thoughts and emotions driving it, the addiction shows us the way back. Likewise resistance keeps us out of the garden we were created to tend. No other work will give us satisfaction until we climb over the walls that stand between us and our calling.

What’s the next step leading back to the garden?

Chaos and Creation

Lately I’ve been reading Barbara C. Sproul’s Primal Myths, and enjoying her insight into creation stories from around the world. As she explains in her introduction, creation stories offer a glimpse of the infinite and unknowable by showing how that absolute reality permeates the world we know. The stories are concerned with the world we experience and its connection to the ground of all being, which lies beyond our experience. Creation myths express the spiritual truth that “the Holy is here as well as everywhere; it is now as well as always….The Holy is immanent as well as transcendent.”

There are many stories of beginnings, but I love those that show the world created out of the chaos that precedes all existence. The creator, standing outside of the categories of being and not-being, encounters a primordial sea of pure potential. From the abyss of unrealized possibilities the creator speaks a word, gives definition to an idea, and confers upon it existence. The creator fashions what has never been from the chaos of all that might be.

Sproul makes an interesting distinction between two kinds of chaos, one full of potential and the other a force for tearing down. A generative expression of chaos is very different from the forces of chaos that threaten to destroy. In Sproul’s words, the chaos that precedes creation “is a fruitful pre-order rather than a negative dis-order.” They’re probably related, but that’s another post.

The chaotic sea of potential is not something to resist; lingering there expands possibilities and allows a new vision to emerge. If we want to do something different from what we’ve done before, we can’t insist on putting thoughts and plans in order too quickly.

At the same time, to thrive we need structure that promotes health and well-being. We need enough order to support our basic needs, so that our attention can be freed to pursue what feeds the soul. A fruitful pre-order is necessary for creative work, but the chaos of disorder gets in the way.

I like to write early in the morning, before I do anything else. It’s a small-scale dip into the primordial chaos, when words carry news from another realm. I do that knowing that when I’m ready I can start the coffee brewing, turn on the computer, get breakfast, a shower, clean clothes, and move into the day.

But in the midst of my early-morning writing today, the power went out. No coffee. No internet. No hairdryer. No light in the bathroom. It made the morning a new challenge, requisitioning more attention than the usual routine requires. I set aside my work early to contend with the changed circumstances.

In a small way, this is an example of how disorder leaches energy from creative work. Establishing the rudiments of life requires effort in the best of circumstances, but without some kind of structure for support it’s hard to do more than get the basics covered.

There’s a limit to what I can control, and there’s only so much I can reasonably (or willingly) do to make life orderly. But I’m working to keep the distinction clear between the pre-order I need to encounter and the disorder that works against me.

What kind of relationship do you have with chaos?

The Moment of Creation

Lately I’ve been immersed in creation stories. These tales of the world’s beginning offer delightful images–from the universe on the back of a turtle to a spider’s weaving the world–unique and meaningful to the culture from which they emerge. They speak poetically of the meaning and value of life on earth, through the way they describe its origins.

Surprisingly often, they also share elements in common. Many stories begin with the loneliness and longing of the creator, and often involve wresting order out of chaos. Sound familiar? These themes echo through creation of any kind.

The ancient accounts of how the world was created hint at humanity’s deepest understanding of how something new comes into being. These rich stories offer brief sketches of the mystery of the creative process, and connect creativity to the source of life.

The story below is an example from the Hindu tradition. It’s part of the Nasadiya, or “There Was Nothing” hymn from the Rig Veda.

There was neither non-existence nor existence then; there was neither the realm of space nor the sky which is beyond. What stirred? Where? In whose protection? Was there water bottomlessly deep? There was neither death nor immortality then. There was no distinguishing sign of night, nor of day. That One breathed, windless, by its own impulse. Other than that there was nothing beyond. Darkness was hidden by darkness in the beginning; with no distinguishing sign, all this was water. The life force that was covered with emptiness, that One arose through the power of heat.

Desire came upon that One in the beginning; that was the first seed of mind. Poets seeking in their heart with wisdom found the bond of existence in non-existence. Their cord was extended across. Was there below? Was there above? There were seed-placers; there were powers. There was impulse beneath; there was giving-forth above.*

Creation is the work of the gods in these stories. When we echo this process in our own endeavors, we find that the human work of “little c” creation is also a monumental undertaking, if on a smaller scale. To bring something new into the world, we must transform the raw material we find within ourselves and in the world around us. Great effort and imagination is needed for the alchemy that changes experience into art. We need an infusion of divine energy to carry it out.

Beginning next week, I’ll be leading a workshop designed to gently lead artists of all kinds into their own creative process. Over a period of four weeks, we’ll look at how creation stories can inform the way we approach our work and encourage us in our creative efforts. We’ll allow the elements of the stories to move us into the work we long to do. The workshop is called Archetypes of Creation, and is offered through the Carnegie Center in Lexington, Kentucky.  I’d love for you to join us.

What in you is asking to be brought into the world?

*This story is quoted by J. F. Bierlein in Parallel Myths, p. 37-38. Ballantine Books, New York, 1994.