Alchemical Art: Angst Becomes Creation

In beautiful, wide-ranging post, Sybil at Art of the Spirit offers this about the place of the artist in the world as translator of the sou:

The artist opens the door to the present moment which is the only place to truly experience of the Divine. It is silly to try and pretend that darkness does not exist in the world, that we could exist without sadness, anger or pain. Artists help us to name and experience these emotions… to locate these feelings in the universal experience, their part in the never-ending upward spiral toward the Universal Maker which snakes from light to dark and back again.

What a brilliant reminder of how vital it is to respect and heed artists for the vital services they perform in our societies.

Chris Metcalf, Bikes, Lights and a Sledder (everystockphoto.com
Chris Metcalf, Bikes, Lights and a Sledder (everystockphoto.com

Today I am particularly struck by Sybil’s words because I feel like my walk across campus was like passing through a gauntlet of emotions. Every pair of students and every cell phone carrying individual I passed was engaged in heated conversation. There was no single, energizing event happening at the college that had everyone excited. People were just recounting their own dramas, all of which sounded like they were full of angst and strife.

A girl steamed angrily because she had been swindled on a car that had already broken down. Another describing how she had reason to storm from someone’s bed that morning. A couple looked to be in the middle of a break up on the library steps. Everywhere were words upon words meant to describe the darkness,anger, and pain mentioned above.

All of these stories seemed too fresh to yet get sublimated into art. The only creative expression was the art of venting. I am of two minds over whether venting equals the necessary release of emotions or an unproductive way to make sure the whole world cries with you. Regardless of what judgments I may have wanted to passed as I walked through all this venom and exegesis, all sorts of unpleasant was reality flying about.

No doubt, there is great creative potential to be uncovered on the other side of grief or getting really pissed off. I guess the magnitude of one’s creative power can be measured in how quickly that the alchemy can be performed that turns all that darkness into soul-enriching gold.

In my life, there has been a time for emotions – be they joy or grief, and then a time to of quietude to distill those feelings into a cocktail of (hopefully) artful words. Admittedly, the second stage, when I make something enduring from those great waves of feeling has always the optional stage. If I did get around to turning it all my real life drama into inspired creations, it all happened much later when I felt the dust had settled enough to make way for artistic inspiration.

But as I listen to all the frenzied conversations around campus, I realize how much energy is being released (wasted?) in such sessions.  What if I decide to harness my own such energy and choose to pour it onto the page? As fast as possible, not days later when I have already bored friends with my outrage.  I don’t want this to happen at the expense of living in the moment, but I wonder how this approach would color my waking life.  Can it help me cultivate the perspective of a creator, one who is always mining for the material to engage the next fit of creative fancy?

And then I wonder how my relationship with language and communication might change if I started reserving a portion of my passion that so often squandered on gossip and indignation.  Would it help me to realize that words matter? Would it give new potency to all that I do chose to voice?

At first, implementing this change may mean that I am writing down my frustrations rather than speaking them aloud.  Eventually though I am dreaming that the magic that is art may begin to invade and I will find a way to enact some of what Sybil describes, to help locate elation and defeat in the “universal experience.”

I Am the Author of My Own Perspective

endofmryLast week, during a snow day’s inspired bout of housecleaning, I found myself thinking back to an unusual and unforgettable book I read a couple of years ago, The End of Mr. Y by Scarlett Thomas. It’s a novel about consciousness and thought experiments and features a white mouse and lots of soggy french fries. You are never quite allowed to forget that the protagonist is a vegan, and her lingering fears of malnutrition preoccupy her thoughts as she endures poverty and a life on the run.

The author is an outspoken vegan herself, so it seems natural that her heroine would share her dietary ethics. I am sure that many writers paint their own essences into the characters they need to spend the most time with or whom they wish to love most. I know that I have trouble imagining I could really get inside the mind of a fictional person who was not a redhead (ok, I am trying to get beyond that!).

Knowing that writers populate their stories with individuals whose every action and thought is colored by their own creative drive, I realize how much I inflect the way I tell the story of my own life. By “telling the story of my life” I do not just mean the way that I filter things to write about them in this space, but the way that I let my internal narrator describe the events of the day as they happen and as they get stored in memory.

We all sit behind our eyes and interpret the events before us. I think that is inescapable and a potentially delicious part of being human. Still, in the same way there are Booker Prize winning novelists and lousy copy writers, there are also ways to be a brilliant commentator on your life and ways to be a hack journalist.

unicorn-2I have been finding myself spinning through some “he said/she said” conversational recaps of late, both parties realizing that neither is exactly sure what was said. Perspective is like the unicorn you dream might lurk in the corner of the room. A mythical entity that you really, really want to believe in, even if you secretly fear might just be a figment of the imagination.

I know that practice and dedication can make me a better writer and I know that awareness and compassion can make me a better witness to the events of my life as they pass before my always calculating eyes. Sure, there are spiritual schools out there that teach the bliss of detachment, and maybe someday I will be seeking that sort of release from the dictates of my own roving consciousness. For now, I am going to relax into the knowledge that I am in this world, and, in many ways, of this world. I just have to learn to look upon it with the wisest and kind gaze I can.

How can the day glow more brightly if I realize I am the one has the power to clean her glasses and increase the quality of the behind the scenes commentary?

Yeah, Work Is Work, But What Else Might It Be?

img_0784I have written many times about the tension between having a day job and wanting to pursue my writing and healing live full time.

Green as a Granny Smith apple, I look to the bloggers and friends who can dedicate all of their time to their creative pursuits. I wish constantly for the financial freedom or the artistic warriors’ courage that allows them to refuse the constraints of the nine to five.

I shadowbox with guilt that my work ethic isn’t strong enough, that I should knuckle down and realize I wasn’t born independently wealthy and that I love this new house and have to earn the salary to pay for my piece of it.

At the same time I try to sort out the root my aversion to my job. Is going to a temple of knowledge every day and being paid for my pains actually painful or is it just an amplified version of the drama everyone experiences on Monday mornings? What if my soul is trying to tell me that I must do something else? What if I just don’t realize how good my job could actually be?

These are all still rhetorical questions, because I sure as heck don’t have any of the answers to them. Yet.

One thing I have sorted out, however, is helping me find new peace with my job as I continue to show up there each day. It sprang from a great deal of soul searching I did over my vacation when I started to realize how worried I was about returning to work.

I have been afraid to either like my job or give it my best effort because it might lead to contentment.

Huh?

You see, I worried that if I was content in my work, the Universe might start to think that all I could do was take care of the logistics of a college library and design a few publications and manage a few budgets. The Universe (or God or my boss or myself) might start getting the idea that this life was ok for me and I could quit striving for that elusive something better. Even worse, I feared that that “something better” might stop trying to find me.

And so, I offered about 42% of my energy and attention to 40+ hours of my week. Somehow, I still expected to come home and switch into being able to give 110% of myself to writing and healing and loving my husband.

img_0788But, there is this thing called inertia. It the law that says that an object (or a redhead woman) is most likely to persist in a given state once she is already hanging out there. I am not sure what sort of magic I thought might happen during the commute home, but I guess I was hoping All Things Considered offered the alchemical secret of turning disaffected, scattered working girl into inspired, focused epiphany girl in the span of a thirty minute drive.

And so, I still have absolutely no idea if I am supposed to work toward escaping the relatively safe and predictable world of a salaried, benefit laden job in higher education (not that anything is all that stable these days) or if I am supposed to take all those risks and step into a “career” of my own creation. But, at least I am coming to understand the law of physics in my professional and creative lives and have stopped believing that I can make gold from the ashes of an unlived day.

I am dedicating myself to my job anew, and daring myself to look at every task and every person with fresh eyes. I am willing to risk offering all of myself to my position for the hours that I am paid to do so. Heck, if I do that maybe I can stop blogging about work on my own time!

What are your strategies for getting through the workday? Do you have this sense of tension too?

Those of you freed souls that we office-dwellers envy – what is it like on the other side? Any secrets you’d like to share with the class?

Still Sewing Together These Remnants of Self

http://www.everystockphoto.com/photo.php?imageId=808228

Tonight was my writing group’s holiday dinner. A mightily different crowd of people from my healing class, but a sweet and generous atmosphere all the same. I am the youngest in the group by a good twenty years, with the majority of the women already enjoying a well deserved retirement. There is talk of grandchildren and good therapists and the best female Episcopalian ministers, and, of course, books that change lives.

When asked about how my novel was going, I hesitated because, truth be told, fiction has taken a back seat to my healing work and my spiritual explorations and the words that I scatter here. For all my talk of integrating the self and walking around with a whole perspective, I suddenly found it difficult to marry my worlds.

There wasn’t the luxury of time or space to explain this whole other aspect of myself to a group of laughing ladies sipping champagne. They know me as the girl who writes stories about a painter of churches who struggles with his marriage and his faith. Smiling and nodding, they moved on to talk of waters more easily navigated, more updates on people they had known since their now grown children were small.

It certainly was not disinterest or rudeness that kept them from asking what sort of healing I do. I realized quickly, that for all their worldliness and their fascination with the human experience, energy healing was unfamiliar territory and required an introduction in a different setting. In the same spirit, to a group generally still wary of computers, mentioning that I kept a blog might not mean an awful lot.

Tonight was a valuable lesson for me in the art of carrying around a complete sense of self, but being alright with the fact that some people are tuned into smaller slices of who I am. To walk around constantly needing to flaunt my wholeness and announce myself as a writer and a healer and a spiritual seeker and a person with a library operations manager is just too much stuff – both for a business card and for polite conversation. All of those things are just details anyway – important details that describe how I spend my time, but details all the same that can never describe the true essence of who I am.

Still, I came home with a full belly and a slightly confused head. How will I sew the various remnants of my life together? It is one thing to know that it is not necessary for colleagues to understand the changes in my life – if they notice anything it might be that my rougher edges have been smoothed. But in a social situation, it is a little different to realize that it will be challenging to explain my shifts in priorities and talk about the things that truly matter to me.

I know that it will just take patience, and that I should not expect all of my revelations (understanding myself as a healer, as someone who communicates to people in a space like this) to take root in a week.

Isn’t one of the first lessons of writing “show, don’t tell“? When I walk through life wearing a cloak stitched with the wisdom I have gathered on my new path, I think I’ll find these worries will have flown with the moths that chewed up my old disguises.

Flow Through Different Worlds: Writing, Sharing, Loving

A couple of things you mightn’t expect when you first get to know me: I have a subscription to the Jesuit weekly magazine America and I check the entire college football schedule so I know how to plan the weekend.

My husband and I fell in love with versions of the other that were not totally representative of the sort of mates we would turn out to be. I partied a lot more and wrote a lot less and I lived in a cramped basement apartment without cable. Never did I realize what an autumn would really be like when I would have to share the man I love with a screen covered by giants in tight pants. Then again, he couldn’t realize the number of evenings I would spend with the door closed, constantly typing away.

In hopes of understanding my husband’s passion for watching sports on t.v., I opened the latest issue of America that is dedicated to “The Soul of Sports.” The article failed to enlighten me as to why someone can be so passionate about a game he cannot influence, but it did introduce me to Mihály Csíkszentmihályi’s concept of Flow Psychology.

“Flow” is described as the “holistic sensation present when we act with total involvement.” Csíkszentmihályi equates it with the Buddhists samadhi, or one-pointedness of mind. Though this article focuses on team sports and then turns to Ignatian spirituality, I thought about how I experience flow in my writing.

I write in two worlds, the pages of my novel and in this space. My writing group and select friends are great cheerleaders as my story progresses, while I rely almost exclusively on the comments of strangers when it comes to my blog. The delayed gratification and the lack of the dreaded blog stats page make crafting characters and plot seem like more like Flow, which is said to be marked by “egolessness.” In terms of this article, maybe working on my novel does fit the bill because it is meant to be about being in a space where the “explicit reflection on the self stops.” My experiences are wholly enmeshed with my fiction, but at least I feel like I am writing for the sake of the people I have cast on the page. The desire to write my way out of a day job is usually held at bay when the inspiration takes over and the words just come.

I cannot find an equal amount of selflessness in blogging, however (especially when I mention the word “self” at least once per post!). It’s more difficult to find that effortless movement of ideas in a genre that exists to be read and replied to immediately. Flow was the world of private journaling. Blogging is constant performance.

That said, I am making the connection: I read about Flow not as a commentary on the psychology of sport or writing, but in a religious publication. This piece puts the wisdom in Christian terms, which I still feel vaguely uncomfortable with, but I have to remember that Flow is yoga, Flow is the goal of meditation, Flow is something I have studied in so many different worlds. Flow could be sharing my thoughts with a simple goal of serving the reader with some ideas that may sweetly color her day.

I keep writing about my quest for wisdom, but I think it is time to remember that the process of writing and communication my vision of wholeness is an essential part of the journey.

Re-membering the Divided Self

One basic tenant of Wise Woman Working is the dedication to personal integrity. By that I mean recognizing the seemingly disparate parts of the self – the lover, the worker, the writer, the philosopher, the dreamer, the cynic, the timid child, the warrior queen – and realizing that they are all just part of the universe that is you.

To make such a statement is still a kind of magical thinking for me; if I say it aloud maybe it could happen for me as well. This sort of unification is exactly what I would tell you stops me from emerging from cave of own dramas into the open vistas of the True Self.*

I don’t want to eke out my life like a resource in short supply. The only selfish life is a timid one. To hold back, to withdraw, to keep the best in reserve both overvalues the self and undervalues what the self is. Here’s my life – I have to mine it, farm it, trade it, tenant it and when the lease is up it cannot be renewed. Here’s my chance. I’ll take it.

from The Powerbook, Jeanette Winterson

In my pursuit of some sort of idealized self I have shattered my being into tiny shards. I send one version to work; she is wraith-like and incomplete. Giving all of myself to something as unenlightened as the pursuit of a paycheck may somehow diminish the real me who is meant to be extraordinary, who is meant to create and to heal. Another version of myself exists in a marriage and learns how to keeps pieces of herself in shadow so that she does not appear too selfish, so that my husband will not think that I value the written word over a good clean kitchen (because this incomplete version of me forgets that our love is forged on a lot more than sparkling counter tops). The me that sits and types in the early hours of the morning and meditates and chants Om on a yoga mat is meant to be the truest expression of who I am. I rely on her when the other characters in my cast cannot provide enough sustenance. She must be constantly ready to conjure something wonderful, even if I have been starving all of the other aspects of who I am by telling them they are not enough.

The thing is, the idealized version of me who has fairy wings and a halo and a yet unwritten book that will eventually change lives can never support the dreams of a complete person because she herself has been winnowed away. Every day I forfeit too many parts of my being to ever pretend to have the sort of integrity that can lead to real wisdom.

And so I dedicate myself to the task of re-membering a self that was never meant to be a prism, refracting the light and bouncing colors in a million different directions. Instead I will be the rainbow itself – brilliant with different hues, but still a united spectrum that cuts across the sky.

On Writing and Not Writing

I’m sure I have been away from writing in this space for many reasons.  I’ve been consumed by a general need not to communicate what seems an inner process of becoming.  It was clear to me that I was focusing so much on all of the personal growth that was fit to print that I started ignoring all of the oh-so-important darker places that don’t need the spotlight of a public forum.  Also, I have been experiencing a sense of freedom, several new verandas opening in my mind, when I do not have need to wonder whether anyone read me today, understood me today, was shocked by me today.

At the same time, I have missed the near daily practice of sharing all of my epiphanies because the need to write fed my spiritual reading and meditation.  Without the need to churn out a few hundred words each night I have not necessarily been seeking ways to meet and describe the divine.  Instead, I have allowed a handful of “real world” concerns to draw my attention.  It is only becoming clear to me now that some of my struggles could be filled with a lot less, well, struggle if I could remember my ideals of surrender and belief.

Also a renewed interest in fiction has drawn me away from all of this navel gazing – I mean soul searching.  I have been invited to join a wonderful writing group and am in the process of dusting off some old stories I had left to languish just about a year ago when I found myself drawn to the quest for mysticism and mantra.  At this point, I can hope that I can unify these two loves – to find a way that spirit can enliven story, and vice versa.  Driving to the Cape last weekend I listened to this amazing lecture by Sue Monk Kidd.  It’s clear how her own spiritual quest for the divine feminine after year in traditional Christianity inform her novels.

Two other recommendations: The Maytrees by Annie Dillard (such brilliantly poetic writing to describe mid-twentieth century bohemian Provincetown) and The Spiral Staircase by Karen Armstrong (such a compelling glimpse into the now-theologian’s journey from the convent through late 1960s Oxford).

The Reading Radicals

Over lunch, a friend and I were talking about my post from yesterday and about David Edwards’s Burning All Illusions. Though I still fear that some of his ideas are being called in from way too far out in left field, it was wonderful to share ideas with some one who also senses that there is a kind of madness lurking at the edges of our nicely constructed social reality. She and I both would identify as “conscious hypocrites” (my husband’s phrase – he certainly includes himself in this camp too); sometimes I think we tend to get carried away by the sweep of our own consciousness. But that is another matter…

Since we are both library types, we drifted to the topic of the book itself. Usually, I am an obsessive underliner who has not truly absorbed a work unless its margins are dripping with my slanted script, but this time I actually borrowed Edwards’s book from the library. I was pleased because I found I was interacting with the text in a different way by taking notes in my journal as I read. Instead of cramming my thoughts between printed paragraphs, I was able to take the time to move further into ideas and take them over several pages. My liberation from the book was enabled by the fact that Google Books has the text available online. I could mark page numbers in my notes with the confidence that I could reference the book whenever I needed – even without paying Amazon twelve or fifteen dollars for the privilege.

I was about to wax complimentary on the fact that Edwards was such a democratic soul (in the originaly sense of “democratic” that goes beyond the limping giant that currently could be called democracy) that he allowed his decade old book to be fully available online, but I just looked a little closer and realized that “limited preview” in this case means that scattered pages are missing. The first chapters seem fully available, but it seems they start leaving out bits of the punchline as you delve deeper into the work. I guess I will figure out how lucky a reader I am depending on whether the passages I found most stirring are available. At any rate, the limitations of digitization projects does not really affect what we were trying to discuss (though it may prove a lot about my ambivalence about compensating people for their work and wanting to make information available to everyone).

We talked about the ownership of books and the drive to possess knowledge if not by reading them, then at least by purchasing them. There is so much ego tied up in filling shelves with spines that reflect who we are as people, both to those who might visit our homes and to ourselves (when all seems too confusing and desperate, at least we stare at the legion of titles and contemplate all of those authors who had things figured out well enough to write it all down). In a time when we drown in paper and curse junk mail and do not even have time to keep up with the magazines that arrive like clockwork, how is it that we can justify purchasing just one more book to get us over the free shipping limit?

My friend had the idea that it is an inherent distrust in the structures of our culture to be the ideal guardians of a beloved book; she felt that there were some volumes she couldn’t leave to chance because they just meant too much to her. I agree with that need to protect an object we can love so intimately, a sacred symbol of the ideas that alter the course of lives. Also I think such behavior is a half-acknowledgment of the sense of impermanence so many of us have. But I also think it to be an interesting example of the way that our addiction to the material and to security in general becomes abundantly clear. I can become galvanized by idealistic talk of changing the way that society defines success and decry the capitalist system that allows the rich to become even more ridiculously wealthy at the expense of those who happen to speak funny languages or live in far flung lands, but I shudder at giving up a book collecting habit that can be described as nothing other than a crazy luxury (especially since, as I said, I spend Monday through Friday in a library boasting one million volumes).

This little radical heart has a lot more searching to do before it is going to convince this bibliophile to change her ways. Maybe if I do a little more reading…

(And thanks to the divine Miss M for inadvertently playing a role in tonight’s entry!)

Waves of Language and Silence

Over the last week I have felt what it is to be swept along by my own words and by the awareness that I have readers out there who have been reading through all of this woven language. Last weekend, I pointed to the obvious paradox of forming human thought and pouring out sentences and paragraphs to describe that which cannot be described. Again, I feel overcome by the inadequacy of writing. Somehow it is because I love words so much that I must flow with their waves, and I must accept my need to recede from communication from time to time.  It is in recognizing when language risks losing its power that I cultivate a truer respect for what it may be I am trying to say.  I must stop trying to pound every experience into measured meaning and let myself float in a sense of unstructured being.

Thanks to all who have commented on my blog over the past week – I value all that you have shared with me and know myself blessed to have others out there who will dare me to think in new ways all the time.  On Saturday, I could not bear to get back to the keyboard, but I found comfort beyond measure in a room lit by one candle, simply allowing myself to receive.  Only at that moment could I integrate my own rhetoric into a version of truth.  It makes me realize that those masters we have grown to love on the pages of books were not trying to churn out a daily blog post about every step along the path.  They were permitted secret, unpunctuated silence.

I’ll be be back when the wave seems ready to crest again.

Definitions, Categories, and Other Roadblocks on the Way to God

A couple of years ago I sat in a colleague’s office in the midst of yet another existential crisis (as you might surmise by the fact that I was sharing such a dilemma with a coworker, she is also a good friend). I was agonizing over whether I should enroll in a graduate program to get a master’s in library science. There were loads of good reasons to do it: my experience would set me up well for a job in academia; I hadn’t been to school in a few years and was starting to miss my student status; there seemed to be a general feeling of “what are you going to do next?” and this seemed a logical answer. Of course, the main reason I could cite in opposition to committing the next two or three years to my life to this pursuit was that I really didn’t want to be a librarian. At the time, that did not seem like a compelling enough answer to give up the idea.

My friend sagely observed that I was just wanted to be able to tell people: “I am a… something.” My currently ambiguous job title could be traded for a recognized profession and I could rest assured that I had secured a stable identity. When I was too scared to present myself as a writer, or it felt too new and strange to call myself a wife, or when calling myself a feminist or a redhead or a Cape Codder or a spiritual seeker felt too limiting or unacceptable or broad, I could cheerily fight the stereotype of a geriatric creature in a bun with a habit of shushing people as a declared a librarian.

Fully realizing that this quest for a title is practically a caricature of my need to construct and cling to my fragile false self, I can laugh at this misbegotten bid for a prepackaged mask. This is not to say that I no longer cling to my ego, but at least my need for it is slightly less transparent these days.

This episode belies my addiction categorization, even as my right-brained literature studying being seems to shun such logic. I think part of that came from feeling lost in the free flowing waters of fiction and poetry; I required some vocabulary to help me structure my education, a few rocks to cling to in that eddy of words and expression. Part of it, of course, must be human nature as well. Even now, I refuse to cleave to any specific religion but I still seek to build a framework of earthly logic upon which to hang my experience of the Divine in my life. I dance with definition – longing for it even as I endlessly dart away from its comforting grasp.

Of course, as I unpack this box of thoughts by seeing them sprawl across the screen, I realize that all spiritual writing and even thinking is produced against the backdrop of this essential paradox: we write and read to understand and describe that which can never be captured on the page or even by the mind. Another elementary epiphany, I realize, but something that I need to remember as I repeatedly make the mistake of choosing theory over practice, reading that book about meditation opposed to, well, you know.

All of this comes to mind specifically after reading about the difference between Celtic spirituality and mysticism at The Website of Unknowing. I was presented with so many new terms in that post, and the ersatz librarian in me longed to start researching words like “apophatic” and “cataphatic.” While such knowledge has its place however, and I recognize the site’s writer to be incredibly learned, I am going to make a conscious effort to avoid discovering the tenets of such dichotomies for a while and experiment with trusting experience and the wisdom of the body rather than trying to cultivate further encyclopedic book smarts.

Surely all of this is a delicate balance as we gain insights from great thinkers and mystics even as we risk using their quotes and vignettes as crutches that allow us to hobble ever away from the sacred.