Friday, September 23, 2011

That Box of Rocks

A Spiral Dance essay

This morning it's all I can do to wake up after a heavy sleep. A sleep induced by chemical agency I'd rather avoid, but at least it was a refreshing sleep. And a hard process waking up. I'm never a quick awakener anymore, and even slower now. At some point, maybe a cup of tea and a good book later, maybe after a half-hour of hands-on meditation and healing, there's a switch that gets thrown in the back on the mind and suddenly I'm alert, aware, able to parse the day's needs. Till then, I am a slow evolving, a fish who just climbed out onto land for the first time, gasping, trying to learn to breathe. Till the spark inhabits the mind, I am a slow ember, a dark waving of treebranches in shadow, pointing towards the river hidden beyond. A walk to the river is no walk at all. It barely stirs the rushes. I am inarticulate. The neighbors wave and want to chat, and it's all I can do to wave back, smile, and keep strolling. Conversation this early in my day is a calamity. I never want to be social till I'm fully awake, fully aware. Even then, some days being social is a drain. As lonely and isolated as I feel some days, morning silence is never unfriendly. Ask me again in an hour, and I'm sure I'll be a cheerful companion. Till then, ignore my silence. Or better yet, leave it alone, and take your need for chatter with the waitress off to the diner, and leave me in peace.

I am immersed right now in writing words and music. It keeps me alive. Its demands keep me going. All else is not much fun, and if I let myself think about requirements and obligations demanded of me by the outside world, I get cranky and irritable. The disordered illogic of bureaucratic systems is enraging. It's not even a matter of putting up with necessity. It's that you're aware of how fragile and arbitrary it all is. It could all fall apart at any moment. Life itself is irrepressible. Those who decry the end of life are usually referring to their own way of life, not yours.

People, even people who should know better, try to sell you on the idea that if you had a better tool for making art, your art would improve. (Of course they're happy to sell you a better tool, to their profit.) It's not about the tools. Good tools do help make great art, it's true. But a great musician would make great music no matter which tools were available. A great musician could sit down, and be handed a box of rocks, and make music out of that. What makes a great musician, or artist, is the attitude of working with whatever is at hand: Let's see what we can make from this. Great artists I've known have an open-ended sense of wonder and exploration, very child-like in many ways, that allows them to see what's actually there, rather than what most people think is there. They do not pre-judge, they observe; and they have an experimental approach to both work and life. Life is a work of art, making art is a way of life; they're not separate, and both are experiments, trial and error till something good happens. Meanwhile, you learn as much as you can about what you're doing, about how you're living. Making art is an ecological practice: art, environment, life, all are intertwined.

Most people never can see past their own projections: what they think is there. They catalog and dismiss. They move on quickly to the next row, to catalog and dismiss that, too. They believe that a sense of accomplishment lies in how much, how quickly, one is able to catalog and dismiss. But wizards, and bards, and artists, see what's really there. They know that there's no end to learning, and many thing are so vast that in the end they will remain mysterious and unknown, even given a lifetime of study. They see what others do not see mostly because others are not looking. I've said this all before. The only people who listened were those who already understood the truth of it. My fellow wizards, bards, and artists.

Most people see only what they want to see, believe what they want to believe. There is a vast distance separating them from what is really there, and they cling to that gap with all their might. Most people believe that if they recite a cant a hundred times, it becomes true. They believe that about political policy, and they believe that about healing affirmations: if you say it's true, enough times, with enough force, it becomes true.

But the world is resistant. It has its own momentum. You can't turn a turnip into a forest by sheer force of will. Your will imposed on the world is your first, childish mistake. Unlike the musician who, presented with a box of rocks, makes some music from them, your stance is refuse to use the rocks, because they're impractical and unsuitable. The basic definition of ego is fear of change, because all change begins in the self. The ego clings to its own image of its changeless self, and is a master of denial. Don't pay attention to the facts, here's what's really true, says the ego. Political display is ego-display; that's not a new insight. National identity is bound up with ego and its fears of change. Confrontation with the Other is terrifying to most, because on some level they know it will require change. They reject the box of rocks because they're not homeland rocks, and they're not the right flag-borne color anyway.

Politics without artists, without naturalists with thirty years of field experience sitting by the river and observing its ecosystem, is hollow politics. It's incestuous and self-serving. More than forty years ago Rachel Carson disturbed the universe by writing her book Silent Spring, and taking to task what we were doing to the environment. She was roundly attacked by the vested political and chemical-company interests, but she was proved right. Her book led directly to the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency. Look who is trying to dismantle that agency now, forty years after it was founded: the vested chemical-company interests, and the politicians they bought. For the sake of expediency and profit they want to go back to poisoning the natural world. The natural world, they want us to forget or ignore, is also the world we live in. For our own self-interest, we can't afford to shit where we sleep. We will pollute ourselves in our own wastes, unto death. This is not news. This is not a new insight. Why then must it be repeated as if it were news?

Because politics without a sense of the sacred is hollow and self-serving. Without a sense of social justice, in which social justice is part of the fabric of the ecosystem, there is no real justice. Without a sense of human equality with all other creatures we share the planet with, we get a sense of entitled superiority that sees nothing wrong with destroying the very systems that keep it alive, all in name of short-term goals. Politics with no long view is murderous and suicidal.

The world resists being controlled. If you think you're the master of the world, you're deluded. If you think you're even the master of your own small corner of the world, you've never understood true mastery. True mastery is husbandry. It's cajoling the world to be more like what it aspires to be, to evolve, to be better than it is, to find efficient solutions to its patterns. Wizards are ecologists at root, because all you're really doing is helping the world be what it most wants to be. Life is irrepressible, and wants to grow. Nobody wants to die, as inevitable as that might be. Everything wants to reach its full flowering, reaches its fulfillment, finds its purpose and meaning. Nothing makes the box of rocks happier than for a great musician to make music with it, or for a child to fantasize a castle wall and moat made from it. That wall wants to hold together, not fall. When you help it stay upright, and fulfill its purpose, you've made the world into its better self. All you do is help. Life is meant to be about service.

Life is meant to be about service, not about self-fulfillment. Actually, those are not contradictory, because few things are more fulfilling than a life of dedicated service. What you are in service to, well, that's where you have to figure out your own purpose in life. For myself, it's finally clear, after decades of distraction and being waylaid by people telling me what I should be doing, that my own life is meant to be in service of the art, music, and poetry that I make. Decades were spent trying to fit into the ideas and patterns and plans that others told me my life should be about. Now I now they were all wrong. Burn those old maps, they'll just lead you astray.

I have lost all my maps, again. I've had significant practice in losing my maps before. I've been through the dark night of the senses, then the dark night of the soul, when all the maps, and all contact with God, are taken away from you. In that outer darkness, echoing back, all you can hear are your own fearful limits. I have lost my mental maps more than once, this lifetime. Now, after the surgery, after the recovery, still recovering, beginning to prepare about moving forward towards the completion of the medical narrative of recovery, with new maps imposed on me about where I am expected to arrive so that the restoration of my life through another surgery and recovery can be made complete, I find myself angrily rejecting those maps again. I am exhausted with other peoples' ideas of where I'm supposed to be, what I'm supposed to do, who I'm supposed to become. I am being presented with constantly-changing narratives of expectations, told that I have to arrive on that shore by my own will and and under my power, told when I ask for help and a crew to man my boat that it isn't available. That I'm on my own, again, with no one to either count on or to help me arrive without blame.

If I've learned anything, it's that every time you survive something life-threatening, you have to redraw the maps. Or make new ones. I've learned, several times, so that it seems like it was all practice for what I'm dealing with right now, right here, that I have to constantly remake my own maps. And just as constantly be willing to let older maps blow off the bowsprit, into the wind. Parchment leaves in the wind, falling into the sea. I find myself once again mapless and uncertain of the territory. Everything is made new, and I don't know the lay of the land anymore. You bet that strikes a nerve. It also strikes a chord, ringing out of the very air: a celestial music, a ring of voices of angels, which, after all, sound a lot like the music you can make out of a box of rocks.

Angel, speak to me. You forbidding and blaring foghorn, you long night of nothing in the wind but cedar chatter, you long road of suffering and rebirth, you constant immolation and dying, you desert silence, speak to me. Speak to me of the ghats in Varanasi where the bodies of holy ancestors are burned, given to the wind. Speak to me of the dessicated ribs of Joshua Trees in the desert, which slipstream the wind around themselves. Speak to me of the quiet brown river curving under overhanging trees, wind riffling its surface under unsteady light and uncertain clouds. Speak to me, angel, of my own death and rebirth: not for the first time, either, but just the latest in a long series of unmapped reincarnations. I've died and come to life again, angel. This morning, my mind finally clear enough to be able to face the day, is just one more evolution of consciousness, reborn out of sleep into waking life. I find some kind of quiet exultation in the wind in the cedars, the annoyed bluejay shrieking from the pear tree's summit. Life will go on. Life will find a way.

Even when I die and am reborn again, which is inevitable, unavoidable, and neither to be feared nor unwelcomed, I see, with the bard's eye behind my own everyday gaze, that this is just part of the spiral pattern that is my greatest work of art so far, my life. Angel, I've finally learned that I'd settle for starvation and homelessness as long as I can make music, make art, make photographs. Nothing else matters as much, I don[t need much else. I've finally learned that it's more important than anything else I've ever done, to just give in and make art. It doesn't even matter how it gets received, or used. My life of service is to be in service to that which prompts me to make art. My life of service is to be in service to art. I'm a slow learner, it only took me my entire life, and this latest death and rebirth, to at last sort out my priorities and stop giving a damn what anyone else thinks about it. That was a tough one, angel. I've always had a hard time ignoring the outer shell of advice. Well-meant or not, it was useless all along. I see that now. I am at last seeing what's really there: that the most wonderful thing I can do with my life is burn myself up in the actinic blue fire of Creation, to spend all my life on living art and making life, and bring as much of the Creation into view as I can, which is the purpose of making art: to praise and reveal the Creation. All a poet can do is praise. That's all the purpose there is.

Since I died, and was reborn, I've started another new way of art, one that I've been meaning to investigate for a long time. But now, there's no time like the present, nearly dying has re-sorted my priorities, and there's point in waiting to do something you've always wanted to do, and are in fact meant to do. After my parents died, I took up teaching myself to draw with colored pencils: a very conscious choice of learning a completely new art medium, for the first time free of any need for, or possibility of, parental approval or rejection. For the first time, I was doing art that nobody could catalog and dismiss, that those family-born voices could no longer say was unworthy. It didn't even matter if I ever got good at drawing with colored pencils; that wasn't the point. Nor was it necessary to be like every other colored-pencil artist, and create photo-realistic drawings such as they teach you in the how-to books. I have no interest in being like everyone else; I'll skip the perfectionism this time around, thank you. And so, now, I've done it again: started another new artistic process that is brand new to me, that reveals a world never seen before, and reveals it in ways both imaginative and spiritual. Namely, I finally allowed myself to get into infrared photography. Now, with digital cameras, it's technically more approachable and easier than back in the film camera days; I was stopped back then by the difficulties of technical mastery. Now, in the past few weeks, with a new infrared photography system for my existing camera, I've found myself looking at the world anew, all over again with new eyes, as if for the first time, revealed in the first light of the first day of Creation.

And that's essential. With the loss of the old maps, I have to make new maps. Finally, I know that my new maps always have to be crayon drawings, finger-paintings, child-like renderings of the terrain as a bard, an artists, or a musician using sonar echo-location, would see it. My new maps, angel, must always be seen from the ground, not from the air. And they have to be paintings, not technical drawings. Great painters have always taught us to see the world in a new way, in new light. Great photographers have revealed the world as never seen by the unaided eye. Great musicians have opened our ears. Charles Ives once demanded of an audience for one of his difficult, dissonant new compositions: "Stand up and use your ears like a man!" That's great advice, angel with the voice of a foghorn or a bluejay. As long as there is surprise and discovery in this new life, this life whose purpose is at last known to be about nothing but making art, and like a wizard-poet, a wizard-artist, revealing the world the way it wants to be revealed, for its own purpose and joy, as long as there is joy and making, then I will have lived well. Any new maps I must remake will be good ones, even if as usual only temporary. I can always make more.

This morning, after a sunny dawn, thin gray clouds have covered the sky. But it's not an oncoming storm. It's the edge of possibility. Map it out, get it down. Finish your tea. Go make some art, sufficient to the day.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I like this line especially: "I have lost all my maps, again."

Being lost is a relative matter. We're not really lost as long as we're looking for maps and/or trying to create new ones.

The new maps will be better than the old ones as the terrain has changed in the interim.

I often enjoy getting lost. Partly because when I'm lost I don't have to worry about getting lost any more. And that worry is a heavy burden on my soul. But also because being lost is necessary for discovery.

3:35 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Sometimes I think it's best to cease striving and just rest in Unknowing. That's a tremendously fertile and potential a place to rest. Since I keep arriving there, maps or no maps, why not pause awhile and just watch a local sunset.

I enjoy visiting places I've never been before. I sometimes deliberately "get lost" when I'm on a cross-country roadtrip. Of course, I'm never really lost, I always know more or less where I am. I'm very good at reading maps. But I notice how alert and aware I become when I'm on a stretch of road I've never seen before. Everything becomes alive.

And I think that may be one good reason to lose the maps: To see the world afresh, anew, with new eyes. To see what's really there, rather than what we think is there.

So I agree that getting lost is a good road to discovery.

12:13 AM  

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