A perfect pairing for a Wednesday morning. Mellow jazz and my favorite color.
“The function of language is not to inform but to evoke . . . responses.” So writes Jacques Lacan, the French philosopher and linguist.
But perhaps the same could be said of art, or music, or dance. Any creative endeavor. Certainly it’s true of blogging. We create what we do with the explicit purpose of evoking responses from some largely unknown Other. It a very human thing. The desire to touch and to be touched. To share what we love, what evokes responses in us, with the hope of evoking similar responses from them.
I wrote about this some time ago in Blogging and the Accident of Touching. But I wanted to revisit it, to reassess why I put so much time into blogging. What is its value, to me, to others? Why do I persist?
What I love about blogging is being able to share the things that are meaningful to me with others–art, music, poetry, literature, nature. But also discovering from others new art, new music, new ways of looking at and being in the world. That reciprocity. That sense of connection. What do they love that I may love too? How will it deepen and broaden and enrich my own experience of life? Every day is a new discovery, a new love, a new insight into what it means to be.
In that original post I likened blogging to “those conversations we have in the wee hours of the morning . . . ”
“. . . when the party is over and all have left except for those few lingering souls who find themselves opening up to each other in ways they could never do when meeting on the street or over dinner. Those 3 AM conversations, you know.
That’s how blogging often is done too, late at night when we can’t sleep, or after we’ve put our novel to bed, or when we wake early and are seeking the company of other early risers, or those living half-way round the world from us.
We can share our thoughts and evoke responses in our own time, and others can respond in the same way, with a quick “like” or a longer comment. And we can respond in return.
It’s a way of reaching out to others that for some feels more comfortable than the spoken word. I feel I may be getting “the best” of them in those wee hour revelations, as they are getting the best I have to offer, a side of myself I seldom share apart from the written page.
There’s another part to all this, why we write, why we blog, which a woman who would not be forgotten wrote about a thousand years ago:
“Again and again something in one’s own life, or in the life around one, will seem so important that one cannot bear to let it pass into oblivion. There must never come a time, the writer feels, when people do not know about this.” —Shikibu Murasaki, Tale of Genji (978 – 1014 AD)
Touching and being touched, yes. That’s part of why we blog. But also passing along to a larger world something of ourselves that seems too vital to pass into oblivion. In some small way, perhaps, this blogging about our lives, our loves, our insights, our art, is a way of passing on through the minds of others a part of our larger self. Letting it echo out there in the universe for a wider while.
As I’ve begun learning to replay the piano, I’ve been amazed to realize what a complicated endeavor it is. It seems your mind has to be actively engaged full-tilt in at least nine different directions at once.
Learning to sight-read again is difficult enough in itself, memorizing all the keys and flats and sharps in the treble as well as bass clefts, then adding in the kinds of notes and how long to hold each, when to rest, when to repeat, when to go to an octave higher.
But all that’s child play compare to actually playing the notes as you scan the score, each hand going off in a different direction at the same time, while remembering the complex fingering of keys, as your fingers scamper up and down the keyboard, sometimes crossing over each other.
Then try adding the pedal to that, remembering when to press down to sustain the notes, when to let up. Never mind remembering where to speed up, slow down, play louder or softer. And all that with feeling, to express the emotional content of the score.
The thing we’re after, of course, is to learn to play the piece so well that our muscle memory takes over and the fingers themselves know what to do, where to go and how to play. Then you become the instrument through which the piece plays itself, so to speak. How peaceful that is. No wonder we go into ecstatic rapture when that happens.
But to get to that point is extremely difficult and complex, and time-consuming, requiring tons of discipline and dedication as well as pure love for the instrument and the music you are attempting to master.
Which is why performances like that of Martha Argerich, considered the finest living pianists today, is so mesmerizing. Watch how her hands fly over the keyboard, how her body leans into the score, how her face expresses the depth of her feelings as she plays.
Watching this, I wasn’t surprised to find in an article on Brain Pickings last week how “playing music is the brain’s equivalent of a full-body workout.”
Playing an instrument engages practically every area of the brain at once — especially the visual, auditory, and motor cortices. And, as in any other workout, disciplined, structured practice in playing music strengthens those brain functions, allowing us to apply that strength to other activities.
Robert Jordain in his book Music, The Brain, and Ecstasy agrees:
No human undertaking is so formidable as playing a musical instrument. Athletes and dancers may drive their bodies to greater exertions; scholars ma juggle more elaborate conceptual hierarchies; painters and writers may project greater imagination and personality. But it is musicians who must draw together every aspect of mind and body, melding athleticism with intellect, memory, creativity, and emotion, all in gracious concert.
A properly trained pianist plays all at once from fingers, wrists, elbows, shoulders, and spine, every joint in exquisite coordination as legs support and pedal. When the torso sways upon the bench, every joint continuously adjusts its relationship to every other in an enormously complex running calculus . . . Accurate movement requires that the brain monitor every result of its efforts in a perpetual loop of feedback and adjustment.
So every sensory system except those for taste and smell is put to work reporting what has happened after a movement is made. . . . . Meanwhile, the visual system runs helter-skelter, one moment decoding dozens of dots on a printed page, the next aligning hands to keyboard, then darting off to gather timing cues from fellow musicians.
None of this commotion would be worth much were it not for emotions welling up through the mind’s floorboards. It is the joy of so pure an expression of emotion that draws musicians to the profession.
The musician at once commands the notes and is ravished by them.
Certainly all of this can be seen in Argerich’s playing. I am in awe when I watch her. And I wonder why I never heard of her until I was doing research for this post. Rubenstein, Horowitz, Glen Gould, Van Caliburn, all great classical pianists, all household names, all male. But the greatest of them all, according to so many lists I’ve seen, is this beautiful, Argentine woman who I had never heard of before. How can that be?
Apparently she is a legend in the classical world, “but she doesn’t act like one,” according to an article in the Washington Post last year.
She’s private, moody and unpredictable. She’s wildly beautiful, with a long, thick mass of hair — once dark, now gray — and a radiant, quick smile, and at 75, she still wears the peasant blouses and cotton pants of a teenager circa 1968. And she plays the piano brilliantly, ferociously and, perhaps, better than anyone else on Earth.
Some say that her performances on U-Tube are responsible for a new resurgence of interest in and accolades for her work among the general public. I’m happy that I found her there. She demonstrates so beautifully what that full-body workout of the brain looks and sounds like.
I know now why I saved it, and why I will save it again. She speaks my language and the language of so many creative people I know. That she feels the same way about art, writing and the sacred as I do, is an affirmation. That she expresses it in ways that inspire me anew is a gift.
I hope her words will inspire you as well.
“I write for the same reasons other people dance or paint, I suppose. Any art is an intensifier of experience, an exploration of experience itself. The recruiting of one’s faculties in order to do something so difficult and, in the ordinary sense, unnecessary, is really very interesting, in part because so human. I feel that I am in the world in a particularly interesting way when I am writing, or doing anything that makes that kind of demand.
Of course there are things I wish to express, but it is truer to say that I find or understand them in the course of writing than it is to say that the writing simply serves as a way to express them”
“I share the Emersonian view that language is metaphorical in its origins and its fundamental character. The fossil poetry of single words is generally lost to familiarity, and we forget the potency of syntax, its amazing ability to capture meaning. Extended metaphors have syntax at a larger scale, and they exploit the fact that the mind moves through the likenesses in things.”
“Melville and Faulkner both write from a love of the splendors of consciousness, of the largest life of consciousness, including such things as knowledge and speculation, never to the exclusion—instead the enhancement—of immediate experience . . . . They explore conceptions of reality that are vast, generous, open and as ambitious as any metaphysics. The demands they make on language and the possibilities they open for it—these are the things that yield great prose. And, in the case of the Old Testament, great poetry.
The Old Testament is an entire, complex literature, which developed over a thousand years—a conservative estimate. It is dedicated to the proposition that human life and human history have very high meaning . . . and to the proposition that the cataclysmic world and obstreperous humankind are essentially holy and good. So it is a very this-worldly text in which metaphysical attention is brought to bear on sunlight and childbearing and warfare and greed and love and despair.
All its great beauty is earned by the directness with which it confronts , and laments and celebrates the world as it is . . . . The beauty of the literature is the character of its engagement, the lyrical or pained or astonished—but always imperfect—perception of the holy.”
“I don’t really accept the distinction between sacred and secular. . . . Nothing is without meaning, [everything] has its truest meaning under the aspect of eternity. The fact that we have no name for the sacredness of most ordinary things does not by any means put them in a searate category.”
“Write the book you want to read. Never calculate or condescend. Keep your eyes open. Listen for the music of the language. Enrich you own sense of things and then be loyal to it.”
I began this blog five years ago, in July 2012. It’s been a wild ride, and I’ve loved every minute of it. My first post earned me one “like” and no comments, and now I have over 9000 followers, mostly due to being “Freshly Pressed” three times.
Still, it’s humbling.
When you start blogging it’s like tapping out a weak signal into a vast universe wondering if there’s anyone out there listening who will pick up and respond.
You feel small and alone at first, but powerful too, like that first explorer setting out into the wilderness, not knowing what you will find there, if anything at all.
And then you get your first ping back, a response. That’s all it takes. You’re not alone after all. Someone is listening, someone like you, and community of like-minded adventurers is formed. Your little spacecraft has a purpose, and a grounding (a following), as you zip through cyberspace exploring what’s out there.
The purpose of this blog, as I wrote about in my first post , has not changed much, although the emphasis has shifted over time.
“I created this blog to explore what it means to be living on the edge of the wild.
We all are, in some way, living on the edge of the wild, either literally or figuratively, whether we know it or not. We all are standing at the edge of some great unknown, exploring what it means to be human in a more-than-human universe.
We encounter the “wild” not only in the natural world, but in ourselves and our daily lives, if only in our own strange dreams, our own unruly minds and rebellious bodies, our own inscrutable families and weird and wonderful pets.
We encounter the “wild” at the edges of science, the arts, and human consciousness.”
I started out with a series of “Sea Sagas” about when we went sailing around the world, most posts on the why and how of it, not getting very far in our journey, and I’d like to get back to that again.
The wildest, bravest, and most romantic thing I’ve ever done was to fully embrace my boyfriend’s dream of sailing around the world and make it my own.
In fact, I’m pretty sure that’s why I married him.
I also wrote a lot about the art and craft of writing, and my own writing experience. The two-part series about writing with Annie Dillard is one of my and my followers’ favorites.
When I look at the things I write about, that I’m drawn to write about, that seize me, here’s what I see, what I’m drawn to explore:
The gap between appearance and reality; between what’s real and what’s not, and how we can ever truly know for sure. If it’s possible at all.
The dark and the light, good and evil, beauty and brutality, the foolish and profound: how they play together, how they are all wound up in each other, how it’s almost impossible to tear them apart, as least in our ordinary, daily experiences. They lay side by side, or one on top of the other; they copulate over and over, and we, this life itself, is what they give birth to.
Some of my most “viewed” posts explore those darker edges of human consciousness. Hardly a day goes by where the following post does not get several views:
The most horrifying sound I’ve ever heard came one night soon after we moved here. A scream of pure terror that seemed to last forever.
Although I wrote it five years ago in October 2012, it got 106 views last month and 93 the month before, even though it was never freshly pressed. It was one of the hardest posts to write and one of my favorites because of that, I suppose. It spawned a similarly hard post The Deer’s Scream, My Mother’s Eyes, and a Ripe Strawberry,
Perhaps at the very end, when there finally is no escape from death, like that deer, like my mother, and that awful inevitable conclusion chasing us down grabs hold, something unimaginable happens. Some unseen hand plucks us like a ripe strawberry from the jaws of death and swallows us whole, savoring all the sweetness of our brief lives, and reaffirming with a sigh, “Oh, so delicious!”
A prose poem followed, based on my experiences caring for my mother when she was dying: 13 Ways of Looking at Dying, Just Before, and the Moment After.
“Come here. I want you to sit on my lap.”
“No, Mama. I’m too heavy. I’ll hurt you.”
“Come, I want to hold you, like I used to.” She pats her lap.
Her hands are all bone now, her nails long and yellow. Her pajama bottoms are so loose there’s almost no leg to sit on. I balance on the edge of the recliner and she pulls my head down to her chest.
“There now,” she says, “there now.”
I feel like I’m lying on glass. Like any second I’ll break through. Like the long sharp shards of her body holding me up are giving way, and I’m being torn to pieces in her arms.
Another popular series of posts began with True Ghost Stories, Part One, Growing up in a Haunted House. One of the most popular in that series was about A Demon Sitting on My Chest. The series ends with me questioning whether all I experienced was “really” real, and evoking the voice of one of my favorite GOT characters.
So are the ghosts, demons, and other supernatural beings that have haunted humans through the centuries, that make brief appearances and then disappear, “real”? I do not know, and I’m not sure if it even matters. They are real enough to those that experience them, as least while they are experiencing them, and then afterwards, one wonders.
Each of us makes but brief ghostly appearances in this world we call real. We apparently spring from nearly nothing–a few multiplying cells, and then disappear into nothing as our bodies disintegrate after a short visitation that can last a few days or a few decades. Are we “real”?
“You know nothing, Jon Snow!” So claims the wilding Ygritte in the Game of Thrones series, a saying that has become a popular catchphrase for fans. And rightly so, I believe. It has the ring of truth about it.
Author George R. R. Martin created a soft-edged, constantly evolving world that surprises and delights and dismays us at every turn. And if we become too comfortable in believing we know who the good guys and bad guys are, or who has power and who is powerless, what is real and what is not real, we are sure to have it turn topsy-turvy in no time at all.
It is a world that feels very much like our own, psychologically, emotionally, if we would only admit it. Perhaps we are all Jon Snows, grasping to know for certain, what can only be known tentatively at best. And this is true when considering the limits of our own private, personal lives, as it is when considering the Big Questions about Life and Death and Reality.
So when people ask me now if I believe all this stuff I’ve written about in this series of ghost stories, I can hear Ygritte’s mocking voice challenge me: “You know nothing, Jon Snow!” And I wisely keep mum.
But lately my posts have been more about exploring the world of art, and my adventures playing with watercolor, than about writing or exploring the darker corners of consciousness.
I don’t know where this little blog-craft will take me next, and that’s the fun of it, that not-knowing: The mystery that lies beyond the edge of the wild and beckons us onward.
Thank you for taking this ride with me, for reading and responding, and for allowing me to be part of your lives as I follow you on your adventures.
I fell in love with the title of Milan Kundera’s novel “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” long before I ever read it. To me it evokes something unbearably joyful and rich, playful and profound.
So I was disappointed to find the novel itself, while a wonderful read, rich and playful and its own way, suggested a different interpretation of its title, a profound sadness at how fragile and transitory life is, how quickly its bright light fades.
I don’t see life that way at all. I mean, I see it, I understand why it may seem that way. But I don’t believe it.
To me, the beauty of this “lightness of being” is not that it is “unbearable” as in too horrible to bear, but “unbearable” as in too delicious to bear, to contain. It spills over.
I think that’s what I was trying to convey in my painting of the dancing poppies in a blue bowl. The beauty of the seemingly solid things that surround us, that make up our lives, is that they are not “heavy” or “static,” but constantly in motion, “dancing” as it were through time and space. Constantly dissolving itself and resolving into something else, similar, but not quite the same. The way the present moment dissolves and resolves instantaneously as we move through time.
There’s a wonderful analogy of the universe/reality by the physicist David Bohm. He sees reality and consciousness, what he calls the “implicate order,” as a “coherent whole, which is never static or complete but which is an unending process of movement and unfoldment.” He likens this whole (all that ever was and ever will be) as a tightly woven ball of yarn, one infinite thread. Yet the way we perceive it through time and space is as if the ball of yarn is rolling away and unraveling before our eyes. We glimpse “what is” second by second, inch by inch, as it reveals itself to us in micro-bites and nano-seconds. It’s not that reality is actually unraveling, but that the illusion of its unraveling is how we come to comprehend it, see it, know it, love it. We are one with it all the while, even while it appears as something distinct and separate from our selves.
Another analogy that I love is Indra’s Net. Here the universe/reality is like an infinite net with a pearl at each interstice. Each pearl reflects every other pearl as well as the whole net itself. Each pearl contains within itself, as part of its own lustrous being, part of its own distinct individuality, all the others around it. The part contains the whole and vice versa.
This view of reality makes sense to me, not only from a scientific and spiritual viewpoint, but experientialy as well. I experience this every time I walk through the house and pass through one doorway after another and watch this interior landscape flowing past me, one room dissolving as a new one approaches. Every time I look out the window and take in the trees and hills and houses and sky and hold them in my mind’s eye even as I turn away. Practical, ordinary, experiences we all share.
I hold all those I love with me wherever I go as I know they do me. My breath is constantly circulating through my body as I breathe in the world around me and breath it out again. Nothing is still for even a second. All of life is in constant motion, the atoms within us and the galaxies swirling about our heads.
This is the unbearable lightness of being. Dancing poppies, dissolving bowl. Brush dipped in water and paint spilling images across a page. All this spilling together going on right here and now as you read this, my heart and mind spilling out to you.
What could be lighter, brighter, more playful and profound than that? This unbearably rich and joyful lightness of being.
In celebration of April as the National Month of Poetry, I’ve been looking back at posts on poetry that I’ve written over the years, and thought that I’d share two “firsts” with you:
I’ll save that one for next time and start with Dickman under the original title.
I stumbled across him by accident. One thing led to another and another, the way it often happens surfing the internet. And there it was, a video of Matthew Dickman reading at the San Francisco Zen Center.
And I was blown away. Yes, I actually was. The same way Emily Dickinson said poetry affected her—as if the top of her head had been removed—“blown away” I believe is the expression we’d use today.
Now, Dickman’s poetry isn’t Zen, or even spiritual. It’s earthy, sometimes crass and crude, lightly humorous. Hip, you might say, in the way the beat poets were hip, so clued into the “street life” of their age, with such insight and understanding, that they could be said to speak for that generation.
So I think is Dickman’s poetry, though since I’m not from that generation, and don’t normally speak that language, I may be wrong.
So please listen and tell me. Am I right? Does he capture something from today’s youth that expresses its particular angst and yearning , love and loss, in a way that both elevates and exemplifies it?
I’m trying to figure out just what captivates me in listening to him read his poetry. It’s so unpretentious and unassuming:
Like a scrap of paper blown down a dirty sidewalk that takes on a beauty of its own without meaning to.
Like that paper bag being blown around and around in the film “American Beauty.” Remember? It’s like that.
In this way, it may be Zen-like, after all. In that his blunt, sometimes unbeautiful images strike you as an unexpected blow, like that “thwack” from the Master’s stick on the student’s head, that makes you wake up and “see,” but you’re not sure yet what you’re seeing, only that this quick-silver clarity is already fading, while something solid and meaty seeped unawares into your bones and shored them up.
If you’ve felt this way before, you know what I mean.
If you haven’t, don’t stress, you will.
Listen to Dickman reading his poem “Slow Dance”, or read the poem “V” I’ve posted below the video. See if it happens to you. Tell me if it does or doesn’t do what I say. I really want to know. People either love his work or hate it, I’ve heard, so either way I’m open.
If you want more, pick up his book All-American Poem.
Or go to the blog where I first found Matthew Dickman reading at The San Francisco Zen Center. It’s about 22 minutes long, but well worth the time it takes to listen to it.
Matthew Dickman reads his poem “Slow Dance” at Narrative Night 2008 in Seattle, Washington.
By Matthew Dickman
The skinny girl walking arm-in-arm
with her little sister
is wearing a shirt that says
TALK NERDY TO ME
and I want to,
I want to put my bag of groceries down
beside the fire hydrant
and whisper something in her ear about long division.
I want to stand behind her and run
a single finger down her spine
while she tells me about all her correlatives.
Maybe she’ll moan a little
when I tell her that x equals negative-b
plus or minus the square root
of b-squared minus 4(a)(c) all over
2a. I have my hopes.
I could show her my comic books
and Play Station. We could pull out
my old D&D cards
and sit in the basement with a candle lit.
I know enough about Dr. Who
and the Star Fleet Enterprise
to get her shirt off, to unbutton her jeans.
We could work out String Theory
all over her bedroom.
We could bend space together.
But maybe that’s not what she’s asking.
The world’s been talking dirty
ever since she’s had the ears to listen.
It’s been talking sleazy to all of us
and there’s nothing about the hydrogen bomb
that makes me want to wear a cock ring
or do it in the kitchen while a pot of water boils.
Maybe, with her shoulders slouched
the way they are and her long hair
covering so much of her face,
she’s asking, simply, to be considered
something more than a wild night, a tight
curl of pubic hair, the pink,
complicated, structures of nipples.
Maybe she wants to be measured beyond
the teaspoon shadow of the anus
and the sweet mollusk of the tongue,
beyond the equation of limbs and seen
as a complete absolute.
And maybe this is not a giant leap
into the science of compassion, but it’s something.
So when I pass her
I do exactly what she has asked of me,
I raise my right hand and make a V
the way Vulcans do when they wish someone well,
hoping she gets what she wants, even
if it has to be in a galaxy far away.
Paul Klee, Versunkene Landschaft, 1918
Wallace Stevens once famously said: “You can’t get the news from poems, but men die every day for lack of what is found there.”
It may be hard to argue the truthfulness of that statement when we consider the widespread unpopularity of reading poetry. A recent study finds that “since 2002, the share of poetry-readers has contracted by 45 percent—resulting in the steepest decline in participation in any literary genre.”
Poetry, it appears, is less popular than knitting, jazz, and dance. Perhaps that’s why we need the month of April to celebrate poetry, to help curb the decline and rekindle a comeback.
But Stevens wasn’t arguing that we die from the lack of reading poetry, but from the lack of what is found in there, the thing that inspires poets to put pen to paper, and artists to pick up their brushes, and musicians to play their instruments.
The thing we find in poetry that saves us, that renews us, that keeps us from dying for lack of, is the “poetry” we find in life, in nature, in human experience. In our deepest feelings and highest aspirations. So much of written poetry is about that, discerning the poetry in ordinary life, in things forgotten and overlooked and dismissed, and unfurling it in words on paper for all to read.
The ability to see poetry in all the aspects of our lives is what saves us. We don’t have to be poets to see the beauty, symmetry, grace in our surroundings, the imperfect perfection of ordinary things; to discern the repetitions in patterns, the rhymes and rhythms that surround us, to hear the alliteration, and the way assonance and dissonance complement and complete each other; to understand the contradictions and similarities of things, the subtle differences and deep complexities, to appreciate the humor and irony, the paradox and profundity that weaves itself through our lives.
In all of this is the poetry that poets write about. It’s what makes life rich and diverse and meaningful. It’s what moves us toward compassion and forgiveness, and inspires us toward greatness, and fills us with hope and humility.
The discernment and appreciation of the subtle and glorious intricacies of this grand tapestry in which we are woven–this is what saves us.
And this is what we find in reading poetry, if it is poetry at all.
I’ll leave you with the following poem.
by Pablo Neruda
And it was at that age . . . Poetry arrived
in search of me. I don’t know, I don’t know where
it came from, from winter or a river.
I don’t know how or when,
no, they were not voices, they were not
words, nor silence,
but from a street I was summoned,
from the branches of night,
abruptly from the others,
among violent fires
or returning alone,
there I was without a face
and it touched me.
I did not know what to say, my mouth
had no way
my eyes were blind,
and something started in my soul,
fever or forgotten wings,
and I made my own way,
and I wrote the first faint line,
faint, without substance, pure
of someone who knows nothing,
and suddenly I saw
with arrows, fire and flowers,
the winding night, the universe.
And I, infinitesimal being,
drunk with the great starry
likeness, image of
felt myself a pure part
of the abyss,
I wheeled with the stars,
my heart broke loose on the wind.
It was love at first sight when I discovered the paintings of Joaquin Sorolla (1863-1923). Known as “the painter of light,” his seascapes and beach scenes are drenched in a warm, buttery light, and swim with dazzling swirls of color.
They evoke a dynamic sense of playfulness, as if capturing fleeting moments of the here and now, brief snapshots frozen in time.
They reveal a deep love of nature and the simple pleasures of life. Sorolla was a family man and many of his paintings feature children at play, mothers with flowing skirts, young women with veils and parasols.
As I enter each painting and let it wash over me, all that luscious light and sensuous movement thrills me, and I feel bathed in bliss
I couldn’t help sharing some of my favorites with you. Enjoy!