Thinking in Circles

•••Each day is new, with no mistakes in it. Take a picture.•••

I guess I’m supposed to realize that August 20th occurs in the second half of the month, the one closer to September than July, and September, even when it is a warm, sunny one, is lit by the sun that shines in autumn. I remember writing about the sky one September day a few years ago, when I was working at taking notice and writing down my impressions. One of my journals contains this entry:

Even if I didn’t have a calendar or a computer to tell me that we’ve crossed the threshold from August to September, I would know that we had. The air outside speaks to me. There’s that chill to punctuate the sun’s warmth, making it more pronounced where it concentrates its efforts: in and around and through the maple leaves that are still green, but won’t be for much longer. More than the temperature, though, the color of the sky and the quality of light tell me it’s September.

I was outside earlier, looking for crabapples on the tree near the north end of the house. I found only one, and that surprised me, because the pink blossoms crowding that tree a couple of months ago nearly blotted out all the green of the leaves. Today, though, many of those leaves are brown and curled and lying on the ground. I wonder how many more springs the tree will be with us, sharing its beauty and fragrance.

And why haven’t I given it a name? Well, I know why: Anne Shirley would quickly diagnose me with a distinctive lack of imagination, even though it’s not quite true. It’s more that I don’t pay it enough attention, letting it get lazy and disused to being of service. I just finished rereading Anne of Green Gables, picking it up again because I needed Anne’s outlook, but at the time (perhaps you remember) I thought it would serve only as an antidote to the nihilism of Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise. Perhaps there was more to it than that.

While they are still with us, my crabapple trees (there’s one in the backyard, too) need names. I think I’ll go with Grace for the one with pink blossoms and Diana for the one with white.

Back to the Scales

•••Each day is new, with no mistakes in it. Take a picture.•••

My desk and my mind get fuller and fuller, but I keep adding books to both. Every now and again, I feel a pang of desperation, thinking I need to finish something! But isn’t that the lie? Isn’t that the old whisper about doing rather than being?

Reading for me is about developing magnanimity, not counting pages.

Yesterday I wrote about an imbalance of input and output, but when I begin to think like that, I need to pull back and remind myself that the output can’t really be measured, and I don’t want it to be.

My Little Life of Luxury

•••Each day is new, with no mistakes in it. Take a picture.•••

My creative life seems to generally be a near-constant attempt to find the right balance between input and output. Unfortunately, things have long been off-kilter. Photos languish on my hard drive, art journals seldom get opened, canvases are never touched, and the impulse to write poetry is nowhere to be found. The books taking up room on my desk and in my reading basket, on the other hand, multiply like Stella once she figured out some of her times tables. Just today, I’ve started two books at page one, and will be beginning a third later this evening. (I like to save the fiction for bedtime.)

I make this sound like a problem, but is it? I say I want a neat, clutter-free studio because it helps me think/focus/create, but I have to wonder how true that really is. Perhaps in this area, too, I’m looking at the situation with the eyes of others. If so, then I once again need to remind myself that their lives are not mine. I read for my own pleasure and edification, so there are no deadlines. If it takes me 567 days to get to the last page of a book, who cares? Why can’t I dilly-dally and savor and take notes and ruminate and cross reference and go back to the beginning or the middle or the end? How many times has Jack read The Mistmantle Chronicles? Have those multiple readings adversely affected his life in any way, or have they somehow enhanced it?

Why do I let that trap of expecting concrete results sneak up on me every now and again?

There is no race, no test, no evaluation. It’s just my time and how I choose to fill it.

Those Weren’t My Words

•••Each day is new, with no mistakes in it. Take a picture.•••

I used to write a lot about perfectionism, dragging the theme from one blog to another. Why did I glom on to such a thread? When did I fall for the victimhood lie and the pithy-but-vapid little sayings that included words like “wings” and “soaring”?

What I wrote in those posts, what I wrote on those art journal pages, were not my words; they weren’t my thoughts. Other people preaching about the paralyzing effects of perfectionism (and a bunch of other –isms) had somehow gotten into my head. Somehow? Let’s face it; I opened the door.

But now, the way is shut. The dead keep it and I’ll let them bury one another. The crosses I bear are my very own, given specifically to me. I’ll carry them, one way or another, reminding myself when necessary that the obstacle is the way.

We Must Not Stop Looking for the Other Words

•••Each day is new, with no mistakes in it. Take a picture.•••

Ronda was one of those people who had to be the teacher/leader/mentor. Our relationship stayed intact as long as I knew my place. Once I stepped out of it, though, the friendship was over forever. I wasn’t the only one she did this to. Of course, I’ve forgotten the names of the others, except for Heidi. Heidi is rather unforgettable.

Why am I thinking of her today? Well, I think of her every day when I pray for the repose of her soul and the souls of many others who are no longer here with me in this world. But she came to mind again when I started reading Father Stephen Freeman’s post on literalism. No lie: just one sentence (“There are many who speak about literalism and see it where it does not exist.”) was all it took to bring Ronda bubbling up in my head. All those debates—well, debates from my perspective; lessons from hers—about the Bible and religion. For her, every word was taken down by men whose writing hand was held and moved by God. Every time I questioned an assertion, she’d “prove herself right” with a circular argument. At that point, I’d just give up. At the time, I felt ill-equipped to defend the faith. Now, in similar situations, I know better than to try to lead those who come from a place having almost nothing in common with my origins. Yesterday, I got a slightly different perspective on such situations from Flannery O’Connor, and I’ll think in those terms from here on out. In a letter to “A,” dated 17 January 1956, Flannery wrote: “I know well enough that it is not a defense of the faith, which don’t need it, but a defense of myself who does. The Church becomes a part of your ego and gets messed in with your own impurity.”

What about Father Freeman and literalism, though? Well, there’s this:

There are many who speak about literalism and see it where it does not exist. The trees of modern theories and habits hide the forest of ancient understanding and use of texts. It is necessary to back away from details and look at a larger context to see what we are actually seeing. In cultural terms, it is possible to say that no one was a “literalist” until the modern period. …

It’s worth thinking for a moment about the meaning of allegory. The word is a combination: allos and lego, words meaning “other” and “speak,” respectively. Allegory means to speak “in another word.” Whether it takes the form of typology, symbolism, or otherwise, the fathers used the term allegory to contain all such forms of speech.

This seems important, too:

Allegory assumes that there is “another word” under or within the word that one is seeing or hearing. A prominent example would be St. Paul’s treatment of Adam and Christ. Christ is a “Second Adam.” This also means that Christ is somehow present within the First Adam. In that manner, the Fathers will read of God taking Eve from the side of Adam as he slept and see the Church being birthed from the side of Christ as He “slept” on the Cross in death. Christ is the “other word” within the word “Adam.”

This is the part I love:

This presence of “another word” beneath or within a text extends to the world itself. The sacramental understanding of the world is, at its heart, an allegorical treatment of reality. There is something beneath and within everything that we see. This “other word” can be known and perceived. There are levels of realism within this allegorical treatment of the world. In the case of the Eucharist, the “other word” is utterly real. That which is made present, which can be known and perceived (by faith), is the very truth of the thing itself: “This is my body…” In the case of an icon, we say that what is pictured is hypostatically present, a somewhat weaker treatment than the sacraments. That all trees somehow participate in the wood of the Cross is yet a different thing – and so forth. …

In the same manner, we approach the world as sacrament, mindful of the “other word” that dwells in each and every thing.

I can’t stop just yet. This is too beautiful to forget:

Years ago, when I was first received into Orthodoxy, my late Archbishop (Dmitri of Dallas), insisted that in our beginning mission, I was to wear my cassock and be addressed as “Father.” Mind you, I had been an Episcopal priest but a week before but was no longer. It would be another 13 months before I was ordained to the Orthodox priesthood. I was blessed by the Bishop to lead Reader’s services and to preach, and to do pastoral care. But, he insisted on the cassock and the title. “Priests are born,” he said. “Ordination simply reveals them.” It was a staggering revelation.

Truth Tellers

•••Each day is new, with no mistakes in it. Take a picture.•••

Gary and Jessica. They’re the ones. It figures, I guess. Even without trying, they always manage to pour more art, more poetry, more ponderables into my life. Spell check doesn’t like my word, ponderables, so I’ll write it one more time: ponderables.

This time it’s Robert Frost. I wasn’t terribly surprised that Gary brought him on over and left him in the cellar of my life, along with the junk accumulated over years and years. Most of it is not mine. Not really. The kids and Dennis have to take responsibility for it. Not me. I’m happy with Frost, though. I’ll hang onto him and his work. In fact, I’ve dusted him off and moved him on into my studio. That’s where the real work goes on, and things that make their way into my studio—as long as they make it though a week or so—are unlikely to ever get kicked out.

Jessica’s delivery of Frost to my doorstep surprised me. But there he was, in one of her Call & Response posts, the one on Ambiguity. Of course. That one post could keep me busy for years. She circled around to metaphor again. Even she admits that it’s a big thing for her. It should be a big thing for me, and I suppose it is, but it’s getting pumped around in one of the deep veins, the ones that will land you in a world of hurt if any of the fibrin cruising on through decides to gang up with others of its ilk. The idea of metaphor generally stays way down there, doing what it’s supposed to do, keeping me alive, but giving no trouble, calling no attention to itself.

Anyway, according one of the links Jessica provided in her post, metaphor was the be-all, end-all for Frost. I’m glad I know that now. I’m glad that my metaphor vein is pulsing insistently, so I don’t forget it’s there.

When I sat down to tea, I knew that the book of Frost’s poetry had to be the one I opened. The title of the poem after the last one I read brought an image to my mind. If it weren’t so clear in my head, I would turn to my Flickr photostream and take another look at it. I chose “Ghost House” early in my Poetic Inspirations 365. At the time, though, it was nothing more than a bunch of words strung together in such a way that I could make an image to make sense with them.*

But now, “Ghost House” speaks to me. It illuminates and illustrates the snippet I discovered just today among the pictorial output of those I follow on Instagram: “Art takes you beyond discovering yourself to discovering your humanity.”

The residence described in “Ghost House” is my place, and it’s somehow comforting to know that other folks would like to be here, too.

I dwell in a lonely house I know
That vanished many a summer ago,
And left no trace but the cellar walls,
And a cellar in which the daylight falls,
And the purple-stemmed wild raspberries grow.

O’er ruined fences the grapevines shield
The woods come back to the mowing field;
The orchard tree has grown one copse
Of new wood and old where the woodpecker chops;
The footpath down to the well is healed.

I dwell with a strangely aching heart
In that vanished abode there far apart
On that disused and forgotten road
That has no dust-bath now for the toad.
Night comes; the black bats tumble and dart;

The whippoorwill is coming to shout
And hush and cluck and flutter about:
I hear him begin far enough away
Full many a time to say his say
Before he arrives to say it out.

It is under the small, dim, summer star.
I know not who these mute folks are
Who share the unlit place with me —
Those stones out under the low-limbed tree
Doubtless bear names that the mosses mar.

They are tireless folk, but slow and sad,
Though two, close-keeping, are lass and lad —
With none among them that ever sings,
And yet, in view of how many things,
As sweet companions as might be had.


*Unfortunately, I could not think about the photo without also thinking about Sally Mann’s words: “Photography would seem to preserve our past and make it invulnerable to the distortions of repeated memorial superimpositions, but I think that is a fallacy: photographs supplant and corrupt the past, all the while creating their own memories. As I held my childhood pictures in my hands, in the tenderness of my ‘remembering,’ I also knew that with each photograph I was forgetting.”

Something about Neighbors and Fences

•••Each day is new, with no mistakes in it. Take a picture.•••

Robert Frost wrote this poem decades ago, but it feels perfectly timely to me.

Into My Own

One of my wishes is that those dark trees,
So old and firm they scarcely show the breeze,
Were not, as ‘twere, the merest mask of gloom,
But stretched away unto the edge of doom.

I should not be withheld but that some day
Into their vastness I should steal away,
Fearless of ever finding open land,
Or highway where the slow wheel pours the sand.

I do not see why I should e’er turn back,
Or those should not set forth upon my track
To overtake me, who should miss me here
And long to know if still I held them dear.

They would not find me changed from him they knew—
Only more sure of all I thought was true.

The speaker of the poem wants to get away from the world, but the forest isn’t deep enough. If it were, he’d be off like a shot, and he’d see no reason to turn back. It’s not that he no longer cares about the people in his life. If they were to follow and find him, he’d reassure them that his feelings haven’t changed; he still loves them.

That last couplet is where it’s at. In those two lines, the speaker explains that he’s not running off to find himself. No, he wants to bug out so that he no longer has to listen to others tell him he’s doing it wrong.

My inclination, in contrast, would not be to run off. I’ve built my sanctuary and am quite content here. It’s being drawn into their world that’s the problem.

What Do You Think You Know?

•••Each day is new, with no mistakes in it. Take a picture.•••

Well, yesterday was filled with too much information. I’ve not even come close to dealing with it, but I’ll see what I can accomplish today.

“The problem with photography as an art form is that it can be very hard to be ambiguous.” That quote comes from Jessica in one of our Call & Response posts (Ambiguity). I understand where she was coming from and I imagine that I agreed completely at the time. Now, however, I see things a little differently.

One of the things I found fascinating about Tom Ang’s Photography: The Definitive Visual History is that the question of literalism vs. art/ambiguity/what-have-you existed pretty much from the time Niépce fixed the first photographic image. Was he capturing reality? Well, no. The buildings and street that showed up on that piece of paper were not objectively representative of the subject. One cannot walk down the street on the paper or enter the buildings that are depicted there. Further, what Niépce captured was one view of that scene, which was completely dependent upon where he was situated, how the camera obscura was set up, and when he made the exposure (for example, the sun would have been in a different place, changing the light in the image, if the exposure had been made, say, 15 minutes later).

I’m reminded of the story about Picasso meeting a fellow train passenger who criticized Picasso’s work, telling him that a painting should look like the subject. The passenger takes out a picture of his wife and says, “Like this.” Picasso replies, “This is your wife?” The passenger answers, “Yes,” and Picasso shoots back, “She looks rather small and flat to me.”

Most of what we think we know about a particular photographic image is external. I might be informed about the circumstances surrounding Paul Strand’s iconic image of the blind woman, but what if I were to place the picture on the kitchen table for one of my kids to discover? What would Jack make of it if he had no context to go with it? Would he have any ideas about its provenance, who this woman was, why she was chosen by whomever took her picture, if the photo was candid or staged, if she was truly blind? It seems to me that ambiguity is inherent in every photographic image. We just don’t recognize it, because we bring too much experience, expectation, and ego to the table.

Flickr, Facebook, and Instagram are filled with images accompanied by words, words, and words. Everyone wants to explain. But why? Why are we so determined to control what others think?

Begin, Commence, Go Ahead, Get Going, Establish, and Activate

•••Each day is new, with no mistakes in it. Take a picture.•••

Hmmmm. Starting points. That’s rather interesting, isn’t it? But where am I in The War of Art?

Well, apparently, I’m at a starting point. Funny how things work out.

OK, here’s how I got to Starting Points this evening: I took a look back at something I wrote on May 21st. A few days before that, I created a folder on my computer and named it “Start.” Since then, I’ve filled the folder with documents—41, as of this writing, and each document (except the one called “Fiction Practice”) has a date for a name. When I feel the need to write, copy down something that seems important or worth coming back to, or just have something to say, I open a new document, type the date at the top, then save it with that same date for the document’s name. For the past three or four days, I’ve been venturing back to the beginning to see if there’s anything there worth dealing with.

Tonight, I found something. Here are my words from 052117:

Last night I finished reading Sally Mann’s memoir, Hold Still. Earlier today I finished reading The Beautiful Mystery, a murder mystery by Louise Penny. I few minutes ago, I reread a few pages in Jon Acuff’s Start.*

Acuff talks about maps and how important the starting point is. You can’t figure out where you’re going if you don’t know where you are. The monks in The Beautiful Mystery had the priceless first book of plainchant in their possession and didn’t know it. What made it priceless? The dot on the very first page that established a starting point for the neumes, predecessors of musical notes. And Sally Mann? Every aspect of her life and art revolves around her father and the love he so stingily kept to himself. Mann’s relationship with her father was the starting point for everything that followed in her life.

Once we figure out what our starting point is, we have a choice to make. We get to decide on which path we take that first step.

That all-important starting point: it seems to harbor a secret that few of us have discovered. It moves. It disappears. It’s erasable.

Isn’t that a paradox, though? In the first paragraph, I gave three examples illustrating how critical it is to figure where we are before moving forward.

—

OK, back to the here and now:

I guess what I was getting at is this: If the starting point is so important, why isn’t it static? Further, if it’s not static, we can pick any starting point we want whenever we want. In other words, today is new with no mistakes in it (and yeah, go on out and take a picture).

Let me go back to what I wrote for a moment. In The Beautiful Mystery, the start for the cloistered, plainchant-singing monks was immoveable, and it went back hundreds of years. In fact, I’d go far as to say that all was good until one of the monks decided to make a new start. So perhaps it (static start vs. changeable start) is not as straightforward as one would like to think.

But then there’s Sally Mann, who seems unable to move her starting point, perhaps because she is unaware that it is her starting point. One day not all that long ago, it hit me that the verses from the Bible that deal with the “sins of the fathers,” like Numbers 14:18, The LORD is slow to anger and abundant in loving kindness, forgiving iniquity and transgression; but He will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generations, likely hits much too close to home for many of us, but that’s not to say I believe that God punishes children for the sins of their parents. Parents punish children: every single day, parents make decisions that have the potential to cause lifelong repercussions for their children, and a multitude of studies bears this out.

OK, but what about Mr. Pressfield in The War of Art? Today’s reading is the chapter (section?) titled “The Unlived Life.” 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. Genius is a Latin word; the Romans used it to denote an inner spirit, holy and inviolable, which watches over us, guiding us to our calling. A writer writes with his genius; an artist paints with hers; everyone who creates operates from this sacramental center. It is our soul’s seat, the vessel that holds our being-in-potential, our star’s beacon and Polaris.

Every sun casts a shadow, and genius’s shadow is Resistance. As powerful as is our soul’s call to realization, so potent are the forces of Resistance arrayed against it. …

Look in your own heart. Unless I’m crazy, right now a still small voice is piping up, telling you as it has ten thousand times, the calling that is yours and yours alone.

Unless I’m crazy, Pressfield is telling me to make the next moment the starting point. Unless I’m crazy, he’s not telling me that the starting point is way back there and I missed it.

 


*Apparently, I was on a tear.

Just Keep Swimming

•••Each day is new, with no mistakes in it. Take a picture.•••

Yesterday I wrote that I’m not going to count any more, and I’m not. I’m sick to death of everything being quantified: how many “friends” one has on that evil social media site that shan’t be named (but ironically contains the word “book”; I write “ironically” because I imagine that people who spend a lot of time on it would be better off if they picked up a real book and read it—cue Burl Ives in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof ranting about mendacity); how many likes a photo has gotten; how many times a tweet has been retweeted; how many readers on a blog post. It is all so meaningless, and in two months—no, two weeks (two days? hours? minutes?)—it will be old news.

Quality vs. quantity is the old dichotomy, but even that has its problems. First, who says the quality is high and why? Second, should we really be worried about what other people think of our creations? Third, quality seems to apply to end products, but I don’t want to deal with end products. I’m not trying to sell something. I’m not trying to win anything. I’m trying to learn and grow. Care to quantify that? How about the quality of my achievements? Letter grade or four-point scale? Hmmm?

Like Dory, I want to just keep swimming: swimming in the document on my computer titled “Fiction Practice;” swimming with a camera in my hand and new ways of the seeing the world around me; swimming with inks and paints and pens in my art journals; and swimming in the pages of book after book after book written by people who have lived different lives but are just as human as I am.

In The War of Art, Steven Pressfield tells me what he knows:

There’s a secret that real writers know that wannabe writers don’t, and the secret is this: It’s not the writing part that’s hard. What’s hard is sitting down to write.

What keeps us from sitting down is Resistance.

Well, guess what, Mr. Pressfield, I know that, too. I knew it before you told me, so I guess you’d have to call me a real writer. Frankly, though, I don’t care if you think I’m up to snuff. Oh, and Flannery O’Connor was writing long before you could sit your butt in a chair, and she could have taught you a thing or two about Resistance:

My novel is at an impasse. In fact it has been at one for as long as I can remember. Before Christmas I couldn’t stand it any longer so I began a short story. It’s like escaping from the penitentiary. It may well be that I’ll have another book of stories before I have a novel. I work from such a basis of poverty that everything I do is a miracle to me. However, don’t think I writer for purgation. I write because I write well.  —from a letter to “A” dated 1 January 1956 in The Habit of Being, edited by Sally Fitzgerald

Why do I write? Because I need to. Simple as that.