Friday, January 20, 2012

the purity of inspiration, the impurity of self as filter

Agnes Martin
 Agnes Martin, one of my long-time favorite artists, spoke about inspiration in the following way:
"The best things in life happen to you when you are alone. You know, all of the revelations. Every day for twenty years, I've been saying 'What am I going to do next?' That's how I ask for an inspiration. I don't have any ideas myself. I have a vacant mind in order to do exactly what the inspiration calls for. And I don't start to paint until after I have an inspiration. And after I have it, I make up my mind that I'm not going to interfere... not have any ideas. That's really the trouble with art today. It seems to me that artists have the inspiration, but before they can get on the canvas, they've had about 50 ideas. And the inspiration disappears." (Martin, 1997)
Books can inspire... art, music, poetry. The view from a mountaintop after a long hike can be inspiring. People can inspire by their courage, their dedication, their heart, or their words of hope in the face of adversity. This is a different sort of inspiration from what Martin speaks of above. The former is an encouragement, an injection of spirit, a reason to continue to believe in others and in the promise of the world. The latter, Martin's sort, is an incitement to "do," a stimulus which produces something new. It is this sort of inspiration on which I would like to focus this entry.

I think that for a lot of people who create, the source of inspiration is hard to define. I've heard it described starting as an "internal churn" and then this restlessness builds to the point where someone must begin. And it is in beginning, that the inspiration continues to unfold. I know this is true for me. As Martin suggests, when I am writing at my best, I am merely a conduit for something else. Rather than being most full of myself and my own ideas, I am most empty... so that something else can travel through me. Now, where does this "something else" come from and what is it?

The word 'inspiration' comes from ancient Greek in which it meant more directly "breathed upon" and usually by a god. It came to mean the imitation of this blowing into or onto something and maintained its sense of motion towards even as it took on the sense of creative power with which we now associate it. Much, in fact, has to do with breath -- aspire (rough breathing), conspire (breathing together), respire (breathe again), transpire (breathe across). Breath is the most basic action of life. With his first breath, a newborn often cries -- needing to force the air out with a sort of violence... life begun with shock and force. And so, either way the word is taken, we are breathed into and we breathe out again. The inspiration is a force moving through us, but in so transformed.

Van Gogh painted five versions of his famous "Sunflowers," the most challenging perhaps being the one below with its yellow-on yellow-on yellow composition that nonetheless resonates with life.
Van Gogh, Sunflowers, 1889, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Was it the same force that inspired these paintings as inspired the incident with his ear? Is the restlessness that produces true greatness something that must also be, by definition, destructive?

And why did Van Gogh envision this painting as being part of a triptych -- two sunflower paintings flanking La Berceuse (Lullaby). An old woman sits rocking a cradle (indicated by the rope she holds). In this, she presents a source of solace, though the painting itself is dark and lonely. And her gaze drifts wistfully away from the viewer and the cradle (it seems). Lost in her own thoughts, the woman appears NOT in fact the archetype of motherhood that so many posit this painting to be... unless motherhood is taken to be complicated, weighty, esoteric, and somber. And perhaps there is accuracy in that portrait -- not as the entirety of motherhood, but as one particular angle of it.

Van Gogh, La Berceuse, 1889
Van Gogh was inspired not only to paint these three paintings, but to conceive of them as being displayed together -- the sunflowers acting as candles to illuminate the darkness of La Berceuse. "I don't want to paint the walls of cathedrals, but the gazes of men," said Van Gogh. "With red and yellow I want to paint all the miseries of society." Did painting bring Van Gogh a kind of peace? With the 1889 Sunflowers painting, he was apparently very satisfied... but this was the exception. Rather, his inspiration to paint, his need to create brought him continued suffering. His restlessness increased a restlessness and perhaps his anxiety. Inspiration is not a solace. It can indeed be a heavy burden.

Van Gogh himself felt that his work put his life at risk. But the inspiration that made him see and want to express the suffering he witnessed all around him never ceased. It seems there is something in that which connects us which is part of this thing called inspiration, but in its expression it becomes its own personal truth... of which there are an infinite number. As Picasso once said, "If there were only one truth, you couldn't paint a hundred canvasses on the same theme." Or as some English teachers will tell you, there are only 8 basic storylines in the world... but there are millions of stories... even if we take only one of these themes. (The 8 basic plots: The Cinderella story = unrecognized virtue is finally recognized; The Achilles story = fatal flaw leads to tragedy; The Orpheus story = good fortune is removed and result is examined; The Romeo & Juliet story = all love stories; The Irrepressible Hero story = protagonist confronts obstacles and finally succeeds; The Circe story = main character becomes entangled in devious plot planned by the villain; The Tristan story = love triangle; The Faust story = pact with the devil)

And so back to Martin. For she has explained how she painted "with my back to the world." Through this separation, she found she could listen more clearly to 'inspiration.'
"I think we don't deserve any credit. I think the inspiration comes to you, tells you exactly what to do, even when you are painting, tells you every brushstroke... I do take the blame though. With no credit, you'd think there'd be no blame but... You get shaken between inspiration and the finished product and you have to take the blame for that." (Martin, 1997)
The self can become an interference, according to Martin, between inspiration and its manifestation into something which the rest of the world can consume. Whatever inspiration is -- the divine, the supernatural, the supra-conscious -- there is a need to be open and receptive in order to receive it in the first place. In my humble opinion, I don't think inspiration has anything to do with divinity. I think it has to do with our personal connection with a certain truth, and perhaps there is a spirituality in the universal beginnings of that truth. But, because I believe that all truth is relative... or because inspiration must pass through each of us in order to be re-presented to others as its own truth, I think that the purity of inspiration as a force is lost through our personal interaction with it. We present a 'truth'... but in its impurity and imperfection. For that is the best that we can do. We can feel and sense something greater, but all we do can is reveal our personal (and very small) angle of perspective upon that 'truth.' Taking Picasso's quote as a starting point, one could say that if you took every person in the world to exist, to have existed, to exist in the future, and combined all of their painted canvasses depicting one particular cypress tree at a single point in time, for example, then perhaps we could come to the 'truth' of the matter. Perhaps we could touch again the fullness and purity of inspiration, but only through this combined effort. And therein lies the impossibility of it all... of course. And inspiration remains distant and inexplicable... and all the more wondrous because of it.

You don't have to like the paintings of Agnes Martin... or Picasso... or Van Gogh. Liking is not the point in art. The point is seeing. And perhaps trying to see both the self that produced this finality, and the inspiration that incited it. Your hand would not produce a square grid in quite the same way. No one's hand would. Therein lies a certain magic.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

finding your thoughts in the onslaught of information

In the middle of the night, there are thoughts. Thoughts that are completely my own. They wake me up and keep me awake. They circle around and manifest into new thoughts and bigger problems until they make my heart race. Sometimes I lay there listening to my heart and wishing it would just shut up so I could rest. Thank god not all wishes are granted.

These are original thoughts. They are thoughts of things to do, of things about which I fear and worry, of things of which I am unsure and do not know how to resolve. Every now and then, they are beautiful thoughts too. Something phrased in just the right way for a poem. An image of me and my son playing on the beach in a summer to come. The way my mother took my hand and squeezed it tight when my emotions got the best of me. I'm here, she said without speaking. And the thoughts come in waves, over and over, washing over me to make me feel like I'm drowning, and then rinsing me clean with notions of what can be... and finally I sleep.

The other day I was on Yahoo's main page clicking through their "news" items. I read about the best ways to lose holiday weight gain, about an NFL player's reaction to losing his beloved wife, about the top 10 gaming smartphones. I watched a video of Britney Spears' son showing off his dance moves. Did I care? No. Did I, in fact, really not care? Yes. What was I doing then? I stood up from the computer 15-20 minutes later, after perusing what Yahoo thought I needed to know, and felt stupider... and empty, almost dirty. Trashy, that was it. Something about the whole process felt cheap and empty and flimsy.

Guess when I started trying to sort this all out? Yup, in the middle of the night. And I began thinking about how this wrap-up of everything important by Yahoo was personally meaningless to me. My head was BEING filled, passively, with many things, most of which I moved away from not feeling any the better, the smarter, or the more enlightened for knowing. Perhaps I felt more 'on top' of the hype. But that was it.

I know someone who, whenever I see him, will ask me, "Did you hear about the historic tree that caught fire in Florida?" or "Can you believe this thing with the cruise ship sinking off the coast of Italy?" I've recently realized that he seems to feel a need to not only be on top of this gossip, but to spread it as if he discovered the story on some obscure website that is getting only 9 hits, rather than on the front page of Yahoo. This is also a person that can't seem to reconcile his 'empathy' for those who died in the cruise ship disaster ("it's terrible; people died!") with his lack of empathy for a family he has betrayed and deeply wounded.

Do we think our own thoughts anymore? At times other than 2 and 3am in the morning? Certainly, but it gets harder. It gets harder when one of our jobs as modern human beings is to always be on top of everything, including ALL of the news in the world, even the trash. For things are not pre-filtered for us, but rather poured on top of us and we must climb through the pile of trash... and sometimes that alone feels like a victory. So, in some small way, I can understand the person above... shouting his newly-found freedom from the top of the trash heap.

I remember when I was a senior in high school and I started reading the New York Times in the mornings. I'm a slow methodical reader (and other things) and I never got much further than the first few pages before I needed to rush to get off to school. I probably read three stories. I felt behind, as many of my classmates would come in mentioning articles from EVERY section. Not only had they read the whole paper, it seemed to me at the time, they had memorized it. And my father revealed to me how the headmaster at my brothers' school read through four whole papers every morning. FOUR WHOLE PAPERS?? I couldn't even comprehend it.

Nonetheless, I remembered the stories I had read. They stayed with me through the day. They brought up questions in my mind. They revealed to me that there were parts of the world whose geography I didn't even know. And because I only read two or three articles a day, I could go home later and pursue these questions, or look up the country on a map... and spend time thinking new thoughts. For that was the other thing these articles did for me. They made me think new thoughts... without overwhelming me with so much information that I just shut down completely.

I worry. I worry about too many things probably. But I do worry about how the overflow of information and our need to stay abreast of "everything" shuts out our ability to think new thoughts. We need that extra space in our heads. But habits become habitual so easily. And so we read what Yahoo believes we should know. And we read the updates of our friends and family on Facebook. And then we have had enough. Because we want to get to other things. We want to get back to life. But are we returning there thoughtlessly? Literally and figuratively?

Life will not move without new thoughts... original thoughts... sometimes ridiculous thoughts. If it is true that, as Marcus Aurelius once said, "The happiness of your life depends on the quality of your thoughts," then we must do a better job of thinking our own thoughts. Improve the quality, not the quantity. For thoughts make the world and thoughts make us. And I would rather be full of a single thought, labored over and rewritten and reworked and produced from a pen in my hand on a single blank sheet of paper -- my very own thought -- than be master of every news item to appear that day... but lost as to the direction of my very own life.

Friday, January 13, 2012

sense of humor, sense of balance

The other day I got to thinking about humors. Not haha humor, but the four humors that became the underpinning of Greek and Roman medicine.. and then continued to dominate Western beliefs about the human body and sickness for 2,000 years.

In short, the theory was that when a person was healthy, his four humors (four different bodily substances - black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, blood) were all in the appropriate balance. Thus, illness came from an imbalance; having too much phlegm, for instance, meant that your lungs would be clogged up. Turns out, that's true. But, further, the humors were thought to influence your temperament as well. The excess of phlegm not only meant having a cold, it meant being sluggish and even timid. An imbalanced person would permanently exhibit these qualities, thereby defining his personality in terms of his humors.

Now, what got me to thinking is our phrase "sense of humor." So-and-so has such a good sense of humor. Etymologically, there is a connection. The above phlegmatic person or person with a chronic imbalance of liquids in his body would be a sort of eccentric, an odd duck. As time passed, the word 'humor' took on this meaning of oddness directly. After more time passed, it came to mean someone who took note of the oddities of life itself and could comment on them in order to make others laugh. By the early 18th century, the word humorous was being used to refer to those with whimsy, whit, and a laughable take on life (i.e. a sense of humor), the word funny itself appearing about 50 years afterwards.

My students used to laugh at the antiquated existence of their favorite term, saucy (kids think they've discovered everything, but mine took delight in finding the word in Shakespeare...), but it makes quite a lot of sense when you consider the above history of humors. For example, a short take from George Eliot:
Tommy was a saucy boy, impervious to all impressions of reverence, and excessively addicted to humming-tops and marbles, with which recreative resources he was in the habit of immoderately distending the pockets of his corduroys.
So, saucy, this irreverent cheekiness, comes in the form of a word referring to liquids, and also, in older times, to a certain salty quality. Our language still reflects the long-standing (and now long debunked) belief in humors.

But, there is even more that remains. We do not just possess humor, we possess a sense of humor... the suggestion being that seeing what is funny in life requires some kind of balance, and moreover, an ability to consciously recognize that balance. In other words, I won't be able to appreciate the levity of a baby laughing at peek-a-boo unless I understand the heaviness of some other tragic or traumatic life experience... or I won't be able to appreciate it as much.

But there is another kind of balance to humor. I've reproduced H.W. Fowler's table -- which categorizes types of humor -- below:

Throwing light
Inflicting pain
Human nature
Words & ideas
Morals & manners
Faults & foibles
The sympathetic
The intelligent
The self-satisfied
Victim & bystander
H.W. Fowler, "Modern English Usage" (1926)

Self- justification
Statement of facts
Direct statement
Exposure of nakedness
The public
An inner circle
The respectable
The self

Much like the original humors having been 'discovered' after watching blood clot and separate into four distinct layers, the modern sense of humor (according to Fowler) is based on observation and motivated by a similar desire to discover. And does it surprise that our most common modern type is the sarcastic when we see that his audience is the victimized? For we too often see ourselves as victims and pass off responsibility like a disease when it is in fact a privilege (this topic to be explored in an upcoming blog.)

Funny is not just funny. Humor changes and reflects the culture in which it originated. Teenagers reading Shakespeare will understand the jokes that refer to universal human behavior, but not the ones that refer to quirks and practices of the times. There is an actual scientific difference, in terms of activated brain activity, between recognizing a joke and finding it pleasure-inducing.

Humor is part of the balance of life. Black comedy is popular because sometimes our only saving grace in times of tragedy is to laugh at the ridiculousness of it all. To laugh at the heaviness sometimes physically counters it. As Winston Churchill said, "A joke is a very serious thing."

Thus, humor is part of the balance.. and part of our defense again the imbalance. Freud thought that laughter was merely a release of tension, but recent science suggests that humor enables us to violate the world and its rules. Thereby, we are back in control. We can say what we cannot do and we can imagine what will never be. Maybe laughter is our modern form of blood-letting. :-)

Saturday, December 31, 2011

reminders as resolutions

Sure, there could be other themes for tomorrow... but January 1st is one of those obvious days wherein I must bow to the dominant. New Year's resolutions are much hyped, but in reality, little made. I find many people resent the idea of resolutions and vow that their resolution this year is "not to make any more resolutions." Fine. I understand that sentiment. People tend to think of resolutions in terms of massive changes they would like (and therefore will need) to make. The idea of a life overhaul is overwhelming and the reality of falling short is discouraging.

Therefore, rather than write about resolutions, I'd like to suggest a variation on the theme for tomorrow. Reminders rather than resolutions. Little life lessons that are indeed obvious, but it is the obvious that so often goes unstated and is thereby taken for granted or... gulp... even forgotten. This is an exercise I am doing mostly for my own sake, because your list of reminders may differ dramatically from mine. Nonetheless, I hope there is something here for you that is helpful, heartening, or inspiring. Wow, if I could be one or all of those things to others in life, I think I would indeed be quite satisfied.

1. Eat well, be well

It is so easy to eat fast, frozen, canned, or somehow already-prepared foods. Even healthy ones. Try, though, as much as possible, to cook for yourself... and to begin with whole foods. An apple, some fennel, fresh fish... We all get busy and over-tired, but there really is nothing more nourishing than cooking a homemade, fresh meal. Nourishing to the body - I always feel 10 times better when I make something from healthy, whole ingredients. Plus, it never takes as long as I feel like it will. And nourishing to the soul - there is just something about working with food that is reassuring and reminds me that life is a lot simpler than we make it.... which leads me into my next reminder.

2. Simple, complex, simple

We over-complicate life. I think it is human nature to do so. We begin life understanding the simplest things, the simplest joys, the simplest goals, the simplest needs. But, as we move forth, we forget those things amidst the chaos that is life, love, relationships, school, friends, jobs, family, goals, pressure, expectations, etc, etc. The goal should be to climb over the hump of complication and try to find the other side - the side of simplicity that we define rather than the one we are born into. This is a hard, often Herculean, task. I kid not. And sometimes when you find that other side of simplicity, you later lose it again... and find the search must begin again. But, for me, it is a goal continually worth pursuing. Sometimes I think 9th grade English students are the best example of our tendency to over-complicate. Students at this age, especially in Honors classes, try to present every single idea they have about a topic or novel in a single thesis. The goal for a teacher is to help them weed through and find the kernel in their thoughts that is the most exciting, intriguing, or insightful. And then to open that single idea like a flower blossoming in spring... to nurture and develop that one notion until it becomes something profound on its own. Otherwise, all is a chaotic web of thoughts that only marginally relate to one another... and confusion reigns. Many very smart students try to hide this confusion beneath elevated language... which only makes all of it worse. The clarity of a profound truth is... well, profound. Simplicity, when reached, is equally profound. Think of the moments when you have clarity about what is truly important to you in life. Sometimes they only seem to come when a crisis forces you to reassess. My point here is... seek them out. Seek simplicity. Make it a journey. Reach beyond the complexity to what is most true. Easier said than done, I understand. But definitely a worthy reminder.

3. Banish bad energy

This is one that many people attempt... and some people are even really good at. Others of us are good at doing it in some areas of our lives, but not others. For me, I have the most trouble getting rid of what I call 'bad-energy relationships.' One of my constant simple truths (see above) is forgiveness. I believe deeply in forgiveness. And so I forgive those I love. But, often I have found (especially when I look back at certain relationships in retrospect) that I forgive actions, words, or treatment that I should not. Reason being, that treatment is demeaning, inappropriate, or just plain cruel to me. And so, I must search for the balance between forgiveness and self-respect. Nonetheless, the point here is that 'bad energy' -- whatever that is for you, be it a draining hated job, an unhealthy relationship, abusive self-talk -- is like having a wound that is hemorrhaging badly. You are bled dry of energy, enthusiasm, optimism, hope itself. You become more of an automaton and indeed, your life becomes one in which all works to enable that bad energy to stay. Bad energy takes a lot of work... and energy! Once you let go of it (and/or its causes), you are free from its slavish ways. You are free to be with positive people, to fill your life with healthy things, to move towards goals you want to achieve... and thereby, you are able to become an inspiration and a motivation to others. Bad energy does not just drain you. It drains your capabilities and possibilities as a human being. It drains all of us, because we do not get to benefit from you. Identify the bad energy in your life... and release it. This can be painful, I won't lie. Just remember all of the possibility that lies in store for you on the other side.

4. Don't sweat the small stuff or, keep your eyes on the prize

There is someone in my life, someone very dear to me, who sweats all the small stuff. He sweats it so much that he is always overheating. An overheating human is very much like an overheating car. He/it sits on the side of the road, smoking and fuming... all engines and motion halted... hood is open, and he spends all his time trying to find the reason nothing is working. Overheating damages a car engine. Overheating damages a human engine. No one moves forward when everything causes them to stress so much they can't function. The problem is, we all sweat the small stuff... thus, we all need the reminder. Sometimes, all it takes is some deep breaths and a moment before acting or speaking. Is it really necessary to yell and scream at your partner when you get lost driving to a friend's Christmas party? A breath, a moment... and hopefully a recognition. I had such an instance the other day. I received a Christmas present from my boyfriend that he promised me I was going to love. Turns out, it was baby clothes and a baby food-maker. I thought the present was going to be something that had to do with us as a couple... well, us more directly. I really did like the present, but there was a slight tinge of disappointment that I didn't receive anything that said 'I love you' right to me. The next morning I was going for a walk when I realized something. From my perspective, the gift was about the baby and not me. However, when I took a moment and thought about it from his perspective, everything changed. He has struggled with the timing and finances of a child at this moment in time. So, to give me things about the baby was, for him, an expression that he is on board with me and the baby, that he is supportive and loving, that he is doing everything he can to be involved. When I thought about it that way, I was deeply touched. What a wonderful sentiment. Sometimes, not sweating the small stuff, thereby, means 'keeping your eyes on the prize' so to speak. What is the bigger point? What is the larger goal? What is the more important thing going on? Here's another example, perhaps a sillier one, but a very concrete one. I am knitting a baby blanket. I got very distracted last night. There were things going on in my personal life and they were bothering me. Suddenly, I looked down at the blanket and realized I had switched from knit stitch to purl stitch in the middle of a row. There were about 30 stitches of purl. I am really new to knitting and so I can go forward relatively well, but undoing and going backwards becomes quite a mess. I tried to undo the stitches the best I could. I knew I wasn't doing it quite right, but I figured it would probably look okay. After I got back to square one, I started up again with the knit stitch. I knitted a few more rows before I noticed that I hadn't fixed everything as I'd hoped. There is a loop of yarn on the rightside-up side of the blanket that goes over two rows. It's definitely pretty noticeable. I felt really frustrated so I called it quits for the night. I've tried to let go of perfectionism (bad energy!), but it still comes back to haunt me sometimes. More so when I am more stressed. And so that little mistake was driving me crazy. It actually kept me up for a while before I could finally fall asleep. I couldn't let it go... as a mistake. But then I started to think about it in a different way. Rather than a 'mistake,' I could choose to see it as a reminder... a reminder of that moment of a troubled mind... and also a reminder of my own imperfection, the imperfection of life, the messiness of life. Seeing it that way made me start to become rather fond of this little mistake. I am about to be a parent and I need to let go of the idea of 'perfect parenting.' I will make mistakes, and I must not sweat the small stuff. What is important, as with my blanket, is what is motivating me... and in this case, and in all my intentions with my child, it is love. This blanket is my love, imperfect, but full and enveloping... and warm. Yes, I could go back two rows and undo the mistake. I could create a veneer of perfection, but it would be just that... a thin layer of fabrication... and something that you can't even do in real life. The loop holds a story. The loop is me and all my imperfections. The loop is part of my blanket. Is it the loop that is important? Or the blanket? Keep your eyes on the prize.

5. Love should be supportive, not cutting

This one seems so obvious... as I said when I started. Some of these will seem incredibly obvious. Yet, as an observer of other people, I notice far too often that it is the cutting down that is most evident between partners. I see (and have witnessed in my own relationships) people criticizing their most loved ones... about the littlest things. "You don't fold the clothes the right way. You should try harder to be more graceful when you lose. You don't mean to say that; what you mean is... You don't understand me." Oh, that last one is one of the worst. Usually only said in moments of anger, whereas the others can come out at any time. The problem is that, like negative self-talk, negative partner-talk becomes habitual. I see couples in public situations, cutting each other down in front of their friends and relatives. The entire way in which they talk about each other becomes: he is not good at this, she did the dumbest thing the other day, etc, etc. Sometimes, it is submitted as if it is funny. "It is hilarious how clumsy so-and-so is. She has NO coordination. Yesterday she..." This may sound innocent. Trust me it is not. When the only way you learn to talk about another person is in negative terms, then the support that should be at the heart of a relationship crumbles. I have been in relationships where I was talked about this way. It hurts. It feels like the other person doesn't believe in you, doesn't respect you, thinks really nothing of you at all. It is belittling and demeaning. Those things don't belong between two people that love each other. I know that couples fight. This is not what I am talking about. I am talking about a way of acting towards, talking towards, and talking about each other that becomes a tendency that becomes a practice that becomes the relationship. And people act as much out of reaction as they do from other motivations. Thus, when one person cuts and belittles another all the time, the other begins to react in much the same way back towards the first person. There are ways to deal with things that bother you about a person. And if that person can't change those things, then let it go, or just go away. Cutting love comes from insecurity. If you don't like yourself, take the time to step away and deal with that before unloading a mountain of pain on someone else. And, as we all know, a person must love himself before he can give that love to anyone else.

6. Heart first, head second

Think first, we are told. Look before you leap. Yes, this is all good advice. And I certainly advise using logic and not letting instinct rule the day. However, much as in the situation of over-complicating things, there are times when we over-think something rather than listening to our heart. Listening to your heart can be scary. It can seem that what it is telling you to do is completely impossible. You don't have the money. You don't have the time. You don't have the ability or the smarts. But aren't these all just excuses? Sometimes we are just afraid. And succumbing to fear weakens you as a human being. Wayne Dyer gives an example in his blog of October 26, 2011: "A caller to my radio show, for example, couldn't decide whether to take a job in a new city. It was a good job, but it would require him to leave his life-long home. We all fear change and the risks it carries, but I have to say that everything significant I've ever experienced has involved change. Our soul wants to expand and grow. When we stay with the familiar, just because it is familiar, we are responding to a fear of failure that doesn't support our growth." Your heart says to go forward, despite the risks. We all know what is in our heart. It is just that we are sometimes afraid to listen or respond. This fear can hurt us; it can also hurt others. It is when a person is frozen in fear that he will cut down others (see reminder #5). Dyer uses another anecdote that I love. "Know in your heart that you have never failed at anything and you never will. What might be judged as errors or mistakes are the very stuff of growth. Think about Thomas Edison's response to a reporter who asked him how it felt to have failed twenty-five thousand times in his efforts to invent a battery. 'Failed,' replied Edison, 'I haven't failed. Today I know twenty-five thousand ways not to make a battery!'" When I remind myself to use my heart, I also mean use it generally. Act with heart in life. My younger brother is currently working in Africa for an organization called Grassroot Soccer. Their mission, stated on their website, is to use "the power of soccer to educate, inspire, and mobilize communities to stop the spread of HIV." My brother decided to work for this organization because of his heart. He was previously working in the finance industry. He wanted a change. If he had acted solely by his head, perhaps he would have gone to work for a bigger financial firm or the "best" hedge-fund or the company where he could advance most rapidly and make the largest income. Instead, he listened to his heart. His heart told him that he had always wanted to do something meaningful for the world... and so he took the chance. I communicate with him over emails, Skype, and Facebook, and honestly, I have never seen him happier. And his enthusiasm for what he is doing is incredibly inspiring. When I feel down or discouraged, all I have to do is think of him and I want to CHANGE THE WORLD!! I am not kidding. This is how one person does change the world... by inspiring others. By showing others the way. And that is done with the heart. The heart working in concert with the head, but the heart first. I think it is strange that we have this external debate about the antagonistic nature of science and religion, of whether it is possible to incorporate both logic and faith into our lives. Internally, don't we do this all the time? We have faith (heart) that something is right, that it is what we should be doing right now at this very moment, that it will work out, and then we use logic (head) to figure out how to make all the other pieces fit. When you act first with heart, the shapes of those pieces become very clear. Everything, in fact, becomes very clear. Because heart gives us the goals we really want to reach. And it is only with those goals that we can move forward in life, that we can move towards anything with meaning. When you know what it is that is most important, everything else just becomes something that must work in concert to get there.

Thus, the problem with resolutions. They are often so vague. They are often expressions of the head without a universal goal of the heart. They are often just little random pieces, one from here, another from there, that don't really add up to anything as a whole. All in all, I would rather take time today to remind myself of what my priorities are, of what is most important in my life, of what is in my heart... and then begin taking specific steps towards those goals.

Best of luck in your own journeys and wishing everyone a happy, healthy, inspiring new year! Be the author of your story, and make it a good one, because it WILL be heard by the rest of us.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

65 things to ask God if She exists

Another 65 lister!! It's been a while and this is long overdue. No real introduction necessary here. Title says it all.

1. What would you like to be called?
2. Are you omnipotent and all-knowing or, as Norman Mailer suggests in In God, a being in process and evolving along with humanity?
3. Why this planet?
4. Which religion, philosophy, or treatise depicts you the closest to who or what you really are?
5. Why is hate so easy and love so hard?
6. Do you listen to prayers?
7. If so, do you act on them?
8. Where did you come from?
9. Is morality really subjective or is that just a human mistake?
10. Is there a Heaven?
11. A Hell?
12. Why do so many religions do so much damage?
13. Does reincarnation exist?
14. Will I have to come back as a termite or an eel or a fruit fly?
15. What is the purpose of it all?
16. Does everything have a beginning?
17. What if I'm already dead?
18. How much of the Bible is true?
19. Can you be of any guidance to me?
20. Is hope an illusion?
21. Is there karma?
22. Does that have anything to do with you? Or is it something totally separate?
23. Why so many poisonous snakes?
24. Why is becoming pregnant so difficult for so many women?
25. Are we (humanity) moving in a direction... or just moving?
26. What does it mean that some people believe in you and others don't?
27. Do you care what we do here on earth?
28. If so, what would you most like to see happen?
29. Is technology, as Mailer suggests, an arm of the devil?
30. Is there a devil, or a corresponding, yet adversarial, evil force in the universe?
31. Does that evil just emanate from us?
32. Why are so many things just so sad?
33. Why do I feel confused so much of the time?
34. What is the secret to happiness?
35. Do you even know what human happiness is?
36. How much do you have your hands in everyday human life and events?
37. How do you feel about the fact that so many religions oppress women?
38. If the story about you, Satan, and Job is true.... why God... seriously why?
39. Does there have to be a battle between 'reason' and 'faith' or can we embrace both?
40. If you are merely an invention of us, then... well, then what?
41. Does trying matter or does only the end justify the means?
42. Why do so many people (including me) say they don't believe in you, but then when things are tough say things like, "God hates me"?
43. Are you emptiness or fullness?
44. Which came first, the chicken or the egg?
45. Are we your only project?
46. Are we your worst project?
47. Why gravity? It's such a pain sometimes...
48. Why is religion, the tool with which we are meant to understand you and ourselves, one of our worst inventions?
49. If a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to hear, does it make a noise?
50. What is dark matter?
51. Is the purpose of life to ask questions?
52. If Fed Ex and UPS merged, would they call it Fed Up? (ok, that was just a lame joke... hehe)
53. Do you have a sense of humor?
54. Do you mind being asked the same things millions of times?
55. How much do you really know about or pay attention to each of us, individually, here on earth?
56. Why is it that when I try so hard sometimes, no one notices?
57. If one person can change the world, how come it is virtually impossible for one person to change a single other person?
58. How much is fate and how much free will?
59. What happened before the Big Bang? What was it like?
60. How many dimensions are there?
61. Is anything possible?
62. Is there Truth?
63. Is the deepest structure of the universe something that can be understood through mathematics or physics?
64. Are instincts so powerful for a good reason?
65. Where are you?

Tuesday, December 27, 2011


I'm no astronomer. I don't really understand the expansion of the universe. In discovering the law of gravity, Newton uncovered the fact that all objects in the universe are attractive, each pulling at and towards each other. For the universe to be ever-expanding, then, seems quite a paradox.

What, then, is it expanding into? Well, as it turns out... nothing. The universe is finite and not growing. It circles back upon itself and all journeys to its 'edge' are thereby inherent returns to one's starting point. The constant expansion that astronomers speak of is actually an increasing distance between the relative parts of the universe... still a paradox, though, if everything is supposed to be attractive.

For me, all things are echoes. I've always felt this way. What happens on any one level of life, somehow is echoing in all of the others. Thus, I too am expanding. Not physically, but certainly relatively. I expand away from my childhood. I expand away from old friends and old beliefs. I move partly because of inertia -- in other words, like the universe, I move because I've always been moving. I also move because of the impelling force of my own inner dark matter. And always, I move back to the beginning. Or try to.

To expand is to unfold, like an indigo blue bunting opening its wings before flight.

To expand is to open your horizons. To learn, yes, but even more than that to open your heart to learning... to be willing to question everything you know, including your very self.

To expand is to express more fully. To go from a thesis statement to an essay where more is explained and thoughts are developed.

Are these things we are always doing? Or just hope to be doing? Are we expanding? Can we not be?

With Christmas just passed, my mind has returned to beginnings... or earlier times. Times when Christmas held that certain magic for me, the magic that only a child can enjoy and spread. When and how it is lost, I have never understood. I tried to hold onto it for so long -- going through all of the same processes in dire desperation. Making the same gingerbread houses. Listening to CDs of Christmas songs. Decorating the tree with ornaments our family has acquired since before I was born -- glass ornaments with my name and my brothers' names etched upon them, needlepoint ornaments sewn by my mother, funny little skiing bears and pirouetting clay cookie girls... everything is there... all of the memories. But I have expanded away from the magic.

I don't do this anymore, but one of the other things I used to do, out of habit (inertia, hope, nostalgia) was to watch all of the Christmas specials that air each year on TV. My favorite was The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. After he steals all of the presents (and well, EVERYTHING) from Whoville, after he plants himself high up on his mountain to watch their sad, crying faces react to the discovery that they now have no presents, no Christmas, what the Grinch actually sees is that Christmas is something else to the Whos. Out they come, singing, making a circle, holding hands... and celebrating life itself it seems. And it is this realization for the Grinch, the realization that they need nothing else but each other, that causes the Grinch's heart to grow three sizes that day.

So it is with less, that his heart grows more. Less that is concrete that is. More that is intangible, spiritual one may say... or just true and deep comprehension of what was never before known. It is with understanding that his expansion occurs.

Expansion is not always a positive. Suburbs can over-expand. So can waistlines and McMansions and SUV sizes. Classroom size can expand so much that even the best teachers can't teach as well as they'd like, being unable to give appropriate attention to each student. Wars can expand. Drought can expand. Pain and grief can expand, for years and years, instead of contracting.

Love also can expand. I have nothing earth-shattering to say or suggest or question today. But I think that as the universe expands, and at an ever-accelerating rates, so should our hearts. As everything quickens and life seems to move ever faster and ever away, and all sometimes seems at increasing distances, so should we press our hearts to match the distance opened. In relationships, if love is not expanding, then there is no growth. But remember, expansion comes, in part, out of dark forces and matter. It is not easy and it might be painful. We must be compelled to MAKE our love expand; it will not do so by itself. Our bodies, like the universe, are finite, but our empathy is not. While our inclinations and our fantasies expand, maybe our hearts pull everything back, hold everything together. Expand to your outer edges and back into your core. Discover other realms and rediscover the magic.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Worms, Roxanne, worms!

In the classic film remake of Cyrano de Bergerac, Roxanne, Chris gets himself into trouble with his paramour, Roxanne, when he mishears -- and thereby misstates -- the whispers from C.D. who is hiding in the bushes behind him, feeding him his lines. "So why did you say those things," Roxanne asks from her open window above. "Tell her you were afraid," C.D. urges from nearby. "Because I was afraid," Chris projects dutifully. "Of me? Afraid of what?" Roxanne is terribly confused.

"Tell her you were afraid of words," C.D. whisper-yells. "What?" Chris can't believe what he is mishearing. "Words!" "Because I was afraid of worms, Roxanne, worms!"

And with Roxanne disastrously disenchanted, C.D. takes over from below and delivers one of the most wonderful speeches of the film... a speech about the power of words, especially when one is in love. "Be careful," C.D. warns Roxanne, "one hard word from you at that height kills me!" And as he continues, he woos her with his moving, heartfelt words. "I love you. I have breathed you in, and I am suffocating." Finally, she is almost at the point of wanting to let Chris/C.D. into her house... and C.D. clinches it, again, by speaking of words. "There will never be another tonight, Roxanne. Why should we sip from a teacup when we can drink from the river? There's a tiny word. It's not a noun, it's not a verb, it's not an adjective. I, I don't know what it is. But if you said it to me tonight, all this blackness would go away, and you and I would be connected by a tunnel of light." And she says it. And the power of 'yes' is stunning in its simplicity.

Shakespeare was right. Words can be sharper than a dagger, can cut deeper, can do more damage. As Emerson once said, "Words are alive; cut them and they bleed." And throw them and they cut us. Whoever said that actions are stronger than words was not cut by the tongue of a lover.

But even those with whom we are not close can cut us. I remember being at summer camp one year. I was probably 7 or 8 years old. This one particular girl chose me for her bullying prey. I have no idea why. Bullying targets often don't make any sense. Sometimes the bully can just sense the sensitivity of another. She bullied me relentlessly, calling me names, making fun of my clothing and my lunch, mocking me when I misfired the kickball into foul territory. It began to weigh on me and one day I came home crying. My parents, not surprisingly, were quite upset. My father's advice was 'an eye for an eye' sort of counsel. "Start calling her 'the whale,'" he urged me, assuring me that this would end my tortuous days. She was a big girl, too big, and certainly this would have embarrassed her, perhaps stopped her from bothering me. At the very least, she would have been surprised at how I stood up to her attacks.

But I couldn't do it. I wasn't afraid. It just felt so ugly in my stomach. I didn't want to throw back the pain she had caused me in her face. I didn't want to cruelly insult and shame her in front of all the other campers. Because there was some truth in the name, it would have cut deeper... and it would have stuck longer. Probably other kids would have taken up the nickname and continued the teasing I had begun. I just didn't want to use words that way. I think, even at that age, I understood how powerful and painful they can be. So I just quietly took the bullying, day in, day out, until one day it stopped. She must have gotten tired of my lack of a response. And I didn't need to be afraid of worms anymore.

At least for a while. No, probably not such a while. We are hurt by words quite often, too often. It is the first tool that someone turns to when he wants to injure a loved one. Words speak louder than actions when you consider the abuse, the violence, the sting and lasting pain they can inflict.

A loved one and I were struggling with a difficult decision. Though I was undecided, I was clearly leaning one way, he another. My direction was a direction in which he didn't want to be pulled. His direction was one that I was sure would traumatize me terribly, perhaps even kill me. His frustration built and built. Finally, he appeared in my apartment one night at 2am, came in and sat on my bed. He sat silently for a while. Then, he explained his position again and quite adamantly. I sat up, curled my knees close to my chest and tried to close myself off into a little ball of protectiveness. Perhaps I knew inwardly what was coming. I began to cry. Many, not all, but many men hate it when the women they love begin to cry. The extreme display of uncontrollable emotion overwhelms them and their ability to respond. Everything becomes muddled. But I needed to cry. I was hurting from the thought of making one decision and from the difficulty of the other road as well. Everything was going to be hard, but was made harder by the fact that we were not on the same page. "Stop crying," he ordered me. I tried. "I just don't know if I can do that," I told him. It was then he couldn't contain his vexation any longer. "I wish I had never met you!" he yelled and left the room, but not before punching the door angrily.

Don't we all have those moments? The ones we can recall as if they were yesterday when someone cut us with their words.... someone we love or loved. The reason those moments are so persistently present is because words are, in fact, so powerful. That single sentence still aches in my heart when I think of it. What a cutting thing to say to someone you love. It suggests the erasure of all of your moments together, all of the beautiful intimacies, all of the tenderness, all of the love. Didn't that matter to him?

I wonder how many times we can be cut by the same person before we are so wounded we cannot love them anymore. Words are indeed physical. They can create distance. You don't understand me = distance to the person who wants to understand. I wish I never met you = distance to the heart that feels so close to another... distance and a wound. Lies can create distance too. A huge distance. Perhaps an insurmountable one. Of couples where one person has an affair, less than 30% continue on to heal and have an enduring relationship.

Ironically, though, it is perhaps the reverse when we speak of love. In the case of compassion and kindness and love, actions may indeed speak louder than words. We have all had someone say "I love you" perhaps even in an attempt to apologize for past missteps or cuts. But it is never enough. That person must DO something to show that love. Then, we can start believing again. A friend of mine posted a beautiful blog entry written by a woman on her 35th birthday. Rather than have a celebration for herself, she went out and celebrated others. And ultimately, these acts of kindness and generosity made her far happier than any present or party could have.

Words combined with action may be the most powerful of all. Sometimes, with the help of another, if we just say something differently, everything changes.

Words to ourselves may be the most powerful of all. I am not a big fan of self-help gurus. But, for some reason last night, I found myself watching Wayne Dyer on PBS. He was talking about the way that we make our own excuses for things and then come to believe that these excuses are facts unto themselves. If we think with possibility, rather than excuses, he suggested, anything can happen and all doors are open to us. I think I enjoyed his presentation because I have long felt the same way.

"All that we are is the result of what we have thought," Wayne tells us by way of Buddha. We are what we think. Events don't determine our destiny, our reaction to events do. Life is just something that happens to us. The way we take what happens, what we do with it, how we approach it, what we choose to think about it, that determines our lives and our meaning. Dyer spoke of how passion for something is not just a feeling, but a vehicle. If you have passion for a job or a cause, for instance, you are driven by the end result you hope to see. And working from the end backwards is a tremendously effective way to run the course of your life. If you see something in the future as having already occurred, all you have to do now is fill in the blanks. What we tell ourselves about our lives, about what happens to us, about our loved ones, about ourselves IS our reality. Truly, we can all be carried forward by the power of our own words. We can make all kinds of excuses, or we can see life as a gift and move forward in our optimistic luckiness. If we live in gratitude, if we act with grace, if we speak with passion and tenderness, if we believe in what's possible, we have all the power in the world.