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Rustling in the Wind: the Vocation of the Artist

Rustling in the Wind: the Vocation of the Artist

Melissa Wiley has a beautiful post about about giving your creative self time to play: . . . fields everywhere invite you into them:

Twyla Tharp would say: you must make a pledge to the third self. Promise her time on the throne. Mary Oliver says to put your foot into the door of the grass and to sit down like a weed among weeds and rustle in the wind! 

Every day, I get up before dark to give the third self a little time in the chair. I’m dedicated to this practice and it bears fruit on a long, slow timeline. But here at the end of an infuriating, stupefying year, those morning hours already feel like a distant memory by the time breakfast is over. The poet queen refuses to compete with Twitter. She won’t come back until all the tabs are closed. That’s Mary Oliver’s point.

I suppose, looking back, that I’ve been spending much of my time this year collecting beauty. I feel sometimes like Baby Suggs in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, contemplating color. Feeding her soul and freeing it by allowing herself to love one color at a time.

My Facebook page is my commonplace book: there I put up art and poetry and music and stories and prayers, all the things that inspire me and feed my soul. I suppose I hope to make at least one corner of that platform an oasis, a haven, a place where I, and my friends, can rest in beauty. There are many ways that I don’t love Facebook, but it’s most useful for finding and sharing things quickly. Unlike a blog which demands a lot more work and deliberation.

But here is a small handful of the beautiful things I’ve found just in the past few days. Things that are waking me up from a long season of hibernation and inspiring me to want to create my own beautiful things again. I can’t always collect all the beautiful things here, duplicating my magpie facebook page here is too much work. But tonight… I think I’m grasping for something and I want to spend a little time putting a few things together, a mosaic or patchwork, a juxtaposition to draw out something they all want to say to each other, something about creativity and making beauty and cooperating with God and seeking truth. But mostly about the vocation of the artist.

  1. I begin with Stone Cut, a short film about a Japanese stonecutter working on Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia basilica in Barcelona:

Stone Cut from Aeon Video on Vimeo.

“I must cut stone to answer this question that burns inside of me like a magma that I can’t control. I ask myself, ‘Why did I feel such an urge to cut stone back in those days?’ After decades, I concluded that I needed someone to cut me, to deform me or to transform me. So, I realized that by cutting stone I was actually sculpting myself.”


2. These heart-rending song lyrics by my friend Kate Bluett, who seems to write a new song every day, and which were beautifully put to music by Elise Massa.

Dear infant Christ in Joseph's arms,
escaped before the dawn,
O come and heal how we’ve been harmed
for Herod rages on.
The sirens shriek, deep fear alarms,
when will you make them gone?
Or must we wait 'til hate’s disarmed?
For Herod rages on.

Recent days provide all too many reasons to rage, but also many to rejoice as well, especially the deep mystery of Christmas, Incarnation that defies the rage of Herod. The light that comes into the darkest darkness and which cannot be overcome. Friends who rage against they dying of the light and beat back the darkness with words and song.

3. This bit of encouragement from poet Brandon Brown (actually the author’s note to his poem ‘Dog Park’):

“‘Dog Park’ is, I guess, a poem about the ways poems can be sneaky. I’ve always liked this thing Ted Berrigan said in a lecture, ‘You should write every poem that is given to you to write, if you can. Because if you don’t write it, perhaps no one will, and those poems will be lost, which none of us can afford.’ In ‘Dog Park,’ the poet is sleepy, a little high, in bed next to someone extremely sweet. The last thing the poet wants to do is get up to write the poem, but you can’t give up on the poem.”

Write every poem that is given to you to write. I think I’ve let more than a few go because I unfairly judged them before they were written. Perhaps it was reading this admonition from Brown that renewed my resolve to try to capture all the poems I can. I think it’s a pretty good new year’s resolution. But why wait for the new year? Why not start today?

4. Then there is this insight from the incomparable Jorge Borges:

“When I was a young man I was always hunting for new metaphors. Then I found out that really good metaphors are always the same. I mean you compare time to a road, death to sleeping, life to dreaming, and those are the great metaphors in literature because they correspond to something essential. If you invent metaphors, they are apt to be surprising during the fraction of a second, but they strike no deep emotion whatever. If you think of life as a dream, that is a thought, a thought that is real, or at least that most men are bound to have, no? “What oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed.”

I think that’s better than the idea of shocking people, than finding connections between things that have never been connected before, because there is no real connection, so the whole thing is a kind of juggling.”

Jorge Luis Borges, The Paris Review Interviews

This is so immensely freeing. I am not necessarily tasked with the invention of new metaphors so much as with the chance to express well what countless other people have thought before. Perhaps I will not express it better, but I can do my best to express it as best as I can right now.

5. Bessie Smith in dazzling red and gold, singing the blues in this gorgeous portrait by Charles White. There’s a lovely online exhibition, Charles White: a Retrospective, from the MoMA which combines White’s work with lovely audio interviews with White, Harry Belafonte, and museum curator Esther Adler.

Bessie Smith by Charles White, 1955, tempera on panel, MoMA.

I hadn’t met Charles White previously. I’m loving the intersection of painting and music, the way he captures something of the music in the features of the singer. I’m loving the strong bodies, the passion, the power.

HARRY BELAFONTE: I couldn’t find enough ways in which to let the world be exposed to Charlie. I was so caught up in his work. I said in this special not only will they hear the beauty of the songs but the audience would have a visual experience—not just a set —but something that was filled with passion. It shook up television because they never quite saw anything like that, all this blackness. It was incredible.

You look at Charlie White and you look at the faces of black people, there’s a serenity. There’s a hope. There’s always a strength in his characters. If you look at the paintings that he does, the limbs of the black subject is always powerfully displayed. Strong arms. A lot of other art saw us as meager, as starving somehow. A Charlie White, you look at that and that was a place to be celebrated.

Harry Belafonte

A friend asked about how to get out of “survival mode”, that space where you are in crisis, overwhelm, burnout, grief, whatever makes you feel like you can barely put one foot in front of the other. How do you move from bare surviving to thriving?

One person pointed out that she’s more about process than being goal oriented.
That resonated with me. Looking back I can see that in many ways I have been working not just surviving even though it felt like survival mode. Maybe the key to survival and to moving from survival to thriving is really about reframing the question.

Maybe “survival” is about the process of making rhythms in the day that give me structure, like a trellis on which you train a plant. It’s about creating those spaces in which to thrive. In some ways perhaps it’s not too different than survival mode, really, I guess it is survival mode. But it’s also about finding small ways to create the conditions for fruitfulness by tilling the soil and building the structure and daily watering and nurturing– all of which allow survival to transform into thriving when the season shifts without you quite knowing how or why and the plant that’s been clinging to the trellis suddenly flowers, unexpectedly.

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