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Posts Tagged ‘creativity’

Peace No Parts (2)

Proof that I did not make this place up.

Some time back we went to lunch in Edenton, NC with my Uncle Jimmy. He suggested that we eat at a place called the Nothing Fancy Café. It was an excellent choice, because not only was the food good, but it was also right next door to the Shalom International Church. The awning of its storefront location read: “The Place of Peace, Contentment, Fulfillment, and No Parts Missing.” So much peace, contentment, and fulfillment are available there that it has run over into the Nothing Fancy Café. We had a wonderful time there, and left both content and fulfilled—in fact, stuffed. Uncle Jimmy entertained us with stories about being stationed in Japan during the Korean War. He was 24 years old and on the strength of his college education received a top-secret clearance. He then spent most of his time in Japan locked in a cage with a revolver, acting as a librarian in charge of receiving and giving out classified documents.

But I am here to talk not about war, but peace—and the inspiring nature of stillness.

There was once a book about artist Joan Miró called Miró: I Work Like a Gardener, which is no longer in print but may be available in your local library (it’s not in mine). I only know about this book through the amazing website Brainpickings. Blogger Maria Popova chose some passages from the book to highlight. This is one quote from Miró:

[Stillness] strikes me. This bottle, this glass, a big stone on a deserted beach — these are motionless things, but they set loose great movements in my mind… People who go bathing on a beach and who move about, touch me much less than the [stillness] of a pebble.

I know what he means. Last spring we arrived in Pine Knoll Shores, NC in late afternoon, happy to have a long weekend ahead of us. We went straight out to the beach for a walk, and right away I found some pretty, smooth beach pebbles. At first I picked up a few, thrilled to find them glistening in the sun on the wet sand. Pretty soon I realized that pebbles were scattered along the high-tide mark for nearly the entire length of the beach, though some areas were more fruitful than others. Finding them less rare made them no less valuable to me, and Ernesto helped me collect them for three days. It was pure joy. Most were white or a sort of milky translucent material, probably quartz. Others were shades of tranquil gray. They made me intensely happy.

At one point, as I walked along with my head down, I nearly collided with a woman coming from the opposite direction, with her head down, too.

“I’m collecting pebbles,” I said, showing her a few in my palm. I was anxious that we might be in competition, fearful she would think I was taking more than my share.

She opened her hand and showed me a scattering of tiny angel-wing shells. “I collected pebbles yesterday,” she said, “so now I’m collecting angel-wings.” What a relief.

I now have two full jars of pebbles in the house. They are as peaceful to contemplate as a still pool of water, but they are also, curiously, alive. They still make me happy. Miró considered objects to be alive, in the way that they “set loose great movements” in his mind. All that liveliness, translated into his art, required careful husbandry:

I consider my studio as a kitchen garden. Here, there are artichokes. There, potatoes. Leaves must be cut so that the fruit can grow. At the right moment, I must prune.

I work like a gardener… Things come slowly… Things follow their natural course. They grow, they ripen. I must graft. I must water… Ripening goes on in my mind.

Yes. When I’m trying to write, a great deal of ripening is necessary in my mind, too. In fact, sometimes I require entire seasons of ripening and pruning and grafting and watering and mulching and uprooting before anything at all happens—punctuated by long spells of stillness (okay, staring into space). This process does not usually fill me with peace, but with an anxious casting about—where are the pebbles on the beach? Why are my plants not growing? When will the right word, a better simile, a more interesting plot come to fruition? Is that alarming woman snatching up my pebbles and putting them into her pocket? Are all the most wonderful ideas locked inside a cage and guarded by a young soldier with a revolver?

On the other hand, if I could walk into a storefront and purchase a measure of peace, contentment, and fulfillment to replace the angst, it probably wouldn’t be very helpful. Maybe there have to be a few parts missing, a little bit of something lacking, to force myself to think differently, weave a connection, bridge the divide, and write something fresh.

 

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Trees at dusk

A story from Chuang Tzu.

Khing, the master carver, made a bell stand
Of precious wood. When it was finished,
All who saw it were astounded. They said it must be
The work of spirits. The prince of Lu said to the master carver:
“What is your secret?”

Khing replied: “I am only a workman:
I have no secret. There is only this:
When I began to think about the work you commanded
I guarded my spirit, did not expend it
On trifles, that were not to the point.
I fasted in order to set my heart at rest.
After three days fasting,
I had forgotten gain or success.
After five days, I had forgotten praise or criticism.
After seven days I had forgotten my body with all its limbs.

“By this time all thought of your Highness
And of the court had faded away.
All that might distract me from the work
Had vanished.
I was collected in the single thought
Of the bell stand.

“Then I went to the forest
To see the trees in their own natural state.
When the right tree appeared before my eyes,
The bell stand also appeared in it, clearly, beyond doubt.
All I had to do was to put forth my hand
And begin.

“If I had not met this particular tree
There would have been
No bell stand at all.

“What happened?
My own collected thought
Encountered the hidden potential in the wood;
From this live encounter came the work
Which you ascribe to the spirits.”

When educator Parker Palmer shares this story in his book A Hidden WholenessThe Journey Toward an Undivided Life, he points out the “sheer chutzpah of the woodcarver’s words to the Prince,” adding:

It is as if your boss asked how you managed to do so well with the assignment she gave you, and you replied, ‘Well, frankly, I had to forget that you and this organization even exist!”

Which is, of course, true. When we are attuned to the expectation of the boss or the corporate culture rather than to the soul’s imperatives, we cannot cocreate anything of truth and beauty.

Palmer goes even further and says that, when Khing declares that there would be no bell stand without the particular tree that he had found, he is pointing out that the idea that we can simply take raw materials and force them into something of value is false.

Like every good gardener, potter, teacher, and parent, [Khing] understands that the ‘other’ with which we work is never mere raw material to be formed into any shape we choose. Every ‘other’ we work with has its own nature, its own limits and potentials, with which we must learn to cocreate if we hope to get real results. Good work is relational, and its outcomes depend on what we are able to evoke from each other.

We should probably begin to reconsider much of the work that is considered perfectly normal in today’s world. Too much of our work relies on the twisting of wood, water, minerals, and even human beings into unnatural shapes for questionable ends.

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Feasting the Heart

Thanks to a recent book sale at the local public library, I acquired a copy of Feasting the Heart: Fifty-two Commentaries for the Air by Reynolds Price (2000, Scribner). These are short essays on a wide variety of subjects, written by Price for presentation on National Public Radio. Over time, I may end up posting more of them, because they are wonderful. For now, here’s two good-sized chunks from one about writing: “The Ghost-writer in the Cellar.”

The novelist Graham Greene said that, if he reached an impasse in writing a story, he’d read the troublesome passage just before bed. Then he’d rise in the morning to find that, almost invariably, “the ghost-writer in the cellar” had solved the problem while he slept. Most writers I know have similar strategies for passive reliance on their mind’s dark compartments. So do most people whose work flows primarily from their minds—physicists and mathematicians, architects and choreographers, even (I’m sure) great fireworks artists and the CIA’s most uncanny code-busters.

Yet the vast resource of our unconscious mind and the techniques for tapping its wellsprings are almost never taught to students in any discipline known to me. In my own case—in the early 1960, as a fiction writer ten years after college—I was still stumbling in the thickets of puzzlement: why could I write fluently on certain days, then go appallingly dry for weeks?

For a start, not one of my excellent teachers had so much as mentioned the urgency of learning two things:

     —first, that creative thought… is conceived in the human mind below the level of our awareness and,

     —second, that the mind resides in an organ called the brain, which is (like all our organs) a piece of meat with its own rules and needs of nutrition and rest, stimulus and respect.

I was well into my thirties before I began to understand that my unconscious mind would—to an amazing extent—compose and deliver my novels, poems, plays, and essays if I bothered to give it sane amounts of good food and sleep, sane chemical and emotional nourishment, and then made myself available—six mornings a week—at a quiet desk with the phone turned off and all distractions, short of falling meteors, cancelled for the hours it took me to transcribe my mind’s ongoing work. It has hardly failed me since, though I grant that a reader who dislikes my work may feel I take dictation from a fool.

Price goes on to say that when he is between periods of productive writing, he lives a quiet life of rest—something that the more industrious might disparage as hanging out, or slacking off.

I’d accept those descriptions, though I might amend them to hanging around. My bet, my risk, is that what I’m doing is quietly hanging my resting body round a deep spring-fed lake that, since it has proved so trusty in the past, may now be renewing itself beyond my reach. The main hope of course is that soon I’ll catch sight of some craft rising, breaking the surface with its own strange fittings and a crew of imagined hands as real as my friends and enemies—a craft I can manage to board and steer.

Maybe that’s what I’m doing—subconsciously—when I hang out at the family pond. It’s a good place to slack off and wait for a ghost-ship to rise. And perhaps the reason why I’m stumbling in the thickets of puzzlement instead of boarding these ghost-ships is because I’m not getting enough good, restorative sleep to clear out all the accumulated brain-gunk. Will try to get a solid 9 hours tonight and see what happens…. 

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“Wilson’s Bird of Paradise,” by Diana Sudyka (2007).

“Here is an entry from my journal that fell off my desk and landed on my lap and opened to this page.”

This quote is from an article (“Prayer, Poverty, and Creativity”) by Brother Paul Quenon in Parabola’s Spring 2012 issue. The quote had been pulled out and featured in a largish text box, so it was impossible to miss. And since I’ve been having trouble figuring out what to write about, I took it as a sign and used it as a writing prompt: I would randomly choose a page from my own online journal and use it as a jumping-off point for a blog post.

This was a risky move. Brother Paul’s journal entry was a meaningful and beautifully written meditation on prayer; he used it as the foundation of a piece about contemplation and creativity. He wove in some lovely poetry by Thomas Merton and Emily Dickinson. Altogether it was so wonderful I could hardly stand it.

But I randomly opened one of the journals I keep on the computer and landed on a passage that was quite colorful and referenced an original poem of my own—a bonus. I dug the poem out of the archives to include as decoration and make my post more like Brother Paul’s piece. Not that I am presenting my journal entry + poem as comparable to Brother Paul’s—far from it.

(In fact, as I tried to jot down some notes about the article so I wouldn’t forget them, I found that my pen sputtered and spit in a really aggravating way. It’s my favorite pen, mind you. Usually it writes very smoothly and is a pleasure to use, but once in a while it becomes cantankerous, distributing ink unevenly or not at all. It seems to like only the finest paper, and performs well only at a certain temperature. This led me to contemplate that I am exactly the same, myself. Once in a while I am able to write clearly and say precisely what I wish; other times I have a devil of a time getting anything down at all, or it comes out in such an unholy mess that it makes me stamp around and sulk.)

The journal entry that fell open (though not on my lap) was about just such a day. So without further ado, here it is, with a poem in the middle:

I have started a story, but it’s not going well.  I got distracted and had to write a poem for Will’s birthday, because I forgot his birthday until several days after it had passed.  Lateness required that I write him a poem to make up for it….  Funny thing is, last year I wrote him a birthday poem because he whined for one, and I ended up writing about the Florida wildfires. I got up this morning and there it was on the news:  more Florida wildfires.  There must be a connection between Will’s birthday and conflagration. 

William’s birthday?
No, it’s not!
(Yes, it was.
I just forgot.)
My perfect record
Has a blot
His birthday passed,
And I forgot.
Blame it on
A wicked plot!
Faulty calendars!
Advanced brain-rot!
Blame on, blame on,
It matters not—
The simple truth is
I forgot.
But William, here’s
A worn ten-spot.
Is all forgiven…
…and forgot?

A couple of nights ago we watched “Attenborough in Paradise” on PBS. David Attenborough went deep into the jungles of New Guinea to film birds of paradise. They are really amazing things, with brightly colored feathers that shoot out in all directions like fireworks.  My personal favorite was the Wilson’s Bird of Paradise.  The little curled tail-feathers are precious, and the Carolina-blue helmet is nice, too.  I found the most adorable painting of this bird at The Tiny Aviary blog, and the artist, Diana Sudyka, wrote underneath it: “I swear I did not make this bird up.”  It does look like a made-up bird.

Speaking of birds, last night on “Bizarre Foods” Andrew Zimmern was in Spain. He traveled out into the countryside and stopped at a restaurant where the chef prepared sautéed rooster combs and served them with rice. Andrew tried one and said, “Oh, they just melt in your mouth.”  Here’s what he wrote about it on his blog:  “A rooster crest really is the zigzag crown that sits on top of a rooster’s head. They are braised, peeled, and then some of the crests are chopped and stirred into the risotto, while several others are napped with a chicken glacé and perched atop the finished dish. If you love chicken feet, imagine all the gelatinous delight of those morsels multiplied by a factor of 100.”

The next day, Ernesto was still talking about his suddenly urgent desire to go to Barcelona, stay in the country, and eat delicious cheeses and ham.  “And rooster combs,” I reminded him.
“Rooster combs?” he said. “Oh, no. No, no, no.”
“Why not? Andrew says they melt in your mouth.”
Ernesto considered this.  “They will have to melt somewhere else,” he said.

Now that I’ve pieced together my journal entry and poem, illustrated it with Diana Sudyka’s wonderful painting (used with permission), and have run out of ink, as it were, I’m going to go back to Brother Paul’s article and pull out the essence of what he had to say about creativity:

True creativity does not need an excuse. It is its own motivation. It is spontaneous. It need not win public recognition, and its aim is not success.

Success is not the goal of creativity. Success can be a threat to creativity and become an end to itself. As Merton said, “If you have learned only how to be a success, your life has probably been wasted.” Creativity, as life itself, is grounded in and shares in the sacred. … St. Benedict’s Rule for Monasteries opens with an appeal: Listen. … Listen, obaudire, also means obey. In listening, something new can emerge, something beyond my own assumptions, control and agenda.

I hear you, Brother Paul. I hear you.

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