Monday, October 19, 2009

Art and the Deep Song

"The artist appeals to that part of our being... which is a gift and not an acquisition, and therefore more permanently enduring."--Joseph Conrad

On a gray autumn morning, with the trees gold and red outside the windows, I'm thinking about the gift of art, its heightened gestures and how it connects us to the deep song, the song of our heart, our essential self.

Art whether in the form of dance, music, singing, poetry, literature, painting, sculpture, film, theater gives us a way to move out beyond static, habitual perception and experience.

Suddenly we find ourselves in the midst of some kind of astounding beauty, heartbreaking in its immediacy and fullness, and it's vibrating, cascading, pouring through us in the stillness of our focused attention.

What rites of passage, nourishment and initiation art proffers, what gifts it brings. This is certainly as true for the artistic process as it is for experiencing the finished work. Creating art reveals you to yourself.

When I was a child, I took incredible delight in reading the dictionary. On any page, some words stood out more than others. I was attracted to those words; they opened up beautiful worlds of feeling, color and meaning. And then I discovered something that seemed even more magical-- from those disparate, exotic, tasty, brilliant, moving words I could create, through some type of magnetism, concentration and ecstatic discovery, whole streams of words that formed a poem and told a story.

Creating art occupies me with the same sense of delight and discovery many decades later. It presents beautiful challenges and allows me to share myself with others in ways that so-called ordinary life does not always afford.

When I was in my early 50s it began to dawn on me that if I lived long enough I would grow old. Then I noticed the vitality of older artists--among them dancers, painters, blues singers, classical musicians. It's beautiful--and it makes sense not to retire when you are so richly immersed in what you love to do, and what brings such joy to others.

That's something to pay attention to, I told myself. Pay attention to the vivid links between creativity and well-being; pay attention to the generous nourishment and rejuvenation that art provides. Pay attention to the joy of offering up the deep song.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Full Moon after Autumn Equinox

I went down to the old railroad district part of town today, and there were bright red leaves on the maple trees and lovely golden leaves on gingkos and aspens. It was first Friday, which means a big social scene at the art galleries.

When I lived in New York, I never missed the Friday art openings. Art openings and jazz at the Five Spot were my mainstays in those days. The art scene in New York was heady, competitive, and very creative as painters, photographers, writers, designers etc all gathered together in a swarm at art openings and bars like Max's Kansas City.

I enjoy living in this small town of Ashland, Oregon, where I've lived for over 30 years, but I have to say that the art scene in Ashland is usually pretty ho-hum. It's not that there are no good artists here. There are some. But there is no real art scene, which to me is a scene composed mainly of engaged artists. First Fridays in Ashland bring a variety of folks out on the town, and you can catch up with friends as you drink a little wine and eat morsels of this and that.

Today at the currently favored gallery there was a guy with little horns on his head and a very pretty coral and white snake around his arm, and another fellow in full evening dress with a tall top hat. Such pale artifice! I really am a curmudgeon today. I did see one very striking piece at that gallery, made of thorny mesquite branches, copper and feathers.

I went to one show of about 130 postcards from all over the country, which followed the theme "Dark Night of the Soul." The tiny gallery was up a long flight of stairs in a very old downtown building. There were four or five beautifully outstanding pieces. The exhibit was refreshing to me because it had no commercial focus. It was egalitarian. You see anybody can be an artist and say something about the dark night of the soul, or anything else for that matter. Some people called Betsy Lewis, the show's organizer, to tell her that they thought the dark night of the soul was the work of the devil. I suppose they had no idea the the phrase dark night of the soul came from the mystic poetry of St. John of the Cross.

This week I read two books. One was Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell, Fascinating stuff --enjoyable writing as usual from Gladwell. Success, it turns out is about 10,000 hours of focused practice and a fair amount of good luck in the form of helpful alliances with others and just being in the right place at the right time.

I also read The Third Age: Passion, Risk and Adventure in the 25 Years After 50 by Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot. Well-written and often inspiring, this book is based upon interviews with many people 50 and older about how they have redefined their lives through travel, new forms of work, learning, mentoring and loving. A significant look at the emerging new paradigm of aging.

The moon is coming to the full. I like lying in bed and watching it move across the sky, sometimes radiating a rainbow nimbus, sometimes covered by big billowing clouds. The moon waxes and wanes, the seasons change. Here is a poem I wrote about autumn in 1994.

Song of the Autumn Moon
for Carolyn Myers

Another autumn evening
moon nearly full
leaves blowing off the oaks.
The sounds of the owls and coyotes
wakes me and I cannot
fall asleep again.
Year after year and always
the autumn to conjure the ache
and the spring to conjure the itch.

"The bamboos outside my window
sob like the broken heart of autumn,"
wrote Chu Su Chen in the 13th century.
Nothing definite is known of her they say.
Is it better that way?
Lifetime after lifetime
coming, going, returning again.
My hair has grown silver since we met
my body has thickened
and the beauty I never knew I had
has changed.

"The autumn constellations
begin to rise," Tu Fu wrote.
The moon toad swims in the river
and does not drown.
The moon rabbit pounds the bitter herbs
of the elixir of immortality."

I often think of those bitter herbs
and the pounding it takes
to prepare the elixir of immortal life.
Everything presses me
from one thing to the next
as if anything were real
as if we would live forever.
I want to pull myself away
to open up the space between thoughts
until the primordial nature
appears unobstructed.

Nai-yuine has entered
her fourth year of retreat
in the cabin where you once lived.
From my kitchen window
I see her light way into the night.
The prayer flags around her house are green;
the color is auspicious for our teacher's long life.
In the cabin behind my house Bruce
sits on his cushion for hours day after day
meditating has been his job for years
whatever room or country he finds himself in.

And in the morning outside my window
juncos peck at the blanket
of golden rice hulls
I have spread over the garden.
I walk up the hill
to the little forest
that you have always loved
and think of you. Old friend,
it's love that brings me to this poem
and to the years we've shared.
It's simply love, as good as
"women laughing together for three days on end"
love that makes me glad when I see you
it inclines me toward you
the way that branches of trees
incline toward each other
forming a shady path.