Friday, June 25, 2010

Artistic Success and the Weather

Today's blog post originally appeared in April as a guest post at Betsy Lewis's blog. What constitutes success? It's a subject I contemplate often these days-- my definitions of it have changed over time. Here's what I wrote:

Earlier in my life my definition of artistic success was becoming a famous writer. I wanted that big outer validation and thought that being famous and successful would make me happy. When I was in my 20s, 30s and 40s my artistic successes took place in a climate of striving and struggle. The weather was often overcast, stormy or tumultuous. These days I agree with whomever it was that said, “Success does not bring happiness, happiness brings success.”

Over the years, I certainly have had artistic successes. I published a best-selling book on herbs (Gaea Weiss, Growing and Using the Healing Herbs), and many articles and poems in national and regional magazines, wrote and performed two-one woman shows and created several shows of voice and personal stories with other artists. I channeled my artistic impulses into environmental activism and supported some very worthy causes. I became a healer and with the help of others, healed some of my old wounds. I became a Buddhist and learned about stillness, openness and compassion. None of which made me famous. (Such a blessing—I was allowed to grow and flower without much fanfare).

For years I have explored the links between creativity and happiness. Creative expression makes me happy. I love creating a well-written poem or essay, a beautifully sung song, an inspiring or provocative story, a beautiful drawing. When something really works, I disappear as the expression utters or creates itself through me. These are moments of joy. Who is creating here?
We live in a universe filled with countless billions of beings, so it’s natural to share artistic expressions with others. But does artistic success depend upon being recognized or considered notable by others? Not really, though I find it delightful to connect and communicate art with others.
“I don't know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody,” says comedian Bill Cosby. I have to agree. It can take a long time to find one’s voice and gifts, letting go of the need to please others. I took me quite a while. I finally know myself and am comfortable with myself. That allows me to be much more free to enjoy and share artistically. My artistic medium these days is the experience of aging.
It usually takes years of practice to become skilled in an artistic form, though some fortunate folks seem to have done their prep work in a mystery dimension. They arrive with their art fully formed. For most of us though it takes willingness to fail over and over and not lose heart but rather learn from each experience.

These days, after decades of struggle and striving over artistic expression and success, I find I’ve entered another territory. I love setting wildly improbable goals. I think what the heck, we create everything from nothing, so why not this? I enjoy the experience of creativity and sharing my art more than I ever have. And yes, the weather is always marvelous. Sometimes it’s chaotic and turbulent and sometimes gorgeous as a bright day on the beach. There are brisk days when the wind clears things away, making room for something new and days when I feel as if I’m walking through a meadow filled with flowers.
Artistic success-- like the weather-- is pervasive, fascinating and changeful. Like breathing it is completely natural and of the essence. When we relax into the experience of wholeness and rest in stillness — then whatever pours out as artistic expression is a gift and an offering to oneself and others.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

For a Limited Time Only

"Come on sweetheart
let's adore one another
before there is no more
of you and me."

Mevlana Rumi

When Melanie gave me the photograph of this ancestral oak tree in North Carolina, she wrote a note that said the tree was between 500-1500 years old. That's old.

Old. A worthy state of being. Not only for trees, but for humans. "What's old sustains the heart somehow," as I wrote in one of the songs in my play A New Wrinkle. In his wonderful book The Force of Character and the Lasting Life, James Hillman notes that what's ancient or old evokes deathlessness. Ancient cities, old trees, ancient forests, old gardens, old statues. The depth of the mysteries of antiquity and oldness. I wrote about the value of reclaiming old in one of the first posts of this blog, and it's a subject I contemplate often.

I contemplate impermanence often, too. A natural subject for a Buddhist. And for an older human. I will not last as long as that beautiful oak tree has lasted. Like George Bernard Shaw, "I want to be thoroughly used up when I die."

I'm preparing for a house concert that's a week away at Melanie's place. Its title is The Wisdom of Lived Experience. I'm going to be offering spontaneous wordless singing that I call Ancient Voice because it puts me and the listeners into a more spacious, timeless experience. Is it because of the long breathlines, the absence of language or the qualities of the voice itself? I cannot really say. Others have to reflect back to me their experience for me to get a look at it even after more than 30 years. But I do know how rich, nourishing and powerful it is for me to give voice in that way.

I'm going to sing one of the potent songs of the Tibetan yogi Milarepa, too. And I will share a beautiful poem from the Gnostic gospels and two real life stories about synchronicity and the experience of divine presence that blessedly visits us humans at times.

Last night, I had a healing session with Valerie and Edeltraud. I have experienced the work of many healers over the years. To me their work is right up their at the top of my list. I wondered at the end of my session with them what it would be like for them to work with/on me just before and at the beginning of a performance gathering. What would the voice be like? What would emerge? I believe we are going to set the stage for this to happen. I'm sure it will be a very interesting experience for everyone involved. Healing and creative expression are very linked in my heart/mind.

Yesterday, I went to the open house of Kagyu Sukha Choling, a beautiful new Buddhist center in Ashland, guided by two American women who are lamas or teachers. When I arrived in Ashland over 30 years ago, I was the only Buddhist, period. I feel moved and very fortunate to have lived long enough to see such a flowering of Buddhism here.

Of course, too much happened outwardly and inwardly even in the past two days to write about it. I saw The City of Your Final Destination--wonderful. Talked with many friends, applied for consideration for an Oregon Literary Fellowship, mapped out the next steps toward producing my play. I sat with a friend who had a stroke a week ago. I read a book about the development of the English language. I put a prayer up on the fence near the garden of potted flowers and herbs. It says:

May you be blessed.
May you be happy.
May you protect
and care for
all that lives and grows
in the garden of your heart.

Friday, June 11, 2010

What about When Life Serves up a Sandwich of Sprezzatura, Playing it Safe and Falling into Grace?

"A child loves his play, not because it's easy but because it's hard."--pediatrician Benjamin Spock

"Man is most nearly himself when he achieves the seriousness of a child at play."--Greek philosopher Heraclitus

Okay, so just let's imagine a sandwich made of sprezzatura, playing it safe, and falling into grace. And you may wonder about those ingredients, so I will tell you about them.

Sprezzatura (what a marvelous word!) is a certain nonchalance and ease in artistic performance, something that looks effortless but is the result of practice. Artistic performance in this case means not only singing or painting or dancing, but life itself. By the time a person reaches 60 and better, sprezzatura is certainly blooming. Could be it's related to the force of character, developed over decades, or you might think of it as the accumulated wisdom of lived experience. But if sprezzatura is still in the wings, it is probably because of playing it safe, which is hiding right in the middle of the sandwich.

As life coach and author Barbara Sher notes “When you play it too safe, you're taking the biggest risk of your life. Time is the only wealth we're given.” But tell that to the lizard brain when it is freaking out about new challenges, or fearfully reacting to your commitment to go deeper into profound, mythic layers of yourself and your gifts. No, no, no! the lizard brain is screaming. Don't! It's dangerous! Awfully, terribly dangerous. You will be ignored, ridiculed, upbraided, criticized and ground into the very dust if you go there! Play it safe, please!

What about if you manage to emerge to the other side of the sandwich and fall into a state of grace? It can happen. It does happen. In the state of grace, we feel renewed, sanctified, consecrated, embraced and supported by divine influence.

Now you may think this is a weird sandwich, one that will never make it to Luigi's Bistro. But it happens to be a sandwich I have been engaged in learning from. In the process, I have been contemplating what it is that brings me to those moments when I fall into a state of grace. Here's what I have discovered so far. Some things are reliable such as meditating, praying, stillness, singing, poetry and sex. Then there are the fugitive and surprising ways I find myself falling into grace hearing the wind harp, dancing, experiencing a certain architecture or music, a face.

I'm preparing to do a solo performance (sprezzatura!) at the end of June, and this sandwich is part of my rehearsal. Just saying. Grin.

And here we are, June 11th, and still not a day warm enough to go swimming at the hot springs! Ah...what kind of sandwiches are you concocting these days?

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Jumping for Joy: Child's Play and Exuberant Aging

Today is International Childrens' Day. Where is this celebrated? I never have heard of it. But children are so worthy of celebration and care, every single day. Every one of us was a child once. What do you recall about your childhood? The things I remember with the most joy are picking blackberries with my mother and brother out in the country, lying on the beach in the sand and playing in the ocean, and walking in the fields near my aunt and uncle's dairy farm.

In ordinary life, it seemed to me that adults often paid very little attention, being weighed down by their various concerns and responsibilities. There was one adult who was different. We kids called her The Beauty Lady. When she walked down the street, she always seemed so happy. As she passed us in our play, she paid attention to each of us. None of us was accustomed to getting that level of attention often. She made us feel as if we were special, as if our world was thoroughly engaging.

Yesterday I was out in our small yard potting some flowering plants and heard two children on the other side of the fence. I'm sure they were looking at me through the fence slats. Then there came a friendly "Hello, we see you." "Yes," I responded, "that's because I'm here." "We found some pretty things on the ground," said a little boy's voice. We want to give them to you."

"Well that's nice of you," said I. And then I saw the fellow's hand and arm coming through a hole in the bottom of the fence. "Look, here they are. Aren't they pretty?" They were lovely-- small smooth ovals of glass, some clear white and others pale blue. "They are very pretty and I will put them in among my flowers," I said to the young chap.

"Look, here I am," he said as his head and shoulders appeared at the top of the fence. "Oh, look at you. You climbed up." He was totally dear. I never got to see his much quieter sister. And soon some other adult was shooing them away. "Get back where you belong," she said, constraining their enjoyment in a way that I remember well from my own childhood.

Children deserve celebration, love, and a world that supports the emergence of their unique gifts. They deserve a world that recognizes and appreciates their beauty and allows them to bloom and ripen fully. A Russian girl is jumping for joy in the photo that ornaments this post. May children jump for joy, and in their jumping bring joy to others.

I am still hobbling along mending my fractured foot bones. Even though I am not jumping for joy physically, I feel exuberant. Exuberant, a word whose roots mean abundant, fruitful, unrestrained. I am invisibly jumping for joy. Why? First, being alive. Then the blessing of passionate creative engagement. Piercing beauty everywhere. The transitory, finite nature of everything. And all this gives me a rather no holds barred style these days.

The other evening, I performed characters, songs and scenes from my musical play A New Wrinkle for a packed room. My collaborator composer Laura Rich presented with me. She sang Sex after 60 and Why My Grandma Belongs in the Elder Hall of Fame. I sang Hip Hop Elder's Rant and Baba Yaga's Raga and shared the lyrics to Are You Gonna Take it with You to the Grave? It was invigorating. I am looking forward to doing more performance events. So far, I have three scheduled, all in Ashland.

Performing is something I really love. I also love writing very much, but it is so solitary. Singing, chanting and storytelling is so different. Performance engages something very different in me. There is a wonderful energetic exchange that happens with the audience, too. I learn a lot from that. I know that performing is something I am meant to do at this time in my life and I'll write more about it as my performance schedule develops.

I feel fortunate to have the opportunity to do what I love. What makes you exuberant? What makes you jump for joy?