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Something beautiful

A quote worth pondering:

“I was sitting in Fred Rogers’ office… talking … about children and violence, on a Tuesday, that was the moment that the shootings at Columbine were happening. When Eric and Dylan were shooting their classmates. It was exactly what we were talking about….

And what I had said was ‘there’s three simple words or ideas that you can apply to a rich life … you say that there’s something beautiful, something noble, something sacred.’

…Just a brief example of what I mean by that:

…The sunset—if we allow it to touch us—do you and I take time in our daily lives? And I’m talking about seconds—to consciously be moved or touched by something we consider beautiful?

If either of those two kids [Eric and Dylan,] thought there was a single thing in the world—a word, an idea, a song, a rock group, a movie, a bird, a person, a religion—if there was a single thing in the world that either of those kids thought was beautiful, noble, or sacred, they never could have done what they did.

And then I realized with a shudder that—is it possible that tens of millions of Americans don’t feel they have any time for beautiful, noble, or sacred in the vicious crushing pace in this life about: wanting stuff and getting stuff and having stuff and using stuff and buying stuff and then of course replacing stuff, repairing stuff, protecting stuff, defending stuff.

You know that it’s so vicious, it’s anti-life.”

–spoken by Bob Lozoff, transcribed from on-camera interview in the documentary Mr. Rogers and Me (available free on Amazon Prime video.)

This is me now. I, Judy Emerson, have strong personal feelings about the wisest course for America in the aftermath of mass gun violence.  We are all shaken, but the adrenaline speeds your reactions in a different direction than mine. I will set aside my temptation to spout statistics and pound my fist on the table.

But—it’s like he said, that getting stuff and protecting stuff and defending stuff is anti-life.  I agree with him.  What is it we insist on protecting?  We are yelling at each other to defend—what? A position? An object? Stuff? Or even the right to have stuff?

Wherever we believe blame can be pinned for mass violence, what if we changed the subject to our own life, our own conscience?  What about coming back to the one power each of us can actually wield?  The power of choice over our own thoughts, speech, actions. I have no power over yours.

If I focus on mine, and you focus on yours, what if we all considered this:

Are my thoughts, speech, actions promoting or defending life? Or stuff?

Hmmmm. 

 

Under construction

I’ve been re-reading The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood.  The television series I watched on Hulu prompted me to download the original book on my Kindle.  I am reveling in the beauty of the author’s work.  Her simple, but weighted turn of phrase can evoke dread or irony.  Make me ponder the world.

The Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu

This story is fiction. Made up.  Not true.

But it is, imperfectly, truth personified.

This book was published in 1985, when my daughters were only five and seven.  I read it so long ago that I had forgotten all but plot summary.  It was escapist reading for me then.  Its cautions and its hope sailed right over my head.  I was a little numb at the time.

But it’s still here, speaking to me now.  Look what I missed.  The warning that there are risks in complacency.  That religious structures may be antithetical to faith and virtue.  That human beings treated as possessions, pawns and tools signal encroaching rot in society.  That government can be subverted.  As it has been countless times in history.

I’m awed by this book.  How it makes me think.

Like I have been awed in the past by The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck.  And by Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky.  And To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.  And Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell, and Beloved by Toni Morrison.  And more.  And more.

And what struck me next was that these books, and hundreds or thousands of other books, and the effects they have created over these decades or centuries, have this in common:  They are each a made thing.  A constructed entity, produced by struggling, imperfect human effort and ingenuity, grown out of the writer’s imagination, hard work, and skill.

The author started the same way we all started when we were five or six, with just a pencil and a piece of paper, writing their first name for the first time.  The author dreamed it up, each of them.  Invented this published allegory standing in for life itself, imparting some personal or universal wisdom about the nature of human experience.

The author built something new that never existed before.  Like a child’s father helps him to construct a birdhouse out of plywood, glue and nails.  He needs encouragement, and practice, and trial and error.  He’s learning to make more complex constructions later on in his life.  He has to be willing to try, and to endure mistakes and failures.  He has to build on what he learns.  He has to develop patience. He’s learning now, so that perhaps one day he will have learned how to construct a skyscraper.

Books are constructed things.  That encouraged me, somehow.  To think about these books that have inspired me, not as natural formations like a mountain range, pre-existing beyond my understanding or ability.  But as human projects undertaken, worked at, sweated and worried over, eventually completed.  Books are built of letters, words, paragraphs and patience (punctuated with impatience,) and stubbornness, and conviction, and maybe a little fanaticism and perfectionism.  A little obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Human constructions, like an invention patented, a system enacted and affecting outcome, a product developed and marketed, a business built and thriving, a union formed and bringing change.  An industry, an economy, a nation.  We humans make things, some constructed on a foundation of ideas held sacred.  Some for money, or to gain power over others.  I might have reverence or ambivalence or revulsion for a book or for a corporation or for an agency or a government.   I won’t like all their intentions or their effects.  We won’t all agree on the outcomes.

But each of us can build something.  A contribution to human endeavor, based on our interest and strength and skill.  We can use the failures to recalibrate, adjusting the course toward eventual completion.

I have an interest in building with words and ideas.  Not everyone will like what I construct.  My writing project, now unfinished, does not function today as I have in my mind that it should.  It’s still raw.  So I’ll guard what is still in-process from public view until it’s completed.  I’ll keep hammering away at what I’m building.

Margaret Atwood, and John Steinbeck, and Toni Morrison had this in common:  they developed their raw, unformed ideas with stubborn, repetitive hard work.  They kept trying.  They didn’t give up.  And eventually they gifted the world with a whole and complete articulation of ideas that became a part of our cultural canon.  An experience we can enter like a house constructed of art.  Like the palpable beauty that we step inside when we’re in the presence of the statue of David that Michelangelo “constructed” out of a piece of marble.  Or a different kind of beauty in the experience of a Gustave Klimt painting.

There will come a day when I’ll invite the world to step through the portal of my completed structure, into the world of made-up characters who have something real to say.  For now, it’s still under construction.  Back to work.  Donning my hard hat now.

Courage, cowardly lion!

Does fearless even exist?  Somehow we adapt to personal fears that flashed into being long ago when something disrupted our sense of safety.  We ignore, we avoid, we mask, we repress.  Life calls for courage, even while fear still huddles in the shadows of our heart.  Ah, there’s a challenge!  (Poem by Dawna Markova.)

 

setting out

 

I will not die an unlived life.

I will not live in fear

of falling and catching fire.

I choose to inhabit my days,

to allow my living to open me,

to make me less afraid,

more accessible,

to loosen my heart

until it becomes a wing,

a torch, a promise.

I choose to risk my significance,

to live so that which came to me as seed

goes to the next as blossom,

and that which came to me as blossom,

goes on as fruit.

–by Dawna Markova

higher

 

What we talk about when we don’t talk about politics

I confess.  I never watched “Grey’s Anatomy.”  All those years it was Thursday night programming, I had appointments on Thursday nights.  But now I’ve been binge-watching on Netflix.  Besides creating characters you love or hate, Shonda Rhimes was a master of finding amazing songs for the soundtracks.  The show is introducing me to a world of new music.  Those songs made me think, made me feel, gave storylines the perfect punch.

Season 5, Episode 21 (which first aired on April 30, 2009) featured “Turn and Turn Again” by All Thieves.  The vocal quality knocked me out, and the peaceful feeling of it.  I didn’t analyze.  It was just art flowing over me.  Wow.  Inarticulate wow.  I shared a link to the song with a friend, who responded, without saying if she liked it or not, “What particularly grabs you about this song?”

Well, damn.  So then I was on the spot.  Esplain yourself, Lucy!

I was surprised to discover in the lyrics a prompt to say something out loud about politics.  I don’t want to step on any toes, and I don’t want mine stepped on.  But just listen to this song.  Please.

Note that I hold no rights to the video or the lyrics, copied here.  Here’s the link:

https://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=turn+and+turn+again+lyrics&&view=detail&mid=360AF244B15EB2A13FDE360AF244B15EB2A13FDE&rvsmid=59C551D7AEECE6EF398F59C551D7AEECE6EF398F&FORM=VDRVRV

And the lyrics:

Worn from walking this far

So worn from talking this much

And what we found and what we’ve seen

As the road curves down

And the lights come up to meet us

Silent for the evening

We enter this town

Like new born creatures

Those I know I see anew

And the space between us is reduced

For I am human

And you are human too

So turn and turn again

We are calling in all the ships

Every traveler, please come home

And tell us all that you have seen

Break every lock to every door

Return every gun to every draw

So we can turn And turn again

Only priests and clowns can save us now

Only a sign from God or a hurricane

Can bring about

The change we all want

And we’ve done it again

This trick we have

Of turning love to pain

And peace to war

We’re just ash in a jar

So turn and turn again

We are calling in all the ships

Every traveler, please come home

And tell us all that you have seen

Break every lock to every door

Return every gun to every draw

So we can turn And turn again

Writer(s): Mark Bates, Rollo Armstrong, Tzuke Bailey

Wow.  So here’s what I think.

The road curves down… And the lights come up to meet us ” –We’re in a difficult, painful place.  But something awaits us.

We enter this town Like new born creatures”  –With “beginner’s mind”, we might discover something wondrously unexpected here.

Those I know I see anew”  –Life bursts forth out of a rigid absolute that I encased in concrete long ago.

I am human…and you are human too”  –There’s an unexpected glimpse of heart behind armor.  We have more in common with one another than differences.  We are all bearers of light, shadowed by the effects of the darkness.  Wisdom and ignorance in each of us.

Every traveler, please come home… And tell us all that you have seen”  –Could we try to hear one another?  –After not listening for so long, and only bashing each other, pushing our own agendas onto one another, trying to shout over each other’s voices to make our own message heard and suppress the other.

Angry politics

Might we find a way to believe that the other voices, even those who oppose our ideas, have their own reasons for their belief, based on perspectives emerging from experience, even if it’s different from ours?

Return every gun to every draw [drawer?] … so we can turn…and turn again”  –Laying down our weapons, hearing one another, could we subvert destruction, see the pain in each guarded heart, nurture seedlings instead of torching forests?

Only priests and clowns can save us now… Only a sign from God or a hurricane… Can bring about… The change we all want”  –Does it take a hurricane to make us kind to one another for a minute?  I’m not taking “priests” as literal religious figures, although maybe…  But grace–something radical, out-of-the-box, a supernatural or serendipitous unfolding that opens into an alteration we couldn’t generate by rational means.  Surprise!  Wouldn’t grace be good?  Standard operating procedures have gotten us to exactly where we are.

And we’ve done it again… This trick we have… Of turning love to pain… And peace to war”  –We’ve screwed it up again, negated what good had been accomplished, as humans do over and over.  Of course we do.  Another predictable social cycle of expansion, then contraction, then expansion, like all the cycles preceding.  A liberal movement, or conservative, and then the opposition response, then back again…. Because we are never satisfied to hold to a course that isn’t an immediate and perfect fix to our dilemmas.

ambiguity

Because humans get uneasy in the face of ambiguity.  We want bumper-sticker simplicity.  Longing for perfection, we destroy the good.  We clutch at something different, and then we don’t like how that works out….  We’ve become marbles in a pinball machine, only ricochets and flashing lights.

My own heart’s highest expression of what is right and good, moral and ethical—for me—only rankles with folks I cherish for entirely separate reasons.  I don’t expect we’ll be suddenly simpatico if I insist how wrong they are.  They’d surely tell me I’m the one who’s nuts.  And then where are we?

Listen.  Maybe we could hear each other.  And turn again.

 

Dry Bones

You noticed I’ve been AWOL?  Yeah, I missed you too.  I’ve been in the muck wrestling with myself.  I dislike the term blocked.  Okay, maybe you’re not a writer, so it’s possible this has no relevance to you.  Except.

Ever call yourself a failure?  Ever quit because you were stuck?  Maybe you figured other people were better able.  And who did you think you were anyway?  In a flash you were axle-deep in a swamp of self-defeating beliefs.  It might take more than four-wheel-drive and hip-boots to navigate the sinkhole of self-doubt in your path.

Stuck

Yeah, I know.  If you had your druthers, you’d be anyplace else.  Me too.  But I still want to get where I was going.  I’m not giving up.

So I looked for a source outside my own fevered brain to get out of the swamp.  And I found help. I’ll give credit to Bret Lott.  And to the author of the book of Ezekiel, in the Old Testament, for much of this entry.

Yesterday in the public library I found Before We Get Started, A Practical Memoir of the Writer’s Life by Bret Lott (Ballantine Books, 2005.)  He pointed out that writers are restricted to the same tired old letters and words and possibilities that have been recycled for thousands of years.  We just rearrange them.  There’s nothing new under the sun.  Our raw materials are like dry bones.  He went on:

“Faced with that endless valley of bones we have available to us, we must do what Ezekiel did: we must bring those bones to life.  Ezekiel’s vision can teach us a lot about writing:

“Ezekiel 37 New King James Version (NKJV)

37 The hand of the Lord came upon me and brought me out in the Spirit of the Lord, and set me down in the midst of the valley; and it was full of bones. Then He caused me to pass by them all around, and behold, there were very many in the open valley; and indeed they were very dry. And He said to me, “Son of man, can these bones live?”

So I answered, “O Lord God, You know.”

Again He said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them, ‘O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! Thus says the Lord God to these bones: “Surely I will cause breath to enter into you, and you shall live. I will put sinews on you and bring flesh upon you, cover you with skin and put breath in you; and you shall live. Then you shall know that I am the Lord.”’”

So I prophesied as I was commanded; and as I prophesied, there was a noise, and suddenly a rattling; and the bones came together, bone to bone. Indeed, as I looked, the sinews and the flesh came upon them, and the skin covered them over; but there was no breath in them.

Also He said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath, ‘Thus says the Lord God: “Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they may live.”’” 10 So I prophesied as He commanded me, and breath came into them, and they lived, and stood upon their feet, an exceedingly great army.”

Dry bones to life

Here’s Bret Lott again:

“…. I don’t think it would be too far from the truth to imagine that Ezekiel, knees trembling before the despair of so many bones and God breathing down his neck for an answer thought fleetingly, dangerously, There’s no way.  Bones to life?  Nope.

“O Lord God, You know.”  He doesn’t say, You bet.  He doesn’t say, Don’t think so.  He leaves it to God, and then proceeds—and here is the most important moment—to speak the prophecy he has been called to speak, whether he believes it or not, and not knowing as well what that prophecy means.  He speaks, because he has been called to, and not because he knows what will be the outcome.

And then these dry bones come to life.”

Me again.  This is another version of the resurrection story, the paradox woven throughout the natural world and Biblical wisdom.  That what is dead can come alive again.  As recurrent as winter’s dead grass emerging green again through melting snow in the spring.  The vibrancy of new forest growth fertilized by the mulch of wildfire’s devastation.

New growth

What is dark can be foundation for brilliant dawn.  It’s built in to the design of the universe.

Dawn

Ezekiel and Bret Lott are both talking about inspiration.  How something beyond rational is required for creation, which is the transformation of sweaty gruntwork into a beating heart quickening sinew and flesh.

It takes faith to follow, and keep following, what has called us.  Our balking is where we’re stuck on our own inadequacies.  Our resistance flies in the face of the calling itself.  My second-guessing is telling God he doesn’t know what he’s doing.  My fear of doing it wrong keeps me blocked.  Over-analyzing, self-critical.  Paralyzed.

Blocked

The act of creativity enfleshes and enlivens dry bones, beyond my known abilities.  I’m called to trust the process.  So here’s my part:  I need to let go of whether the stuff I’m writing is any good, at least for this phase.  I need to keep at a practice of producing material.  Do the next right thing I can find.  Sit my butt in the chair and type what I can, words that show up on the screen.  I need to set aside advance edits of the story trying to emerge, tantalizingly close to the surface.  Quit overthinking, and transcribe what is hovering there.  Pluck the images out of thin air, and take down the message dictated.  Inspiration is not my job.  That’s a separate thing.

Creation is still happening, every day.  For writers, for entrepreneurs, for problem-solvers, for teachers, for those making steps to solutions.  When the ashes of a dead career, or relationship, or project fall away, leaving open space for a new pathway.  We create when we don’t know how it will play out, but we’re willing to puzzle over possibilities.  We create when we get our judgments out of the way, and take the next small step to what we CAN see to do.

Prophesy!  Without knowing the ending.  Even when I don’t know if it’ll be any good.  The job, the call for me, is to quit the distractions and just do it.  Focus on the practice.

The breath to bring life to those words?  That’s from a source beyond me.

What are you inspired to do?