Monday, August 3, 2009

Holy in the Ordinary

I went through a period in college when Thoreau's On Walden Pond was my bible. I would go for daily walks in the woods between my dorm and the lakes, settle onto the grass beneath a leafy tree, and read for hours about the importance of the simple life.

But though the longing for simplicity informs me still, out of all that reading, all those years ago, there are really only two actual phrases from Thoreau that stick with me. The first -- "Beware of any enterprise requiring new clothes" -- has kept me alert, over the years, to those times when, confronted with new opportunities, I might find myself thinking that what I bring as myself is not enough; that I need new clothes to bolster my self-image. Once alerted, I may still buy new clothes, but I will also seriously evaluate the situation and my expectations for it and for myself...

The other phrase, which leaped unbidden into my head this morning, was "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation." For some reason I had awakened feeling depressed. That's not too surprising: I haven't gotten quite enough sleep these last 2 days, and as my energy levels wane at the end of the day I lose heart for my nightly exercise routine and instead develop insatiable sugar cravings which leave me feeling sort of cranky and unfulfilled.

But it's also not surprising when you consider how much quiet desperation there must be in the world right now; the rising numbers of people who live at the poverty level or below (I heard a lot about this yesterday from my South Carolina houseguests); the number of close friends who are undergoing tests for possibly severe medical issues, or who have lost their children; the number of men (I see them walking the streets of my island) who find themselves jobless, and the wives who worry with them and fret at their constant presence; the houses in foreclosure; the people whose jobs don't pay enough, or whose jobs are unfulfilling but they feel powerless to leave; the good and gentle people who feel relentlessly battered by the cruel and the powerful...

I encountered each of those concerns yesterday, so it's not surprising that they accumulated a sort of miasma of depression over the course of the night and weighed me down this morning. But what do I do with that negative energy?

The first step, of course, was to recognize it. But then I needed to spend some time processing: What is this? Where is it coming from? Is it mine? Could it be coming from a family member? (We have this sort of mutual ESP thing happening, the girls and I and to some extent my husband, where when one of us is really low the others tend to sink even when we're thousands of miles apart.) What does it have to tell me? How can I honor the energy without getting sucked into it? What images does it pull forth?

Eventually I set aside my coffee cup and my somewhat futile attempt to read Thich Nhat Hanh, lit my Buddha candle and settled down to meditate: surely some concentrated Tonglen -- breathing in the pain of others, breathing out what peace I find within -- would help. And it did, to some extent; I arose feeling clearer, more curious to see what photographs would leap off the screen and into the blog this morning. And surprisingly, this was the one that sang to me.

I know; it's rather unlovely, a vent cover of some kind, in one of the sidewalks surrounding Millenium Park. But it drew me at the time, and draws me again now with its promise -- to me, at least -- that there is beauty in the ordinary; that sometimes, when things are looking down, or YOU'RE looking down, there will be in the dirt or the sameness or the drudgery a radiance that shines through with its own curious and oddly timeless promise of balance and value.

It's okay if you don't see it. But I'm hearing echoes of the poem I wrote yesterday, (I was thinking of my husband at the time) which had to do with a sort of "the journey not the arrival matters -- be present to the value of Now" theme, and I'm thinking I've finally found the first of the images I want to use for the Women Behind the Lens show at my gallery in November. I had all these inspiring, vaguely "fine art" ideas for what I wanted to do for that show. But what I see now is that they lacked heart and depth; they were more about me playing with possibilities than about making any kind of a statement.

But perhaps the show is not about making money, or about exploring clever original new ideas; perhaps our art (and I know most of you who read this blog are artists at some level) needs to stop being about what we think might sell (particularly since so little art DOES sell these days), or about showing off whatever talents or capabilities we have, or how unique we are. (Okay, maybe these are my issues, not yours!) Perhaps the blessing in this paring down of our energy, our economy, and our resources (hmm... isn't that also what happens as we age?) is that we may be somehow refined by all that into the essence of what needs to be said through us in this place, at this time.

And maybe all this image is saying is that life sucks, for a lot of people, for a lot of the time right now. They feel screwed, or held down; rained on, stepped on, or stuck -- for whatever reason. And somehow, even in that, there are seeds of color, of promise; a taste of liquid refreshment that lies just below the surface, ready to be unveiled.

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