Calling All Artists, Thinkers, Writers

After going through my posts on the writing process, blogger Kevin commented that I seem to “write with intent rather than for ‘mere’ expression.” A lot of his poetry arose from the fun of it and the wish to express himself in a particular way. He also asked if I always analyze what I read, if I ever read just for the pleasure of it.

Which leads me to ask you: what is art?

First, the question on reading. I don’t pick apart to death everything I read – in part for the small matter of time. As for intent, let’s visit some accomplished artists. I would almost kill to be able to ask Michelangelo, “Can art be a whim? An accident?” Did he ever “merely” express? Can art be spontaneous? My right-brain readers are nodding away. Can art be discovery? The Sam Francis exhibit that once ran at the Pasadena Museum of California Art showcases some extraordinary work by a most interesting painter. “Paintings are my thinking,” Francis said. “Not about anything…They perform the unique mathematics of my imagination.” Is there then such a thing as chance in the art of mathematics?

Could we consult the Ancients in their wisdom? To this end, I veer off a bit to share some relevant thoughts on my blogging and the homeschooling that converged two years ago. A few months into the blogging, I came to see that what I’d been drawn to exploring on this blog were truth and beauty. Not long later in a seminar on Classical homeschooling, the speaker elaborated on the model I had chosen for our family; it was in essence about truth, beauty, and goodness. I was floored. We went on to hear a podcast featuring Andrew Kearn of the CiRCE Institute on the goal of education, which brought to light the meaning of the liberal arts. I’ve scaled it down to highlight some parts that bear on this post. Which of these insights resonate with your work?

geo-roundel-flower-13Liberal spawns from the Latin liber [free]. Without these arts, we cannot know the fullest extent of human freedom. The Hebrews and a good many of the Greeks were the only ones in the ancient world who believed truth is knowable. Freedom is intimately related to perception of the truth. Education is learning to see deeply into the truth or essence of whatever is before you – be it spouse or garden. To see beyond the “accident of it,” the things that come and go. The lost tools of truth-seeking are the liberal arts: the art of grammar, dialectic, rhetoric (which make up the Trivium of communication); and arithmetic, geometry, music, astronomy (the Quadrivium of calculation).

Harmony

The Greeks looked at how people communicate. What leads the community to truth, to harmony? If a good man or woman speaks effectively, that is the glory of rhetoric. The mind wants harmony. Math is the ability to find this in the universe. If I tell you 2 + 7 = 5, you feel the disturbance in your mind. Astronomy is the study of shapes moving. Planet literally means wanderer. The Greeks discovered that when you examine the movement of the stars, you see patterns. Your mind can be disciplined and ordered to see things you cannot see any other way. Same thing for reading or learning another language. If you can’t do either, there is no way someone can get you there virtually. The way you know a scientific theory is by its beautiful harmony.

This approach to learning took my breath away. And it happened to dovetail this post I had been mulling over two months. What is art? To what extent is achieving harmony or articulating the essence of something the goal in your dance, your sport, your music? What is it about your painting that begs visual utterance? Do you find you’ve been in pursuit of ancient and timeless virtues? Beauty does not necessarily express happiness or cheerfulness. There can be great beauty in brokenness and sometimes, it is only among the ruins you find treasure. Years ago I looked regretfully upon some morose paintings by a gifted artist who had grown up in a nudist colony and believed she had a bipolar disorder. Her rich work was a window into a dark psyche. I felt they would reach her promise if her painful confusion were redeemed. I’ve said in The Writing Process, Part 1: Color that the darkness is an easy way in through the door of inspiration. But I now feel great art is more than bleeding all over the page.

Often honored as a process, art need not be defined by its product. But does a story not have a point? A reader quoted for me from My Life and My Life in the Nineties by Lyn Hejinian, “the anticipation of the pleasure of making sense.” In my writing, this expectancy is the wee hours of dark that prelude the stream of dawn, the knowing stillness almost as thrilling as the satisfaction of breaking light on the landscape of my intention. The objective, to get across exactly what I’m seeing. Though a poem may sing in metaphor, should it not sustain a coherence that draws assent from the reader? Is art random? Take the greatest masterpiece we can name, the human body. Illness is simply disharmony. And the life in the womb: there is articulation, a little body forging ahead in full purpose. Though to elaborate would be another post entirely – indeed I find order, truth, beauty, goodness in our wondrous frame.

I’m thinking aloud for the answers, surveying the fields of virtuosity. Instinct whispers the difference between war and the art of war. There’s straightforward violence. Or the boxer who flails struggling at the level of technique, trying to get the moves just right. But observe the fighter who executes with fluidity the right tactic among all the possibilities in that moment, and be enthralled by elegance. Through my brief time in mixed martial arts, I came to see the brilliance in the problem-solving we call fighting. I now understand the sense and logic of the art. It is geometry – angles, lines, space in motion. Just shift and turn to create the space your opponent wants to deny you and make your way out. Fighting is chess. I love the Greek appreciation of AgatasGuitardisciplining and enlarging your mind to possibilities. The thousand drills you hammer into muscle memory are the tools for conceiving your art. The unspeakable beauty of ballet is borne of training and toil, from endless run-throughs that demand reflex and mastery. I agree with Miles Davis that more than the sight-reader, the musician is the one who can improvise. But you need to know the grammar of the music to be able to create at levels above, though some who have gone without the training find it by instinct. What I’m getting at is that art comes by merit. The endowment suggests a certain caliber of performance, of craftsmanship.

Which then incites the question whether something can be art at the elementary or exploratory stage. How about your kids’ fun on construction paper? We don’t hold up the canvas of children’s imagination against the expression of Monet’s, but isn’t there, shouldn’t there be a standard of measure within a given range of age or capability? Here I circle back to my beloved. Standard.

As I set out in my writing and my son’s learning two years ago (as it turned out, upon the same road), I accepted the guidance of the virtues named in the Classical world. As marvelous our fascination with the Minotaur, so we cheer Theseus on and breathe again when he rids Crete of the senseless terror. The living nightmare makes for a great tale but we don’t really want to live in fear and endless night. We hunger for the true, beautiful, and good because for these we were made.

Photo credits in order of appearance
wildersoul.wordpress.com
agatasartcorner.com

The Writing Process: Color

mosaicI noticed something about the colors of the words that streamed from my head when I started blogging two years ago. The spectrum had many light, bright hues. Looking back at the single young woman from this side of time, I was a little startled at the levity in the beloved writing that I had picked up again. Because for much of my life, I wrote from a very dark place.

There is a creative force to the darkness, hence the archetypal artist whose work is an expression of his inner drama. In high school when my writing was a way of repainting and processing grief and anger, I was drawn to poets and writers like Sylvia Plath who spoke out of emptiness and flat despair. As my faith and hope in God grew into my 20s, I recognized a troubling truth. While my work was reflecting more light, an enduring spirit of despondency continued to inspire my art in both poetry and song composition.

And I didn’t mind.

I was tasting the addictiveness of writing under darker influences. The dynamic is fascinating to me. But it was remarkable that after a decade of sporadic writing that had gathered dust, I saw the sun on my words. I don’t think the glad divergence could be distilled down to my faith, which was in many ways stronger in my younger days. Deep faith, in any case, does not leave us immune from crippling self-talk or depression, as many spiritual giants in Christian history have shown. Nor could it be a straight matter of the joy I have experienced with my family through my 30s because life has been imperfect there, too. It is more the rawness, the edginess the Great Potter has abraded and sanded of my spirit. The keen knowledge of my own weaknesses and the awareness that everyone is a work in progress so I can relax and forgive and enjoy my life more was the posture from which I started to blog. I now feel it was a cop-out to depend on the spirit of encumberance to fuel my creativity. Certainly life is a mosaic of the great occasions of surprise, happiness, and pain and it is the helpless business of the artist to paint these colors in his chosen medium. But I no longer gravitate to the dark hues in my storytelling – because I don’t have to. I have found myself enjoying the beauty, redemption, transformation of my art as I discover these very elements in the poetry of life.

I Think I Love My Body

My husband knew I was The One when he first saw me. I (with a roll of the eyes) chalked up what he called love at first sight to the way the clothes happened to flatter me that evening. He stopped me in my tracks, though, when he admitted for the first time after 10 years together, “But I wouldn’t have wanted to marry you if you were fat.”

Now, he’s one of the sweetest, kindest, most compassionate people I know but apparently all that’s besides the point when it comes to attraction and mate selection. And call him what you will but I wonder. Doesn’t he have the right to want what he wants in a wife? Who’s to judge our sweet palate? Here we plunge into the politically correct thicket. How many people are more attracted to overweight people than to those who’re thinner? Let me preempt the comments. I am not saying large – or can I say it? – fat people cannot be attractive. I know big people who are pretty. And yes, I do believe some men (some) do want “more to love” of a woman. Nor can I say that the large couple over there doesn’t enjoy romance and abiding love. Add to the mix of disclaimers the cultures that are less obsessed with the Barbies of the developed world. So I’m obviously brushing with broad strokes. But do slimmer people, among women especially, really do have a better chance at love?

“I know I’m supposed to hate my body,” the patient said according to Kerry Egan, hospice chaplain and author, in a CNN article What the Dying Really Regret.

“But why…?”

“Well, Kerry, ” she looked incredulous that I even asked and laughed. “Because I’m fat!”

“The world’s been telling for me for 75 years that my body is bad. First for being female, then for being fat and then for being sick. But the one thing I never did understand is, why does everyone else want me to hate my body? What does it matter to them?”

Sometimes [what other people want them to believe is] based on their allegedly unattractive features. They might be ashamed of their weight, their body hair…It isn’t always the media and peer pressure that create this shame; sometimes it comes from lessons at home…Some women grow up thinking that their very existence in a body that might be sexually attractive…is cause for shame – that their bodies make bad things happen just by existing.

Clearly, we want to keep grounded in a sense of self that does not rely on our appearance and does not put too much premium on our effect on others (for better or worse). Not to withhold sympathy from this woman, but I don’t believe I am categorically lovely no matter how I look or how much I weigh. I just finished saying in The Obligation of Beauty that it’s a show of self-respect to take better care of oneself, and that means inside and out. But the self-love this article talks about turns a corner where it meets death.

There are many regrets and unfulfilled wishes that patients have shared with me in the months before they die. But the stories about the time they waste hating their bodies, abusing it or letting it be abused — the years people spend not appreciating their body until they are close to leaving it – are some of the saddest.

“I am going to miss this body so much,” a different patient, many decades younger, told me. “I’d never admit it to my husband and kids, but more than anything else, it’s my own body I’ll miss most of all. This body that danced and ate and swam and had sex and made babies. It’s amazing to think about it. This body actually made my children. It carried me through his world.”

It’s the very existence of being in a body, something you likely take for granted until faced with the reality that you won’t have a body soon. You will no longer be able to experience this world in this body, ever again.

So they talk about their favorite memories of their bodies. About how the apples they stole from the orchard on the way home from school tasted, and how their legs and lungs burned as they ran away. The feel of the water the first time they went skinny-dipping. The smell of their babies’ heads. And dancing. I’ve heard so many stories about dancing…I can’t count the number of times people — more men than women — have closed their eyes and said, “If I had only known, I would have danced more.”

Precious, isn’t it? Those drowning in the sea of mortality throw us pearls and we find their wisdom to be the simplest things. This one’s about love at last sight, so sad when the appreciation for self and breath and texture comes so late. The self-love we are encouraged toward isn’t a stout call to self-esteem but a fresh vision of beauty birthed by the anguished promise of loss. Recast in this light, the distinctions between thin and big people diminish. We all have a strong, strong chance at love.

The Idiot’s Guide to a Happy Marriage: For Men

If you haven’t figured out these tricks by now, time may still be willing to save your relationship. So here we go. Those few days out of the month:

angry-woman1. Keep a spare pair of boxing gloves on hand for defensive blocks. Think of it as a workout. Build muscle and coordination. How nice, you don’t even have to go to the gym. Hey, give it ten years and you’ll be looking sharp and buff. You should thank her.

2. Accept the fact that you are stupid and anyone who goes near her is too. She has a soft spot for the kids but keep kickable pets away.

3. Try extra hard to pretend you’re listening. You just might get away with it if you look up when those lips start moving faster than you can handle.

4. Here’s your chance. Fix something, anything. The shingles on the roof, camera tripod, all the stuff you love tinkering with when you’re not napping. Break it first behind her back if you have to – but be sure you can FIX it!

5. Don’t forget the trash. Gosh, don’t forget the trash.

Bouquet26. You know the Yes, Dear that you haven’t been practicing? Well, good news. The premarital advisers were wrong. You don’t have to say it all the time. Statistics prove the abracadabra works when employed just two days a month. Pick your hardest days. Takes less than two seconds – that’s not even four in a painful week. Wow, a year’s worth of peace in 48 seconds. Tell me of a cheaper, faster kind of relationship therapy out there.

7. Take her out. A movie will keep her quiet and entertained. She may even laugh. But if the trip alone with her in the car scares you too much…

8. What does she like? Play her favorite song. Bring home flowers. How could you forget she’s craving sweets? Run her a hot bath, get her out of your hair for half an hour.

FinalWeddingSolo9. Remember why you wanted to marry her. The way she looked the day you met. (Her body.) Her mind (her body), her spirituality (her body). In fact, make that a wedding photo on your screensaver or phone. Take saving advantage of your visual facility and stare at the picture until you hypnotize yourself into believing that person’s still in there. Somewhere. People have been using guided imagery to conquer phobias and lose weight for centuries. You can do it, rescue your beloved from the premenstrual invasion of the Body Snatcher.

10. If all else remains lost, cry. Since you can’t beat her, join her. No need to admit you’re weeping over the death of your dreams. S Impress her with how deep and sympathetic you can be and experience together a new level of rapturous communion that’ll usher in a fresh love. Not a big deal you’ll have to do it all over again in a month. You’ll feel so much better.

And Happy 10th Anniversary to the Holistic Couple.

Holistic Love Doctor, M.LoveEd., Ph.D., HMFT, LoveL.Ac., L.HChVoodoo

Men and Women: Another Difference, Part 2

Back in high school, a good friend said after meeting my family, “Your mother is so beautiful. What happened to you?!” I laughed. Good question. Part of Mom’s looks have been their enviable resilience to time, which she never took for granted. Korean women are vigilant against the insistence of gravity on their face, and here I am without the aid of benevolent genes. All the more I really should groom. Mom saw the family photos I sent and called me with an opening commentary on my husband. “He looks so good. He looks better every year. But…you! Take care of yourself!” she urged. She meant the face.

I came across a group shot of friends from five years back and was shocked to see how young we were. One guy is not yet 40 and has since gone gray. But he doesn’t look bad. Somehow his wife doesn’t wear the wrinkles so well. My mother still had to maintain her attractiveness with the diligent day-and-night regimen in a way Dad was free not to have to worry about. My husband is aging like wine. Me? I’m the milk on the counter.

You men. Just how do you turn the card with the salt and pepper hair and crow’s feet? Dignified. They say you look dignified. Ugh. Not only are you spared the angst over a biological clock that measures the worth of your manhood but you have a longer visual expiration date. To add insult to injury, all you have to do is shave and get a buzz and you regain three young, handsome years. As a statistic, you die before we do. Your eye candy loses its sweetness and you’re gone. You leave us to our chores just when we could really use your muscle.

Several readers have asked to get together off the blog. I’ve taken a rain check for circumstances that keep me busy and close to home but I’m tempted to reconsider. God knows what I’ll look like in a year.

Here’s Part 1.