Behind all art is an element of desire. Love of life, of existence, love of another human being, love of human beings is in some way behind all art — even the most angry, even the darkest, even the most grief-stricken, and even the most embittered art has that element somewhere behind it. Because how could you be so despairing, so embittered, if you had not had something you loved that you lost?
One of the great functions of art is to help us imagine what it is like to be not ourselves, what it is like to be someone or something else, what it is like to live in another skin, what it is like to live in another body, and in that sense to surpass ourselves, to go out beyond ourselves.
And love of art itself, I would add. Mirica’s desire to capture in pencil, in black and white, all the intricacy and passion of Watt’s painting, of the two lovers’ elicit desire for each other. To render in pencil, oil, sculpture, poetry, music, and even blog posts, the things that move and inspire us, to share with others who might also be moved and inspired.
The circle of creation, of love and desire, repeats itself through the ages, a subject I’ve taken to heart recently. What is love? What is desire? What is the creative act? And what is the creation of art but the recreation of all those elements?
When poet Jorie Graham was three-years-old, she swirled her fingers through her mother’s still-wet oil painting. Her horrified mother picked her up and threw her across the room. What she learned from that experience, she said, was that the art her mother spent so much time creating was something urgent and necessary and real, “more real than me.”
It was a stunning revelation to one so young, and you might imagine it was accompanied by sense of self-pity or horror. But it wasn’t. It was accepted as a kind of revelation, or truth.
It would be a rather startling revelation for any of us, at any age, to realize. But it strikes me, too, as true: that “art” is more “real” than the individual, the one making the art or the one viewing it, or in Graham’s case, destroying it.
Mozart’s music, Van Gogh’s paintings, Shakespeare’s sonnets and plays are all in some ways more real than the individuals that produced them, having outlasted the individual and making more of an impact upon what we conceive as the “real world” which encompasses the here and now along with all the history and culture of ages past.
The art itself encapsulates something important, vital, and enduring about the individual who created it, something more “real” about them than the mere sum of their daily existence. And I dare say, something more real about the individual moved by that artwork than the mere sum of their daily existence.
We catch glimpses of that “art more real” in us when we’re moved by Mozart’s music, or Van Gogh’s paintings, or Graham’s poetry, and the works of other artist, architects, designers, filmmakers, and performers. We’re moved by them because we recognize or identify with something in them that touches us in an intimate or powerful way—or touches an intimate and powerful part of ourselves, that part which, like art, is more “real” than “me.”
The thing that’s more “real” than “me” moves through all of us and connects all of us, individually and collectively. It’s the “Thou art That” that encompasses both. When we tap into that, we feel it, we know it, we are it, it is Us, individually and collectively.
There’s a kind of holiness about it: these intense moments of being moved by music or art, experiencing that call and response that melts into a single wholeness of feeling, a unity of Being. It’s the “Thou art That” we hear of from so many sages and saints, the core of that Perennial Philosophy that Aldous Huxley wrote about in his book of the same name. Notice how the word “art” connects “Thou” and “That.”
There is something in “me” more “real” than me as a mere person. More real than my passage through time in a human body. And yet, it’s not separate from my individual being, this particular life with all its loves and heartaches. It includes that and all else: the collective I, as it were. The one in All and all in One.
There’s such a comfort in knowing this. Being this. A vast door opens in front of me and I walk through.
It is difficult to know what to do with so much happiness. With sadness there is something to rub against, a wound to tend with lotion and cloth. When the world falls in around you, you have pieces to pick up, something to hold in your hands, like ticket stubs or change.
But happiness floats. It doesn’t need you to hold it down. It doesn’t need anything. Happiness lands on the roof of the next house, singing, and disappears when it wants to. You are happy either way. Even the fact that you once lived in a peaceful tree house and now live over a quarry of noise and dust cannot make you unhappy. Everything has a life of its own, it too could wake up filled with possibilities of coffee cake and ripe peaches, and love even the floor which needs to be swept, the soiled linens and scratched records . . .
Since there is no place large enough to contain so much happiness, you shrug, you raise your hands, and it flows out of you into everything you touch. You are not responsible. You take no credit, as the night sky takes no credit, for the moon, but continues to hold it, and share it, and in that way, be known.
From Words Under Words: Selected Poems by Naomi Shihab Nye, published by Far Corner Books, 1995.
This poem speaks to me. Sorrow is something heavy you carry in your body. It’s personal. It belongs to you. But happiness is too large to carry in your body. It comes from without and carries you along with it. It’s not personal. It doesn’t belong to you. It blows “you” away and leaves you with this “belongs to everyone” feeling. The whole world is included in happiness. It just shines everywhere, through you and to everything that surrounds you. Everything glows in that golden light, even the soiled linens and scratched records, as Nye writes.
It’s like the painting by Pierre Bonnard above. Happiness shines through every line–from the lax layered leaves at the bottom, the elegantly twisted trunk, the bursts of red and yellow at the center, the far-faint mountain in the background, to the snowy blossoms bursting heavenward.
There’s no reason for the happiness I feel when I look at this painting. It just is.
What is it about this painting by Ernie Barnes that so uplifts and inspires? That ripples with joy? That feels like poetry in motion? The elongated bodies express a joyful, hopeful longing to rise up. To leave this earth and its troubles behind as they leap into the air, their faces upward gazing as the ball falls, triumphantly, through the hoop. Their feet barely graze the ground. Their arms and legs and elbows a choreography of dance movements, jazz rhythms, and soul music. No blues here. It’s all Praise God and Amen!
You can see all that in Barnes’ “Sugar Shack” as well. Imagine what joy he must have felt while painting these! It makes me happy just thinking about it. Barnes knows something about the joy and challenge of movement. He was a talented athlete playing professional football, as well as a talented artist, before his death in 2009.
That “poetry in motion,” that joy in movement, can be found in found in great dancers everywhere. I found the following video in celebrated writer Zadie Smith’s article about what dance can teach writers. “When I write I feel there’s usually a choice to be made between the grounded and the floating.”
She compares the dancing of Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire. Kelly’s is firmly grounded, prosaic, “commonsense” dancing, showing what everyday, ordinary bodies in their youth and strength can aspire to. Astaire’s dancing, by contrast, is not aspirational but inspirational. His dancing, she writes, is “transcendent . . . . for no bodies move like Astaire, no, we only move like him in our dreams.”
The Nicholas Brothers, Harold and Fayard, were another example of that transcendent dancing. Smith writes: “The Nicholas brothers were many, many magnitudes better than anybody else. They were better than anyone has a right or need to be. Fred Astaire called their routine in Stormy Weather the greatest example of cinematic dance he ever saw.” (Be sure to watch to the end when they descend the stairs doing the splits!)
Smith has a keener eye for dance than I have, for she saw Fayard’s dancing as more prosaic: “formal, contained, technically undeniable.” Whereas, “Harold gives himself over to joy. His hair is his tell: as he dances it loosens itself from the slather of Brylcreem he always put on it, the irrepressible afro curl springs out, he doesn’t even try to brush it back.” For me, both dancers are pure joy and perfection.
“Between propriety and joy,” Smith writes, ” choose joy.” In dance, in art, in writing—in life, I’d add—choose joy. I try to choose joy when I blog. Sharing things that bring me joy.
I’ll leave you with what Smith says is the best writing advice she ever heard—from the dancer Martha Graham: “There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.”
In a novel I’m writing I include an origin myth of how the isthmus of Central America was created. It’s fictional but inspired by the Mayan myths I had been reading. My protagonist reads a myth about the heroine for which she was named. The book is full of gorgeous imagery and she describes some of her favorites: The rivers, trees, and flowers flowing out of Malenque’s body, Balanque with the jaguars and monkeys and macaws rising from his. Xite with her flowing hair and fish-like tail looking anxiously over her shoulder as she swims away from the Demon-Bird Dragon. . . . . She wonders if this is where her love of art was born.
So imagine my delight when I discovered the lush collages of Maria Berrio, inspired by her own reading of myths from her native Columbia. In an interview for the Georgia Review she says:
I am deeply influenced by surrealism and magical realism, so some of my favorite classic South American authors are Borges, Neruda, and Márquez. But much of my work has, of late, been influenced by oral traditions, as well as the rituals, customs, and beliefs of South America.
For example, a tale I explored in my 2017 piece Aluna references the creator figure and “Great Mother” of the Kogi people from my native Colombia. . . . .The painting depicts a female version of the mama priest in the moments just after she is brought out of the cave. Her senses are flooded with the intense beauty of the world she is charged with protecting. It is a fragile world, but she accepts her destiny.
Barrio creates her collages from hand-made papers, often with natural motifs, from the global south, such as Nepal, India, Korea, Japan, Thailand, Mexico, and Brazil. A writer from Praxis International Art describes her work this way:
Her careful and laborious assemblage of torn pieces of paper is a way of creating a transcendental space/time where myths and dreams can be told; among them, the story of the all too human yearning to recover the treasures of the lost garden of childhood, which echoes the longing for Paradise Lost.
Myths reveal the great archetypes from which the world’s art and literature and religions are evolved, and therefore from which histories and cultures arise. They can teach us great things about ourselves and this world into which we are embedded.
I’ve been reading (again) Jane Hirshfield’s Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry, a collection of essays on the art and craft of writing poetry. There’s so much here to mine for writers of any stripe, or for anyone engaged in the creative process.
My favorite essay—and certainly the most underlined and annotated—is the last, “Writing and the Threshold Life.” It’s here where she speaks of the liminal, the time and space of transition integral to all rites of passage. It’s where, she writes, “a person leaves behind his or her old identity and dwells in a threshold state of ambiguity, openness, and indeterminacy.”
Most people dip in this space only temporarily for specific purposes. But for some “the liminal becomes their only dwelling place—becomes home.”
This was true for me when our family sailed around the world. The sea was our home. We were in a constant state of transition, travelling within the circle of an ever expanding horizon, with no landfall at all sometimes for weeks, months, at a time.
The sea was “a threshold state of ambiguity, openness, and indeterminacy” as we sailed upon its surface or dived beneath it, weathered its storms and doldrums, watched lightening forking the sky and striking down all around us, greeted herds of dolphins rising up from the deep to play by our side before dipping back into the world from which they rose.
Our world was in constant motion as the waves rushed past our hull during the night and the stars circled over head while the boat rocked us to sleep. One after another port or cove, island or atoll, would disappear behind us new ones came into view.
When our travels ended, coming back to a so-called conventional life ashore did not dispose me of this deep sense of the liminal, of living always within a state of transition, for so many transitions I’ve made between then and now.
When I deeply examine the fabric and construction of this world we live in, I become more and more convinced that we all are living within a liminal state all the time. For nothing stays the same, nothing is as it first appears, everything is always becoming something else.
We pass through one doorway to another, one room to another, one place to another—so many thresholds we pass through every single day. Dusk to dawn, toddlers to teens, acorns to oak trees. There’s no end to it.
But the poet or any person on a creative or spiritual journey lives this liminal life even more keenly, or at least more consciously, more deliberately, perhaps, than others.
Hirshfield quotes from a poem by Czeslaw Milosz:
The purpose of poetry is to remind us How difficult it is to remain just one person, For our house is open, there are no keys in the doors, And invisible guests come in and out at will.
She elaborates: “Speaking from the point of view of multiplicity, betweenness, and visitation, the writer can become a person in whom both individuality and community may ripen into true expression.”
When writing, she tells us, we assert who we are and what we think, but we also surrender those things “to stand humbled and stunned and silent before the wild and inexplicable beauties and mysteries of being.”
The writer’s task is to become “permeable and transparent.”
It’s about “stepping past what we already think we know and into an entirely new relationship with the many possibilities of being, with the ultimately singular and limitless mystery of being.”
“Above all it is about . . . the affection for all existence,” the hawk as well as the rabbit it hunts.
But isn’t this, or shouldn’t this be, the task of all of us as we transit this life? To stand humbled, stunned, and transparent as we move from what we were before this life began to what we will become when we travel beyond it?
Hirshfield’s book ends with this poem by Gary Snyder:
On Climbing the Sierra Matterhorn Again After thirty-One Years
Range after range of mountains Year after year after year, I am still in love.
And yet we know it’s all just one continuous unfolding as one day or year slips seamlessly into the next. This marking of time is an illusion and has no more weight than what we give it.
In reality, there’s just this present awareness of the here and now before it too dissolves into what we call the past and evolves into what call the future. But what we call the past and the future are just part of one continuous, seamless, whole.
What we experience as the passage of time is simply the process by which we come to know that wholeness—intimately, inch by inch—as it reveals itself to us through it unravelling. As if the totality of existence is one huge ball of yarn that we are experiencing as it unfolds, moment by moment. And yet we too are woven into that wholeness, each of us separately and together. And what we are witnessing is our own self-revealing.
Nothing we cherish is lost. Nothing we aspire toward is unfulfilled. It’s all part of the one Whole.
The longer I live, the more I see things this way, and see myself as an essential part of it—as ever fresh, and as ancient as time itself. A time out of mind, or mind out of time.
2022, I embrace all you revealed to me of what forever is.
2023, I welcome all you will unfold of what was and will be.
It’s about the need to catch every falling cup “with soft hands” and fill it to the brim “with brimless being.”
This happens sometimes when writing poetry. A phrase will swim up from some primal depth, like a gift or some pressing urge—a fuzzy felt-sense of something that wants to be known, and, in the writing, becomes clearer, although not fully plumbed. Thus it returns, as if it has more to teach.
It means different things to me at different times. Sometimes it connotes a deep kindness that reaches out to save things that seem to be lost, fallen, ready to shatter—to hold them gently in our hands, our minds, and cherish everything good about them so much they become full to overflowing.
Other times it seems to suggest catching every moment before it disappears and just holding it gently in our awareness, feeling its fullness to such a degree that the moment stills and becomes its own kind of forever unending.
Doing this when it’s still and quiet is like stepping into a pool and swimming luxuriously through it. Steeping ourselves in every sound, texture, color, scent of that still moment—breathing it all in.
Trying to do so in those harried moments when you’re full of feeling—perhaps stressed, anxious, in a hurry and rushing around—is harder. But even then, the attempt to do so creates its own magic. Even as everything around you is in a rush, the moment slows and softens as the mind merges with its surroundings, savoring its suchness. That moment melts into the next in a never-ending stream. Nothing is lost. All remains full.
Me, you, our lives, each passing moment—We are the cup that must be caught with soft hands and filled to the brim with brimless being. That’s the urgent need.
Sculptor Nichola Theakston works in bronze and ceramics to capture the spirit of creatures found in her native Wales and in the wilds beyond its borders. “The notion that an individual creature may experience some ‘otherness’ or spiritual dimension beyond our understanding of its instinctive animal behaviours, is the premise behind much of my work,” she tells us on her website.
I discovered her work on a blog I follow at Colossal, and fell in love with the tender and tranquil faces of her primates, the curious and inscrutable felines, the proud and majestic wildlife.
We learn something about ourselves as humans when we see these qualities in the more-than-human world around us. Is it our own spirit we recognize in them? Or a Spirit that enlightens human and non-human alike, that compels us to see ourselves in the Other.
What do you see when you look at faces of our kindred cousins?
What is it about the fragile, fleeting, and flagrant beauty of flowers that can so break a heart?
I wrote about this once in a photo-essay called Riffing on Roses. And then just this week I found this new-to-me poem by Mary Oliver, Peonies, which broke my heart again.
The poem speaks to the flagrant beauty of flowers that gives itself away, all that it is, so freely and readily to all that comes its way: the ants, the breeze, the sun’s soft buttery fingers, the poet’s breaking heart.
“Beauty the brave, the exemplary,” indeed.
I wish we all could live so bravely, so carelessly, giving all that we are to all there is. I wish we all, like those ants, craving such sweetness and finding it, would bore deep within that sap. We must cherish and adore all we are, all we have, all that is, while it’s still here to have.
This morning the green fists of the peonies are getting ready to break my heart as the sun rises, as the sun strokes them with his old, buttery fingers
and they open — pools of lace, white and pink — and all day the black ants climb over them,
boring their deep and mysterious holes into the curls, craving the sweet sap, taking it away
to their dark, underground cities — and all day under the shifty wind, as in a dance to the great wedding,
the flowers bend their bright bodies, and tip their fragrance to the air, and rise, their red stems holding
all that dampness and recklessness gladly and lightly, and there it is again — beauty the brave, the exemplary,
blazing open. Do you love this world? Do you cherish your humble and silky life? Do you adore the green grass, with its terror beneath?
Do you also hurry, half-dressed and barefoot, into the garden, and softly, and exclaiming of their dearness, fill your arms with the white and pink flowers,
with their honeyed heaviness, their lush trembling, their eagerness to be wild and perfect for a moment, before they are nothing, forever?
Mary Oliver, New And Selected Poems. (Beacon Press; Reprint edition November 19, 2013)