Friday, July 31, 2020

LAMENT

I have nothing but respect for the teachings of the dharma. This how I would wish to lead my life. But the realities of this country and the world are such, at this moment, that my mind is overwhelmed with powerful, obsessive feelings of anger, fear and grief. It feels to me inadequate to be struggling with the cultivation of my own peace of mind when I am surrounded by the surging forces of duplicity, corruption, cruelty, exploitation and oppression. I find myself beset with thoughts, desires, intentions which are incompatible with the teachings that have inspired me in the past, and the actions available to me seem puny in the face of so much human suffering and turmoil. This morning, as I sat and tried to focus my attention on the breath, these thoughts kept returning to my consciousness. I try reminding myself that any inner peace I find can be sent out and shared with others, tiny ripples, the beating of the butterfly wing in one small corner of the world that reverberates throughout the universe. Small comfort to my infinitely small and singular mind--a mind at constant risk of surrendering to the current state of chaos.

Saturday, July 18, 2020

Yes! (for John Schroeder: A Catalogue text)


 The seeds lay sown 

in the glowing moon.

Seeds given, carefully planted, 

and given again.

The moon grows,
and some pluck the fruit.

The fruit will grow
over many seasons,
and many will pluck and eat, 

many whose eyes I will never see.

It matters not,
for the seeds were given me. 

I only planted.

John Schroeder (1943–2004) 

The lovely poem John Schroeder wrote—the one that serves as the epigraph to this celebration of his work—is an incantation, a “spell” of words that accompanies the scattering of seed. He wants us to know that he sees himself less as the creator of his artwork than as the chosen recipient of a gift, or many gifts—not for himself but given him with the responsibility to re-distribute them, to scatter them and leave them lying where they fall. It is others than himself who will benefit from their blossoms or their fruit.

 

It’s an engaging vision of the artist’s role—and a very different one from the more familiar, ego-driven vision of the artist as one who speaks out boldly with “something to say”, a “statement”, a message to be delivered to the expectant world. John sees himself more as the medium, the messenger—he’s often called a “shaman”—between a meta-world, a world of, let’s say, super-reality (“truth”? “spirit”?) and the mundane world we are given to inhabit, the world of our ordinary experience.

 

It is not surprising, then, that John’s work has a kind of modesty, a quality of self-effacement, in scale as well as in intention. Look at his drawings...


(my apologies for the absence of titles, dimensions, etc. with these images)


They have a delicate, whimsical quality in execution, and offer a simple delight to the observing eye; yet they explore the marvelous diversity of nature and—importantly, today!—expose its vulnerable fragility. They seem to me the product of a curious, inquiring mind engaged in a restless search to find out meanings on the way to giving them expression

 

The theme of vulnerability finds renewed and deeply poignant expression in John’s “war” paintings. Even the surface—glass!—on which they are painted speaks to the fragility of those somehow exposed and defenseless human beings that are their subject...



 The broken, ravaged landscapes offer them no protection as they call upon our compassion, through the artist’s. His function, here, is to channel their distress without mitigation or artifice and with such intensity that we are not excused nor allowed to look away.

 


John is best known, surely, for his assemblages, where similarly vulnerable detritus rescued from the real world—often, as I recall, the desert floor--is pieced together, restored, and given new life in constructions that exude not merely aesthetic but a haunting spiritual power. Some belong in the ancient tradition of amulets and talismans, the tools of the shaman’s trade. They pay homage, particularly, to the accoutrements of our Native American forbears: drums...



... pouches, water bottles lovingly assembled out of ritually-charged materials from the natural world, skins and feathers, sticks and bones, rocks, seashells.... Others belong more clearly in the tradition of contemporary artists since Dada pioneers (Joseph Cornell comes immediately to mind). 



And the most powerful of John’s construction works bring both those two traditions convincingly together, the ancient and the entirely up-to-date contemporary.

 

And let’s not forget the humor in John’s artworks, the subtleties and odd juxtapositions, the wit and wiles and eccentricities that elicit a chuckle or a smile, for these are the evidence of their compassion and their humanity. They are the triggers for the delight we can experience when we encounter his acts of magical metamorphosis, where eye and mind are beguiled by the revelation of some heretofore hidden but unquestionable truth. We gaze into the mysterious, irreducible presence of his objects, and we just say: Yes!

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

INTEGRITY

I know I have written about it before. Maybe several times before. But I got into this debate last night with the group of men with whom I have started to meet regularly once a month and the subject came up once again. 

The whole thing started, I think, with my expressing a confusion of emotions in our current situation. It's hard not to feel angry at the way the government of this country is being mishandled--not only, but especially the pandemic that besets us. I share the anger of those who are tired of the oppression they have experienced in a multitude of ways, not least at the hands of those whose sworn duty is to "protect and serve" them, along with every other citizen. The fear that rises in me all too frequently these days has to do with the future of the country, the world, the planet we inhabit: will it all survive for the benefit of my grandchildren and future generations? The answer is unclear. And then there's the sadness, the grief, the sense of loss that comes in part naturally, with age, in part as a result of all of the above.

Which led us into sharing views on the social and political climate that now so deeply affects our lives. Which led us in turn to our judgments of the man who, many of us feel, has led us into our current predicament. Which led us to the question of integrity. Of four men, three of us saw the president as a man entirely lacking in integrity. Between us, we cited numerous examples of the kind of words and actions on his part that betrayed a lack of compassion, understanding, human decency, and concern for the well-being of the country and its people. We pointed to his intellectual dishonesty, his obsessive lying, his tenuous relationship with science and factual reality.

The specter of both-sides-ism arose, and I expressed a firm rejection of the notion that both sides on the political spectrum bear equal blame for corruption, cynicism, and distortion of the truth. I see no equivalence between one side that habitually cheats and lies and caters to the worst qualities in its supporters and another that strives for decency, compassion, mutual respect, equality. No human is without flaws, we could all agree, and there is bad behavior on both sides of the spectrum. Even so, I insisted, the judicious exercise of discernment should enable us to make sensible preferential choices between one side and the other. 

We arrived at a familiar issue: whether laudable actions in one area should excuse execrable actions in another; specifically, could the president's actions to halt the sex trafficking of children be used as an excuse for the enforced separation of many other children from their parents at this country's border, and their enforced imprisonment in sordid and intolerable circumstances? And should one--or even a few--admirable deeds be allowed to weigh against the preponderance of despicable ones? The argument of our majority was that, in the matter of integrity, that should not be the case. Our minority member insisted that the president should not be judged; he could see "slivers of integrity" even where we opponents saw an almost universal absence of that quality.

Integrity, in my view--and I expressed it without reservation--does not come in slivers.  It is, by definition, whole. It is characterized by honesty, good character, cohesion, a consistently honored set of values. Call it, perhaps, honor. Or an old, some would say quaint expression, virtue. Like pregnancy, famously, it's all or nothing: just as you can't be a little bit pregnant, you don't get to claim integrity on the basis of some of your actions while you practice the opposite in others. It's integrity that inspires trust, and trust is the prerequisite for all human transactions, whether social, political, or simply personal. And in this, with all the goodwill I can muster,  I do not see an equivalence of either responsibility or blame.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

TUESDAY

How strange it is to wake up on a Tuesday morning with the realization that there is nothing normal about the day!

I suppose we have adapted to a new "normality", in which we no longer venture out the door without a mask. In which, when we meet others walking in the opposite direction, we expect them, too, to be masked, as we are, so that we see nothing of the expression on their face. We cannot even know what they "look like." We have arrived at a shared anonymity where we could cross paths even with our closest friends and not know who they are.

Whether we like it or not, we have all been constrained to hide an important part of our self--that part by which others, outside our house, would recognize and know us. We are confronted, instead--and present others--with a presence whose individuality is essentially hidden from us. And it was always precisely the individuality that seems so important to us. Oh, there are clues: the clothes, the hat, the hair; if we are closer than social distancing permits, the eyes. But with the face hidden, masked, we have no more than this fragmentary picture. 

Before, in the unmasked days, we could imagine that we had the whole picture when we met with someone, face to face. We could imagine, unquestioningly for the most part, that we "knew" this other person, this friend, this neighbor, this acquaintance. The mask is a useful reminder that what we thought we knew was always partial; it was easier to allow the mind to deceive itself into believing it had effortlessly filled in all the gaps. Here, it assured us, was the person that we knew. 

The reality, of course, is that what we know of ourselves and others is always partial. For our convenience and comfort, we create a single identity, a single "self" out of the many shifting selves that manifest at different times and in countless different ways, whether within the course of a day--Tuesday, say--or over a lifetime's span. The mask we put on as we go out for our morning walk is a good reminder that we will put on other masks throughout the day, and that others will be wearing theirs. And that not one of those masks should be mistaken for that other comfortable delusion: the "real me."

Monday, July 13, 2020

A NON-GRADUATION (a dream)

I dreamt of a former student, from my days as a Comparative Literature professor. This was about 50 years ago! I served as the director of her doctoral dissertation, which was approved. She went on--wisely!--not to become a professor of Comparative Literature; I went on--wisely!--to quit academia a few years later. I was never meant to be there in the first place. 

But anyway... the dream!

In the dream, I rejected the dissertation she had worked so hard on. She showed up for a graduation ceremony and was surprised to learn that she had failed. Not only did I fail her, I gave her a terrible dressing-down (completely out of character!) for the inadequacies of her work. 

There followed a procession to leave the ceremony, which seemed to wind downhill through a pleasant landscape toward the way out to the world beyond. (The descent reminded me of the long, curving driveway that led down to the highway from my old boarding school in Sussex...) 

I was standing at the gate like the vicar waiting to say goodbye to his congregants after the church service when my student approached with numerous members of her family. She was also accompanied by a big, fat grey cat on a string.

I wanted to stop her to say: I love you, but she wouldn't have it. I tried at least to tickle the belly of the big, fat grey cat, but she pulled it away on its string. Then she left without even saying goodbye.

I was so upset!