Costume Jewelry & the Genuine Article

Digital illustration: Costume JewelryAs an inveterate magpie, I’m admittedly enchanted by almost anything sparkly and glinting that happens to catch my eye. A flash of reflected sun from a momentary wavelet on a lake at eventide is no better or worse than a shred of tinfoil glimmering from the dark recesses of a trash bin, when it comes to attention-getting power. I wonder at times whether this attitude of mine spills over into accepting cheap substitutes for the real thing in areas of life and knowledge that matter far more than mere visual stimulation does.

Do I pay enough attention to my life and all of its contextual influences?

I do when I remember. But that’s never quite enough, is it? It can become a plain old excuse to say ‘I’m only human.’ So much more power is given us, if we dare to exercise it. No matter what my beliefs and convictions are, if I’m given the capability of questioning and examining them and growing through deeper listening and learning, should I not use that power fully and joyfully? I am reminded often enough by my failures and faults that I can only engage this discernment usefully for myself and have neither the power nor the right to assume my journey will apply to all (or indeed, any) others. This sojourn of learning, questing and listening, and yes, looking at both the shiny objects and those seemingly dull ones presented to me will lead, if I am both fortunate and patient, determined and humble, to a treasury more valuable than all of the scintillations in a world of costume jewelry.

Fixity

“Why?” is a beautiful question, even though it terrifies most of us. A wise soul once said that the opposite of faith is not doubt but certitude. When we grow too attached to a belief and its perfect correctness, we disallow not only our own reexamination of that belief, which if it’s so perfectly correct should pose no threat to us and if it’s not, should allow us to become wiser and more faithful to our convictions; we also fail to show respect for the belief itself, if we are so fearful of its being exposed as wrong.

Standing fixed in a position of faith is only impressive if that belief can be defended in a calm, intelligent, reasonable conversation with someone who doesn’t yet share the same convictions. A shouting match or the refusal to discuss respectfully is as likely to convince and convert an unbeliever as punching someone in the nose is to prove that you’re smarter than she is if anyone’s questioned it. It’s more useful to ask, whenever any disagreement arises, whether one is genuinely defending one’s belief or just feels personally threatened. Egos so often get in the way of rational, logical conversation when we reflexively mistake the call for proof or persuasion of our beliefs for personal insults. It might be useful to remember that when someone asks for evidence of something we cherish as fact, we could give them the benefit of believing that they really want to know why we accept it as truth. A genuine discussion might actually lead to common ground.

It might also, if we let it, lead to greater insight on our own part. The dispassionate process of a logician is aimed not at debunking everything in sight but stripping away falsehoods and irrelevancies and fallacies to expose the facts in the matter. Truth can withstand all questioning. It trumps politics, rants, bullying, diversionary tactics, disinformation and pure human foolishness, if we dare to examine all of the input carefully and patiently and with respect for those who may have so far missed the mark. A reasoned and quietly stated truth will finally have more power than all of the smoke and mirrors that deniers propagate and cling to, or we will have to admit we’ve lost more than our own convictions.Digital illustration from photos + text: Zoanthrope

We Wait for Change…

…when we should be agents of change. We wish for rescue when we should be out seeking ways to aid others. We huddle fearfully in the late summer, already conscious that the autumn ahead will lead inevitably to winter’s dormancy or killing frost, when what we could be doing is plotting the way to make use of the transition to position ourselves to take fuller advantage of the ripening and plenitude ahead.digital illustrationWe are, after all, only human. But the exemplary people of generations past have proved, and those of our own time are still showing, that as long as we exist to worry about them the ages and seasons, the events and goings-on do indeed go on, cycle and change, and that if we choose to do so—if we determine to do so and act on it—we can make the changes better and the growth so much the more meaningful and joyful. If we wait for change, it will happen, all right, but it will happen however and whenever the universe or others in it decide. Ours is the calling to engage in the world, no matter how intimidating it is, and move toward what we desire. It may seem like plowing on foot through chin-deep snow, but trusting that there’s a thaw ahead and behind it, renewal, we can stay the course.digital illustrationAt the other end of it is potential that surpasses even our fondest, wildest imaginings, if we dare to move instead of lying waiting.

It’s interesting to me that I wrote the foregoing portions of this post a few weeks ago and set it aside for this very date, not knowing that it would follow immediately on the heels of my publishing my first book, something I’ve longed to do for years but never had the nerve until now. Funny how we sometimes put things in motion without even realizing what we’ve done; it’s a saving grace of our race, I think. O happy day, when we stumble into our dreams because we kept seeking them despite all sense!

Seasonal Allergies

Can political correctness kill a holiday spirit? Oh, yes, it can. We’ve all seen it. There are times and places when and where we have to tread so lightly around people’s tender feelings regarding their special holiday or occasion–or someone else’s–that it’s hard to believe that any of us retain those passions and beliefs after a while. It’s as though we’re allergic to each other’s seasonal happiness. All the same, I do understand that we ought to show reasonable forbearance regarding others’ dearly held views, no matter how far from our own they may be, so long as those views aren’t harming anyone else. And so very, very few of them are, to be fair.

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Remember to tread lightly on others’ ground!

But if others want to celebrate things I’m not so attached or attracted to myself, who am I to stand in the way?  I like holidays, parties and celebrations very well. I may have even occasionally co-opted others’ holidays just because I think they’re wonderful excuses for enjoying the great things about life and history and happiness. Whether I do or not, I am happy to see my own holiday leanings in any odd spot that inspires me at any moment.

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Ho-ho-ho, happy people, whoever you are!

I’m from a pretty common kind of American, Protestant, middle class background myself, so it won’t surprise anyone that I grew up surrounded by the trappings of the middle class, Protestant American version of Christmas. Won’t even shock anyone that after my decades of being surrounded by it, I grew more than a little jaded at the horrendously fat, greedy, commercialized version it morphed into in the public eye and felt shy of celebrating Christmas in that atmosphere. But there’s that sense of tradition and family tied into it as well, and the knowledge that the origins of the holiday and the celebration of it are worlds removed from those crass retail versions of it that irritate me so. So when I see the famed color combination so associated with Christmas in this my home culture, I think I am in a more forgiving mood toward the genuinely human and sometimes very foolish ways that others spend their celebratory energies, and maybe even toward my own.

I wish you all a happy holiday season, whether you celebrate any particular occasion or just enjoy seeing others revel in theirs. There should be plenty of pleasure to go around!

From Here to There and Never Back Again

So far there is no generally accepted evidence that life can be lived anything but forward, or that we get more than one shot at it. That hardly slows down anyone choosing to believe in prescience, reincarnation or an afterlife, of course, let alone explains how anyone could sometimes have a pronounced sense of déjà vu, experience the inexplicable, quite ephemeral notion of Faith as a concrete thing, or believe he has interacted with angels or ghosts. We each start out as something barely beyond an inkling, swimming blissfully in the finite universe of a womb until birth, from whence we are expected to follow the norm of progression from infancy to whatever age we get to achieve, then die. Only in fiction does anyone regularly foretell the future, begin life as an elderly person and work backward to ending as a baby, or consort with beings from past, future or other worlds. photoMany people seem to find that a sad state of affairs. The desire to know more, to be more, is apparently a strong one, and perhaps one that (unlike us) does transcend time. What we do know of our species’ history shows that the idea of things beyond and outside of our lifespans and the confines of our temporal and terrestrial location has been around and popular probably for as long as there have been people to have the ideas. Some of these notions are strangely similar to each other despite impenetrable separations between the peoples and cultures where they sprang up–despite the evident impossibility of their having been communicated by any currently known means.

Though the concept of such miraculous forms of Otherness intrigues me, too, it is in no way necessary to my sense of adventure and peculiarity and glamor. Isn’t life itself quite bizarre and magnificent and convoluted and intriguing enough just as we live it? The very improbability of our existing as a collection of beings, able to live such distinctive, densely woven, unpredictable lives–and to be in community and communication with countless fellow beings doing so as well–seems quite remarkable enough to me.photoI suspect that if I’m lucky enough to grow very old and remain at least somewhat sentient, I will look back with some surprise at the way my life casts its shadows: where I have been and what I have done will amaze me just as much in retrospect as it did in the happening; the people I’ve known or met and the way our stories intersected will still astound me with its depth and variety. I will peer into the equally misty future with the same degree of hunger and uncertainty and curiosity that I always had, but perhaps with the sharp edge of its immensity somewhat worn soft by the knowledge that there can be fewer truly new things ahead of me except for death itself. I hope that, whenever that comes, I will gaze on it with a bit of equanimity not only because it is the one inevitable passage–whether out of all existence or into some new realm with a whole new set of adventures–that I will travel like every single one before me, every one yet to come, and the one doorway whose threshold I will not cross twice. And I think that’s not a bad thing at all.

Treasure Knows Neither Time nor Place

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A memory-driven image by my great-uncle Rolph Bolstad . . .

I have been scanning and digitally restoring a number of photos out of our family’s trove, a heap that resembles the disorganized and neglected stores of many other families. I make a small dent in the stack from time to time, then get distracted by everyday life and often don’t revisit the project for quite a while again. While many of us obsess over parting with beloved memorabilia of any kind, the truth is that the majority of us don’t do much with it when we have it.

All good things are that way, I suppose: love, joy, peace and happiness of both the material and the intangible sorts are seldom given their full respect when we have them, only mourned when we think they’re out of reach. And from what I’ve seen and heard from friends around the globe, this is a foolishness that transcends all sorts of differences and makes us more alike than not–no matter what our location or culture, our beliefs, hopes, and dreams, we all seem to wrestle with this forgetfulness about appreciating what we truly value that we have right in hand, and the minute that we suspect we’re about to lose our grip on those gifts, whether by our own decisions or perforce, we get panicked and become certain that it’s a sign of apocalypse. Surely the end of our own self and sanity, and very possibly, that of the universe as we know it.

I come across that box of yet-to-be-scanned photos from time to time and get a pang: what if I don’t get back to this project before I forget who’s in the photos, where the shots were taken, before the images are too faded or decayed to be rescued at all?

Well, what if?

Honestly, I know full well that it will not be the end of the world. Not even the end of my pleasurable revisiting of those memories–what’s more significant than retaining this flimsy physical repository of memories is whether I use the versions of them in my head and heart while they last (head, heart and memories, all three). Once gone from there, the data held in a picture is only cold, meaningless data after all, and it never contained the warmth and soul of anyone or anything depicted in it. It’s merely a shadow-play version of the husk that is my human form and will no longer be me when I die.

So I’ll keep leafing through these paper and binary mementos of mine as long as it pleases me to do so, remembering mostly that what is seen therein is always more beautifully carried inside me. Change is indeed the only constant, yet in the photograph my great-uncle took, probably in Johannesburg, around sixty years ago there is the ephemeral prototype of the photograph I took in New York less than a decade ago. Fifty years or fifty centuries, it matters little if we learn to respect and rejoice in what remains true and crosses the boundaries of place and time as long as we keep it alive inwardly.

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New York City lives in my own memory as much as in a physical place . . . its beauties, like all things loved and valued, lies in me, in others’ hearts, far more than in itself or any image we can conjure of it . . .

Matters of Perspective

 

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Stormy skies can bring destruction . . . or the rains of growth and promise . . .

I’ve said before, and in ever so many ways, I’m a firm believer that we all live our lives wearing our own very distinctive glasses. By that I’m not referring to the glass-half-full vs. glass-half-empty attitude–but that’s indeed part of the whole idea. It’s about how we see the world through our individual filters.

In a fairly concrete fashion, that means that the quality of my actual eyesight–my acuity, ability to detect and distinguish colors, textures, shapes, depth of field aided by stereo vision, and all of that sort of thing does, in fact, have a profound effect on my world view and how I experience my passage through it in life. As a longtime visual artist, I am dependent upon all of this stuff for my very sense of self.

But I’m also convinced that each of us has a life history that includes our adventures from birth to the present, our nurturing or lack thereof, our environment and resources and social contacts and political influences and educational progression, and that whole reality is so distinctive for each of us, right down to a cellular level, that I can’t quite imagine how even the closest of kin could possibly have identical points of view.

I’ve been reminded of this in the last few days as I’ve been reading the latest Oliver Sacks book on which I’ve laid hands: The Mind’s Eye. Every book of his that I’ve read thus far is, since he’s a neurologist, a humane and humorous thinker, a deeply curious scientist, and a citizen of the world with wide-ranging interests, bound to be an adventure. Given the visual theme of this particular collection of case-studies (including his own discovery of and treatment for an ocular tumor), it is indeed a confirmation of my sense that such complex inventions as human bodies, multiplied by the almost infinite variants those influences I mentioned above can infuse, create and incubate an incredible range of possible ways to see and experience life in this world and whatever we can conceive of beyond it.

Yes, I am enjoying this latest Sacks book as immensely as I have all of his thus far. It’s been rather striking, too, to add to the layers of my own filters, many of which I’ve only come to recognize rather more recently in my life. I have sussed out and confirmed to my own wildly non-medical satisfaction that I am very probably distinctly dyslexic or cognitively ‘different’ in a whole bunch of ways, and having looked at this good doctor’s descriptions of face-blindness, or prosopagnosia, I’ve a feeling that my realization sometime not long past that I might have a degree of face-blindness might well be accurate. I’m certainly no less inclined to believe it since immediately before the book arrived on scene at the local library, I was working in our front yard when a car pulled up and the nice driver called me by name and conversed with me pleasantly until I could identify by her voice, questions and comments that she is the neighbor who lives directly across the street from me. Sigh. Sometimes the ol’ filters do get a little blurry.

More importantly, though, I’m convinced that how we respond to our life experiences and our histories–the choices we make and what we do with what we’re given and who we are within it–those are the truly telling filters. They’re the things by which we’ll be known, be remembered (if we’re remembered), and that offer us ways to define ourselves and our place in the world. So while I’m happy as an artist to play (as you saw in the last couple of posts) with my reality in the artificial world of visual imagery and how I attempt to show others what it’s like to see through my lens, I realize that my moods and attitudes are a part of that process too. Can I get others to understand or accept my point of view? Rarely, if I’m mighty fortunate. Can I help them to see it? More likely, if I work hard. Can I give them happy access to their own filters that might improve their moment or their day? That, I hope, I can do if I am true to the better of my instincts in responding to the world as I know it and expressing, the best that I’m able, with passion and with compassion. With love and joy.

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Heavens! What started as a grim and ominous day can become something bright and hopeful . . .

 

For So Many Reasons

digital painting from a photoEvery Fourth of July I am filled with ambivalence. I feel so deeply fortunate to have been born in a country where I live a very privileged life: I can afford to live in a spacious, comfortable house, own a car that I can drive when and wherever I choose, eat (yes, too much, and that I have the choice of changing as well); more importantly, I can vote in any election–though I have sincere doubts that we are as close to a ‘one man, one votenation in effect as we are on paper–and I can say what I believe, and believe what I wish, and choose my own friends and live as I please.

At the same time, I am constantly troubled by the many self-proclaimed ‘patriots’ whose views of freedom translate what I see as privileges into their personal Rights without regard to how they might impinge on the health, safety and happiness of the people directly around them; who preach (because they are free to do so in this country) against the rights of the poor, the downtrodden, and especially of those who simply differ from themselves because they believe (and are free to do so) that the poor, downtrodden and different are inherently wrong or evil and that what applies as a Right to oneself is an undeserved privilege to another. It frightens me that the very freedom to think and decide for oneself is applied to people I would disagree with vigorously and even think dangerous in their views, even while it pleases me that I am free to oppose them.

What is called the United States of America is far from a land of wholly united people–this present time is no different from our past, if perhaps a bit more polarized than some eras in that regard. I’m constantly hearing the language of ‘freedom’ morphed into the language of making others change to suit our own personal ideals of how to live a good and just and proper life, not just here on our own soil but around the globe, and this too is not new but is no less fearsome a characteristic of our frailty as both individuals and a nation. We are spoiled, self-centered and arrogant in so many ways.

Yet the general goodness of living in a widely varied, opportunity-loving, favored land never leaves my heart and mind, either. Even if I define its better qualities differently than any number of my fellow citizens would do, I am aware of my good fortune in living in a place where that is both legal and generally acceptable, and where the very spirit of the country’s foundation says I should actively participate in making it as bold and just and generous as it can be. So though a part of me withers at the very idea of anyone needing political, legal or military systems, I am grateful to those people who throughout our history have committed with sincerity to their thirst for justice and making things right in the land and done those kinds of work to make it possible.

I just heard someone say a variant of the (true) old saw about ‘the guy who wrote the manual isn’t the one that actually does the job’ and am reminded that those who framed our constitution and envisioned as the nature and future of our nation could never have known exactly how it would unfold in practice and over time, even though they did live, work and die under that constitution as well. We all only do the best we are able, and as it happens, those of us who now live, work and die in America have a setting in which it’s possible for more of us to do so at an acceptable or even high level if we, too, commit to it and live our many-colored versions of the dream the best that we can.digital painting from a photoShow of Fireworks

Across this piece of Texas sky,

Local alchemists and

Magisterial teenagers are casting

New and sparkling stars, comets,

Blazing suns shot out of

The hands of these earthbound gods

Into the deepening blue-black night

And turning the sky of the

Lone Star State into great

Galaxies of momentary stars

           Notes on the Fourth of July 2010

Bedazzled

All through this night, a sparkling sky shouts out in dazzling handmade stars

of hopes and dreams, of glories past; what we believe makes the future ours–

our splashy, gleaming, naive wants, our bold wild brashness, sweet with pain

at the memory of what all this cost, this wealth of joy–this the faint refrain

as the night grows cold and the ashes drift: that our predecessors paid with life

to buy our present comfort, give us our privileged pleasures free from strife–

this tinge of sorrow underlaid still cannot dim, and never mars,

our gladness that that price was paid, so we fire our dazzling handmade stars–

our banners raise with collective pride, with staunch salutes and our boastful hymns–

at least until we wake up unchanged, long after the final firework dims.

We should still remember, when dawn returns and celebratory displays will cease,

that it’s best for us to light the skies with our stars for prosperity–and peace.digital painting from a photo

Calling All Knights: To Each His Own Grail

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If you don't have a dragon handy to defend your treasury, you may have to put on your own armor . . .


Never Give Up Your Holy Grail!

Just because some genius expert says the object you treasure is kitsch, the popular song you adore is cheesy and off-key, or the person you date is too dorky for you doesn’t mean you have to live by the so-called expert’s standards. If the object is radioactive, the song causes neighborhood riots and shatters windows all down the block, or the significant other is a part-time serial killer, then you should definitely be revisiting your values. Otherwise, winnow down your oddities to the ones that serve and please you well, and keep a relatively low profile with them where it keeps the peace. And then enjoy your little eccentricities. You are, after all, unique.

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No matter what you treasure, you may be called upon one day to make a choice . . .

Never be Unwilling to Throw Out Your Holy Grail!

If the time comes when honest reassessment of your most treasured effects, whether they’re objects or ideas, leads you to the realization that they’re not what you once thought they were, can you do the brave, smart thing and amend the situation? Can you not only let go of your sacred cow but give it a firm boot in the behind and get it out of your barn altogether? Things, beliefs, even people—those ingredients of your life that once had a revered place in you—can change. You can change.

The past never snuffs out of existence, but you can put it in its appropriate place and give yourself permission to turn to better, more present things. Only if you’re willing to haul off and pitch away what you once held dear, vigorously and decisively, can you start afresh. The loss stings madly for a bit, and discarding anything you once adored generally tends to feel like misbehavior, but if you’ve really embraced the transformation, when the pain recedes that missing part can be replaced with better and richer possibilities, and your new life and new self are infinitely worth the trouble.

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One man's treasure is another man's trash . . . one woman's trash is another's treasure . . .