The Strangest Kind of Strangers on a Train

The old tale of complete strangers meeting in transit, discovering they have identical problems, and “solving” the problems by trading crimes to eliminate the people they see as the root of their unhappiness, makes for a striking mystery drama, in fiction. Ask Patricia Highsmith and Alfred Hitchcock fans! But I was reminded recently that we give too little credit to our commonalities as a positive solution to our problems, and end up missing crucial opportunities as a result.

The filmic version takes as its thesis that the two strangers who meet can find not other, or at least no better, solution to the problem of having bad relationships with inconveniently incompatible people than to murder them, and by ‘exchanging’ murders with each other they hope to escape detection by each having no apparent connection to, or a motive for killing, the other’s nemesis.

While this makes for startling and even compelling imagined mystery, it’s horrific if imagined in real terms. Yet we do similar things all the time in this world, don’t we? Because I tend to agree with a particular point of view in general, say, a specific philosophy or political party’s policies, or my country’s traditions, does that mean it’s wise or humane or practical or generous to follow along without question, no matter what my group, party or nation says and does? We mortals are remarkably good at noticing and magnifying our differences, as genuine and large as they may be. But we’re frighteningly weak, in opposing measure, when it comes to recognizing, focusing on, and building upon our true kinship. This, I believe, easily outweighs in both quantity and importance, our separating characteristics. Digital illustration from a photo: Opening Doors

The recent train outing in Sweden that reminded me so pointedly of this also confirmed my belief that it’s an area where youth is wiser than experience. In a railcar where a young father, not a local or a native speaker of the language, was keeping his fifteen-month-old daughter occupied and contented during the trip by helping her practice her tipsy walking, she made her way with his help to where another family, also foreign but not of the same culture as father and daughter, was sitting together. That group was of two adult sisters and their four or five school-age children. The toddler was naturally attracted to the friendly and spirited older children, and as soon as they saw her, they too were enchanted. What followed was perhaps twenty minutes of delighted interaction between them all, with occasional balance aid from Papa and photo-taking by the Mamas. And barely a word was spoken, much less understood by any of the participants, during the entire episode.

The greatest among the many beauties of this endearing one-act was that the conversation essentially began, continued and ended with the kids reaching toward one another with open hands, waving and gesturing and generally putting on an elaborate pantomime together, and above all, giggling and chortling with peals and squeals of ecstatic laughter.

Needless to say, all of us adults in the railcar grinned, giggled, chortled and otherwise became happy kids right along with them. Resistance was an impossibility and a pointless attempt, at that. And isn’t that an excellent lesson for all? Adults are too busy being territorial and fearful and downright feral to remember that the open hand of welcome and sharing is as quickly reciprocated as any gesture, and a smile of greeting and acceptance is contagious beyond any language, age, or cultural barriers. We can nurse our terrors of the unknown as supposed adults, or we can choose to laugh together like children.Digital illustration from a photo: As If in a Mirror

Nebulous


Digital illustrationThe mystical beauty of the moon and clouds the other night got me to thinking, as I admittedly do so often, about the ephemeral and ethereal qualities of our species and the strangeness of our even existing. When Space looms so visibly vast over us and insists on reminding me how tiny and potentially insignificant I am, my life is, in the grand scheme of it all, I begin to have exactly the opposite reaction any sensible person might assume I would have. I think that, just possibly, if there can be no logic or extravagant purpose evident for the creation and continuation of our peculiar and oddball race, then we can’t have just appeared at random or even serendipitously–we must really have arrived here with at least some intended point. Being a thoroughly sideways creature myself in so many ways right from the start, I find it comforting to imagine that the very impossibility if explaining my reason for existing seems to argue for some small purpose. Foolish dream or actual conundrum, it makes stargazing that much more attractive on nights like these….Photo

Talking at Cross Purposes

digital illustrationMy spouse and I have an intriguing way of discussing our disagreements, and I gather from what I see, hear and read that this is not such an unusual complication but probably more like the norm. We don’t fight about stuff that matters, remarkably, very often at all, being on the same page in our essential beliefs and concerns; if we differ there, we’re pretty comfortable having a rational conversation or two and agreeing, if necessary, to disagree. But the more inconsequential things are where we excel in having our weirdly, even hilariously, convoluted bouts of stubbornly wordy disagreement.

And the vast majority of the time, it’s because of the language barrier. We’re both native speakers-of-English, but it seems we are perfectly capable of saying virtually the same thing to each other in such different ways that each of us hears the other saying essentially the polar opposite. It’s quite miraculous, really. Two seemingly cogent adults, people who know each other rather well after being together for eighteen years and who both know inside that we share the deep core values that make eighteen years together possible, not to mention that we share so many experiences and tastes and interests—and we can’t reason our way out of a paper bag when one thinks the other is remembering something incorrectly or a question has been raised about some puzzling matter of fact.

Of course, I don’t think this is specific to being male-female, age-related, or any other such thing, this is a characteristic of our whole species. It’s a perfect example of how humans talk to each other a whole lot of the time. We think we’re having an epic battle over right and wrong, and both sides of the argument are  looking and hoping for exactly the same outcome, but each of us simply thinks we have put the correct names on the problems and resolutions and the other party is clearly an idiot or heretic until he/she/they will acquiesce and let us superior beings fix everything according to our righteous rightness. Happens in politics and religion and academia and relationships just about equally often. Whether weapons are involved has the most influence over how epic these battles really become, but the basis is hardly all that different.

My beloved and I get in the same ridiculous rut of circular conversation often enough, though neither of us takes it particularly personally or even necessarily sees it as a true argument let alone a danger to our relationship, and it’s easy enough to laugh it off when one or the other of us finally realizes that We’re Doing It Again. But it’s strange that we don’t spot the next episode from afar and simply have a straightforward, rational talk. If the goal or solution is nearly always identical or close enough to it, why do we have to wrestle around so determinedly before coming to that natural conclusion? I can’t guess why we mortal mugs are so quick to waste our energy and peace on pointless posturing, but it’s certainly a collective talent of ours.

I guess I’ll just have to take this opportunity to apologize to my partner for my part in the muddle, and hope I learn to listen—and hear—better. And if anyone with any power or aspirations to power (political, religious, academic, or other) happens to be reading this, would you do me a favor and do the same?digital illustration (B&W)

It’s Still Life

Little is as desirable in day-to-day life as peace and quiet. Rest, respite, calm–I crave them. There’s so much invitation and welcome in the sweet marvels of time off, time out and down time that I never feel I have too much of, well, not-too-much.

But busyness is ever so much more common in our everyday existence in this century, certainly in this household. It’s no still life, to be sure; any silence found in this way of living is more of the deafening sort. But yes, it’s still life.

So I have to manufacture or steal my moments of rest and relaxation. Isn’t that how most of us end up finding our tiny increments of space and time and sanity anyway? I have to learn how to tune out the white noise, hide from the constant demands and burrow into hidden corners when and wherever I can, to choose deliberately to decompress and unwind. If I don’t make room for my own peace of mind, who’s going to give it to me? The world may rattle on around me at a furious and eardrum-shattering rate and all I know may change in the ten minutes I’ve stolen to renew myself, but I will return to those realities soon enough, and hadn’t I better do so in a fortified state than otherwise?

Better to sit down and tell myself soothing tales undergirded with lullabies, to draw myself a little old-fashioned still life arrangement in the calm unruffled grey of graphite, and breathe deeply without regard for the bustle and bash of the universe, if only for a moment or two.graphite drawing

Memento Quod Vivitis

The longtime artistic tradition of the ‘memento mori‘ has always appealed to me. I think it’s valuable to recognize our mortality and the limitations of our time on this plane to devote to earthly enjoyments, the better to value them fully. Not to mention that I love skeletons and a lot of that stuff so often used symbolically in these works. I’m not disheartened, horrified, or unsettled by death and the subjects surrounding it, under everyday circumstances, in the way that some people are.digital illustration from a photoThe main thing is, I think it’s even more important to (as my guesswork-Latin post title suggests) remember that you’re alive. It’s not enough motivation to live a full, meaningful, rich, purposeful life just to know that you’re going to kick the bucket one day; everybody knows that, and it’s probably not even a majority of our kind that actually give serious thought to being fully present in their lives and making the most of their life spans. I know for certain that I haven’t always been especially good at such things.photoSo I’m rather happy to have an eye-opening, soul-tweaking glimpse of my little collection of death-defying totems, kept in view around my home and work spaces, at any moment when they happen to some into my field of vision. Not a bad way to refocus me and make me feel especially alive.

Messengers

I admire real journalists and documentarians. Now, I do think that they are a very rare breed among news-people, the rest of whom are too driven by their corporate sponsors’ and their own biases by a long shot, no matter where on the spectrum of politics, religion, personal philosophy or other conviction they fall, but there are those honest characters who, if they do consistently let their beliefs steer their messages, at least recognize those prejudices and are quite open about them and still manage to give air time to opposing or differing points of view.

Still, the ones I really find compelling are a different sort of message bearers. They are harder to recognize, because they can be quite ordinary seeming mortals or wholly incorporeal, quotidian or fantastical, intentional or entirely, serendipitously accidental in their delivery of important news in our lives. Are they strangers we meet by happenstance and happy crossing of paths, like the townspeople in Germany who saw my older sister and me debarking a train after dark and looking around to orient ourselves? The kind couple approached us, told us that Celle (however lovely) was a very small town indeed and that there were few places for visitors to stop overnight but they’d help us find one, gave us directions and set us on the path to a very cozy little bed and breakfast before disappearing into the dark like a mist.

Are the messengers those outstanding teachers who have acted not only as educators in our lives but also as inspiration, as mentors, counselors, guides and friends? Mrs. Willis, Mr. Cunningham, Prof. Keyes: I salute you! Teachers have done as much to bring light to my life as to the dim corners of my mind over the years, and I am grateful for the news and stories and messages they bring. Are there other beings among us able to protect and direct us without our even being aware of it? Of course there are. Some of them are simply gracious fellow humans whose good deeds and kindness will never be seen or fully known and recognized in our lifetimes, either because we are too dim-witted and self-involved to notice as we should or because they merely do their mitzvahs without fanfare, without expecting or needing any recognition and recompense. These we should imitate and their message should be spread further by our going out in turn to do kindnesses for others and requiring no attention or glory.

And I think that–given how beautiful and rich life can be when we do pay attention–there must be others in our midst too; angels or aliens, I don’t much care what we name them, but there must be Love looking out for us to make even the tiniest good possible, let alone the many graces that fill our days if we only look. Their message, I suspect, is nothing more or less than that we are being well looked after, and our little lives recorded no matter how small they may seem to us.pen and ink

Neither Truth nor Consequence

digital collageTo capture the kind of innocence that little ones have would be a scientific coup beyond what even our best magicians could hope to conjure. How is it that such jaded minds and dedicated tragedians as adults can be made from the raw childhood materials of clear-eyed honesty and untouched truth and light? As an artist and writer, even simply as a grownup who believes that honesty and reality have far more forms than the dull quotidian ones in which we grownups generally clothe them to fit our fusty adult needs for blandness to feel safe, I search the boundaries between worlds endlessly in hope.

Sometimes I wonder if I have been cheating when I don’t follow precisely that stern old caveat that warns me to always Write about What You Know—that I should stay fixed in the firmament of my own particular universe, my peculiar range and realm of reality. Of course, I know that no beautiful fantasy and very little romance would ever get written by anyone if this rule were strictly adhered to in every way; what’s more, I remind myself as I write that every word I put down on the page is true, just not always for me and my own experience: perhaps it’s something I’ve known of believed or felt, translated into another person’s events, and sometimes it is perhaps best described as true of (or for) another person who herself or himself is not known on this modest three-dimensional earthly and human plane. Anyway, I am reassured that I bend the Rule a little but I never wholly break it; I tend to wander further from the truth only when I must–in order to make the truth of the matter most apparent.digital collage

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.

Search Engine

I tend to believe that things happen the way they’re supposed to happen. Doesn’t mean I’m always going to enjoy or approve of either the process or the results–many things are hard to live through and accept in the average life. All the same, and even if it’s a touch fatalistic, I find a bit of useful equanimity in the idea that the greater balance will eventually prevail one way or another. Whether I can foresee or understand the outcome of any of life’s mysteries or not, this thought tempers my natural impatience just a little.

Would I rather that every loved one who has suffered or died had not? Of course! ‘Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished. But even if I could choose such things, how can I know which way the universe will tilt in response? Might the unseen, unplanned measure of counterbalance damage other loves, other lives? Much as I fidget inwardly, pretending at god-like wisdom and magnanimity, the responsibility is truly far too great a burden for me to desire. I’m always pulled up short by intimations of an unwelcome butterfly effect.

Even in smaller and more mundane things, I dread to think too much on what might have been or how I would choose to make anything significantly different. The choice is so likely to hold hidden traps and snares that I can’t bear to imagine how dreadfully I might skew the universe awry with one misstep and would rather not carry the burden of it. So no matter how I may long for a difference in the moment, if there’s no obvious way for my intervention to have a positive on the outcome of events I will likely continue to flap my wings in a rather guarded fashion, hoping that anything I stir up will only join the stream, the current that flows toward the greater good, even if I can’t begin to see it yet. My inability to recognize the larger pattern doesn’t in any way prove that it isn’t there.photoSo I watch and wait. But in the meantime I plan, always, to keep living. Moving forward is the only useful reality while I’m waiting for any additional facts to appear. And a much happier and more entertaining way to spend my time than in anxious huddling in corners. See you out there!

‘Social Activist Art’ is *New*, You Say???

drawingA recent New York Times article reminded me that, no matter how I might classify myself as anything but an activist, I have always been one, of a sort. It’s true that I’ve always assiduously avoided conversation, let alone physical action, tied to politics, religion, social policy and pretty much any ‘hot topic’ you can name unless I sensed I was in the safest possible environment to do so–generally, amid a comfy flock of like-minded partisans. The article is chronicling the US uprising of a relatively new breed of American artists and their support systems dedicated to, as the title bluntly states, social activism; the author gives appropriate reference, of course, to the practice being a long-standing one in other parts of the world, but shares the view that it’s still rather fresh and new here on American turf.

I’ll grant that the forms and formats may well have changed, and that there might be a larger collective sense among those who would embrace this title of being dedicated to the purpose more specifically than others, but I will step right out on my own tiny soapbox now and assert that, insofar as art is seen as a form of communication–and this might well include virtually all art except that created and performed in private and without any wish or expectation than anyone other than its maker will know it exists–it is inherently activist. The decision to create something I intend to be art and allow it to be known to others says a whole lot of things about me, the subject of my work, and my general worldview, and if I am allowing others to experience these in the art, assumes that they will respond through and with their own worldviews to it, effectively in a social interaction, whether we converse directly about it somehow or those who have interacted with my art turn around and respond to it in the continuation of their lives.

Who knew I was such a rabble-rouser? But truthfully, even by making those ‘meaningless’ little doodles that don’t turn into full-blown drawings or paintings, I am making something of a statement, am I not? I scribble, therefore I am. By doodling, I am not only using my energy to do that rather than anything else, I am also creating a portal through which my thoughts can emerge; if they turn, via this scrawling, into a concrete idea it may lead to the completion of an artwork expressing it more openly. This, in turn, suggests that I have a thing or two to say and I’m willing for others to hear it, see it, feel it–to interpret it and respond to it, even. I never think of myself as daring, but I think it’s fair to say that letting my inmost thoughts and imaginings be seen and analyzed by others through their own filters is at least a little brazen, if not occasionally foolhardy.

One of my late mentors, Lawry Gold, wrestled with the supposed divide between art and function, and he was anything but shy about being an outspoken activist, albeit a very kindhearted and generous one. He was a boldly countercultural person in a great many ways, and yet he seemed to me to reach the peak of his own overt rebelliousness when he began working on a body of art that was deliberately and unabashedly functional (beautifully art-covered, distinctively designed tables, lamps, clocks and the like) for sale through his gallery agents. This was something I know he enjoyed at least a little as cheery cheekiness to tweak artist snobs who were apparently so benighted they couldn’t accept the marriage of form and function thus, or so rich they could afford to sit around waiting for other equally rich people to buy their non-functional work, no matter what the state of the economy. Besides that these were among his most gorgeous and sophisticated works, to me they spoke of the recognition that art, besides taking so many different forms, speaks to us in many different ways, and that breadth and depth has great value.

At the same time, my friend never stopped making ‘non-functional’ art, because he of all people also had a tremendous desire to communicate, whether it was by visual storytelling in his often humorous, whimsically imaginative artworks or by making a more specific point with his illustrative and symbolic works. And he never hesitated to engage in the discourse that followed anyone’s viewing of his work. He and I had a joint exhibition of our artwork once, and as I was curating and installing the show I objected to one of his pieces that he wanted included, thinking it was not in keeping with all of the others we had selected, and he patiently steered me toward a clearer understanding that it was indeed very well suited; even though I never liked that piece as much as the others, I found that it carried an important part of the ‘conversation’ made up by the whole of the exhibition, and in fact that one interaction changed the way I curated many an exhibition of others’ work in the years that followed.

Ultimately, I see in the creation of art–of any form–an act that if it isn’t in open defiance of the social norms, allows or even invites the examination of and discourse on them. So even though much art is not made, like Lawry’s, to function in an obviously practical way, it all serves a purpose; ‘merely’ being beautiful or compelling may be purpose enough in adding layers of pleasure or relief or catharsis, but many works go far beyond that in opening new vistas to our contemplation, influencing our beliefs and even challenging us to change our behavior. All art is potentially advertisement or propaganda, for good or ill. And if that isn’t social activism, I think my encyclopedia needs some new illustrations.

digital illustration from drawings

Is all art crowd-sourced?