No, this is about standing up in the midst of the world that you live and not hiding — turning back towards what’s actually happening.
— I had originally planned on featuring these words instead — "We are all messy miracles, but we deny the miraculous when we identify only with the mess" — but, quite obviously, did not. Both belong to Flint Sparks, the first from his talk at TEDx Austin in 2011, the second from this lovely blog. One of the greatest gifts Flint has given me is true belief in the first quote, and because of that, I have been able to find comfort in the messy miraculousness I used to so deeply question. In other words, the first quote empowered belief in the second, and although my many questions have not disappeared (quite the opposite, they are encouraged), the anxiety about non-perfection is no longer so weighted and haunting. It all reminds me of this, and because it does, it is not so difficult for me to imagine a lovely, peaceful meeting between Flint and Rumi — both sitting peacefully in a field, meeting the world and themselves in all their miraculous messiness.
The incomparable Mary Oliver is back for her seventh appearance on little hunches (click through this link to see her other six). Her words stand so beautifully on their own, and I had every intention to leave them that way. The only problem, though, is that when I read this — especially the final line — I hear Neil Young singing, and I also think of David Whyte and his perfectly simple advice for everyone who wants more out of life: start close in.
The three of them make a powerful combination.
August 25, 2014 at 3:17pm
My brother sent me this a while ago, and if you’re interested in a longer piece about creativity and genius — or if you want to understand little hunches
from a more scientific perspective — give it a read. My website exists to provoke thought, not to spew cliches or inspiration. And my goal is for you to take what lives here and connect it to the rumblings of your mind.
By definition, that combination is unique to each of us, and any result is entirely unpredictable. You may pass along what you read, write it in a journal, vociferously condemn it, or ignore it altogether. Regardless, there is
a reaction, and that’s what I care about.
The point, though, is to string these reactions together — to collect all these little hunches purposelessly, uncertain where they may lead, or what effect they have.
Because, as I believe (and as this article maintains), the root of creativity and innovation — or, “bigger” hunches — lies not in a single moment, but in the accumulation of hundreds or thousands of them. Or, as Victor Hugo would say, "…bridges produce houses before palaces…"
"Although we have a definition of creativity that many people accept—the ability to produce something that is novel or original and useful or adaptive—achieving that ‘something’ is part of a complex process, one often depicted as an ‘aha’ or ‘eureka’ experience."
She uses Isaac Newton and his “discovery” of gravity as an example, and indeed, it may the the quintessential one:
"This narrative is appealing—for example, “Newton developed the concept of gravity around 1666, when an apple fell on his head while he was meditating under an apple tree.” The truth is that by 1666, Newton had already spent many years teaching himself the mathematics of his time (Euclidean geometry, algebra, Cartesian coordinates) and inventing calculus so that he could measure planetary orbits and the area under a curve. He continued to work on his theory of gravity over the subsequent years, completing the effort only in 1687, when he published Philosophiœ Naturalis Principia Mathematica. In other words, Newton’s formulation of the concept of gravity took more than 20 years and included multiple components: preparation, incubation, inspiration—a version of the eureka experience—and production. Many forms of creativity, from writing a novel to discovering the structure of DNA, require this kind of ongoing, iterative process.”
It’s a fascinating revelation, because it applies to the world, not just renowned inventors:
"[A]lmost all of my subjects confirmed that when eureka moments occur, they tend to be precipitated by long periods of preparation and incubation, and to strike when the mind is relaxed…"
And one concluding point:
"Creative people are better at recognizing relationships, making associations and connections, and seeing things in an original way—seeing things that others cannot see."
To me, this means that you should encourage the wanderings of your mind. Believe in its beauty, do things your way, and go on creating yourself endlessly.
Then he continued: “And I can sing the blues so deep, until you can have this room full of money and I can give you the blues.” He was born on this day in 1920 (we only know the Mississippi county in happened in), and spent most of the next eight decades rambling up and down the fretboard on his guitar, talking and telling stories. Blues guitarists from the Mississippi Delta sang of a few things, but hardship was one of them, and Hooker recognized this early on: “They wasn’t gonna to give you nothin’.” And again, he then continued: “I didn’t care as long as they let me play my music.”
Music appears often on little hunches, from Neil Young to John Cage, Led Zeppelin (is there any band more blues-inspired?) to the poetry of Theodore Roethke, and there’s a reason: it’s such a beautiful medium for emotion — sometimes in its most honest form.
There may not be many more truly American things than the blues, and what an incredible part of its creation. It’s simple, honest, and everywhere — as Leadbelly once said, “When you lie down at night, turning from side to side, and you can’t be satisfied no way you do, Old Man Blues got you.”
August 21, 2014 at 3:24pm
He has changed the responsibility of the composer from making to accepting. To accept whatever comes regardless of the consequences is to be unafraid or to be full of that love which comes from a sense of at-one-ness with whatever.
— This lovely line comes from John Cage’s Lecture on Something. It’s natural for a composer to talk about his craft, but it’s much more infrequent that it’s put so beautifully. And so differently. There’s something extremely Rilke and Voltaire and in his words, and that’s hardly a surprise — the gradual infusion of Zen Buddhist thought into his life seamlessly affected his music. Regardless, I love the concept: at-one-ness with whatever.
The ensō is one of the more sacred symbols of Zen Buddhism. It’s a single stroke of paint on paper, and is full of representations: individuality, the state of mind of the artist, the idea of “perfection,” fullness, simplicity, spontaneity, circularity of existence, openness (and, in turn, its opposite), absence, grace — in a way, the drawing of ensō is said to reveal the depths of its creator’s enlightenment. Another way to look at ensō would be as the physical representation of wabi-sabi (the ability to see beauty in all that is imperfect, incomplete, and impermanent).
An easy, tempting way to consider ensō would be to immediately notice all it lacks: the gaps in paint, the irregular circle, the early fading, the unevenness — indeed, these “flaws” we notice in ourselves or our performance seem to always draw our most vehement criticism. Another way to consider ensō would be to notice our reaction to it. Not to the drawing itself, but to the immediate urge to find fault in it.
And if you saw the ensō of someone you loved — your husband, your child, your mother — what words would you use? Misaligned, misshapen, ugly, too thick, a little rushed? Or beautiful, perfect, “just so you,” wouldn’t-change-a-thing…
I ask because the answer is obvious, and the point is quite simple: we carry around toxic words and poisonous phrases that we wouldn’t dare unleash on anyone but ourselves. But they don’t have to be there, nor should they be there.
Draw your ensō and smile at its beauty.
My friend and I mull over the teas
displayed in square jars
with beveled glass labeled by type.
Each name seems part of a haiku:
“After the Snow Sprouting.” “Moon Palace.”
“Mist Over the Gorges.”
I’m drawn to green teas
with unoxidized leaves that don’t wither,
hold their grassy fragrance
like willow under snow in winter.
The proprietor offers real china for the Chinese tea.
Animal bones, fine ground, give whiteness,
translucency and strength
to the porcelain that appears delicate,
The rim of the cup is warm and thin.
My friend’s lips are plush: her lovely
mouth opens to give advice I ask for.
We talk about memory of threshold events,
like a first kiss or a poem published.
She can’t remember…
I tell her about my brother-in-law’s
chemotherapy—his third bout of cancer.
He wants his family to put a pinch
of his ashes in things he liked:
his banjo, the top drawer of his desk, the garden.
I wouldn’t mind becoming part
of a set of bone china that serves tea
in a cozy teahouse smelling of incense,
cinnamon, musk, and carved teak.
I’d like to be brought to a small table,
sit between friends’ quiet words,
held in hands so close that breath
on the surface of warm drink
makes mist rise over their faces.
— This is At the Tea Garden, by Margaret Hasse. It’s quiet and beautiful, immediately reminding me of a lovely tea garden I visited in San Francisco. It was a calm place surrounded by bustle and I often enjoyed sitting by the fountain and looking out over the grass, half covered by sun, half not.
I posted this a few weeks ago, and in it, there’s a link to a longer piece of writing that contains the line you see above. Spend some time with all of it.
George Saunders spoke of something similar, and he phrased it nicely. His regrets, he said, are almost exclusively "failures of kindness" — those chances you have to show love or care, simple as they may be, yet you stand and let them pass. The note you didn’t write, the champagne you didn’t buy, the hug you didn’t give.
The beautiful Mary Oliver wrote of starting her day with the necessarily intertwined tandem of happiness and kindness. It’s an idea that Henry David Thoreau would have agreed with, which is why I put her words over the serenity of Walden Pond.
And then there’s William Wordsworth, including kindness in the very essence of how people should be remembered.
The words you see above belong to my Dad, a man devoted to kindness in every manner possible. Perhaps devoted isn’t exactly right, because that suggests a commitment or a conscious effort. When something is seamlessly a part of someone, by definition it doesn’t exist apart from them, and so it is with my Dad and his inextricable kindness.
These four make a nice group, each linking arms with the other in support of things the world will forever need more of: unobstructed love and goodness.
For how many people did you know that refracted your own light to you?…How rarely did other people’s faces take of you and throw back to you your own expression, your own innermost trembling thought?
— Fahrenheit 451 can be annoying at points and thrilling at others, with Ray Bradbury occasionally stringing together a lovely group of words. This line is part Jane Austen, part R.L. Stevenson, and part Neil Gaiman, but the question is a wonderful one: in your life, who is it that gets closest to your soul? Who gets your heart trembling? Whoever they may be, keep them close.
"The beauty of her body was the essence of her soul."
The other night I was at the top of a road that sloped downward, when one-by-one, three or four seconds after the other, nearest to farthest, each traffic light ticked from green to yellow to red. Having a logical progression to the flow of traffic is certainly a fundamental piece of any sensible city planning, but when the orchestrated transition of color happens beneath the night sky — more out of obligation than necessity on an empty road — it takes on something quite beautiful. At least, it did for me.
Beauty is one of history’s most repetitive themes: Michelangelo sought it in his sculpture, seeing it in blocks of marble and “freeing” it; Robert Browning saw it in Elizabeth Barrett’s poetry, beginning his first (of what turned out to be many) love letters by telling her; F. Scott Fitzgerald — both here and in the quote you see above — tortured himself and his characters trying to understand it; and Jimi Hendrix wanted it to define his music.
The video here is from Dove, and is part of a larger campaign to help women see their beauty as the world does. Give it a watch.
There’s a lovely concept that people most always look at clouds and describe them as white, but so few of them actually are. If you were to paint them, you’d quickly see they hold entire palettes of grays and blacks, all kinds of yellows and pinks and reds from the sun, a spectrum of blues from the sky — and as you lie on some grass in a park and look up, it is entirely plausible to point and say, that cloud is beautiful. And so is that one. And so is that one. There is no why, they are because they are. As it is with clouds, so it is with laughter and eyes — those beautiful things you find in someone else that don’t belong to any sort of suitable description. You like the way they look and sound, but there is clearly much more.
One of the most sacred roles a man can play, I think, is letting the women in his life know how truly beautiful they are. Not superficially, either. It’s the smile (and the many variations), the look of confusion, the different reactions you know you can get, the thoughts they carry with them, the things that matter to them, what makes them laugh, the things that will always get them to voice disapproval, the deepest hopes they keep inside, the worries and the doubts that may take a few days to come out, the places they want to see, the routines they have at different moments of the day — all that combines together in, as Fitzgerald said, "the essence of her soul." And it should be fiercely treasured and encouraged and protected.
There’s one more quick video to watch, also by Dove. When I see it, I smile, and I think of my two gorgeous nieces (Lilly and Hannah) and I hope. I hope that they grow into the beautiful women that their mother and aunt are, that they turn 60 as elegantly and gracefully as their grandmother did, and that one day they meet someone who hears their laugh and sees their eyes and says, quite simply, how beautiful.
It’s better to burn out than it is to rust.
— A minute or two before he gets to these lyrics, Neil Young sings them slightly differently (“It’s better to burn out than to fade away”) and also manages to toss in one of life’s most important reminders: “And once you’re gone, you can never come back.” Despite the acoustic guitar and the occasional harmonica, there’s nothing light about the opening track to Rust Never Sleeps. It’s a sentiment that pops up often — Jennifer Egan uses it in an incredible book, Tennessee Williams suggested it in a reflective piece — but that shouldn’t diminish its importance.
This is an excerpt from 4’33”, John Cage’s three-movement composition that premiered in 1952 at a small concert hall in Woodstock, New York. Unlike anything he had ever played before, David Tudor walked across the stage, sat down at the piano, opened the score (which said, in part, tacet — or “silence”), and followed it perfectly: he touched not a single key. He then left the stage.
It’s an easy thing to condemn, but in Where the Heart Beats — one of the most incredible books I have recently read — Kay Larson explores the life of Cage, as he grew from an avant-garde musician who played with sound and noise and silence, into a man deeply affected by Zen Buddhism. There is nothing gimmicky about 4’33”, in fact, as you learn about his life and his tendencies, you realize it is the ultimate expression of Cage’s music.
Silence (or, creating a space that allows many other sounds to drift in and out), the ability to sit moment-to-moment without judgment, not fighting for certainty, and not dismissing something because it defies our perceived idea of what it is supposed to be — these four things are immensely difficult. But they should be done. Why? Because:
"Though I play at the edges of knowing, truly I know our part is not knowing, but looking, and touching, and loving…"
In any case you mustn’t confuse a single failure with a final defeat.
— F. Scott Fitzgerald returns, this time with a simple thought on persistence — one very similar to the words of Gabriel García Márquez — from Tender is the Night. I must have been 16 or 17 when I read it on a night-train from Washington, D.C. to Boston, and as we rumbled northward, the Atlantic to my right, I remember feeling as though I was right there on the French Riviera with everyone else. A few summers later I was, and spent a couple of days in Antibes where a long afternoon walk had me standing outside the gates of where the book is set — the prestigious Hôtel du Cap-Eden-Roc. At first glance, none of this appears relevant to a “single failure” or a “final defeat,” but I would contest that. Because if you dream, and if you wander, and if your path looks ill-fitting when stacked next to those being laid by others, then you must keep room for a smile or a sigh when you’re otherwise tempted to feel defeat. Remember, “Each beat of the world’s pulse demands only that you feel it.” Nothing more than that — march on.
August 4, 2014 at 10:31pm
I enjoy Theodore Roethke’s poetry, and the lines you see here — resting atop a photo of a rice paddy in northern Thailand — are from The Renewal.
Lengthening sighs into something more melodic is a beautiful image, and fits nicely with two other lovely mentions of song I quite like. The first is from Rumi and the second is from Oscar Wilde. Combined with Roethke’s words here, all three touch on a similar theme: there is a musical quality to the way we live and love, the way we struggle and smile and endure, with pace and mood and rhythm eternally changing.
And if we find our own song — often by lengthening our sighs — while we keep our ears open to others, we do something else wonderfully musical: we release our best-kept secret, that drummer that beats with a heart-timed clack.
You know the name you were given, you do not know the name you have.
— José Saramago, again, with something to ponder. If he’s right — if we’re given one and we create the other — how do we go about doing it? What things become important? What are our “rules” to live by? How loudly do our hearts beat? At the end of the day, I find myself returning to this, more and more often — a sentiment echoed by Jimi Hendrix.