Monday, September 30, 2013

Roosters and Buddha: The Value of Ideas


My first retail gig was at gift store/art store: two thirds devoted to cards, trinkets, and hastily painted figurines, and one third for closely packed isles of art supplies. Being an art major, I was primarily hired for that knowledge and experience but my tasks and duties covered the entire store. I liked this job. Would I devote a life of sweat, tears (only not so much), and occasional boredom to this career? Well, no. But art supplies!

Over the years I have become less and less a knick-knacky person. I see an object. Do I have a use for it? No. Does it hold deep meaning/significance? No. Pass. I unpacked, priced, and sold objects ranging from charming, to odd, to just plain dumb. I'll never forget this one line of ceramic rooster figurines, maybe about half the size of an actual rooster. But wait, you say. Some people like collecting roosters! Call me practical to a fault, but I fail to understand the need for a rooster dressed up as a mermaid.

In retrospect, what strikes me most about the rooster mermaid/merman is our complete disassociation with where things come from and why the hell we need them. How was it made, where was it made, who made it, and why? On the personal side, why do we buy things? Why are we drawn to them? Why do we want them? Why do we need them? What's the difference?

So I have a bone to pick with the internet. It's related to my rooster mermaid but I will set that precious artifact aside for a moment. I have a bone to pick with the cultural phenomenon of inspirational quotes.

Let me put this into a specific context since these babies are not new to the cultural neighborhood. I see quotes tossed around on facebook/pinterest like a big, internet game of hot potato. Or like passing a joint. Take a hit, pass it along and bask in the glow of instant gratification. Right now, you are CULTURED. “Heeey man, you gotta try this out, man. This shit is DOPE.” (My apologies to any offended; I am not a pothead, nor do I have any experience in how to talk as one.)

I claim no exemption in Inspirational Quote Land. The procedure: I scroll through my feed. I see something: a line of text carefully composed on some photo or abstract design meant to catch the eye, evoke a feeling. The text is stylized. I read those beautiful words. I barely think for a split second and my instant reaction seals my fate. I am just so... inspired! A randomly picked verbal response worms its way to my brain: “Right on!” “Yes!” “Exactly!” “Soooo true!” “Amen!” “Love this!”

My inner emotional and mental beasts gobble these words up like candy. I can't help but give into the strong desire to share this glorious truth, this gospel, with everyone I know. These words alone represent what I think, what I feel, how I want to change my life, though I haven't really pondered why or how. Thus, I click the “share” button, passing on the life-changing wisdom with my one word reaction. All of this happens in a matter of seconds. Moments later, I've completely forgotten about it.

What does this have to do with rooster mermaids? Allow me to brush the dust off my art degree and introduce a couple friends of mine: Kitsch and conceptual art.

What is important?

Those of you familiar with “kitsch” may understand the term in its broader context and how it has been used since the word first came into use (including the “KitschMovement,” which aims to liberate the term from irony or disdain). I moseyed over to wikipedia for a basic explanation of kitsch because I'm lazy, but hey, it serves a purpose:

Kitsch “is a low-brow style of mass-produced art or design using popular or cultural icons. The term is generally reserved for unsubstantial or gaudy works or decoration, or works that are calculated to have popular appeal. The concept of kitsch is applied to artwork that was a response to the 19th-century art with aesthetics that convey exaggerated sentimentality and melodrama, hence, kitsch art is closely associated with sentimental art.”

“According to Walter Benjamin, kitsch is, unlike art, a utilitarian object lacking all critical distance between object and observer; it 'offers instantaneous emotional gratification without intellectual effort, without the requirement of distance, without sublimation.'”

I find “it offers instantaneous emotional gratification without intellectual effort” an interesting statement. Is sentimentality the bane of our existence? Well, you can decide. I do think there are themes and stories woven into our cultures and/or souls which evoke strong emotions within us, and those have value. We read/see/hear things that inspire us unexpectedly or move us. I get that. That surprise, excitement, passion is invigorating. It's a spark. It's a light. But what happens to a moth with a low bullshit meter?

I will defend liberal arts majors 'til the day I die. Why? Because art theory and history (along with any other field that examines metaphor, history, and meaning/value) teach us to investigate the intention/context in which something was made AND understand our reaction and response to ideas/art/thoughts/beliefs we consume.

Enter conceptual art. Some works of art sell for millions of dollars, and yet their aesthetic value seems... bizarre, such as Fountain, attributed to Marcel Duchamp. It's a urinal, on it's back, with a name scribbled on it and this piece changed the art world as we know it. And anyone who has taken an art class ever is rolling their eyes at me for using this obvious, over-used example, but damnit, I'm using it anyway!  Why do I find this so interesting? Not necessarily the piece itself, but the reactions people had/have towards it.

Conceptual art and kitsch point out something important: when we consume (see or purchase) art, we're not just consuming the aesthetic value or craftsmanship. We're consuming an idea, a moment of significance in time. Ironic or sincere, authentic or pretentious, it's context. It's history. Let me spell this out clearly: WE put a value on ideas. WE say “this is important, this is not.” WE say “this is worth my time and emotional and mental commitment.”

Here's my issue: do we cheapen ourselves by how we engage in and consume ideas?

Meaning and Value

My primary problem with inspirational quotes is the same problem I have with the rooster mermaid: we disassociate ourselves from where things come from and rarely pursue why things are important. In doing so, we strip away meaning and value.

I look at a piece of art: what do I feel? Then, how does this painting impact me, the viewer, based on my perception, history, spirit, and personal investment? What was the spirit/intention in which the painting was created? Or, in simpler terms: what was/is the intention, significance, and experience?

Inspirational quotes can be extracted from poetry (lookin' at you, Rumi), historical scriptures/texts (lookin' at you, Buddha/Jesus), speeches (hey there Dr. Martin Luther King Jr!), and literature (William Shakespeare, Paulo Coelho, and Maya Angelou walk into a bar...). All of these sources, just like visual art, have context. Take a phrase out of context and we take away part of its meaning, or even completely miss the point.

What about the personal meaning/significance we project onto a quote or story? Sure, we respond instinctively to experiences. But posting a quote and saying “Yes!!!” means almost nothing. Yes, we have an experience and we have an emotional response. Both of those are important and very, very valuable. Sometimes that's enough. But there's no dialogue here. This is bumper sticker philosophy; it's gonna excite one person and piss off the other. Why did those words impact you? What did you feel when you read them, why do you respond to them, what in your history or situation or life philosophy sparked the connection? “I see the world differently now!” “This inspires me to change my life!” Or my favorite: “This affirms my belief set that is already in place!” That's great. What next?

Why do we believe/think/feel/see things the way we do? What do objects, what do ideas, what do words mean to you? Understanding these questions within ourselves begins a dialogue; when we meet other people with different ideas, experiences and beliefs, we arrive pre-equipped with tools to converse, challenge, and explore perceptions well outside our own.

So I observe inspirational quotes being used as a form of spiritual or philosophical kitsch. They're mass produced, shared, they're popular, and they inspire us for a grand total of five seconds. Fast food for the soul, baby. Quick, cheap, and delicious.

We LIKE this stuff. Human beings are seriously sentimental fuckers. We like mass-produced, we like popular, we LOVE instant emotional gratification, and we're fine with this. We enjoy a scoop of ice cream and “yummy” is a perfectly acceptable summary of our experience. I sold rooster figurines to people who happily purchased them. We pass around inspirational quotes for a nickle a piece, we gather them up like M&Ms.

And that's okay.

If we are genuinely okay with the value of what we buy into.

Know Your Source

There is one more point I'd like to bring up: everything on the internet is true.

Did you laugh? I hope you laughed.

When we read/post a quote that gives credit to the author, do we asked ourselves these two questions? 1) Do I really know what it means (ie it's context) and 2) Am I sure this person actually said it?

Ah, yes, the glorious world of misquoting and fake quotes. Buddha seems to be an internet favorite; do these look familiar? 

“The mind is everything. What you think you become.”
“Each morning we are born again. What we do today is what matters most.”
One of my favorites: “In the end, only three things matter: How much you loved, how gently you lived, and how gracefully you let go of things not meant for you.”

You may notice from the links (this is one of the reasons I love the site) that misquoting something doesn't necessarily devalue the quote we love so much. The true source may not be what you thought, but clearly those words have meaning to you and to many others.

What is the source, if known?
Am I aware of the cultural value and context?
How engaged will I choose to be?
What does it mean? What does it mean to me?
What do I feel? Why?

Not all these questions require dissertation length explanations. Basic awareness or inquiry counts, too.

In Summary: How will we engage in ideas and emotions?

I realize that obsessing about inspirational quotes this much is rather silly. Quotes are snippets, they're sparks, they're inspirations. Why you gotta be so SERIOUS about it? But if a spark fizzles out, what was the point? If that's all we use to communicate our thoughts and feelings, how valuable are those commodities?

In the end, what you think is bullshit and what you think is valuable is up to you. How deeply you explore why things are meaningful is up to you. Yes, it's harder to get through a piece of literature, go to the source, or look into the background/history/context of something. Yes, it takes a couple seconds to verify who actually said something or what their meaning was. But I think it does a huge disservice to those who gave me the gems of wisdom to NOT go that extra step. To NOT engage and go beyond the popular, easy, quick, “shareable” content.

If a quote triggers something inside of you, that's great. Can you challenge it? Can you feel it? Do you want to know more? Perhaps most importantly, will you create something of your own? Understanding how and why words and art impact us is crucial if we ever want to successfully create stories and paintings, speeches and songs.  

I'll leave you with some excerpts (quote!) from one of my favorite blogs on how we consume art (and I highly recommend the whole essay, even if it is hard to read in all caps):



Monday, September 23, 2013

Home and Belonging

If you suddenly didn't have a home, what would you miss about it?

I experienced an intense moment of melancholy and loneliness on my birthday last Friday; in the middle of the day, between leaving one friend's house and meeting another friend later in the afternoon, I had nowhere to “go” or “be.” The attachment I have with this startled me. Why is this so important? What's the meaning and importance of having a safe place to sleep or go “home” to. What does that really symbolize?

Lately I've been spending a lot of time hanging out at libraries, coffee shops, and parks. A lot of time. Depending on what I'm working on, job hunting, networking, art, etc, I end up setting up shop at different locations in between finding places to stay at night. Although this process, in the scheme of things, hasn't occurred for that long, I still feel increasingly weary. When our basic needs are uncertain, daily, exercising creativity and long term thinking/planning is... challenging.

I do recognize, even now, that I come from and exist in a position of incredible privilege. While I experience my own fair share of challenges, I could be in a much, much worse off position. I'm grateful that despite essentially being homeless right now, I am not starving, I've been able to find a place to stay every night, I have a very caring community at my back, and I have a lot of skill and abilities to offer.

Yet daily we meet our values; what they look like, how we judge our circumstances and make our choices. The “I do this” or “this is important to me” statements aren't always coupled with the “why” questions. I think they should be, even to simply understand ourselves.

As I began brainstorming why having “home space” was so important to me, several ideas eventually came to mind: having the choice to retreat to shelter as needed, isolation/safe place to recharge (introversion), somewhere I don't have to wear a bra (I am not a woman who can comfortably get away without one), knowing where things are, familiarity, smells (smells like home/me), in “my” space vs “other peoples'” space (being a guest vs being at home), the favor of others opening their home to me, infringing on other spaces, permanence, security, possession, the importance of mess and order.

The last one made me laugh a bit, but I think it's extremely valid. We get used to a certain kind of mess or order. The way we wash our dishes (or the frequency), where we leave our things. This actually, I think, goes hand in hand with the “knowing where things are” and familiarity. Tossing mail on the kitchen counter for a day or two versus going through it immediately versus letting it stack up over time. Obviously different behaviors are more or less... constructive, shall we say, but each one of us has grown up and even created our own “natural” ways of inhabiting an environment we're comfortable with. When we share space with someone, like having an apartment with roommates, or moving in with a significant other, we have to deal with someone else's living habits. This isn't anything new.

Engaging in those habits helps creates home. Really this is all about “belonging.” I can stay with a friend, but I don't belong there long term. This is the “I know where I am and how to act within this space. I know the boundaries and know my place within them” idea. You know one of the major things I miss having space for? Cooking. I can make meals here and there at the places I stay but certain food stuffs require more time and space. I saw some video of someone making homemade chocolate candies and I thought, “Oh man. I want to do that.”

I swear it isn't all about chocolate.

So what does “home” mean, evoke, symbolize? What does “belonging” mean? These are external centering points; that “home” feeling we experience when we are, well, home, is a type of groundedness. We relax into ourselves, not battling against a whole list of expectations and images of what we “should” be. If I had to sum up what home means to me, that would be it. A place where I can be without the pressures, internally or externally imposed, of what I “should” or “shouldn't” be.

Ironically, how often does a home not offer that? Yeah, in many ways, I feel very grateful and privileged. Home, safe space, place to belong; not all kids have that growing up.

The trick is this; can we, can I, find home internally?

Well, yes. That is a practice well worth attention, one that is incredibly beautiful and important, and one I have had to rely on a lot lately. Not always successfully, but I come back to it. I find home in people, too, as I've said before, but we can never put all our home into one or two people. The pressure to live up to that is exhausting.

So perhaps we have many homes, of varying importance for different reasons. Home in ourselves, we always take this with us. This allows me to be comfortable, to an extent, in many different environments, to have confidence in myself, to find power in myself. Then we find homes in people, our family, friends, partners, lovers, coworkers, communities. Then we have the physical representation, a symbol, really, of home. That place, or places we use as the primary hub, home base. Beyond that, maybe a city, a state, a country. Home radiates out from our skin in waves, reflecting what we most identify with and where we can most safely express ourselves.

And make chocolate. You know, priorities!  

Monday, September 16, 2013

Creating Space in Practice

I will fight for you but I will not chase you,
I will love you but I won't read your mind.
I want you to have room to love me on your terms
because you do it well and fully.
I want you to have room to receive the love I offer
because I know the difference when you touch me.
I want to be a safe haven for you but not the only one.
Likewise I will keep a precious space for me alone
and advocate for you to have your own.
I will give you more physical space
so I may have more emotional space in your life.
I wish you loose lips and the freedom
to tell me what you need and to kiss me.
I strive for continued loving communication with you
so we both might be crusaders for our dreams
protectors, challengers, teachers and partners
however we choose to define and live those terms.

The last handful of days have offered beautiful reminders of space and expansion. And where to find support I need. Goddamn, can't forget that one.

Sometimes the rug gets yanked out from under us but other times we're the ones who do the yanking. Space and compassion in the name of non-neediness, freedom, and trust. In all my decisions thus far, I'm surprised by the ease I feel, the groundedness. The clarity. There it is, the clarity.

There's a lesson I don't want to forget: uncertainty does not mean lack of clarity. Just as certainty does not equal clarity.

I have been the person who grips things and people too tightly, opting to fill time and space in hopes of feeling and gaining... something. If quality is suffering, my solution has been to sweep in quantity as quickly as possible. I'm that way with food, with intimacy. Those go hand in hand for those of us who struggle with eating disorders.

But I made a choice this time, a different choice, and I'm still reeling. The terror is there, the fear, the grasping for control. I see all this and accept it the best I can when those voices are loudest in their wailing. There is space, there is room, I hear you. I hear you, I hear you, I honor your voices. But there, too, is the clarity, the gratitude, and my surprise. My surprise that I am aware enough to have made that choice for a positive benefit. Loving benefit. My surprise that old patterns of co-dependency and neediness met a break in the road. One day at a time, one decision at a time. Changes happen in seconds and in breaths, and patterns build over thousands of breaths. Awareness in practice, not just in theory.

Holy shit.

“Letting go,” as the practice of loosening a vice-like grip, allows us to breathe again, to fill our lungs with something life-giving. Now, the implications of this have sent me into other states of panic as I continue trying to find work and places to sleep (and shower). But that's the other funny thing about loosening a grip. I allow access to deeper intimacy, to deeper vulnerability, other connections and greater support.

I'm never as alone as I think I am. Sometimes I like being alone. In fact, most times I crave it. But when I peer out of the cave, I may be surprised by how many friendly faces greet me.  

Sunday, September 8, 2013

The Wolf and the Spider

So where have I been?

I imagine that's a question a few have asked, and I apologize for leaving you in the dark. After my road trip ended (it was a short one, even when I planned it due to logistics and finances) I was still feeling... emotionally turbulent? My giddiness was proper giddy like ice cream dripping down a child's arm. My frustrations were dark ocean currents gliding just deep enough under the surface to rip even the most well-balanced person off her feet.

I'm still riding those ups and downs. Some days I wake up with a deep aching in my belly (not related to the menstrual cramps, though that adds a thrilling dimension to the spasms in my gut and pelvis). My head and thought-feelings feel vague and far away like a lost drum beat echoing in some far off canyon. Other mornings my eyes open already set in determination as their vision reaches far beyond the bed I'm sleeping in and the current layer of skin that protects me from losing all my livelihood. Evenings range between bittersweet melancholy that grips my bones and viciously shakes them, to playful laughter and joy peeling from lips raw from truth-telling and truth-seeking.

The search to open, understand, and find the right degree of certainty and grounding is exhausting, yet oddly peaceful in moments. I find myself searching for my answers in the faces of others but inevitably hear the wounded wolf in my soul whimpering and howling for attention and intention.

I hear you, dear beast. I've had to content myself in finding sacredness in not knowing much of anything right now, especially not knowing the future months or days. One day at a time is all I can manage and a quiet part of my heart assures me that this is enough for now.

So where am I? I'm perched on a rickety dock looking out on a wide expanse. The surface hardens and swells like ice and boiling water sliding on top of the other over and over. Underneath these layers are ideas and hazy ghosts not yet completely formed. I've shifted to finding a place to settle for the next year or two, finding means to support myself enough and find some goddamn simplicity. I've a much better sense now of what I need and what my soul craves. The wolf that wants to wander, sniff, and explore, both in solitude and with beloved companions and the spider that searches daily for space to weave stories, create, and express with sweet relish and focused drive.

Expect another post from me this week, to make up for the hiatus. After that I'll return to my Tuesday morning posts. Much love, and much gratitude for this life and for the chance to just feel vividly and unashamedly.