The kind that toddlers have when they’ve had too much cake and present opening at their 3rd birthday party and it’s way past their bedtime.
The kind that comes when a person, of any age, HAS JUST HAD ENOUGH.
For the most part everything seems normal. And for the most part it is, if you accept the current conditions as normal. People get up and go to work at jobs they hate, shop at the mall for things they don’t need, attend parent teacher meetings to find out why their 7th grader still can’t do long division, eat food that is food in name only, gear themselves up to vote for a new team “who’s really going to make a difference this time,” and generally go about their business. I see plenty of smiling faces, or at least neutral ones. Things still appear to work, at least on the surface.
But the tension is there, one accidental cart bump in the grocery aisle away.
The friction caused by the weight of our modern civilization is slowly grinding everyone down to dust and the protective layer that lubricates human function and interaction is wearing whisper thin. The pressure of the omnipresent and increasingly omniscient systems that comprise our modern existence is building to intolerable levels. People are starting to pop.
This is happening not just in the news, but all over on a smaller, more personal basis.
People of all ages are responding to this pressure in the form of depression, anxiety, addiction, rage and other damaging and self-limiting behaviors.
People look to experts for explanations and remedies. Doctors, therapists and psychologists are never at a loss for theories as to why people are cracking under the strain, always at the ready with more new diagnoses and interventions to treat them. The goal being to bring people back to their “normal” productive selves so they can get back to fulfilling their function in society. The official story is repeated and repeated until it becomes an article of faith: “It’s you and your brain chemistry that are the problem, not the intolerable situation you are unable to function within.”
On the surface, these explanations might sound reasonable. But when you strip away all the jargon and PR, the answers – although they may seem to respond to the situation – do not actually address the real question people are asking:
“Am I really fulfilling my own desires and living my own life, or am I merely slotting into a preset role that doesn’t serve me and worse, benefits someone else at my expense?”
And of course the question hidden beneath that, the one that crawls up the back of the throat while lying awake in the dark at 4am:
“Is this really all there is?”
To distract themselves from the blind terror of uncertainty inherent in the question, people cling all the tighter to their reality. Putting more and more effort into trying to live the good life, which is, and always has been, a marketing slogan. Desperately trying to eke out one more dopamine hit of satisfaction from a tattered and shop worn concept…an empty package of ideas and images that we’re told is the sign of a life well lived.
At a certain point, which comes at a different time for everyone, it ultimately begins to feel like going through the motions. A self-defeating proposition that keeps people trapped in a repeating cycle of chasing fulfillment outside of themselves. Making them less and less happy, increasingly passive and discouraged, and more and more accepting of whatever scraps of momentary distraction and pleasure get thrown their way.
Despite the increasing constraint and the lurking sense that the whole thing is some sick practical joke, people just keep doing what they’ve been doing, trying harder to keep going under the weight of the way things are.
The only solutions ever promoted are about finding ways to repair the system, changing it around the edges, working within it to make it slightly less egregious, or adding yet another system on top of the already teetering pile. Wasted effort on top of wasted time on top of wasted energy.
If we continue to look to the system that created the problem for answers, the only answers presented will be those that benefit the system, and therefore we should not be surprised as everything continues to become less tolerable and more insane.
Which brings us to the question that nobody really wants to ask, which is:
What if the real issue is that the entire overarching structure of our society and culture as it’s currently composed is COMPLETELY UNSUITABLE FOR HUMAN BEINGS?
How many people put serious thought into that one?
Sure, everybody complains about the way things are all the time. But if you suggest to the average person that they could just leap off the treadmill into something different, something they create for themselves that gives them pleasure and satisfaction far beyond the Skinner box version of happiness sold by our money and status obsessed culture, they can’t seem to imagine what that could be. They can, however, come up with 80 million reasons why it’s impossible.
It’s so much easier to stay the course, to accept the standard answers. To have faith that there are caring people working on it who have our best interest at heart. It prevents the need to question whether your whole existence is built on a lie.
Stepping back and looking with a clear eye at the entire superstructure as it stands right now, it becomes brutally apparent that at every level of civilization there is a despicable and monumental waste of productive human capacity and resources that makes absolutely no freaking sense whatsoever. That the primary purpose of these systems is to grow, propagate and expand their reach despite the toll taken on people and planet. And that vast swathes of these systems exist solely in order to solve problems created by the systems themselves.
When viewed from this perspective, there is the dawning sense that the whole mess is held together by chewing gum, bent paper clips, and the fact that everybody thinks it’s just the way things are and can’t imagine it being any other way.
Because if they could, things would start to change.
Of course, a large number of people have their pet aspects of the system that they like and want, that they think they need, that they think they couldn’t live without. This is the real reason why nothing ever really changes. Too many people are willing to settle.
Still, it’s pretty hard to deny that we’re at the point of diminishing returns. Everybody knows it, smells it, probably talks to their friends about it, but when it comes time to do something about it for themselves, they turn on the news or facebook and roll around in outrage to burn off the negative energy and then allow themselves to be sung back to sleep.
After all, somebody smarter and more powerful than we are laid down the rules, right? And it’s our role to play by them. What else can we do?
Here’s a radical suggestion. Redefine your role, shed the mental clutter, divorce yourself from the machine.
You don’t need to destroy it, just mentally walk away from it. Withdraw your energy from it. Create something new. Something that genuinely matters to you. Something that isn’t dependent on the system. Something that works around it.
Something that goes far beyond the way things are.
Yes, the nonsense will continue. But the farther you step outside the system, the more immune you will become to the pressure.
Because you will finally be living your own life and creating your own game, instead of just playing a game that you didn’t design and can’t possibly win.
And you will find that you can do quite well without it.
Will this solve the world’s problems?
No, not overnight anyway. But the more individuals who choose to extricate themselves from the system by inventing new lives for themselves, the more power will drain away from the system itself. Until the whole deal shrivels up and blows away like other discredited ideas that we wonder how anyone ever believed in.
Creating a better world is a choice made by the individual, and it’s made one individual at a time. That is, and always will be, the only way anything ever changes.
Blistering avalanche out of the cave of nowhere
Flies sliding skyward eating gravity
Black blooded anvils pound righteous fists against the tyranny of time
Water wets itself
Air inhales itself
Fire immolates itself
Drinking the soft spun shimmering of the million color midnight sky
Razing the scarred battlements of hard ridden horses
Driving the spike in the eye of the unimaginable
The armor peels away like the skin of a grape
The flesh pressed to release the nectar of eternity
Inhaling nitrous spitting magma, I build up speed and careen dastardly over the bleeding edge.
Opulence arrives bearing gifts of deity
Moonbeam yellow wanders elliptical
Airborne at last I languidly devour the sky.
When I fly, I always opt out of the scanner.
I realize that the opt out process is intentionally designed to be egregious and invasive and humiliating in order to herd everyone through the scanner.
Which is why I go with the pat down.
But this isn’t a piece about the dangers of millimeter waves; research them yourself and come to your own conclusion.
I’m not even interested in analyzing or discussing the reasons for or against the national security apparatus. I don’t accept the premise so I have nothing to say within that paradigm.
What I’m interested in are the stories people tell themselves surrounding the issue.
What kind of story a person tells themselves to buy the idea that submitting to the security process is an annoying but valid trade-off, the only way to keep America safe.
And what kind of story a person would have to tell themselves to get up and go to work at a job where their function is to violate people on a daily basis.
If you’re feeling defensive about either of these statements, it might help to examine more closely the story that’s floating around inside your own head.
I flew recently. When I got up to the checkpoint, I announced I was opting out as usual.
When the female agent arrived, she asked if I wanted a private room. I always say no. I want people to see that at least someone is willing to step out of line. I want to remind people what the scanner is about, to remind them that what they’re submitting to is a strip search. A modern, streamlined version, but a strip search all the same.
People have already forgotten that. It’s so much faster and easier to not think about it. Step in the box and assume the position.
I’m well aware that people have lost that connection, which is why they look at me like I’m crazy. But I don’t care. Who knows, maybe someone out there will see what I’m doing and get a clue.
Either way, it makes what’s going on here more stark. More clear what this is really about. It breaks the smooth chain of the illusion, even if no one but me notices.
The agent was pleasant, extremely professional. It’s all about professionalism. “Yes, we’re going to treat you like a convicted criminal and assume that you are a terrorist with evil intent because you want to visit Grandma in Cleveland or attend a business meeting in Denver. But we’re doing it all very professionally so it’s really no big deal. Just submit and you’ll be on your way.”
She spooled out the script, explained exactly how she was going to touch me in clinical detail beforehand and then performed the pat down like a machine on autopilot. Thoroughly. Efficiently. Mechanically.
When she was finished, she said “I just have to test my gloves and you’re good to go.” While we waited for the results to come back she smiled and asked where I was headed. Her face abruptly turned to stone. The glove had spoken: it set off an alarm. Immediately another agent was called and I was informed I would have my belongings hand-searched and wiped down for explosives, and be subjected to a second, more invasive pat down.
The instant the glove triggered the alarm, I was no longer a friendly traveler. I was now someone who had caused a glove to trigger an alarm.
It wasn’t that the agent suddenly saw me as a threat; she knew I was not a threat. It was only about clearing the alarm. She kept repeating that. “We just need to clear the alarm.”
I was reminded of something I had once seen as a very young child on a road trip with my parents. We had stopped at a small town diner, and outside the door was a vending machine that housed a chicken. When you dropped in your quarter, tinny music began to play and the chicken started to dance. When the music stopped, a handful of corn came down a chute and dropped into a little basket. This was supposed to be funny, but all I felt was sick and sad for the chicken. As I watched the agent go through the motions of wiping down the items in my carry on, swabbing my shoes, my ipod, my hair dryer, I felt this same emotion. I saw that she was trapped, performing a function not because it made any logical sense, but because she had inserted a rubber glove into a slot and it had initiated the program.
Music comes on, chicken begins to dance.
Despite the trappings of authority, the reality was that she was completely powerless in her job. There was no room for personal discretion. No room for her to use her own judgment. No room for common sense.
No room for her at all. Just a well-rehearsed and fully-assimilated training program that responded to the sound of a buzzer. Going through a round of pointless motion to collect the corn at the end of the shift.
I was taken into a room to be physically searched. The enhanced pat down was basically the same as the first time, except the agent used her palm instead of the back of her hand on “sensitive areas” along with the additional step of searching the spaces between my toes…for what I don’t know.
Once my toes had been cleared of harboring a nuclear device, it was finished. She said I could go.
I looked the agent directly in the eyes and said in a very calm but direct voice, “I feel extremely violated.” I watched a steel wall drop behind the agent’s eyes, slamming down to protect the story she clings to in order to make this all seem okay.
This is not a piece railing against TSA agents. I feel for them. Rather, this is a piece railing against the kind of thinking that allows a human being to accept the unacceptable.
At every level throughout the endless interlocking array of systems that make up this modern world, individual intelligence, rationality, discernment and intuition are being replaced by Zero Tolerance, procedure, policy and pre-determined scripted response.
Looking into those eyes, so removed from their humanity, I got the sense that if in order to clear the alarm the traveler would need to be hit with a stick, I would have been hit with a stick. Performed with the utmost in professionalism.
Later I asked another agent if they get a lot of false alarms. She said “Yes, all the time. It could be perfume, or cleaning products, or if you work with chemicals or on a farm.” I asked if she’s ever had one turn up anything legitimate. She laughed.
As I put on my shoes and repacked my bag, I watched as a 13 or 14 year-old girl with severe Down’s Syndrome was wheeled in next to me to receive her own thorough pat down. Not sure if it was because the wheelchair couldn’t go through the scanner or whether she had been randomly selected for additional scrutiny.
As I walked past her to get to my gate, I saw her mother supporting her head while the agent ran her fingers through the girl’s short, thin hair, searching for a bomb.
Made my stomach turn. But at least we can all rest easy. Because the world is now a much safer place.
Sweeping my trajectory Westward I soared incandescently across broken glass cities and fields billowing with lipsticked petals and glittering redrock roads, biding my time reading pages written by artists the likes of whom I desire to become.
Spinning thin streams of idolatry into sturdy blankets heavy with purpose,
I suckled beneath the weight in warm bathing pools of clarified light.
There the sun rose along with my heart, lifted up pale yellow and cerise behind cuniform clouds dazzling mica flecked white, flayed ragged and open with ineffable and ecstatic pressure.
Time the spoiled dictator over misaligned emotion collapses stepwise, diminishing. Relinquishing control with every murmuring beat.
Drawing near the mirrored image stretches looming large, stepping through silvered glassine to greet me. Face carved from a mountain. Eyes like exclamation points, opening wide to let out some of their magic. Slight perceptions magnified to infinite emergence; moonlight good.
The connection of a trillion lifetimes compressed transparent into the here and now; I feel it breathing warm on the nape of my neck, see its shadow despite its apparent invisibility.
Spinal cords entwine. The pinhole shudders. The heart swells, curved shoulders trying to contain it. Ribcage flaring, opening to the feeling, feeding it honey and breast milk and planetary scoops of gratitude.
Wrap it in amber and tuck it away on a high shelf. Nothing to be done about it anyway.
There is a shape, is it a house? Set against a field of scraped opal, framed in dark wood. A small box askew in the canyon, a broken rectangle dashed with jagged lines of gray and purple. Pale green ground, or is it sky? Strange trees climb the hills with muscular legs and bent backs. There you will find me, in the curve of a table leg, sitting smoking on a rock, floating in a cloudy jar of turpentine, melting into the sunset, between the cushions of the sofa, in the uneven red shape in the lower right hand corner flowing downhill and washing up on the side of the road after long awaited rain. There and there and there you will find me, breathing, blossoming for your confirmation in the fullness of time outside of time. Pressed flowers made whole, budding and budding and budding moist fluorescence into paper dry air.
Later I will come to you as a panther, stepping silent on small padded feet through a wall of green green leaves. I will come up to where you are sleeping to lick your hand and feel your fingers running through my fur.
Calling all sublimated poets
Calling all emptied vessels
Calling all impaled diviners
Calling all unsung imaginers
Calling all discouraged investigators
Calling all stifled adventurers
Calling all unheard agitators
Calling all clandestine warriors
Excavate the subterranean talents
Escape from bottomless never
Climb the mountains of your own making
to fill the space within that longs to be filled with new spaces
Eat the apple of your desire
Walking away from yesterday
Step lightly into infinity
Shy sat in the bathtub, wearing cutoff shorts and a child’s white tank top.
The tap had been dry for days. Water had to be hauled in the flat red heat in the round red Coleman cooler from the public drinking fountain where a trickle still flowed from a spring; a hot heavy walk to the abandoned scrub-covered excuse for a trailer park three miles away. None for bathing, only for drinking, and metered out like medicine by the dropperful at that.
The coolest place in the three-room shotgun shack was the chipped porcelain tub, and there crouched Shy, hunched over as Zef let loose a stream of syllables, a river of silver mist, soundwaves flowing cool through thick ionized air. The icy words poured across her fine-boned back, thin shirt revealing sharp shoulder blades and spine feathered with delicate ribs fanning out like absorbed wings.
“… hoarfrost diamonds dripping skyward sprung from sweet sung estuaries of antediluvian ice shining white fire the invisible incandescence of frozen light; rime fingered memories of snowflakes embalmed to permafrost pressurized glacial, endless eternities shivering bare…”
Zef’s words reached out to blow cool against the back of the arm, the crook of the elbow, the hollow at the nape of the neck. Gooseflesh prickled, elevating moongold hairs as fine as spun glass.
“You missed a spot.” Shy pointed to a spot on her cheek just above her lip and a quarter of an inch to the left. But Zef was silent again.
Shy stepped smoothly out from the basin, moved like a cat, a lynx, slinking soundless on small padded feet.
“Spell me to sleep with a frozen waterfall, baby.”
The only response was his breathing and the space between his breathing. Shy pressed her face against the moist spot between Zef’s shoulders, inhaling him so deeply that for a moment he disappeared.
Morning sun, hotter than high noon, pushed back the gloom around the bed of two mattresses stacked on milk crates, mismatched sheets, one pale blue paisley, one dotted with faded flowers the color of melted Dreamsicles.
Zef stood outlined in the doorway, Shy pulling herself up to sitting in the bed. All the wells were dry. Every bottle of water in every gas station, vending machine, party store and supermarket had been bought, pilfered, and drunk up within days. The townies, the smart ones anyway who had a car or a friend with a car, had spread onto the highway. The rest had hitched it, swimming away through the waves of heat off the asphalt to stay with relatives where the water still ran, overflowing tumblers sloshing with an endless phosphorescent blue ocean, cubes of ice clinking together like seaglass.
Shy swung the fat red Coleman, swishing the liquid back and forth, feeling for the water level. Zef looked at her darkly. The spring that fed the water fountain had run dry.
“You’d call it half empty, but I say it’s half full and you know I’m always right.”
Shy looked out the window at the million colors of the night sky. “We could walk, take to the road tomorrow after dark when it’s clean and cool, get with a trucker, make it to Boise.”
Zef sat at the table, granite wall impenetrable, wordless.
“Spell me something cool and wet, baby.”
Shy sat on the floor, arms cradling shine skinned knees, rocking slightly, silence pounding against the walls.
Zef appeared through the doorway like a liquid shadow spilling across the floor, hand outstretched, holding the grinning face of a polar bear peeling away at the edges from a white plastic cup. The red Coleman had given its last offering.
Shy breathed in the molecules as they evaporated into air as dry and static as Styrofoam. Her hand moved languidly, sweat sheened, salted. “We’ll share it.”
As the tips of her fingers touched the cup, a comet collided with a star and a dog was hit by a minivan and the millionth shopper walked through the doors of a hardware store in Mount Pleasant. At that precise moment, the hand holding the cup released and the hand receiving trembled and the polar bear began cartwheeling smiling sideways.
Shy closed her eyes so as not to see the desolation.
As the water tumbled from the cup, a whisper barely audible fell from Zef’s lips and reverberated through the cosmos, caressing and awakening the dark energy of the emptiness, echoing out and returning to land softly on Shy’s cheek just above her lip and a quarter of an inch to the left.
Cornflower eyes rimmed with golden lashes blinked wide, shining, as rivulets of ice hit the floor shattering electric.
There is the feeling of something pending.
At the edges, shadows of colors slip past, just out of focus. Bright like candy, tantalizing, beyond reach.
You inhale the scent of waterfalls and snowflakes. Electric ozone, ions crackling in the ether.
Through a clearing in the mist, you see a form beginning to take shape. Black shiny slick shards reflecting puddles of light like vinyl coated with glycerine; jagged pieces of something broken coming together like puzzle pieces. The shape grows as it assembles itself into being…extending back into space, jutting out in all directions, folding in on itself. Sharp edges, impossible angles.
Oddly, the shape gives the impression of being larger on the interior than appears possible from outside. You ponder the incongruity as it begins to slowly rotate, revealing unpredicted dimensions with every turn. A single object with an infinity of forms.
You stare hypnotized by the shifting outline of the rotating shape until you lose the sense of the rotation and it simply appears to be undulating in place.
All at once the object shatters. The pieces fly apart, morph and change. Now red, lusterless, dense as wrought iron. The edges come back together seamlessly, but the form is entirely different. Amorphic and flowing. Plumes and geysers of dull red material reaching out, circling, and then collapsing back down into the surface.
You begin to notice strange fibers, growing thicker, emanating from somewhere inside the object or inside yourself or both. Perspective is not functioning as expected; you realize you are seeing from more than one vantage point.
The strands split into fine filaments all around you, pulsating with color and light. Fascinated, you watch as they recombine to create new colors and then separate out again. You sense that each thread holds a part of a message. Individually they say nothing, but together they form a cypher that explains everything, conveyed through a feeling impossible to describe.
You turn around to find that the scene has shifted. Transparent entities connect and merge like geodesic soap bubbles, layering to produce intricate structures. Everchanging moirés of subtle color flow and shift across the surface. You are passing through them, cobweb fingers brushing your skin…new and unfamiliar sensations entering and blending as you expand farther and farther through a space that has no end.
You begin to feel that you could go on like this forever. Before the thought has a chance to register, the space shrinks down into a single point, blinking out like an exhausted star.
You wake feeling on the edge of possibility. Stretching, arms spread wide, squeezing the sleep from your veins. It’s going to be an interesting day.
Exploring the unknown, the undiscovered, the unrepressed.
Exposing the imagery of the mind, the visions that do not have a place in this world.
Expanding the physical space of this reality into the infinitely larger space of imagination.
Divining the soul.
Saturating the canvas with feelings and sensations. Or covering it with nothing but shape and line and color and letting the feelings and sensations create themselves.
Not being afraid to break the rules. Not being afraid to break your own rules.
Seeing what can be made without judgment, restriction or comparisons.
Shaking off the crushing pressure to create for others instead of for one’s self.
Stretching the definitions of what is pleasing, attractive and appealing. Making room for the ugly, the awkward, the uncomposed and the wrong, and then finding something powerful and beautiful within it.
A process of endless experimentation.
Painting in whatever way and at whatever level of skill you are capable of at this moment without the expectation that you should be any better than you are, yet trusting that you are indeed making progress.
The freedom to love what you create.
The freedom to see what you see, and let others see what they see.
The freedom to be you. No matter what anyone else thinks about that.
It’s about expressing the power of the self.
…This is what painting has shown me. This is what I’m shooting for.
This is why I paint the way I do.
Today is a good day. I hope it is for you as well.
Yesterday, however, was a 24-hour uncertainty fest. One of those days where I feel myself starting to slip.
Up until not too long ago, this kind of thing was a stamped ticket to the land of self-recrimination. It used to be one of my favorite destinations. An amusement park of sorts.
Last night I think I finally tore up the ticket.
Recently, I wanted someone to do something. I didn’t want to ask for it, I just wanted them to decide to do it.
I began to form an expectation around it. I NEEDED it to happen.
It was a simple act, no big deal really, but on the deepest level, something inside me was clinging to it as a matter of life or death. I saw it as a kind of validation. I was becoming dependent on it.
I tried to put it out of my mind, but it kept popping up.
I cycled through hope: Will they do it today? Frustration: Why haven’t they done it? Disappointment: I was sure they would do it after I did that. And finally a feeling of rejection: They are never going to do it at all.
I developed all kinds of theories about what this all meant. And those meanings kept me trapped in a self-defeating feedback loop.
Turns out it wasn’t so much the specific action I wanted, it was the emotional significance I had attached to it that I desired so desperately.
I was allowing an outside event to be the determining factor for how I felt about myself.
I’m convinced that how you feel is all about how you choose to look at things. That’s nothing new, you hear it all the time from well-meaning friends who are trying to give advice. The trick is truly accepting with your entire being that it is indeed a decision. A decision only you can make.
There’s “what happens.”
And then there is “what we think should happen.”
The two are seldom identical.
How we react to what goes on around us is determined by the internal calculation of “How do I see this?” and “How do I feel about this?” Sometimes the feeling comes first and shapes the interpretation, other time it’s vice versa.
The interesting point to me is that both of these states of mind have little to do with the original event. They FEEL like they do. But events are external, and the interpretation is internal. That’s the part we control, even if it doesn’t seem that way.
Much of the time we can’t control what happens. We certainly can’t control how others act and react.
Our own interpretation of events is all we’ve got.
You see it one way, the world sees it a different way. If the two don’t match then trouble starts and people begin to feel hurt, misunderstood, slighted, rejected or abused.
Interpretation is a monumental source of personal suffering.
Which is fabulous, because that’s the part you’re in charge of.
I’ve gotten pretty good at changing the way I see things, and this has resulted in remarkable and life-altering effects. It’s an ability we all have. But sometimes I forget. And some perceptions are more pernicious than others. They’re resistant. Especially when the feelings involved are cloaked beneath other feelings that seem reasonable.
Yesterday this thing that had been bothering me became an obsession.
I found myself pouring huge amounts of time and feeling into thinking about it. I was spending my mental energy somewhere other than here and now…I could feel it draining off through a crack in the foundation, flowing out into the ground, wasted.
Nevermind that I had never once voiced my desire for this thing to happen. In fact, I had given all evidence to the contrary, implying that I didn’t care one way or the other.
By setting it up that way, I would know if the other person’s desire to do this thing was genuine – not merely a reaction to my request. Smart.
My subconscious is very sneaky, it comes up with all kinds of strategies to keep me off-balance and in the game. In this instance, it had formulated a test.
Meanwhile, the other person had no idea that this was finals week.
People set up these little tests all the time. And then, when the unwitting participant flunks, we likely respond with disappointment, anger, resentment or a mix of all three. Or worse, by turning inward with feelings of rejection, neglect, sadness and self-criticism.
Ultimately forming a filmy layer of pervasive grayness that begins to cover both the person and the entire relationship, be it with coworkers, friends, family, or the world at large.
I decided last night that I needed to get myself out of this non-productive emotional holding pattern.
As the clock struck 3am, after a day spent swirling around the bowl of confusion, I finally faced up to the truth that the action I was seeking was far less significant than the importance I had attached to it. The two things really had nothing to do with each other except in my mind. The idea that this person’s action was somehow responsible for my wellbeing was something I myself had created.
So I decided to uncreate it. Not just let the idea go, only to have it come back to haunt me later a low moment. No, I decided with every molecule of my being to blow it to smithereens.
At the precise nanosecond I made this decision, literally as the thought was being formed in my mind, the emotional attachment vanished and the expectation disappeared. It just didn’t feel that important anymore.
I changed how I saw the situation, and the situation changed.
I found myself feeling completely different. A new sense of calm mixed with euphoria. It no longer mattered whether it happened or didn’t happen. No one had to do anything. I didn’t have to do anything.
It reminded me that I was going to be okay no matter what.
And that is a very, very good place
The cigarette lighter pops. I am on a long haul, night driving, heading out of town. I inhale as the lava hot spiral touches tip, thin paper igniting delicious; blackened edges traveling backwards in time, returning to ash. The windows are open and inviting. Warm breezes tangle my hair. I am headed someplace important, a journey I have waited for my whole life.
I turn on the radio, searching up and down the dial. Ghosts of country western music. Crackles of night game baseball. As I absently twist the chromed plastic knob the sound of something unfamiliar passes by,
a shadow slicing through the static. I dial back to tune it in.
A song unlike any I have ever heard. A symphony of grinding metal, crashing icebergs, broken glass and heavy cream. Layer upon layer of dissonance producing misplaced chords of ineffable longing that reverberate and swell to fill the dark interior; paisley vinyl seats melting into oily pools of pathos, lit to fire by moonbeams.
Black melodies cut through the soul like a hot wire; deep vibrating tones shaking loose the memories of a life unlived.
The sound liquefies, penetrating eyes and ears and mouth to consume an unspeakable sadness I hadn’t known existed. Eating my disaffection, my lonely self-isolation. Devouring the impassable borders, the self-imposed boundaries.
Echoes of echoes pounding in my chest.
And then, unexpectedly, the song changes pitch.
Time signature shifting, notes dissolving and reconfiguring into daylight, cement barriers transforming into paved freeways.
Carried aloft by the rising strains of remembering I fly out of the darkness.
The road is open and inviting.
Warm breezes tangle my hair.
I am headed someplace important.
A journey I have waited for my whole life.
Keep doing it and see how you feel.
Say you want to bake pies.
You could choose to bake apple or cherry or pumpkin. More than likely, you will find people who are willing to sample them.
But what if you decide to do something quite, quite different?
Maybe you want to bake pies that don’t register as pies at all. Filled with random pairings of whatever strikes you at the moment. Grass clippings and crumpled notebook pages and snips from the satin edges of baby blankets seasoned with motor oil and Saturday afternoon.
The average person will find your pies extremely unappealing. Mystifying. Even disgusting.
If you bring one to a potluck dinner, you will find it waiting for you at the end of the evening, untouched.
Sitting in your kitchen alone, you might spend hours savoring the subtleties, the complexities. But in your everyday life, as you pull pie after pie out of the oven, the universe is sending you the clear message that they stink.
Yet every time you look at one of your freshly-baked pies bursting with iron shavings and dish soap or thunderstorm and rusted bicycle parts, you feel a great sense of accomplishment. Pride. When you slice in and your fork stabs a succulent chunk of first day of school spiced to perfection, you feel the joy shooting out of your chest like a fountain.
It’s natural to want to share this, and to want others to recognize that you’ve really done something here.
It’s challenging to find people who like inedible pie.
Part of making art is developing a conviction around what you’re creating.
Deciding how much value you place on the act of creating it.
When you’re making something that you know upfront is not going to be a crowd pleaser, realistically you don’t expect everyone to appreciate it.
But underneath is still the creeping hope that somebody will get it. Or at least see how important it is to you, even if they don’t.
Depending on who you’re hanging out with, this may not be forthcoming.
If you’re committed to what you’re doing, at some point you will realize that there is just no way to justify what you are doing to most people.
That to continue trying to do so is not only futile, it’s damaging.
It keeps your soul unfulfilled.
The only solution is to reach way, way, way down inside yourself until you can unearth some kind of superhuman strength that will give you the courage to keep going.
…EVEN IF NO ONE EVER SEES THE VALUE IN WHAT YOU’RE DOING.
It has been my experience that if you can gin up the resolve to follow
your inner compass in the face of rejection, criticism and lack of understanding, and find a way to genuinely be okay with what you’re creating regardless of the response, a strange thing happens.
You begin to connect with people who do see. Who do understand.
Even more bizarre, once you decide to no longer seek approval, many of those around you who didn’t see or understand unexpectedly find a way to accept it anyway.
And even more shockingly incredible than that, it starts to not even matter anymore whether those around you see or understand.
Why should they have to? They’re them and you’re you. It doesn’t affect you at all.
You’re just doing what you’re doing, and suddenly, magically, that’s enough.
To use the words of someone I know who understands exactly what I’m talking about, “You feel like a tiger that’s been let out of the zoo.”
Makes me wonder what would happen if more people were to consider baking motor oil flavored pie.
It’s an acquired taste, but one that will definitely change the way you feel about dessert.
Fierce and unrelenting in its blistering ecstasy, the smiling light beams down, bleaching dim beliefs into papery patches that disintegrate into ragged holes bordered by cauterized threads. Ice white diamond intensity blinding the certainty of knowing, breaking apart the conventional conceits, leaving them stumbling and wailing, groping for anything to prevent their disappearing.
The light, so warm and generous, so welcoming and open and accepting, burns with an alkaline agony that etches into the surface, burrowing deep devouring everything that is not light, an enzyme reaction eating the flesh of all that is not true. Visible bone and raw wounds covered in chalky chemical ash. Compassionate genocide.
Rising to a higher floor, clarified drippings cascade from the eyes of everything you were so sure of. You are not a passenger. You are not the operator. You are the elevator. Doors close. Doors open. Broken bottles of yesterday’s poison cut the feet as the journey breaks into a fast run, touching down on the bitter soaked pillow of unsung melodies and ungrasped power.
Calcified windows blink clear and finally open, blown wide by the shockwave of shattered artifacts and immolated idols. Small fingers write the infinite names of the mystery in the condensed vapor on the glass, wiping the slate clean with the shifting shapes of possibility.
Now and forever steps up to meet you, extending a slender fingered hand.
The trajectory expands into all directions. The existence you are leaving packed away in a box stored in the attic to be occasionally taken down and examined like old photos of a life experienced an eternity ago.
Another addition to the collection of places you don’t live in anymore.
It wouldn’t be “good” enough, so what would be the point of creating it?
Painting abstract changed all that.
For me, it was the key that unlocked all doors.
I genuinely believe that if I would’ve started by trying to paint illustratively, I would have been sunk.
Even if the images were invented in my mind, I would have been so trapped in the mode of comparing what I was trying to paint with what was actually coming out on the canvas that I would have beaten myself until there was nothing left but dried blood on the floor.
By getting myself to make spontaneous marks on the paper without pre-determined expectations or demands, I was able to move past that.
Something about painting in this fashion loosened the bonds of needing to control the outcome. Needing to be seen as “good” by other people. Needing to stick to the plan. Needing to be right. Needing to be perfect.
There is no perfect in abstract. How could there be? Each painting is fluid and self-referential and unlike anything that exists. No standard is possible. There’s nothing to measure up to. The concept doesn’t apply.
When I make my paintings, I watch them take shape on the canvas in the form of other realities so far removed from this one that there is no room for comparison whatsoever.
Someone looking at them might not see that. They might see a flat mess of unattractive lines and ungainly shapes and uncomfortable spaces. They might see a whale, or a coffee cup and a donut.
People, including me, only see what their frame of reference allows them to. We relate what we see and what we experience to what we already know.
When I paint these pieces, though, my goal is to discover something I don’t already know. Something I haven’t already imagined.
When you start a painting from this perspective, you never know what you’re going to end up with. You are, in a very real sense, imagining a new world in real time, bringing it into being as the paint flows off the brush.
Some of these worlds are incongruent, and strange, and unfamiliar. Others have shadows and echoes of things that relate to this world.
Obviously I still have my own frame of reference that reflects the sum total of what I think, what I feel and every input I’ve ever encountered over the course of my life.
I wouldn’t want to throw those things away; they are important. They are part of my experience here on planet Earth. And that has value.
However, to cling to this as the ONLY value that’s important, the ONLY basis for expression and existence, would be to close one’s self off from an infinite expanse of experience that is out there, waiting to be invented.
By painting things that have no analog in the “real world” and then looking at them – really looking at them, I began to see everything around me differently. I saw myself differently.
I started changing. Things around me began to change as well.
I opened up a whole new reality that made the one I had been living in look like a pale and shriveled imitation.
With each new painting, whether I loved it or wanted to torch it, I grew stronger in my self.
And once I was finally able to see the value in what I was creating, everything in my life went exponential.
I began to be free.
Whether my paintings are seen as appealing or lousy is of little concern. They express the self that has been struggling to be recognized since the day I was born. All of it, be it adept or awkward, hideous or breathtaking, is who I am. Others may not perceive this, but it does not change the central fact that it is the case.
The more I do this type of painting, the less limited by pre-existing negative beliefs I become. It shows up not just in how I relate to painting, but in my thoughts and emotions and my relationships with other people. Where I am now versus where I was is beyond magnificent.
I have an unshakeable conviction that anyone can do this, find this, have this. Even if you have never once considered making art. Even if you are an accomplished artist with more talent and skill than I could ever hope to achieve. If you can allow yourself to do it, making paintings, lots of them, with NO EXPECTATIONS, NO JUDGMENTS AND NO LIMITATIONS has the power to completely change your life.
All creative activity is a very good thing, and creating any form of art opens a person to new insight and new ways of seeing. There are many paths that lead to the same destination.
But what I’ve learned is that letting go of the need to put down on the canvas images that other people will recognize and value creates the space to recognize and value the self you truly are. The self that is so much more.
When I told an artist friend of mine that I was writing this blog about my experience with painting, he said that talking about art was like trying to explain a magic trick.
He was more right than he even knew.
No matter what kind of art I decide to create in the future, I will never stop creating spontaneously in the moment, painting directly from the soul.
Because when I say that this has transformed my life, I mean it on the deepest and most profound level possible. I am different to such a degree that it cannot be expressed with words…only through more painting.
And if that’s not magic, I don’t know what is.
Picturing far, far distances in my mind…really trying to get the space of it. Feeling the vast emptiness between stars, between solar systems. That kind of thing.
Creating mental images as big as planets and throwing them up into the sky and wondering how it is that I was capable of visualizing a planet-sized object in my mind, yet so constrained by the concept of gravity that I couldn’t make it go very high. Took me a while to get past that one.
Breathing underwater…actually imagining inhaling and exhaling liquid, feeling it flowing in and out of the lungs. A bit creepy at first, but pretty interesting once you get into it.
What it would feel like to be compressed down to the size of an electron or expanded beyond the confines of the universe.
What it’s like to see through the compound eye of a housefly.
How it feels to be a maple tree in early March with the sap running.
Things moving in space…an object spinning in multiple directions at the same time. Two streams moving outward in opposite directions. Three-dimensional shapes collapsing into themselves.
What it would look like if everybody just walked away from the incessant nonsense and drama that constitutes the majority of human interaction on this planet.
Making things invisible. Mentally filling in the space around whatever it is I’m looking at until it disappears.
And my current favorite, creating new planets. Invented one recently
I rather liked while waiting at the dentist’s office. Atmosphere the consistency of gelatin, rivers and oceans of flowing sand. It was shaped like a fat mobius strip with three suns; depending where you were on the surface daytime might last 5 minutes or 500 years, or you might never see light at all. Pictured it rotating on its axis like a rotisserie chicken. When I was finished, I wondered, “What type of physics would explain all this?” Then I realized, that’s for the inhabitants to figure out. It doesn’t really matter what they come up with…it works because I designed it to work.
The table, which at first had seemed round, is now long and rectangular. A conference table.
I am alone, waiting. I have a folder filled with ideas to present. A man enters, I shake his hand.
We sit, the room bathed in uncomfortable silence. He is waiting for me to speak.
I reach for my folder but it is gone.
I cannot recall any of the concepts or even the nature of the project. My mind races from room to room, frantically searching for the words I’ve forfeited. I clear my throat, trying to maintain a look of competence.
The man’s face shows the merest flicker of reaction, an almost imperceptible twitch of undiscernable emotion — Disappointment? Confirmation? — and returns immediately to flat burnished marble. His eyes are sharp as awls.
“Are you sure you’re ready for this?”
“Of course,” I lie, unsure and without conviction. I feel a primordial shame; blinding, wincing humiliation. I am not prepared.
Molten lead pools in the center of my stomach; this is my one chance, I fear I won’t get another.
I bury my gaze in the burled grain of the bird’s eye maple conference table, stained glowing cigarette-cherry red. Searching for something, anything to say.
I stare deeply, desperately into the patterns of the polished wood; chestnut fire swirling with charred eyes and haunted faces and grotesque birds.
Moments morph into millennia. Time ceases to exist. I cease to exist, shrinking backwards into cramped and squalid quarters I was certain I had burned to the ground.
To my amazement, I unexpectedly find that I am beginning to speak automatically from somewhere outside myself. Words string together of their own accord and drip from my mouth, both of us hearing them for the first time.
“The concept is called ‘Enigmata.’ The thoughts and images are subterranean sigils whose meanings are revealed only upon close examination. The metaphysics of non-intellective communication allow the audience to assemble a message on their own and fill in the details based on their own specific memories and emotions.”
“How will this be executed?”
“The page will be blank.”
The man pushes back in his chair, inscrutable.
Clocks turn sideways as I wait for a response. I feel transparent, exposed. I cast my eyes down, open sores searing black as images embalmed in hand-rubbed lacquer and long dead maple begin to blend and shift, forming scenes from my childhood.
Climbing in bed between my grandparents, the feel of my grandmother’s polyester nightgown against my bare legs. Static sparks. The smell of tissues taken down from the shelf of a cedar closet. A tiny glass giraffe fragile as snowflakes in my hand, unpacked from penicillin blue Samsonite luggage by graceful manicured fingers, an appeasement for leaving me behind.
My voice emerges, unbidden. “The blankness is the medium for unconscious integration, a synesthesia that cements the potentialities of the paper to the texture of experience. The campaign does not promote the product. Rather, the product is manufactured directly in the mind where it propagates indefinitely.”
The man slowly nods.
Reaching into his breast pocket, he removes a fat white envelope, sliding it silently across the table.
I glance at it, then past it, and back into the kaleidoscoping woodgrain.
I’m doing it so I can apply these skills to the paintings I imagine.
I don’t need lessons to paint what I see with my mind, but in these classes I’ve been trying very hard to paint things the way I see them with my eyes.
Which has been somewhat stressful because apparently, my eyes do not see things the way other people’s do.
Sometimes I know I’m completely off the map, but other times I feel like I’ve aced what it is I’m replicating only to be told that the shadow is in the wrong place, or the perspective’s off, or the color doesn’t match.
So I’d rub it out and try to fix it, and usually feel less satisfied having done so.
And then one class, I just said no.
We were painting landscapes. I was working from a full color photograph, long shadows crossing a country road awash in a sea of emerald, kelly and chartreuse.
I began with the honest intention of giving it a serious go…even mixed 11 subtly different shades of green. Then, midway through, as I held my brush before my mostly black underpainting about to make the first leafy green stroke, I decided I liked it the way it was.
When the instructor came around I announced I was finished and received a raised eyebrow as I took it off the easel. I spent the rest of class smashing the 11 shades of green around on a fresh piece of paper.
Later, I showed this green painting to someone whose opinion I value. They said, “It reminds me of unplanned adventure.”
I have nothing against highly realistic art; I find much of it very beautiful. I admire the skill that goes into creating it.
After having spent many class hours struggling to make things perfect, however, I can’t help but feel like there’s something math-like about it. An equation with a pre-determined correct answer.
Whenever I began one of these pieces with that goal in mind, it felt as if I were just filling in the blanks to achieve a result that never quite measured up.
There are many amazing artists who create work based in realism that is stunningly distinctive. If you think about it though, what makes it so interesting is the artist’s own unique interpretation.
The parts of the painting that do not reflect reality.
When you’re painting entirely abstract, you quickly come to learn that there are a lot of people out there who need to know that you have the chops to accurately reproduce a bowl of lemons or a face or a fall landscape in order to accept the fact that you’re painting things that don’t look like any of the above.
I decided that I’m not so bothered by that anymore.
I wonder if de Kooning or Kandinsky had to submit a portfolio of tightly rendered architectural drawings or photorealistic fruit in order to get into galleries. Maybe they did.
But that’s not what they’re remembered for.
I plan to continue working on shading objects in space and mixing colors and getting my hand to do what I want it to do. Getting a handle on realism is good practice.
That having been said, I’m done killing myself to be perfect.
I hadn’t known it, but it was actually a form of suicide.
Perfect means fitting yourself into a pre-exisiting idea of how things should be, one that’s usually imposed from outside. It’s a great way to set yourself up for vicious disappointment and provides endless opportunities for self-criticism.
I took that approach my whole life with just about everything I did. Screwed myself up big time in the process. In my case, the desire for perfection acted as a governor on my ability to try new things, eventually shutting me down completely. Why bother when I’m only going to fall short of my own expectations? The resultant pain and self-punishment was too much to bear.
Something about painting abstract unhitched all that.
As I’ve gone down this path, I’ve seen first hand how the imperfect can be so powerful and so moving and and go so far outside expectation that it destroys all preconceived notions of what constitutes art.
It showed me just how limiting my perception of reality was. And how limiting my addiction to perfectionism has truly been.
My goal now in these classes is the same as the goal for my abstract work: to make a painting. Wherever that might take me.
After all, what’s the point of going through the effort of getting something on the paper if you end up looking at exactly the same view you had when you started?
Where’s the adventure in that??
Over the years, this and that. A toaster. An ashtray. The miniscule ego in a file on the shelf in the office when I had needed to fill it and didn’t happen to have anything better.
Creation all used up. Blind in my magnificence I put it away and
Divided ice insulated under endless black wait.
On the morning after not sure what, I built visions around what I was
seeing and the rock began to pool.
About the sky was solid cloud, white lightning igniting the distance
rolling with thunder over the feeling to reach farther across the
Images painting freedom flowing electric aquamarine honey,
memories of the feeling cry I want so much.
Severed the many walking homeward,
breathing liquid ecstasy.
Spotlights shatter through pinpricks. Ice flaking off into moist atmosphere.
Hot blood stirs beneath ashen decay.
A talented child, I awoke calm and smooth as a cool pane of glass.
I just attended an art show where all of the work was produced using 3-D printing.
Picture indescribably intricate sculptures made from delicate layers of interlocking filigree, strands as narrow as a hair.
Huge white polyamide shapes reaching into each other with hundreds of slender appendages, woven and entwined in ways that defied logic.
Tiny and ridiculously complicated objects composed of overlapping and intersecting spirals, creating the appearance of phantasmagorical creatures bursting strange horns and disturbing probosces.
The impossibility of the pieces gave the exhibit a surreal otherworldly effect, as if I had entered a different place entirely, a universe of imagination unconstrained by the restrictive properties of existing materials and techniques.
Judging from the results on display at this exhibit, huge leaps have been made in translating human imagination into physical reality in ways that were previously inconceivable. It will be fascinating to see how artists take advantage of the technology as it becomes more prevalent.
A million possibilities spring to mind.
But what if you could bypass the computer design process entirely and hook up a 3-D printer directly to your imagination? What would you create then?
For the sake of discussion, let’s say you wanted to create an apple.
I’m relatively good as visualizing things. Do it inside and outside my head all the time.
I’d say that the apple I create in my mind seems pretty complete.
However, I predict if I hooked up a 3-D printer and output my mental image of an apple, it would likely have fatal flaws. Gaps. As in, well, the color is pretty accurate, and I captured that weird hairy dimple on the bottom, but the backside is full of gaping holes.
Like the artist creating the computer program for their sculpture, I would have to go back and check my design for missing information.
I would spend more time visualizing my apple, trying to capture the totality of it, and then plug into the printer a second time. Hmmmm…this time I got the holes filled, and I nailed those translucent things around the seeds that remind me of fish scales. But I completely botched the flavor.
Back to the drawing board.
I would eat, sleep and dream apple until finally I’d have the complete essence of that sucker down to the tiniest subatomic detail, from the exact curve and composition of the stem to the memory of time spent as an apple blossom. I’d have the heft and the feel and the being of it so thoroughly established in my mind that when I hit the print button, a fully formed red delicious would drop down onto my tabletop.
I had a fascinating conversation with an 11 year old in which I asked him what he wanted for his birthday. His answer led us into philosophical territory much deeper and more insightful than I’ve confronted with most adults.
The conversation went as follows:
11-Year Old: For my birthday I want a parakeet. Or an iPod touch.
Karmic Spiel: Which one do you think you’d use more?
11: Well, obviously the iPod touch. But the point of a parakeet isn’t to use it.
KS: Then what’s the point of a parakeet?
11: You can’t compare something biological to something technological.
KS: What if Apple made a parakeet?
11: It wouldn’t be a parakeet.
KS: What if it looked identical to a real parakeet? Moved like one, sounded like one, acted like one…you couldn’t tell the difference.
11: You could if you cut it open.
KS: What if they grew it like those ears they grow on the backs of mice, and when you cut it open it was full of biological parakeet organs?
11: It would still be technological, because we made it.
KS: What about the ear? We made it but it functions just like a biological ear.
11: You can’t compare a part to the whole thing. The parakeet would have to be programmed. It could only do what they put in its database. It wouldn’t have parakeetness.
KS: What is parakeetness?
11: The thing that makes a parakeet a parakeet.
KS: Why do you think it wouldn’t have parakeetness?
11: Because it could never choose to do something new. Or react in a way that was unique. It could be programmed to do everything every parakeet has ever done for a million years, and make every choice a parakeet has ever made, but it could never come up with something on its own.
KS: So if one day a real parakeet suddenly decided to start making patterns out of seeds, or made a sound no parakeet’s made before, that ability to create something new is what separates it from the technological parakeet?
11: Yeah, they could program the technological parakeet with the new thing, and every time a real parakeet did something new, they could program it in, but they’d always be one step behind. The technological parakeet would always just be a lame copy. It would be dead inside.
KS: What if they programmed it ahead of time to do something no parakeet has done before? Or programmed it to come up with new things on its own, something parakeets don’t usually do?
11: That would be stupid. Then it wouldn’t be a parakeet at all.
I’d be willing to bet that some team of tech heads at MIT is working on a parakeet cyborg prototype even as I type.
And I have no doubt that at some point soon it will be possible to print out an apple that appears indistinguishable from the ones that grow on trees.
But I wouldn’t want to eat it.
No matter how accurate and sophisticated the cunning folks that develop these types of technologies become in their ability to link up amino acid chains and recreate fragrance and texture and taste, the apple they would print would still be synthetic. A dead imitation.
It wouldn’t have appleness.
Still, it will be interesting to see what 3-D printing is capable of when it fully comes online.
But I’m not waiting around.
It’s just another tool, and I manage just fine without it.
Each and every painting I make is something I’ve imagined into physical existence out of nothing. They are not an imitation. They are alive.
All of us have the ability to create directly from our imaginations, we do it all the time. We create this world into being every minute with our thoughts and our beliefs and our intentions and our actions. We don’t need technology to do that. We are the technology.
Who knows what else we can create?
I’ve been spending a lot of time with apples these days, getting to know them on a very intimate level. I’m picturing one right now. Except the one I see in my mind is much more than a mere combination of atoms and elements and complex chemical interactions. It is alive, and unlike any apple that has ever existed before.
It might take me 10 or 100 or 100,000 years. But one of these days I will imagine that apple with enough appleness that it will appear out of nothing and land with a thump on the saucer I plan to have ready and waiting.
And then I will pick it up, cradle it gently in my hand, and take a big freaking bite.
the hood of a red 1972 Eldorado with a white vinyl roof after a hot
summer day parked on the side of the road by a thin stretch of beach
where you got out just to look at the waves for a bit to clear your head and
then the clouds darkened across the lake and you could feel that whoosh
of hot wind that comes when the storm is building up steam and you
wanted to stand there and watch the thunderhead roll in and see the
tiny ripples grow into whitecaps while you bathe in the wild electricity
as the sky turns purple and black and green beneath a yellow veil but
you don’t because you’re wearing your best silk dress the one with the
long red sleeves and the white sailor collar that you bought with your
very first paycheck back when you used to care so you run run run up the
narrow path through the brambles and the dirt worn to fine powder by
the footsteps of hundreds of bare feet of all sizes running the other way
toward the sand where they played and built castles for endless summer
afternoons and you get to the car just as the first drop hits the hood and
you can hear it and smell it and taste it in your mouth and you stop
struck dumb by the feeling and you think you could never feel anything
so pure and then the next and the next and the next raindrop hits and
you fall asleep in the joy and promise to never forget exactly this moment
or how you felt because you’re not sure that it will ever really get
better than this and that’s okay because this is pretty damn good so you
hold the thought and get in the car and start the engine and drive.
I typically do them fast, usually in a series of 6 or 8 or 10 at one sitting. Black acrylic on drawing paper.
They’re not trying to be anything. They’re not trying to convey anything. Pure unfiltered stream of consciousness.
I don’t intend to make them relate to each other, but often certain themes appear. A particular shape might show up in more than one piece. Or morph from one to the next. It’s fascinating to see what comes out in the moment.
You could call them sketches, and occasionally ideas come out of them that show up in more formal paintings. But I don’t do them with that purpose in mind.
I do them to do them.
When I finish a batch, I tape them together into one giant painting, hang it up and look at it.
Since I have no particular direction in mind when I start, and each section is painted independently, it amazes me how frequently elements jump the edge of the page and combine in completely unplanned ways, creating new compositions I wouldn’t have thought of intentionally.
These usually end up being my favorite parts.
Did I create them or did they create themselves?
An unanswerable question.
One thing I know for certain…if I had never picked up a brush, they wouldn’t exist at all.
It’s true that you can compare one piece to another along specific criteria; e.g., a Rembrandt is a more accurate reproduction of reality than, say, a Jean-Michel Basquiat. But to say one is better than the other is misguided.
It’s like trying to compare an oak leaf to a rhinoceros.
Hidden at the core of such comparisons, buried beneath the so-called objective measures used to justify them, is nothing more than opinion.
So who gets to decide what is “good”?
When it comes to your own work, you do.
I like what I like. You like what you like. It’s all personal preference.
The key word is “personal.” The notion that a group consensus should even exist with respect to something as individual as artistic expression is equivalent to granting a monopoly on creation.
Why on earth should anyone else’s personal artistic preference take precedence over your own?
For years I used the perceived “betterness” of others like a meat hammer to bludgeon myself into not creating. In a world where Salvador Dali, Picasso and a million other amazing artists exist, how could I dare to pick up a brush?
It’s one of the primary limitations that stopped me from starting to paint. Even after I started, the fear of the inevitable comparisons prevented me from showing my work to other people.
As an art appreciator, I always liked what I liked regardless of what other people thought. In fact, I got a great deal of enjoyment out of liking things most people thought were ugly or didn’t understand. But when I began making art myself, I was confronted with the reality of just how deeply I had internalized the trope that there is some objective outside measure of “good.”
Once I started painting, I was forced to address this every time I stood at my easel; every time I looked at someone else’s work.
I became conscious of just how many times a day I was comparing myself to others, not just in terms of art or painting, but with everything. I saw how this had crippled me my entire life. Held me back. Kept me small.
I began to ask myself where these standards came from. Whose standards were they really?
I held high internal standards for myself, which is healthy and positive when used as motivation to be your best self and produce your best work…it inspires a person to keep pushing. But when those standards are externally imposed, they act as a trillion-ton boat anchor on the soul.
I have this note to myself hanging on my easel so I can see it every time I paint:
WHAT OTHER PEOPLE CREATE HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH ME.
This has been the one of the most difficult things for me to learn. I’m still learning it.
As this phrase sinks in on deeper and deeper levels, I’ve begun to free myself from the stranglehold of negative self-comparisons. It is a conscious effort, and I have to make that effort over and over. But the more I paint, and really look at what I’ve painted, the easier it gets.
I’m becoming progressively more comfortable with what I create. How I feel about it is based on my own criteria, not anyone else’s.
Sometimes, other people’s preference overlaps with your own. When you love what you created, and discover that someone else does as well, it’s a very, very nice feeling.
Of course, there’s a massive and entrenched attachment to betterness out there. You run into it all the time, especially when you’re experimenting outside the mainstream. In those instances, if you are able to genuinely like what you’re created and draw satisfaction and pleasure from that, it doesn’t matter what anyone else might think.
So I added a corollary to remind myself of that truth, which I also have hanging on my easel:
WHAT OTHER PEOPLE THINK ABOUT WHAT I CREATE
HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH ME.
It has to do with them. Where they are at. What their preferences are.
I create. So do you. The outcomes are as different as you and I.
Each creation is as unique as the individual who created it. It’s what makes living in this place interesting.
As you keep going and exploring and becoming more confident in what you’re expressing, be it art or writing or whatever it is you truly want to create, magic happens.
You begin to trust in who you truly are.
Fe was floating.
Surrounded by an impenetrable blankness so dense it seemed to obscure even the possibility of light and form.
Fe had been alone for a very long while. So long that it could not be measured in time.
Was she floating in space, or was she space itself?
Was she tiny and finite, or enormous and everywhere?
She had considered these and other such unanswerable questions for eternities.
Fe could not be sure, but it began to feel like she was moving. There was emptiness in front and also in back, so it was difficult to tell without a fixed point of reference. Nevertheless, it registered as a sensation.
Having been accustomed to timelessness and nothingness, the sensation felt good. It represented the potential for change.
Fe contemplated this sensation and let it sink in. So many implications to consider. Motion connoted direction…up down catty corner backwards. And time…was here, will be there. The possibilities suggested by the concept were intriguing; delicious.
The feeling of motion that Fe had begun to experience ignited a sense of action, of one thing moving into another. Into what, she knew not. Yet the feeling held a certain attraction, especially when one had been floating on their own, motionless, for as long as they could recall.
Infinities passed, if you could call it that, as infinity doesn’t pass, it just is.
And then everything changed.
Fe sensed a presence.
She was not frightened for she had no reason to have developed this capacity, but her curiosity was stirred. Curiosity that had been dormant due to the lack of anything to become curious about.
Prior the arrival of the presence, Fe had assumed that she was all there was. If a presence existed that was other to her, then she must be other to the presence, which implied separation. Edges. Defined space. She began to wonder if she had borders.
The presence drew closer.
Fe experienced another new feeling. Anticipation. Things within Fe were rearranging, resulting in cracks and fissures that birthed wild and thundering oceans of thought and emotion.
Fe, who had been the same forever, was now becoming different. Moving into previously unimaginable territories of experience. Fe sat with the feelings, rolled them across her being, swam in them, dove down deep, digested them, tried them on and took them off, played with them, nurtured them and allowed them to take root and to grow and to flower.
Her thoughts turned opalescent to examine all this. In her delight (which was yet another new sensation), she forgot all about the other.
And then they collided.
She felt it bump right up against her. This new feeling created an emotion so titanic and indescribable and passionate and muscular that she felt that she had exploded, creating vast swathes of new space all around her, moving into them, and then creating another wave outward.
Fe became aware that she was capable of inventing space to an infinite degree. Her question as to whether she was tiny had been answered.
Despite the unfolding of distance, the two remained connected.
No message passed between them. They simply floated, side by side, each pondering the significance of the contact.
The presence of the other meant that space existed outside of Fe’s self. It stood to reason that the other could also invent space infinitely at will. Suddenly her concept of size and self and other and space imploded into itself and reconstituted as a clear white light screaming into the emptiness.
Color and shape began to form inside Fe. Each accompanied by its own particular flavor of emotion. Without conversation, the colors and shapes were received by the other, who then responded with different shapes. Unfamiliar colors.
Space around the two beings began to change. It came alive with rivulets and rays and thick broad beams of electric music that roared and laughed and expanded and launched like great vessels, sailing through existence leaving universes in their wake.
And then, after what seemed like only an instant because Fe had wanted it to continue forever, the two beings were jarred into the awareness that they were definitely moving. Going someplace.
Rising from where they were to somewhere else, shooting relentlessly upwards like irretrievably misfired missiles.
For the first time, Fe was afraid. Cold creeping horror trickled through Fe as she realized that the pair would be ripped apart by the violence of the ascent; that she would once again be on her own. Before the other, Fe hadn’t been lonely. But now, the concept swept over her like an icy wind.
As she felt the presence of the other being torn away, tendrils of thought reached in and left a small mark deep within Fe’s consciousness. A tiny point of blue light.
Fe breached the surface alone.
“May the road rise to meet you” and other expressions that seem to be metaphorical but turn out to actually be quite literal.0
This morning as I was driving I got the very definite sensation that I was fixed in place and the road was flying toward me.
I was cruising along at 70, so I know I wasn’t standing still. But it sure seemed that way.
A couple months ago, someone said to me “You’re trying so hard, you put so much into it, and that’s good. But you need to be okay where you are. You need to let your future come to you.” A rather personal observation, especially since I had literally just met this person and she and I had only spoken casually for a few minutes.
Yet the comment was spot on. I had been trying very hard. For the past year, I’ve spent every waking moment and most of my sleeping moments trying with everything I’ve got to create a new life for myself.
Some of the people closest to me hadn’t picked up on this, at least not consciously. But somehow this stranger did.
This exchange came at a moment when I was feeling somewhat stuck. Stalled. I had been doing everything I could to keep moving forward but felt like I was not making progress.
So I tried harder. Still nothing changed.
I was pushing on a spring.
All of my efforts were compressing the coils, tighter and tighter.
Things had begun to move again, but backwards. Into thoughts and feelings I thought I had left behind. Part of me knew this was bad juju. Yet another part was pleased. At least things are moving, right?
I had spent years inwardly focused, so the discomfort was strangely comforting; a nest made of barb wire.
I had taken a serious detour.
Have you ever just gotten in the car and starting driving, with no specific destination in mind?
That pretty much sums up what I’ve been doing since last January.
It’s a cool thing to do. You see some pretty interesting things along the way.
And when you find yourself on a long empty stretch of highway and open it up to about 130, it’s a real rush, I can assure you.
But occasionally you find a fallen redwood blocking your path.
Different people deal with obstacles in different ways.
Some might try hacking at it with a plastic knife they found in the glove compartment, or by yelling at it to move, or waiting for a helicopter with a winch to magically appear and move it for them.
Or if you’re me, by burrowing deeply into the redwood, setting up camp and living there for a month or two.
There are plusses and minuses to this strategy. To the positive, you get to know everything there is to know about a redwood from the inside. On the downside, it’s dark in there and you don’t have a light.
So you have to create your own.
Once you figure out how to do that, the redwood explodes into matchsticks, spontaneously ignites and turns to ash.
You’re back on the road.
And then one day you’re driving along and suddenly you are fixed in place and the road is flying toward you.
All that energy stored in the spring you’ve been pushing so hard for so long has finally let loose with enough force to cause the laws of physics to go on vacation.
You realize it only felt like you were standing still. You are actually moving faster than the speed of light.
And what you’re seeing is your future coming to you.
You look around, searching for clues as to why you are here. Something, anything that tells you how you ended up in this place.
The room has nothing to offer. No detail to grab onto.
It is generic, featureless; worn down into bland submission by an endless stream of faceless travelers, each with their own story, none of them worth reading.
You do not belong here.
You walk to the door. It is locked from outside.
You reach for the cord to open the curtains, only to find that they conceal not a window but a wall hung with a single painting. A cheap print, yellowed with nicotine and age, curling away from the frame at the edges. A beach scene; wooden raft drifting away from shore.
You feel the breeze rustle your hair, water lapping at the edge of the raft. The lake is calm, a sheet of rippled glass covered with sunset and floating leaves.
You step off the raft onto beige carpet. Sodden, your footprints fill with murky liquid as you walk across the hotel room floor. On the cigarette scarred nightstand you find a note written on a grease-stained paper bag. You don’t recognize the handwriting, but you know it is a message to yourself. It says “Remember who you are.”
You see a suitcase on the bed, open, filled with photographs. You flip through them, uninterested. Faces of people you don’t know, doing things you do not care to know about.
You push them aside and look back to the painting.
You peel back the corner. The paper, stamped to look like canvas, lifts away in a single sheet to reveal another painting, a cityscape at night. Specks of red and yellow and green reflected in puddled sidewalks and oil slick streets. A fistful of scattered gems against rain smeared ink.
You shiver. Wiping a strand of wet hair off your forehead, you clutch your arms and step into the crosswalk. You wander cold empty streets until your bones turn to ice.
You check into a cheap motel. Bed, nightstand, sticky beige carpet. Nothing on the walls but a dingy yellow rectangle where a painting once hung, framed by even dirtier yellow.
You sit on the bed to examine the blank space. Decades pass.
Suddenly the yellow turns transparent and through the void you see something you’ve never seen before. A piece of yourself that you had hidden long ago. You reach in and grab it.
This time you are not coming back.
Everyone who’s seen it thinks it’s ugly. A few have come right out and said so, bypassing diplomacy altogether.
Even when someone tries to go the polite route, I can tell by their reaction. There’s a sort of flinch. A mental recoiling backwards.
I call that a success.
There’s something to be said for getting a visceral reaction out of people, regardless of which direction it goes. I find this much more satisfying than a tactful but dispassionate “that’s different.”
Do I think this is a great painting? No, I do not. For one thing, it’s small, only 9 by 12 inches. Now if it were huge, say, 9 by 12 meters, I might feel otherwise.
Then it would be monumentally ugly, which would definitely take things up a notch or two on the impact scale.
Maybe next time I’ll experiment on bigger canvas.
They are massive, ominous; set up sequentially in a continuous line spanning the entire distance of the universe, streaking red and cobalt blue and ice white shards of light, shrieking cold friction shattering the darkness.
Flowing into the machine is the raw material of reality. The substance before it is defined.
Transparency funnels into the top right side, and space and time exit beneath, unrolling to the left. The machine is fixed in place.
I am outside this process, viewing it from a safe distance. I see the wheels turning ceaselessly, compressed against each other spinning like mlllstones made of indestructible material; oppressive, inevitable. I sense that it wants me to feel frightened…or somehow ashamed.
Watching the machine perform its endless work I feel nothing. No fear. No sadness. No anger. Nothing at all. It has nothing to do with me.
As I look closer at the product as it unfurls, I can see clouds and blue sky and buildings and trees. I see my street, my house.
I see myself sitting at my kitchen table, eyes closed, head in my hands, lost in thought.
At last, I open my eyes.
And then I am back on the other side of the machine.
It looks different now. Smaller. Less sure of itself.
I know something about it, and it doesn’t like that.
Inside I am smiling.
Not Twilight Zone different, but enhanced. Switched on.
Where each object you look at is outlined with a thin hair of black ink with an even thinner white highlight. Crisper than crisp. And the colors sing to you, and the textures hit your eye through a magnifying glass, and everything calls out your name, and you suddenly see the spaces between things as if they too are things, with weight and volume and meaning.
The air around you feels alive, ions crackling against your skin as you swim through it…if you squint your eyes you can almost see it sparking.
You drive down the same familiar street you’ve driven down a million times, and on this particular day the trees come rushing up to meet you, arms wide, waving their leaves hello as you flow past. And the road looks like it leads directly into the sky, and you feel like you could fly up among the clouds and float there as long as you wanted.
Welcome to today.
I hope you’ve had days like this. It’s quite a fantastic thing.
If you have, on occasion, had one of these days, you might have asked yourself, “why do things look so different today, when yesterday they looked dull and flat and gray by comparison?”
Being of rational mind, you could probably spend half an hour and come up with a dozen plausible reasons why yesterday looked ordinary and today you want to roll around in everything you see.
It might occur to you that perhaps it’s a trick of the light, sunshine intensified by a solar flare. Or, you might recall that yesterday you felt crummy, but today you feel great so of course it all looks brighter.
But then, you wake up on another morning, and the sun is muffled behind gray gauze and you feel sort of average and you look out the window and see a mysterious and fascinating landscape reflected in polished silver. The trees have taken on a shimmering graphite haze, the leaves rubbed into soft focus. The colors have shifted, and now you see smoked lavender in between the branches, whose texture is soft as the velvet of a deer antler.
The stunning sense of aliveness is still there, just like last time, but there’s a different charge in the air, as if the sky is holding its breath and what you’re feeling is the electricity of the stillness. It’s daytime, but you see the aura of moolight. Everything seems filled with quiet magic.
And then you ask yourself…so why do things look different today?
You could no doubt spend another half hour and come up with another twelve explanations, all well-grounded in science and psychology.
But you would be missing the point:
You’re seeing things differently because you are SEEING things differently.
Something inside you, whether you’re aware of it or not, is DECIDING to see everything differently.
One day it sees things one way, the next, whammo.
Whole new ballgame.
If you can find that capacity inside yourself that decides how you see things, and acknowledge it and encourage it, you can get it to grow.
If you understand it for what it is, you can learn to control it.
You will begin to see things differently on a consistent basis. Your life will begin to change in magnificent ways.
And every day will be a beautiful Monday.
My friend remarked, “Most artists spend their life trying to master realism. Picasso had already done it. So where do you go from there?”
Where DO you go once you’ve seen reality for what it is, and found it obvious, facile, and frankly, boring?
You ask yourself “what if?”
Picasso was the master of “what if?”
What if you’re seeing everything through a bue veil?
What if all the curves are angles?
What if you can see the face from three sides?
What if there’s an eye on the elbow?
What if, what if, what if.
Picasso never stopped asking himself that question, and that’s why his work never ceases to be fascinating.
If I had to name the one thing that seems to limit people’s perception the most, I would point to a lack of basic curiosity.
It constantly amazes me how uncurious people are, almost willfully so. They seem to want to accept what they are presented with, even when they don’t particularly like it. In fact, they will go to the wall to defend their acceptance of even the most negative situations and beliefs and feelings rather than honestly ask themselves what if it didn’t have to be this way? What if it were different? And then, “What might that look like?”
Even naturally curious people, who do ask questions and don’t accept the basic premise of everything as it appears, often reach a point where they’re satisfied with the answers and they stop asking. They managed to get themselves to a place where they can see things beyond the accepted view, but then the walls slam down and they neglect to ask the next question.
And then there are those who continue to ask the next question, but only in certain arenas…they confine their curiosity to specific slots. Science, for example. Or questioning the official story of things, but then not applying that same level of curiosity to other areas of life because, well, that’s just how things are over there.
I’ve often thought that the invention of the wheel was the worst things to happen to the human race.
After that, it was all wheels.
What to do with wheels, how to use wheels, how to connect them up to do more things with wheels, how to make better wheels.
Of course, the wheel worked. It made life easier.
Suddenly, people had a thrilling new avenue to channel their curiosity. Those with vision could instantly see the power of the wheel. They could transform existence. And they did.
Since there were infinite possibilities for what you can do with wheels, it soaked up the curiosity of many, many minds.
Thousands of years later, despite the massive expansion of technology, it’s still pretty much all wheels. Even the computer, which was an astonishing leap of innovation, resides within this framework.
It has become the new wheel.
When something works, has many useful applications and appears to make life easier, eventually other alternatives are no longer seriously considered. The door closes. This scenario is played out across all levels of human existence.
People become entranced by the tyranny of what is, and stop asking “what if?”
The term “Reinventing the wheel” means drafting off what already exists, basically duplicating or adding a slight variation to something.
People forget that at one time, the wheel was a stunning break from the way things were. They lapse into unconsciousness and forget that other possibilities outside the context of reinventing the wheel could even exist.
It’s a pattern that’s been repeated throughout history.
“Here’s how things are. Work with that. Be satisfied with that.”
Picasso didn’t accept this. No true individual is willing to accept this.
The painting at the top of this post is from a class where we were riffing on the work of 20th Century abstract artists. Not copying a painting, but painting in “the style of…” It was interesting to try seeing through the eyes of another artist, in this case Picasso during his cubist period. It was the first time since I started painting that I wasn’t actively trying to do something new.
I was reinventing the wheel.
It was surprisingly easy, and kind of fun, especially when you’re just starting out like I am.
But like Picasso and all of the other modern abstract artists who have taken that wheel and deconstructed it and splattered it and covered it with fur and stretched and mutated and smashed it until it was completely unrecognizable, I wouldn’t want to make a habit of it.
Flew out of LAX at midnight, fell asleep as we took off, woke up as we were making our approach to land. I’ve never slept that hard on a plane.
As we descended still well before dawn, I watched the lights of the cities and the suburbs flow past, innumerable gold and silver coins lit from within, glowing warm and orange and whiter than white against darkness broken by lighter patches of snow. I was mesmerized by the shapes of the light, and the dark spaces in between, outlined by fiber optic freeways extending to the horizon; staggered by the incredible beauty of light seeping into the shadows, spikes of brilliance refracted by snow surrounded by not snow.
And then the whole scene shifted.
I was no longer looking down upon lights on the ground, I was looking at a vast space hung with glittering spheres, like stars suspended in a substrate of clear gelatin. The hot points of light and their diffused and overlapping luminescence took on a sort of mass, transforming from something familiar into something else.
No longer merely man-made sigils that delineate the borders of civilization, the network of streetlights and stoplights and headlights acquired a raw physicality, bursting to life like the phosphorescent nuclei of energetic cells surrounded by illuminated protoplasm, all connected into some radiant otherwordly organism that extended itself in three dimensions, hovering above the ground and reaching up to the sky and out into space in all directions. It was alive.
At the precise moment this crystallized, I felt a feeling I have never felt before. That I was seeing for the first time, like a baby out of the womb. I suddenly unsaw. And then I SAW. At this moment of revelation, the feeling was so overwhelming I began to cry, a deep sob from somewhere lost long ago. For that brief, magnificent instant, I felt I had never seen anything so beautiful.
We touched ground, and I stepped off the jetway into the airport and as I walked I could hear every sound, even the ambient noise we learn to ignore, as if it were a separate note played in some gorgeous symphony. I heard the whole and the parts simultaneously…the murmur of a thousand conversations sounded like water flowing over rocks, strains of voices rising and falling, mixing and separating into syllables, so fresh to my ear that I was transfixed. Each individual soundwave was clear and distinct and at the same time merging and blending to create the most fascinating music I had ever experienced.
To say this was a profound experience is a severe understatement.
This is going to be a very good year.
I said “Yes, and the more you look at it, the more you will see.”
It’s true. There really are hidden messages in it.
Except they’re not coming from me.
When a person looks at a painting, they see what they want to see. They see their own mind reflected back at them. They see messages from their own consciousness.
The next time you look at a painting, think about what you see.
Ask yourself how you could see it differently.
And then see it differently.
You might learn something important that you have hidden from yourself.
Six pieces of paper painted separately and joined with masking tape to make a whole.
All of my paintings are my self portrait.
When I have 20 or 30 of them hanging on the wall, I feel that I am seeing my mind. The mind beneath the mind that navigates through the world and processes what it encounters.
Each time I put paint to paper, that “mind beneath mind” flows out into this reality. Every thought, every dream, every impression, every feeling coalesces at the tip of the brush and reveals itself in shape and line in two dimensions.
My mind does not look like this world.
Looking at the paintings of others, I see their minds as well. Some are instantly graspable. Others hold secrets that cannot be discovered if you stared at them for a million lifetimes.
There is information and experience and emotion to be gained from both, but I prefer to look at the paintings that don’t reveal themselves so easily.
These are the paintings that speak to me, mind to mind.
They show me things I had never imagined. Things that have never existed. They show me not just what is possible, but what is impossible.
What I love about art, and abstract art in particular, is that if you let it, it will show you something beyond the brushstrokes…a glimpse of something new that you have never experienced before. Something that inspires you to envision the potential of something more.
Once you see that potential, you will start to see EVERYTHING else differently.
And then if you let yourself, you will do something about it.