February 2012 Newsletter

I will not die an unlived life.

 I will not live in fear of falling or catching fire.

I choose to inhabit my days, to allow my living to open me, to make me less afraid, more accessible, to loosen my heart until it becomes a wing, a torch, a promise.

I choose to risk my significance; to live so that which came to me as seed goes to the next as blossom and that which came to me as blossom, goes on as fruit.

-dawna markova

a glimmering, quivering world

I measure my painting through music.  If I am experiencing a particularly unmotivated day, I will bargain with myself: I only have to paint as long as it takes to listen to the new Florence and the Machine album from start to finish.   

Chuck Close

I will also remind myself of the remarkable Chuck Close documentary I saw in Portland years ago in which he explains that he is not an artist because he feels like painting everyday - he is an artist because he arrives at his canvas everyday regardless.  This is coming from a man who adapted a completely different & completely incredible style of painting following a spinal artery collapse that left him severely paralyzed and unable to paint in his former photo-realistic way.

Translation: Suck it up and paint, Sheila.

Some - namely the neighbors and five chickens whose coop shares an adjoining wall with my garage studio - would argue that I play certain albums to death. However, there are few things in life I cherish more than the process of falling in love with good music. John O’Donahue once said he considers poems some of his best friends in the world.  Well I can say the same thing about certain. soul-shaping albums. Gregory Alan Isakov’s albums, for example, have carried me through at least a dozen paintings, a few moves, a couple of relationships, and numerous “what the hell is life all about?” moments.   If I ever create a painting half as beautiful as his songs, I will consider my career a success.

Carlos the hen

One band I have played innumerable times over the years is The National.  This is thanks to my friend Corbin - one of individuals preternaturally tuned in to the music scene, discovering incredible new artists years before the rest of us attempt to impress our friends with knowledge of the latest and greatest band. A few weeks ago, I was listening to their song The Geese of Beverly Road for the umpteenth time in my studio as the brisk February air turned colder with the dimming light; the lady hens with their boy names scurrying into the safety of their home for the evening.  As I stood, mixing various skin tones on my cracked palate, I reflected on a line that I had long loved - we’re the heirs to the quivering world.   At that moment, something inspired me to look up the lyrics and I was amazed/defeated to discover that I had the line wrong all these years.  Go figure.  The actual line is, we’re the heirs to the glimmering world.  Not quivering.  Huh.  Well that changes everything.

First, it alters my long held belief that I am a protege of sorts when it comes to song lyrics - not writing them, mind you, but memorizing them.  You know, like Rainman but with Bob Dylan lyrics instead of numbers. I will, as my patient friends can attest to, recite entire verses of whatever song we are listening to on a roadtrip, ensuring they catch every single line and nuance.  Then I will look at them and ask (repeatedly) "Isn't that an AMAZING line?!?"  While living in Guatemala, I actually spent an entire Spanish lesson translating the lyrics of Remember the Mountain Bed with my teacher Jose Carlos, so I could know the genius of Woody Guthrie’s poetry in both English AND Spanish.   Now I know how to be obnoxious in two languages!!

This glimmering discovery also shifted my whole perception from thinking about what is means to be an heir to a trembling world vs. one filled with a hopeful radiance.

So there I stood with cold hands and a blank canvas, reflecting on what else I had wrong all these years, lyrics and otherwise; amazed how utterly clear the word "glimmering" became once I was made aware of it.  The whole experience was reminiscent of one of those maddening Magic Eye puzzles from growing up.  Going half-blind, straining to see the damn hidden object among the million nondescript specks across the page, only to be amazed how blaringly obvious the image was once it popped out at you.  (Or the sweet relief of giving up and lying to your friend "Oh yeah!  Now I see the shark!  There it is!")

Magic eye

However, the more I pondered, the more I realized that although both lines are not correct in a lyrical sense, both are true in a life sense.  We are heirs to a world that is, at once, quivering and glimmering.

A Quivering World:

It is no news flash that we exist in a world struggling to maintain homeostasis.  This delicate balance is exemplified by the photo below.  This devastatingly sad image circulated around Facebook for a time, capturing chief of the Kayapo tribe receiving "the worst news of his life: Dilma, the new president of Brazil, has given approval to build a huge hydroelectric plant (the third largest in the world). It is the death sentence for all the people near the river because the dam will flood 400,000 hectares of forest. More than 40,000 Indians will have to find another place to live. The natural habitat destruction, deforestation and the disappearance of many species is a fact."

Kayapo Chief

This image fills me with an unnameable sense of despair, but I believe it is of absolute importance we don't ignore such travesties. Even still, for a moment I will wish for a less sensitive heart or better yet, a more just world.  I will feel like the heir to a quivering world and curse the injustice of such a crappy inheritance. However, I realize the danger of the word "heir"  is the implication that I am somehow rendered helpless and unresponsible for the world as it is.  In truth I know each decision I make, moment to moment, affects the state of things, even as far away as Brazil.  An idea best summarized by the lovely eloquence of John Muir - "When we try to pick out anything by itself we find that it is bound fast by a thousand invisible cords that cannot be broken, to everything in the universe. "

A Glimmering World:

So here is the good news... (I realize that was a radical shift from Magic Eyes puzzles to massive environmental destruction - so I will attempt to bring it back up a notch here).  While my first reaction when viewing the image of the chief of the Kayapo tribe is to curl up in a fetal ball in the corner, I know ultimately, it should be a call to action.  A call to be like those bold, inspiring individuals who live their lives unafraid of 'falling or catching fire'.  Who allow this life to 'open them, to make them less afraid, more accessible' even in times of deep despair.   Individuals like my inspiring  friends Gabrielle and Chris who are actively working to change our inheritence for the better.  They recently created a documentary - No Water to Waste - in defense of water in their own homeland, Colorado.  Thanks to them and the other John Muirs of the world, we are also heirs to a glimmering world.

Lotus by Sheila Dunn

Alright, for those dedicated readers who made it past the Magic Eye puzzle section, I will attempt to summarize...

A Glimmering, Quivering World.

Last fall, I participated in a life-transformational Anusara yoga training.  One image that sticks out in my mind is my teacher Ulla's lovely story of the lotus flower.  In some yoga traditions, the lotus flower is viewed as symbolic of rising above the ugliness of this world; sitting atop the muck and mud, pristine in it’s purity, never to be touched by the darkness below.  However, in the non-dual Tantric tradition that Ulla studies, the lotus flower is viewed quite differently - as existing only because of the muck and mud, not separate from it.  Our joy and beauty is so often born of our pain and suffering and deny or ignore the experience of the muck and mud is to deny the full spectrum of the human experience.

I recently listened to an interview with Coleman Barks, a poet & translator of Rumi poems, on Living Dialogues with Duncan Campbell.  In the interview, he explains that Rumi did not just praise the sky, like so many mystics, but praised the ground as well.  Rumi said 'you've got to have somewhere to plant your grief seeds, you've got to hoe.  Try to be more like the ground.  The ground has a great generosity in it.  It takes our compost and makes beauty. The rough clod gives back an ear of corn.  So try to be more like that. Give back better than you receive'.

We all need a place to plant our grief seeds, even if those seeds are 400,000 hectares wide.  Everyday we awake to this quivering, glimmering world.  We stand before the canvas of our lives and have the opportunity to create something beautiful, even when we don't feel like it and even when we must teach ourselves to paint in a different way than yesterday.  We find ways to be more like the ground, more like the muck and mud - to give back better than we've received. To live in a way where "that which comes to us as a seed, goes on as blossom, and that which came to us as blossom, goes on as fruit."


Mills Commission by Sheila DunnEarl and Blake by Sheila Dunn