The Complete Creative Part 4 : Christian McEwen on the Art of Happiness

 

“What has been planted is the I want! I want! of advertising, which thrives on envy and dissatisfaction. Advertising tells us that happiness can be bought if we will only put our minds to it.” (William Blake, “I Want! I Want!” from For Children: The Gates of Paradise, 1793. 6 cm x 5 cm)

 

The holidays have their bright spots: the homemade bourbon balls, the annual viewing of Charlie Brown and the Grinch, the twinkling lights, spending quality time with family and friends, the Messiah performances and sing-a-longs.

But for most of us, the holidays also mean stress. The extra errands, the shopping, the cooking and baking, the decorating, etc. are hard enough, but it’s our attempt to satisfy the expectations of others that causes most of our anxiety over the holidays. There is pressure to find the right gifts, to have “the perfect” Christmas Day, and to make family, colleagues, and friends happy. Whether this means we make the same-old Jell-O salad or sausage stuffing for Christmas dinner, participate in the Yankee Swap at the office, spend more money than we should on gifts, or lapse into our usual daughter/mother/brother/son/father/sister/friend/favorite aunt/uncle roles, attempting to please others is stressful, particularly when our own values are not aligned with those around us.

If you’re like me, you begin to feel a bit crazy when you don’t have quiet time to think, process, and work on your own creative projects. As artists, we need to “make” and “create” and the holidays disrupt this usual routine. The onslaught of ads urging us to buy, buy, buy! and the frenzy of Christmas consumerism can easily make us feel out of sync with the rest of the culture. It takes intention and awareness to remain true to our own values at this time of year.

 

Writer Christian McEwen (Photo by Jo Eldredge Morrissey)

 

I’ve been struggling to maintain a healthy balance myself this holiday, but a chapter from Christian McEwen’s book World Enough & Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down recently stopped me in my tracks and forced me to step back and think about priorities.

Gwarlingo readers had an overwhelmingly positive response to my last feature on Christian McEwen, and I know some of you have purchased her book already. If you haven’t, do yourself a favor and give World Enough & Time to yourself this holiday season. Christian has much to say about living slowly and deliberately, and this is the perfect book to keep you centered through the holidays and into the New Year. (It’s a thoughtful gift for stressed-out friends and family too.)

Though McEwen currently lives in Northampton, Massachusetts, she grew up in the Borders of Scotland “in a big old-fashioned house” with “beautiful shabby rooms and scented gardens” and “a perpetual drone of adult anxiety about school fees and taxes and the latest heating bill.”

In this excerpt from the final chapter of World Enough & Time, “A Day So Happy,” Christian ponders subjects like consumerism, gratitude, slowness, generosity, and happiness, and shares insights from some of the world’s most interesting writers, thinkers, and artists.

I hope you find Christian’s writing as enriching as I have. But I also hope you find time over the next two weeks to slow down and savor the small, pleasurable moments.

This excerpt from World Enough & Time is my gift to you this holiday season. Enjoy.

 

 

Christian’s book is available now from Bauhan Publishing and UPNE, as well as on Kindle and Nook. You can also purchase a copy through your favorite bookstore on Indie-Bound or on Amazon, though distribution may be slower from these sources. You can also send $25 to Christian McEwen at 101 Washington Avenue # 2, Northampton, MA 01060, and Christian will send you a signed copy of her book by return.

 

 

 

World Enough & Time by Christian McEwen

From Chapter 12:  “A Day So Happy”

 

 

Take someone who doesn’t keep score,

who’s not looking to be richer, or afraid of losing, 

who has not the slightest interest even

in his own personality. He’s free.

Rumi

 

 

 

“I want! I want!”

In May 1793, William Blake published a strange little etching. It shows a naked sprite poised at the foot of a long ladder that leads up and up into the sky, grazing the slim crescent of the moon. The sprite’s voice is visible in the caption underneath. “I want! I want!” it says.

American astronauts landed on the moon in 1969. But here on earth, the sprite’s thin voice still whines across our airwaves: confirmation of our “hungry ghost” economy.  In the Buddhist tradition, the hungry ghost has a huge belly and a tiny throat, but however much it eats, it’s never satisfied. In the same way, we in the United States live with continually exacerbated “wanting-mechanisms,” always hurried, harried, obsessive, greedy, yearning. Such greed and neediness shows up even in our children, as Naomi Shihab Nye writes in one of her poems:

 

Since when do children sketch dreams with price-tags attached?

Don’t tell me they were born this way.

We were all born like empty fields.

What we are now shows what has been planted.

 

What has been planted is the I want! I want! of advertising, which thrives on envy and dissatisfaction. Advertising tells us that happiness can be bought if we will only put our minds to it, that we need only acquire the right house, the right appliances, the right car and TV and personal computer, and perpetual satisfaction will be ours. In the last sixty years, we have listened attentively to such messages, and done our best to put them into practice. We consume twice as much now as we did in 1945. Our houses are three times as big as they were then. We are forever stockpiling more possessions. But happiness has continued to elude us.

 

Jenny Holzer, “Protect me from what I want,” 1982. Times Square, New York City

 

According to a recent health survey, Americans are, in fact, the unhappiest people on the planet.  9.6% of us suffer from depression or bi-polar illness – the highest rate of all the nations surveyed. In 2006 alone, some 227 million antidepressant medications were prescribed in the United States. Even the very richest among us claim an average happiness of 5.8 (on a scale of 0 to 7), the equivalent of the Inuit people of Greenland, and the cattle-herding Masai of Kenya. Meanwhile, the South Pacific island of Vanuatu, whose people live in mud huts with no electricity or running water, and whose only currency is pigs, has been rated as the happiest place on earth.

I am writing this in October 2008, when the $700 billion bailout package has just been signed into law. The aging colossus of American capitalism has already begun to falter. It is clear, even now, that our easy assumptions of privilege, our many years of greed and peace and prosperity, are finally drawing to a close. Not even the richest and most well ensconced can be certain of what lies ahead. At such times, a capacity for happiness is far from trivial. It is, instead, one of the few crucial strengths we have available: potent antidote to self-absorption and despair, welcome guide to grace and gratitude and praise.

 

 

 

The Art of Happiness

The Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, says that the most precious gift a parent can provide is the gift of his or her own happiness. Happy parents give rise to happy children who themselves grow into happy adults. But what exactly constitutes that happiness? It’s not something that our culture knows very much about.

The DSM IV (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) is the ur-text of the American Psychiatric Association, found on the shelves of every psychiatrist, psychologist, and psychotherapist in the nation. It lists each flickering ailment in the human psyche, from autism to pyromania. But there’s no matching catalogue of mental well-being, distinguishing joy and pleasure, gladness and delight; no carefully alphabetized definitions of glee and gusto, felicity and bliss, rapture, jubilation and enchantment. Even now, professional books and articles having to do with anger, anxiety and depression outnumber those dealing with joy and happiness by some fourteen to one.

Only in the last couple of decades has this begun to change, with the publication of Martin Seligman’s Authentic Happiness, and the now classic opus, Flow, by his friend and colleague, Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced “cheeks-sent-me-high,” Seligman informs us, helpfully). Both have been instrumental in shifting focus from pathology and mental illness to what they call “positive psychology,” or, in layperson’s terms, the art and analysis of human happiness. According to Seligman’s modest formula, happiness is determined by someone’s personal “set-point” (which may well be genetic), plus the current conditions of their life and whatever voluntary activities they choose to undertake. As he explains it:

 

             H = S + C + V

 

where S (the set-point) equals 50%; C (circumstances) equal 10%; and V (voluntary activities) account for the remaining 40%. What is striking here is how little satisfaction is contributed by such longed-for attributes as fame and fortune, good looks, education, social status, even health. Nor do more intractable facts such as age, sex, ethnicity, or local climate appear to make much difference to the equation. According to Seligman, all these things are subsumed under “circumstances,” and account for no more then 10-15% of our total well-being.

Seligman does admit that some circumstances are more favorable than others. Climate may have little bearing on one’s happiness, but the larger social structure matters a great deal. A wealthy, peaceful western democracy is much preferable to an impoverished dictatorship. It also helps to have a job, or creative work that one enjoys, and to be gregarious and outgoing: to make time for church or volunteer work, a sustaining social network. Marriage, in particular, is what is called a “robust” indicator of happiness. But none of these categories is ultimately definitive. Seligman’s V (voluntary activities) still account for some 40% of human happiness. In other words, there are choices that will enhance it, both internal and external, choices that involve what Seligman calls one’s “signature strengths,” and that in turn open into joyful self-forgetfulness or “flow.”

“How do you manage to be so happy all the time?” Lindsey Abrams asked short-story writer, Grace Paley. “Even when things really aren’t going very well?”

“I just decided,” Paley told her. “At one point in my life, I just decided to be happy.”

From Seligman’s point of view, Paley decided to look with curiosity and gratitude at the past, and with hope and optimism at the years to come, She decided to savor the momentary pleasures that came her way (the smell of wood-smoke drifting across the yard, a brilliant sunset) and to give herself over to the practice of her own inimitable skills, in her case, a deliciously original literary voice. She also acknowledged how much happiness could be enhanced when one decided to slow down: to sit late over breakfast with family or beloved friends; to allow time for reading, resting, dreaming.

My mother tells a story about St. John the Evangelist, the disciple Jesus loved. One day he was sitting with a hen partridge on his wrist, gently caressing her feathers, when a hunter happened to pass by.

“How can it be,” he asked, “that a holy man like you should choose to waste his time in such a way?”

The saint smiled, and answered with another question. “And you, as a hunter, why don’t you always keep your bow tight strung and at the ready?”

“If I did that,” said the hunter, “my bow would lose its strength and flexibility. It wouldn’t serve me when the moment came to shoot.”

“Just so,” replied the saint. “And in the same way, I take the chance to relax, so as to give myself more fully to my prayers. It’s a mistake to be so committed to one’s practice that one never allows any time for recreation….”

 

“How do you manage to be so happy all the time?” Lindsey Abrams asked short-story writer, Grace Paley. “Even when things really aren’t going very well?” “I just decided,” Paley told her. “At one point in my life, I just decided to be happy.” (Grace Paley photo by Dorothy Marder)

 

 

 

Crisis & Opportunity

Often, as I stand in yet another line waiting to show my driver’s license and my boarding pass, waiting to set my coat and shoes in yet another plastic trug, I wonder how it would be if my flying mates and I were a little less preoccupied and self-absorbed, a little less comfortably naïve. What if we were refugees waiting for food or water to be distributed? What if we had lost our cars, our homes, our bank-accounts? What if, like a fifth of all the people in Iraq today, we had been internally displaced? Would we still be tapping away at our BlackBerries, turning the tired pages of our magazines, grumbling at all the time we had to wait?

When I began teaching in the 1980s, my older students were in their mid sixties and early seventies, which meant they had been young adults during World War Two. They remembered London during the Blitz: the blacked-out windows, the broken buildings, the empty craters where someone’s house once stood. But they remembered the kindness, too, the generosity. Like the fireweed and brambles that colonized the torn-up bomb-sites, human virtue flourished in the chaos.

In a recent essay, Rebecca Solnit describes the warmth and neighborliness in the days after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. Sixty-three people in the Bay Area died in the quake, and its blackouts and freeway collapses caused chaos for millions more. But as she writes, it also “shook us out of our everyday grudges and created a rare sense of fellowship.” Crisis created camaraderie. It was no longer possible to be punctual or efficient in the usual ways, nor to maintain the greedy want-want-want perspective.  Instead, there was the gift of present time, in which “nobody went to work and everybody talked to strangers.”

If William James is right, and most of our usual misfortunes stem from loneliness, then crisis heals at least one chronic ailment, plus granting the rare chance to be heroic. After the planes crashed into the World Trade Center towers, hundreds of thousands of people were evacuated from Lower Manhattan – not by the police or the coast guard or the fire department, but, as Solnit points out – by a private armada of sailboats and barges and ferries, manned by ordinary untrained citizens. Ordinary self-interest would have sent them straight back home. Instead, crisis blossomed into opportunity.

Sometimes the journey is a shared and public one; sometimes it is considerably more private.

When my brother James killed himself in the summer of 1983, I was staying with friends at a farm outside Poughkeepsie. Stunned, I sat for hours at an upstairs window, looking down at the swaying purple blossoms of the loosestrife, the small birds flirting and playing in the willow trees. My brother had died on June 18th, but by the time I learned the news it was late on 21st, and my friends had already planned a Solstice celebration. Each of us was to fix a candle to a cedar shingle, and set it floating across the dark waters of the pond: carrying a wish, a hope, a silent prayer.

After supper, a group of us gathered together at the water’s edge. One by one, we lit a candle, and sent our rafts spinning out across the pond. I had prepared two shingles, one for James and one for me. Carefully, I placed them in the water. Other people began to talk and move away. But I stood watching for a long time, the small flames glinting like fireflies in the darkness. I had no words just then, but the image alone was sustaining: light on water, light on water, light.

Next morning, when I went back to the pond, James’ raft and mine were side by side, bobbing together in the dark green reeds. Even in the midst of misery, I felt strangely grateful.

 

The Loma Prieta earthquake “shook us out of our everyday grudges and created a rare sense of fellowship,” writes Rebecca Solnit.

 

 

 

Turning Inwards

For Solnit, such crises work like a “crash course in consciousness,” forcing us to be aware of our own mortality, and deepening our awareness of the present moment.  When my friend Maia fell sick with an especially virulent strain of chronic fatigue, she was thirty years old: a single mother with two young children, going to school and working, and trying to maintain some sort of creative life. She was an all-A student, and had published several of her poems. But she was getting almost no sleep. In retrospect, she says, “It was ridiculous, what I was trying to do.”

Maia and I talk on the phone at least twice a month, but I haven’t seen her face-to-face for almost twenty years. I stare at her photograph: the rippling blonde hair, the wide-set blue eyes, trying to conjure her up, this dear friend, now in her sixties. It is hard to admit, but Maia has been sick for more than half her life. Clearly there have been losses at the very deepest level. She can hardly imagine how it might feel to be healthy again. Most of all, she says, she misses energy and spontaneity: those times when one has an idea, and is free to act on it immediately and with abandon. “You feel the joy of exuberance and stamina and all of that,” she tells me. “Being sick means that you don’t have that any more – that’s broken.”

But the opportunities are real and potent, too, not least in the surrender to a deepened receptivity, a strangely clarified and focused mode of looking. As she explains,

“Turning inward is so much more continuous. You discover not just the outside of things, but the inside, too. It’s as if you are studying color and light for days and days; as if you’re slowing down so much that you could slip between the molecules. You can watch clouds being born, really see them in the act, not as something accomplished, but gathering together and then withering away and disappearing and being utterly gone. You watch the whole entire cycle that you never usually see because it takes such time and stillness.

“And in the same way you can accumulate knowledge of people’s feelings, you can watch them accumulate and reinforce each other, and you realize they belong to the same family of disappearing forms. People talk of the 10,000 things, but instead of the 10,000 things, there are really only a few moments and gestures. So it’s a great compensation. It’s astonishing really, how intricate it is.”

In recent years, Maia has volunteered as a phone-mentor, teaching Buddhist meditation to beginning students. Often, she is exhausted by the daily challenges of her life. But then again she finds her way. “The best part of the day is when the students call. I forget everything, just to be with them.” Her gift to them has become a source of energy; in helping them, she also recovers clarity and inspiration for herself…

 

“If you are generous to someone,” says Twyla Tharp, “you are in effect making him [or her] lucky. That is important. It is like inviting yourself into a community of good fortune.”

 

Gratitude & Generosity

Meister Eckhart told us centuries ago that if our only prayer were thank you, that would be enough. But for many of us, gratitude comes grudgingly and awkwardly, if it comes at all. How, then, might we best teach ourselves a deeper courtesy, not with a brow-beaten guilty “should,” but from the heart?

The Japanese have a practice called naikan (pronounced “nye-con”) specifically designed to nurture gratitude. It was developed in the 1940s by a Buddhist businessman called Ishin Yoshimoto, and is currently used in marriage counseling and addiction centers, as well as in schools and business settings.  The word naikan means “looking inside” or “seeing oneself with the mind’s eye,” and that spacious, open-hearted self-reflection is exactly what naikan practice is all about. Those who want to try it, set aside a week of uninterrupted time, during which they think back over the story of their lives, focusing in turn on their mother and father, friends, teachers, siblings, colleagues, partners and children, and asking of each the same three questions:

What have I received from this person? 

What have I given to him or her? 

What troubles or difficulties have I caused?

Little by little, they allow the answers to surface, first covering the period from birth to nine years old, and then from nine to twelve, and so in three year increments up to the present time. They do this with the greatest specificity they can muster. Not, “My parents always celebrated my birthday,” but rather, “On my sixth birthday my parents gave me a red wicker sewing-box. On my seventh birthday, they gave me a watch with a pale blue leather strap. On my eighth birthday, they bought me a bright blue bicycle, which I loved.”

In working through these questions one by one, and in facing what is called “the missing fourth question” (What troubles or difficulties has so-and-so caused me?), participants come to recognize just how much they have received over the course of their lives, and how deeply their own story is entwined with everyone else’s. Rilke said once that reaching out with joy, “alters the past within us, and dissolves the foreign body of pain,” and this certainly seems to be the message of naikan. Too often, we believe that our past is set in stone. Naikan teaches us to question this, emphasizing that our lives are based, at least in part, on what we choose to notice

[my emphasis], and that this is something we have power to alter…

The practice of naikan tends to jumpstart that sense of gratitude, transforming chronic low-grade guilt into the “happy problem” of reparation. One can also start from gift-giving in the first place. My friend Kathy O’Rourke says that her grandfather always advised her to be generous, especially if things were going badly. “If you’re feeling poor or miserable, give something away – time or money or material goods – and immediately you’ll feel better.”

It is easy to dismiss this as naive and unrealistic. But I will never forget a scene I witnessed on a subway train in New York City, when a young Hispanic mother and her two small children tried to give some money to a homeless man. The children were dressed in their best clothes, a stiff suit, a little dress, as if they were on their way to church or Sunday School. They approached the man shyly, each holding out a dime. At first he frowned and shook his head and refused to take the money. But their mother was urging them from behind, and the children persisted.

Finally the man allowed them to drop their coins into his cup. But then something completely unexpected happened. He put one hand on the top of the cup, shook it up and down with an elaborate flourish, and, with a smile, extracted two shining quarters, presenting one to each astonished child. They had given him 20 cents and he had multiplied it two and a half times.  He was not a homeless man that day, he was a magician and a millionaire. He had all the money he could ever need.

The dancer and choreographer, Twyla Tharp, would have loved this moment. In her book on creativity, she urges her readers to be generous. “If you are generous to someone, you are in effect making him [or her] lucky. That is important. It is like inviting yourself into a community of good fortune.” In other words, generosity is generative (they come, in fact, from the same root, the Latin genere: to engender, or be born). Kindness is itself a creative act.

In his memoirs, Pablo Neruda tells a story from his very early childhood. He was outside playing, exploring the back garden, when he came upon a hole in the wooden fence. As he watched, a child’s hand appeared, and almost immediately vanished, leaving behind a magnificent toy sheep. The sheep’s wool was torn and faded, and its wheels were missing. But for Neruda, it was a miracle. He ran home and returned with one of his own treasures, a ripe pinecone, smelling deliciously of resin, and set it down in the place of the sheep. He never saw the other child again. But that small, mysterious exchange remained with him for the rest of his life,  “deep and indestructible, giving [his] poetry light.”

 

 

 

 

Enough Already

An act of spontaneous generosity (like Neruda’s; like the one I witnessed on the train) has the power to color the whole day. It is infinitely more powerful, in terms of lasting happiness, than an act of spontaneous self-indulgence. For all the blandishments of the  advertising industry, it is entirely possible that we need not more but less than we imagine. “I make myself rich by making my wants few,” said Thoreau, famously. There is a similar story about Socrates, who turned to one of his disciples as great quantities of gold and jewels were being carried through the streets of Athens. “Look how many things there are which I don’t want!” he cried, exultantly.

As psychologists have repeatedly pointed out, money does not buy happiness. The “happy poor” are often more serene and satisfied than the stressed-out rich. Most Americans would agree with this, having themselves come to believe that there is a “negative correlation” between happiness and progress. Some 5-10% of the U.S. workforce now define themselves as “downshifters,” eager to trade an 80 hour work week for a slower, saner, less materialistic life. The current recession, deepening into depression, may force almost all of us to think in just such terms. Meanwhile, we need not wait for some grand utopian future. As Howard Zinn says, “To live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all the bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory….”

 

 

 

Seize the Day

In almost every Indo-European language, the word for happiness is linked with the word for luck or fate or fortune. It derives from happe, the Middle English word for chance, hence “happenstance,” and “hapless” and “perhaps.”  In other words, it contains a strong element of uncertainty. Efforts to annihilate that uncertainty, lead, not surprisingly, to “unhappiness” or what Buddhists would call “suffering.” For almost all of us, happiness depends enormously on letting go, dropping our own willed insistent management, and opening into a more flexible and spacious, and above all playful relationship with time.

French poet Robert Desnos

Susan Griffin tells a story about the French poet, Robert Desnos. He had been captured by the Nazis, and sent to a concentration camp. On this particular day, he was being driven to the gas chambers, along with many others. The mood was somber; no one felt able to speak. But when the truck reached its destination, Desnos leapt down, and grabbed the hand of one of the other prisoners. Unlikely as it sounds, he began to read the man’s palm.

“Ah,” he said. “I see you have a very long lifeline. You will marry and have three children. You will be very happy.” His exuberance was startling. It was also contagious. As he proceeded down the line, one prisoner after another held out an eager palm. And the predictions were always the same: riches, longevity, children, abundant joy.

The minutes passed, and Desnos continued to read palms. Who knows why the camp guards did not stop him? Perhaps they were intrigued by him: his courage, his sheer audacity. It was as if, in some curious way, his imaginative authority overpowered their uniforms, their guns. In any case, the events of that day, which had seemed so painfully predictable, spiraled round and took another turn. All the prisoners, Desnos among them, were ordered back onto the truck, and returned to camp.

“Art,” wrote Saul Bellow, “has something to do with the achievement of stillness in the midst of chaos… an arrest of attention in the midst of distraction.” (Photo: Bellow in 1977 courtesy the University of Chicago)

“Art,” wrote Saul Bellow, “has something to do with the achievement of stillness in the midst of chaos… an arrest of attention in the midst of distraction.” There is an art to living as well as an art to writing, and at that moment, Desnos personified both. When he leapt down from the truck and began telling fortunes, or when the homeless man transformed those small dimes into quarters, their playfulness seemed almost instantaneous. But such quicksilver wit is grounded in a time outside of time, a trust in fortune and in happenstance. It is the gift of Kairos, the trickster god, the god of lucky coincidence. “You must take Kairos by the hair, or he escapes –”

E.B. White said that habitually creative people were “prepared to be happy,” and for the most part, I’d agree with him. I think of Virginia Woolf, alert to the most modest daily pleasures: a new nib to her pen, a passing omnibus. I think of Monet, paintbrush at the ready. When he painted clouds, he had to act with some dispatch, because on an average day, a given effect lasted barely thirty minutes. In that brief half hour, he had to catch all the changing colors of the sky, the shifting clouds, the sudden bursts of light. Like Desnos, he had to “seize the day,” surrendering to that magic state called “flow” – a transcendent, concentrated swathe of time, in which the self dissolves into its present task, and all ordinary self-consciousness falls away.

When we look back across the small track of our achievements, we tend to set most store by the skills we’ve had to work for: the A+ for math, or the painfully acquired ability to play the piano. But twined in and out of our more dogged accomplishments, there’s almost always something that comes easy, something we do happily and skillfully and without too much effort. Such a gift is our true north in terms of finding our way, lighting up the path as it appears under our feet. No less a person than Descartes believed that what he called “interior joy,” had the power to “make luck more favorable.”

I have often noticed that the things I have done with a happy heart, and with no inner repugnance, have a habit of succeeding happily, even during games of chance, where only fortune rules.

 

 

“[N]obody sees a flower really,” wrote Georgia O’Keeffe, “– it is so small – we haven’t time – and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time.” Georgia O’Keeffe, “Red Poppy VI, 1928. (Photo courtesy Wikipaintings.org)

 

 

 

A Day So Happy

“Refuse and choose,” I said at the beginning of this book. Refuse the rush and skim and misery of distraction; insist, wherever possible, on taking time. I think here of the many poems that have been written encouraging us simply to pay attention, from Whitman’s long, resounding inventories to Adam Zagajewski’s, “Try to Praise the Mutilated World,” published in the New Yorker the week after 9/11. And I think too, of Georgia O’Keeffe, and the words she wrote in a long ago letter to a friend: “[N]obody sees a flower really – it is so small – we haven’t time – and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time.”

Taking time to look, to look again, is itself a joy, reminding us of those moments when the veil of the ordinary is drawn aside, and what is seen is (scintillatingly) revealed as miracle. Milosz’s poem, “Gift,” describes just such an epiphany.

 

A day so happy.

Fog lifted early, I walked in the garden.

Hummingbirds were stopping over honeysuckle flowers.

There was no thing on earth I wanted to possess.

I knew no one worth my envying him.

Whatever evil I had suffered, I forgot.

To think that once I was the same man did not embarrass me.

In my body I felt no pain.

When straightening up, I saw the blue sky and sails.

 

My friend Maia says that if you have an open heart, you are fed by everything: “Everything becomes the breast.” The more one can disengage from one’s own self-centered myopia, the more the world, in all its glory, rushes in to fill the gap. Gratitude creates a space in which nothing is not welcome: the fog, the hummingbirds, the blue sky and the sails. And when this is true for the writer or the artist him or herself, it can also become true for those who read or see or otherwise receive their work.

The painter Jon Schueler was an Abstract Expressionist, who settled for a while on the west coast of Scotland, near the little fishing town of Mallaig. He filled his canvases with rich and swirling marks, which at the same time mirrored the surrounding seascape, and the islands of Eigg and Rum and Skye.  Perhaps because he had served in the Air Force during World War Two (and therefore knew the sky in three dimensions) he was particularly fond of painting clouds.

Early in 1971, Schueler had a show at the Mallaig Village Hall. Tea and biscuits were served, and a sizable crowd turned up, among them a man called Robert Poole, his wife, and their two sons. The family stayed on for much of the afternoon. In fact, they seemed so interested that Schueler asked them back to his studio to look at his other work. Some time afterwards, he ran into Bob Poole in the street, and was invited to his office for a cup of tea.

“I wanted to explain,” said Poole, “why your paintings meant so much to me.”

His wife was a sensitive woman, who loved poetry. But she’d had a serious nervous breakdown a few years back, and after that she’d lost her sense of color. “Everything turned to gray. Nature was gray, she lived in a world of gray.” The poor woman was in despair. She began to believe she would never see color again. But then, Schueler’s show opened at the Village Hall, and she and her family went to look at it. And while they were looking at the paintings, Mrs. Poole regained her sense of color.

“That’s why we stayed the rest of the afternoon,” her husband said. “The color was there for her, even in the grays. And that night in our house, she could still see color, and the next morning when she woke up. She took a long walk along the shore of Loch Morar, and the color never left her, nor has it to this day.”

 

Jon Schueler, “Gold and Silver Grey,” 1975. (Painting © the Jon Schueler Estate)

 

I love this story, the shy way Schueler tells it in his autobiography, Poole’s careful thanks, the unassuming, life-transforming miracle. Art, attention, gratitude and grace. A quiet healing, ordinary joy. I know these things in my own body. For several years now, my head has felt loose on my shoulders, and I too have felt oddly permeable, no longer so tightly wound. Little shards of self fly off into the wind, and frankly, I am glad to see them go.

In the same way as one pulls the petals from a daisy, she loves me, she loves me not, so too one can pluck one letter at a time from familiar words, revealing the core beneath. My friend Verandah (who invented the term, “pluck words”) is especially fond of examples like “slaughter” and “laughter” where the missing letter not only transforms the meaning of the word, but alters its sound as well. My own favorites center on a little cluster of words that seem, like koans, to conceal a deeper meaning. It is as if one bit into a juicy peach to find its wizened stone, or broke apart an egg to show its golden yolk. For example, when where is plucked, it reveals the answer here; less is the hidden wisdom crouching inside bless; your gives way to the more generous-hearted our; and the small domestic hearth expands into the cosmic earth. Most miraculous of all, perhaps, eyes open into an all-confirming yes.

In the I Ching, when a line of the oracle reaches its most extreme, expansive state, it swings back, like a pendulum, into its own opposite. The technical term for this is enantiodromia.

It seems possible to me that our culture of speed and confusion, busyness and overwhelm, has reached just such a state, and that the time has come for the quick double-flip of transformation, from greed to gratitude, from isolation and depression to community and calm. “Let your last thinks all be thanks,” said W.H. Auden, and certainly there is much to be thankful for.

Or, as Wu-Men put it long ago,

 

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn,

a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter.

If your mind isn’t crowded with ten thousand things,

this is the best season of your life.

 

 

(Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

 

Christian’s book is available now from Bauhan Publishing and UPNE, as well as on Kindle and Nook. You can also purchase a copy through your favorite bookstore on Indie-Bound or on Amazon, though distribution may be slower from these sources because of the book’s popularity. You can also send $25 to Christian McEwen at 101 Washington Avenue # 2, Northampton, MA 01060, and Christian will send you a signed copy of her book by return.

Thanks to Christian McEwen and Bauhan Publishing for granting permission to reprint sections of this chapter.

More information about Christian McEwen and her work as a writer, poet, and teacher is available on her website. To learn more about her workshops, please email her at christianmcewen (at) aol (dot) com.

 

An Update on the Gwarlingo Membership Drive

Thanks to all of the readers who have contributed to the Gwarlingo Membership Drive. Instead of selling out to advertisers, I’m “selling out” to my readers instead! 65 Gwarlingo readers have contributed so far and just over $5000 of the $15,000 goal has been raised. The interactive Member Profiles available to donors who give $50 are more are proving to be popular, and because Rachel Perry Welty’s artist book sold out so quickly, I have just added a new perk for $100 donors–a limited edition catalog by Margaret Lanzetta. If you haven’t donated yet, you can check out my video and all of the member rewards here on the Gwarlingo site.

And don’t miss the next Gwarlingo installment of The Complete Creative series. Stay up on the latest art news by having Gwarlingo delivered to your email inbox. It’s easy, free, and your email address will never be shared with a third party. You can also follow Gwarlingo on Twitter and Facebook.

 

About the Author:

I’ve spent almost 20 years helping thousands of successful artists of all disciplines and working to make the arts more accessible. (One friend likes to call me “the arts enabler.”) From 1999-2012 I worked at The MacDowell Colony, the nation’s oldest artist colony, but I've also done time at an arts magazine, a library, an art museum, and a raptor rehabilitation center. In May of 2012 I left MacDowell to pursue writing, speaking, curating, and creative projects full-time. In 2015 I was named a “Top 100 Artist, Innovator, Creative” by Origin magazine. I've appeared as an arts and culture commentator on New Hampshire Public Radio, and in 2017 I was the recipient of the Wampler Art Professorship at James Madison University. I am the founder of the Gwarlingo Salon series, which connects artists like DJ Spooky with rural audiences in the Monadnock region. In 2017 my collaborator Corwin Levi and I will publish our first book, Mirror Mirrored, which combines Grimms’ fairy tales with vintage illustration remixes and the work of contemporary artists like Kiki Smith, Carrie Mae Weems, and Amy Cutler. I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, but have called New Hampshire home since 1999. My studio is located in the historic, mill village of Harrisville. I miss fried okra, the early southern spring, and restaurants that stay open past 9:00 p.m., but rural life agrees with me. In New Hampshire I can see the stars, go kayaking or snowshoeing, watch bald eagles fish in the lake, and focus on my creative work in silence. I no longer have to worry about traffic jams; deer, wild turkeys, and frost heaves are the primary road hazards here. Although I live in the country, I’m fortunate enough to be part of a vibrant arts community that extends beyond this small New England village. The quiet days are punctuated by regular travel and frequent visits to museums, theaters, readings, arts events, lectures, and open studios around the country. (You can read my full CV here.) Thanks for visiting Gwarlingo. I hope you'll be in touch.

3 Comments

  1. Give Yourself More Fully | LIFE/form January 13, 2013 at 10:36 am

    […] The Complete Creative Part 4 : Christian McEwen on the Art of Happiness | gwarlingo. Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this. Tagged Christian McEwen, Gwarlingo, Pause, Prayer […]

  2. Jane March 9, 2013 at 11:50 pm

    After reading this article all I can do is drop my bad mood like the stone it is, throw my hat over a windmill and shout: “Yippee!! Hooray! Hooray!
    Thank you for such a beautiful piece (peace?) and for the wondrrful contenton this newly discoverd Gwarlingo.

    • Michelle Aldredge March 10, 2013 at 12:33 am

      Thanks for your lovely message, Jane. I’m working on a new Complete Creative piece now I think you’ll enjoy. Stay tuned!

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