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Perseverance and Practice: Doing Art

“Art is a spiritual practice. We may not, and need not, do it perfectly. But we do need to do  it…Focused on our art, we connect to the artful heart of life. The creative pulse that moves through us moves through all of creation. It could be argued that creativity is a form of prayer, a form of thankfulness and recognition of all we have to be thankful for, walking in this world.” –Julia Cameron, Walking in this World

All morning I’ve been painting on a ceramic teapot that my husband made and called “The Mad Hatter’s Wife.” It’s a tall pot that narrows as it reaches the top. The lid is actually the head of the Mad Hatter’s wife. My husband gave her to me to paint, and in coming up with an idea of what she looked like, I figured that if she is married to the Mad Hatter, I had to make her be a woman who has a good deal of inner power. This would be necessary if living with a crazy man. Though hatters at the time Lewis Carroll was writing went mad as a result of repeated exposure to mercury vapors in the felting process, like also attracts like, and my hunch is that the Mad Hattter’s wife was probably a bit “mad” as well.

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Mad Hatter’s Wife tea pot lid (work in progress)

Married to a “mad” man, she’s likely a bit more individualistic and unique than others around her, and a bit more socially unacceptable as a result. She would’ve had to listen to her own inner voice and follow her own path. Thomas Moore said, “It is only through mystery and madness that the soul is revealed.” The underglaze painting for the Mad Hatter’s Wife needed to reveal the soul of woman connected to her inner power and creativity, I decided. Perhaps she’s named Breena or Brucie, Alva, Erline, Orla, or Tiana– a name having to do with elves or fairies. She’s got to be a bit sassy, too, I’m guessing, as her hand is placed on her hip, and her hip explodes in a sunflower. A woman who has never lost her inner child, I’ve made her body a bit ocean, tree, river, bee, bird, mountain and rainbow. Hers is the kind of madness that keeps one sane. She wears crystals on her arm, and my guess is that she probably can fly (at least in her dreams.)

Mad Hatter's Wife teapot in progress
Mad Hatter’s Wife teapot in progress
Mad Hatter's Wife teapot in progress view 2
Mad Hatter’s Wife teapot in progress view 2

My husband, Michael, gave me the teapot to work on last week, suggesting in a off hand comment to someone that I was going to make it my masterpiece. After hearing that, I realized I needed to paint her in the way that pushed the craftsmanship boundaries beyond what I’ve previously done. (You can see my previous work by going to the Art and Poetry Connections page here on my blog.) Though I want to make her wonderful, the work isn’t turning out as wonderful as I’d like. I want my craftsmanship to be better, but I’m still learning how to control my brush and the flow of the glaze. Different glazes have different textures, and they don’t all flow smoothly or the same. Drawing a perfectly straight line with the brush is difficult. I want the glaze to flow exactly where I want it, and that doesn’t always happen. The materials have their own way of being. I have to marry my effort to the nature of what I’m working with so that I communicate compatibly. Like any relationship, the understanding of how to make the connection look effortless and take on the magic expression of soul takes time.

The element of time and perseverance is something I’ve been thinking about repeatedly this past couple of weeks. It is nearing the end of the school year here, and as often happens when things come to an end, some things unravel while others fall apart so that something new can come into existence. Sometimes reality seems like a series of dreams. You live in one world for a time, and then that phase comes to an end. The location you’ve made your home is no longer yours, and you move somewhere else, take on a new job, or whatever: reality shifts. The whole world changes, almost as if you’re reincarnated. There are so many possible worlds! Even for those of who stay in the same place decade after decade, things still change. All around us the world is changing. What I’ve really been wondering about, though, are the people who have lived in countries where there has been a civil war, or an event like the earthquake in Nepal, where suddenly everything they thought they understood about their world and the foundations they stood on has changed. It takes decades to recover. How do they cope with it? How does anyone keep going in such situations?

Light is such a wonderful thing. I love a room full of light, sun streaming through the trees on a cloudless summer day. When I lived in Riyadh, though, I treasured clouds, and with it, the rain and the darkness–storms, because these were rare. I remember sitting on the edge of the escarpment outside the city and hearing the camels far below calling. If you have the opportunity to watch camels walk, you can notice how graceful they are. The heat can be relentless, the light unbearable, but camels somehow continue on. It made me think about the dark areas in our lives, the shadow places on earth that lie beneath the surface, or that track by in shifting movement–the things, people and places that do not or cannot speak directly. These things speak in language without words, giving voice to the things that can’t be said. Here is the poem I wrote about this when living there:

PERSEVERANCE
Anna Citrino

Black camels lift their calligraphic legs writing invisible letters
across the desert sand, as if drawing up the shadowed calm
hidden inside the light imprinted on the desert floor.

The camels raise their dark, slender limbs and casually wander
through the heated brightness, wooly heads held up
with muscled grace, an act of ease

with no thought of pain or fire. They know how to store water
to carry them through dry and cloudless seasons.
I have heard them groan, the guttural sound

reverberating from deep in the belly like the rumble
miles down inside the earth before the shudder
of tectonic plates. Their voices pull up

the yearnings of hidden worlds, let go the grief
from inside the nameless forms that cannot speak or see.
The camels are the shadows we seek.

Watch them from high up on a cliff, the trails they etch
into blind and heavy earth, letters of unsaid
stories the sun refuses to speak.

________

The writer, Edna Ferber said, “Perhaps too much of everything is as bad as too little.” Camels’ embody perseverance–this nameless longing we have, the suffering of waiting as we trek across deserts, but how do we keep going like they do through the times of heat and emptiness? Though camels can keep walking through the heat, before heading out into shade-barren land, they drink enough to help them hold out. This is something we, too, need to do. We need resources to keep us going. For me, one of the great resources to help me through times like these is art–art in the form of music, poetry, writing, painting, or dance.

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Flight of the Mind writing workshop. Lucille Clifton third from right. Anna next to Lucille Clifton on the right.

Back in the 1990’s I took a workshop with the poet, Lucille Clifton at the Flight of the Mind writer’s workshops (now no longer in existence) outside of Eugene, Oregon. At that workshop, I recall Clifton explaining how poetry humanizes us. “As long as one person is writing poetry,” she said, “the world will be a more human place.” Her words stuck with me, and have gained weight and significance over time. In the act of creating, we transform ourselves and our world. When creating, we are communing with our inner selves, but art, music, poetry, and dance are also communal acts in that they are meant to be shared with others, and in so doing, we reconnect ourselves to others and to our Source.

In Rattle’s interview with Maria Mazziotti Gillan, Gillan describes her journey as a writer to find her truth. “I think poems are in a very deep place inside yourself,” she explains. It took her time to realize who she was as a poet, and this is the risk she encourages others to take as well, to “move down into yourself, and tell the truth.” This confrontation with the truth of ourselves is what transforms us. When creating, we enter into a place of deep listening. We are making a poem, for example, but we are also listening for the words to rise up and connect us with our work. This is what prayer is too: listening. Communing. And art, whether it is writing, music, painting, photography, or dance is a vehicle for listening to our own truth. The deeper we can go into that place, the more we can be transformed. Fiction writer Frederich Busch explained “Good art is a form of prayer. It’s a way to say what is not sayable.” When I write, when I paint, I am connected body to soul, and it allows me to feel alive again, to feel whole. This is how we can all persevere: we go back to a place where we reconnect body and soul–to the creative act, the practice of art.

A couple of millennia ago, St. Paul wrote to the Romans, “For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now. And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body.” Everyone suffers the pains of waiting, of trying to hold on and hold out–to persevere–even creation itself. It’s almost as if loss and suffering are necessary parts of beauty. We sense beauty more keenly when we are aware of loss. Yet, it’s out of this longing and suffering beauty arises.

In Arun Kolatkar’s poem, “An Old Woman” an old woman grabs hold of the speaker’s sleeve, an experience I’ve had myself here in Old Delhi. The woman follows the speaker, begging, and she won’t let go. The speaker wishes to be rid of her, but when the old woman says, “What else can an old woman do/ on hills as wretched as these?” something in the speaker shatters. Her question splits him open, and the world around him as well.

You look right at the sky.
Clear through the bullet holes
she has for her eyes.

And as you look on
the cracks that begin around her eyes
spread beyond her skin.

And the hills crack.
And the temples crack.
And the sky falls

with a plateglass clatter
around the shatterproof crone
who stands alone.

And you are reduced
to so much small change
in her hand.

Beneath our clumsy actions, our imperfect voices and art, somehow, sometimes, someone hears us. They see right into us, and inside that look we see the brokenness that interconnects us all. This is India’s gift to me–the myriad people on the streets like the beggar woman in this poem that mirror my own brokenness and need.

And so, we persevere. We live out Lorca’s “Theory and Play of the Duende,

“The roads where one searches for God are known, whether by the barbaric way of the hermit or the subtle one of the mystic: with a tower, like St. Teresa, or by the three paths of St. John of the Cross. And though we may have to cry out, in Isaiah’s voice: Truly you are a hidden God,’ finally, in the end, God sends his primal thorns of fire to those who seek Him.

Seeking the duende, there is neither map nor discipline. We only know it burns the blood like powdered glass, that it exhausts, rejects all the sweet geometry we understand.”

Art is not just for special people who call themselves artists. Though it is very personal, and an expression of the self, art is for everyone. It is meant to be given to the community. In the expression of our particular story, our dance, or song, we see that we have given expression to the larger community, and in that we find our place again in the human family. We are seen and heard, and through the container of that expression we find a way to endure the particular trials of our day or life–we find a way to continue on.

Art transforms us. So, though my lines on the Mad Hatter’s Wife teapot are crooked, my words not all I wish them to be, though my life continuously falls short, I keep practicing. In the end, the work is not only about the object created. The object is merely the container. The practice is the prayer. This is why we do as Kurt Vonnegut suggested, “To practice art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow. So do it.”

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The Mandorla

Recently I read renowned Jungian psychologist, Robert A. Johnson’s book, Owning Your Own Shadow, Understanding the Dark Side of the Psyche, where I learned about the mandorla. Most people know what a mandala is, but a mandorla, Johnson explains is “that almond-shaped segment that is made when two circles partly overlap…This symbol signifies nothing less than the overlap of the opposites…the overlap of heaven and earth.” Many of Europe’s cathedrals have mandorlas and often either Christ or the Virgin Mary is framed in the mandorla. Johnson says that the mandorla is the place of poetry. Johnson explains that the mandorla can help us when we no longer know how to live between the pull of opposites in our lives. It can help us rebind what is torn apart.

“It is the duty of a true poetry to take the fragmented world that we find ourselves in and to make unit of it…All poetry is based upon the assertion that this is that. When the images overlap, we have a mystical statement of unity. We feel there is safety and sureness in our fractured world, and the poet has given us the gift of synthesis.

Great poetry makes these leaps and unites the beauty and the terror of existence. It has the ability to surprise and shock–to remind us that there are links between the things we have always thought of as opposites.”

Johnson goes on to explain that if we make a practice of our effort to create poetry, we can find a way to see how the two worlds are really a part of each other, part of a larger whole. The space in the center where the circles overlap will grow larger and larger, until we see that everything is actually only part of a larger whole. Essentially, I see what he is talking about like this: We get born into a culture and we learn to place things in certain forms. We learn we are this, but not that. This is part of growing up and we function under the laws and ways of being of that culture. Our culture is just a form, a shape, and it is good to learn the rules for the ways of being that are given to us–it is part of being human. Then, at some point in our lives we go through a kind of crisis when things more or less fall apart or become very difficult, and we move out of that Garden and into the world. It is in this space where there are no clear cut laws that we learn how to have true relationship.

This struggle between opposites, the not heaven and not earth is where we learn authentic relationship and learn who we are–where we do the work of becoming. Maybe this is what St. Paul recognized when he encouraged the followers of Jesus to be in the world but not of the world. (Romans 12:2)  Johnson says that “to balance out our cultural indoctrination, we need to do our shadow work on a daily basis.” By this he means to consciously be aware of it and confront it ritually each day, and to spend time consciously letting it go of it. This has the benefit of not imposing our shadow side on others, which also enables us to do less harm in the world by not feeding the general unrest and conflict that is there. The other result, Johnson says, is “that we prepare the way for the mandorla–that high vision of beauty and wholeness that is the great prize of human consciousness.”  Ceremonies such as the mass of the Christian church, he says is one of the ways culture enables us to live out the unwanted elements symbolically so we do not live it out in real life.

Johnson’s discussion reminds me of Lorca’s essay on duende where Lorca describes how the Muse struggles with death, and in that tension is where great art is born.

As Lorca decribes it–

The true struggle is with the duende.

The roads where one searches for God are known, whether by the barbaric way of the hermit or the subtle one of the mystic: with a tower, like St. Teresa, or by the three paths of St. John of the Cross. And though we may have to cry out, in Isaiah’s voice: Truly you are a hidden God,’ finally, in the end, God sends his primal thorns of fire to those who seek Him.

Seeking the duende, there is neither map nor discipline.

We only know it burns the blood like powdered glass, that it exhausts, rejects all the sweet geometry we understand, that it shatters styles and makes Goya, master of the greys, silvers and pinks of the finest English art, paint with his knees and fists in terrible bitumen blacks, or strips Mossèn Cinto Verdaguer stark naked in the cold of the Pyrenees, or sends Jorge Manrique to wait for death in the wastes of Ocaña, or clothes Rimbaud’s delicate body in a saltimbanque’s costume, or gives the Comte de Lautréamont the eyes of a dead fish, at dawn, on the boulevard.” (Garcia Lorca, Theory and Play of the Duende)

What I especially love about Johnson’s book is in the way it clearly describes large and complex ideas in accessible language.  The work of our lives is to balance being with doing. Our culture strongly emphasizes doing–who we know, what we know, how accomplished we are, how we can market our skills, etc. Johnson is suggests that the more we can balance doing with being the more whole and healthy we will be. He quotes Jung as saying, “Find out what a person fears most, and that is where he will develop next.” Basically, living in the in between places is where we do our soul work, the work that will enable us to move to a greater place of wholeness. We are like Jacob, wrestling with our angel and the place where we can contact the duende is where the art of our life is born, it is where Spirit lives and where we work out our salvation.