Comfort zones redux

What do we mean by “comfort zone”? People use it frequently, especially in self-improvement and creativity-related writing. Has it become an empty phrase? It’s so subjective–which is entirely the point, I suppose. If we can manage to agree on what the idea means, we still must confront the continuum of such a zone. I reflect on my tolerance for aesthetic discomfort often, especially when I am reading or observing creative work. For example, I like listening to jazz; some jazz soothes, some excites, and some takes effort to hear–I have to be in the mood for confrontational experiments with sound such as performances by The Art Ensemble of Chicago.imagesAEC

Similarly, while I love art, I cannot imagine living with “Guernica” on the wall…or Goya’s “The Third of May.” Or anything by Francis Bacon. Some creative works are meant to push viewers out of their comfort zones; some are no doubt as uncomfortable to create as they are to view. A work of art that takes emotional and craft risks puts the artist not only at risk of critical rage or misinterpretation of intentions, but also at the very personal risk of failure.

And that effort is important, that willingness to fail. Without it, nothing invented or imagined can be achieved.

I am not a good painter, and trying to paint clouds or winter trees or landscapes means I am going to paint bad pictures. I have better gardening skills than painting skills, but I love trying a new seed or plant or cultivation method, even though the results often don’t succeed. Pushing the comfort zone has mixed but invaluable rewards.

Poems practically cry out to enter such territory. Often I find that even poems that contain in their lines and imagery moments of hope or great love and comfort simultaneously discomfit me. It fascinates me; how does the poet first compose, then revisit and revise, the poem that must surely be even more uncomfortable to write–to confront? (Search for any anthology on a difficult topic and therein will be many such poems.) Most of us prefer to avoid pain zones, so we stay within our comfort zones.

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In Zechariah 12:2, the Lord promises terrible punishments for the enemies of Judah. Elaine Scarry approaches the conundrum of pain’s subjectivity (among other things) in The Body in Pain. I find wonder and ideas in the continuum of pain zones, in the concept of pain as punishment versus the concept that life is dukkha and inevitably contains suffering, and many other perspectives that people take concerning anything from mild emotional stress to mental illness, age-related physical problems, various forms of “disability,” and the Wong-Baker FACES pain rating scale.

Here, from WORDPEACE online, a poem of my own that I found uncomfortable to write, and which some readers have told me is uncomfortable to read. Taking the risk:

A Cup of Reeling [for the sufferers]

“Pain is…language-destroying.” Elaine Scarry

It is I am told all in my head but the body how the body loves the head
where language resides in the soft and voluble brain
and hurt undoes every synapse until sweat and stress the bullet
between clenched teeth [as if to aid?] good god deliver me
groan swear-word ululation weep and reeling, eloquence undone.
The crucible my own right leg: fire pulley strain does not allow
gravity or, god, motion, my evidence convincing to me only to me
unavailable to others [no one privy to, spare me, my—agony—
no object but destruction of objects no intention but self-obliteration]
Pain’s constructed in waiting rooms, waiting for morphine
or anything anything; I am animal in pain and sentient in my pain.
Good god who dares believe in me now that I believe in nothing?

 

~

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Storms

This week, I’m reflecting on Kyna Leski‘s marvelous little book The Storm of Creativity. How to describe this text? It’s written by someone who teaches architecture as well as designs spaces, and who reads across disciplines and thinks both deeply and widely. It is not a how-to book; more of a how-it-works book. I learned of this book through Deborah Barlow (in 2015!) and finally have gotten around to reading it.

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Leski uses the analogy of a storm system, from moisture in the ground or bodies of water through the gathering of the storm organizing itself into, say, a hurricane, and takes the process all the way through to dissipation (a kind of “death”) and restarting the cycle, when what we have is new again–and will not be exactly the same next time.

Rob Harle, reviewing the book, says:

“Leski’s approach is far better and much more practical than those found in books that delve deeply into neurophysiology, neuro-transmitters in the brain and so on when trying to understand what happens when creative people work. The neurological approach may be useful as far as it goes, and for specialized reasons. However, knowing that a certain neurotransmitter fires up a certain part of the brain doesn’t help us understand, or more importantly, deal with, for example, writer’s block. Leski’s storm metaphor and analysis does!”

Her vimeo video offers an animated visual of the storm process.

Here’s the thing: she captures the process as I myself experience it. I keep re-reading sections of this book and nodding in recognition. I am not the sort of person who spends much time analyzing creativity; I prefer to read how other people analyze the process and decide whether their reflections or analyses dovetail with my own. In this case, yes. For me, anyway, the creative process organizes like a storm.

The gathering part of the work coincides with that aspect of writing that I call observing. Gathering is a good word for it (Leski uses denotations and etymology as she defines her process, so that appeals to me, too). There’s a phrase my relatives used referring to someone daydreaming or loafing reflectively: “woolgathering.” Despite this interesting inquiry into the appropriateness of the phrase to mean loafing or daydreaming, in our family it meant daydreaming. I used to think the phrase referred to watching clouds–one of my favorite activities as a child–because clouds often look like wool. At any rate, woolgathering’s essential to my writing practice.

And sometimes, those clouds collect together, and create a storm.

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Acedia

While sorting through my work, I found a poem titled “Acedia,” and I have been musing on the concept again. The poem (below) referred, when I wrote it, to a kind of numb depressive state. In contemporary English, the term means boredom, ennui, apathy–with connotations of a spiritual aspect to the torpor. PsyWeb says, “Acedia refers to a failure of will to control one’s longings or reactions to daily life, while depression is considered a medical condition or a failure of the body.”

Doing a bit of research into the etymology and history of the word took me to the Desert Fathers, Christian hermits in the early centuries of the faith. Acedia referred very specifically to a kind of spiritual laziness. Here’s a little tour of the history by Kelsey Kennedy on Atlas Obscura:

Evagrius was a member of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, a group of devout Christian monks and hermits who lived in the Egyptian desert beginning in the third century. By the time Evagrius joined their ranks in the late 300s, there were several thousand monks living in organized communities. They spent their days fasting, working, and worshiping, often in isolation. When the sun and the heat peaked, life could be quite uncomfortable. So it makes sense that Evagrius dubbed acedia the “demon of noontide,” a reference to Psalm 91. Siegfried Wenzel, in his book The Sin of Sloth: Acedia in Medieval Thought and Literature, wrote that “in the end acedia causes the monk to either give in to physical sleep, which proves unrefreshing or actually dangerous because it opens the door to many other temptations, or to leave his cell and eventually the religious life altogether.” Acedia could be resisted, but only through endurance, prayer, and sometimes even crying.

John Cassian, a student of Evagrius’s…helped spread the concept of the cardinal sins beyond the Desert Fathers. But as soon as acedia left the desert, the demon of noontide started to become a whole different animal.

What it became was the cardinal sin of Sloth. But Despair continued to be viewed as dangerously heretical, because it led to suicidal thinking (and suicide was until recently classed as one of the mortal sins).

Thomas Merton, in his book Thoughts in Solitude, supports (without quite saying so) the Roman Catholic view that despair is a sin; but, as is usual for Merton, he frames the depression experience with compassion and offers a gentler perception of the experience. He suggests that when a person believes of him or herself “I am nothing,” there is another way of being with that thought: “I am not who I wish to be.”

This concept strikes me as so perfectly sane. When I have felt deeply depressed, the ingrained mind-numbing idea that surfaces is that I am worthless or that I am nothing. And really, what I feel is that I am not who I wish to be.

Why does the latter sentence feel less like despair? Anyway, it feels that way to me. Thank you, Thomas Merton.

Now here’s the poem in its revised-draft form, though I’m not sure it’s really finished yet.

~~

Acedia

It is what looked up at you
from the eyes of the wounded doe
what the clock said to itself
when the mainspring gave way.

It is the last few shudders
your father’s body made
when his heart wrote hopeless
on the hospital bed

the long sigh of a black dog
and your beloved’s parched skin
when she could make no more tears
and told you go now.

It is the dead nut
in the infertile basalt cave
it is all the days I tell you I can’t
but you are right

there is desire.
The numb body’s in-taken breath
yearning to stay alive:
remind me that it is desire.

~

 

Patience

Okay, day … six? Thanks to Marilyn Hazelton, my tanka expert and today’s muse, for engaging with the idea of patience and suggesting a book that gave me this quote by Rodin (long a favorite sculptor of mine):

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“Patience is also a form of action” –-Auguste Rodin

Clay. Thumb and fingers pressed.
Coolness and warmth awaiting form
or formulation–chemistry binding
components under heat’s influence.
Here, the potter attends the kiln,
biding her time. Or the craftsmen
check and check again as barley
ferments, as bronze hardens, careful.
The woman holds inside herself
for nine months the evolving child
and every moment is one of multiplying,
expending energy during the wait
which may result in either life
or death. Even the Zen place of repose
requires breath: action, inhalation,
oxygenation, illumination. Notice:
this morning, the plum trees blossomed.

~

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Vocation, avocation

Somewhere recently–was it the Sunday New York Times?–I read an opinion essay about how recent surveys of US citizens indicate that we have fewer hobbies than we have had in years past. The columnist wondered whether that lack is due to a zeal to be the best at whatever we engage in–the best jogger we can be, the most avid cyclist, the best collector, knitter, paper-crafter, woodworker, violinist, what-have-you. She suggested we’ve somehow lost the joys of being hobbyists: amateurs who do or create something because it is fun or relaxing, or because trying to learn a new skill makes us feel good. A true hobby is something we don’t have to be perfect at, because that is not the point.

As my students wrestle with the tasks of college and their concerns about their futures, the concept of vocation arises often. What to do with a life? Earn enough money to live reasonably comfortably, even if the job is not a passion? What if it’s not even satisfying? Should people choose a bearable career and find enjoyment in avocations? Or persist at what they love even if society doesn’t always reward the path they’ve chosen? Or–the options are legion.

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I believe in vocation as passion, and I also practice hobbies. My career is in higher education, and I enjoy and learn from my job. My vocation is writing, particularly writing poetry; my passion lies in that direction more than any other, but poetry has not been a career path in my case.

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My hobbies have evolved over the years. For decades, gardening has kept me happily occupied out of doors–but I have no need to become a Master Gardener, and my gardens are often minor failures in one respect or another. The garden, however, soothes me, distracts me from anxieties, helps me to become a better observer, teaches me much. When learning about plants, I got interested in botany and wild flower identification, so I am a more informed hiker and nature-saunterer than I used to be.

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garden photo: pepper, sassafras leaf © 2018 by Ann E. Michael

 

Photography’s also a hobby I pursue, an interest of mine since my late teen years (back before digital). The view through the frame has always intrigued me, as well as the opportunities that different lens lengths offer the photographer as to framing and focus. I especially enjoy macro lenses. It’s fun to zoom in closely on insects, flowers, and small areas of everyday objects. Photography encourages different types of observation.

The earliest interest I can recall having is art: painting and drawing in particular. From the time I was tiny, even before I entered kindergarten, I loved to draw and paint and to look at art in books and museums. During my teen years, I studied art at Fleisher Art Memorial in Philadelphia and headed to college thinking I would minor in the fine arts. My talent did not match my aspirations, and a thorough self-analysis at around age 20 led me to recognize I could be creative more successfully in other ways…by that time, I was writing more seriously than I was painting.

But now? I have taken up painting in acrylics. Mostly sketches of clouds. There’s no pressure on me to do well; I can paint many mediocre pictures of clouds and feel relaxed in the process, meditative, observant, a casual learner.

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mediocre acrylic sketch of clouds, by Ann E. Michael

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As I wrap up this post, I realize that my career and my hobbies have encouraged observation from multiple and new perspectives. And my vocation? Poetry practically relies upon the writer’s ability to switch into creative and imagined points of view, as well as to have the opportunity for closely-observed objects and experiences.

Vocation, avocation, passion, career. I count myself lucky.

Feeder streams

A friend and I had a conversation about storytelling and human connectedness, relatives and family myths. We recognize that with age and relationships come references and allusions–some that operate only within the family system, others that interconnect with the wider social world. The televised funerals of some celebrated US citizens (Aretha Franklin, John McCain) offer excellent examples of how various eulogists–family, colleagues, close friends–endeavor to extend their feelings about the person to others. The best eulogies tell stories. It’s how human beings learn about one another, how we connect, bond, and cohere. The process reminds me of feeder streams that follow gravity and the earth’s geological patterns to wend their ways to join a river.

A river enlivened my childhood. Several rivers, in fact–the Hudson, the Delaware–but the one that comes to me at this moment is the Eel River in Indiana, pictured in my recent post here. By coincidence, just this week Streetlight, an online literary review, published my poem “Eel River Meditation.” In less cheerful news, someone whose presence I associate with South Whitley, IN has entered hospice care. These associations summon memories that carry me into that realm of family tales, rituals, jokes, sorrows, generational mythology.

My grandmother lived beside the Eel. A self-taught artist, she painted the bridge over the river many times, in all seasons. It must have steadied her sense of being in the world, of being in place; certainly, her paintings evoke that place, a small Indiana town, in those of us who knew and loved her.

And what could be more metaphorical than a bridge? Than a river? Than the changing seasons?

Locally, this rainy summer in my valley region, the feeder streams are full to overflowing and rushing to the Lehigh River, flooding the low-lying marshy areas, stranding the occasional cow or motorist. The fall semester has begun, and the garden’s mostly abandoned to the aforementioned weeds. My mind and heart are full, too. Maybe there will be poetry.

Eel River Bridge Edna Michael

South Whitley’s Eel River bridge, early summer. Edna Michael

 

Connections

 

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August has arrived and a few of our incoming freshmen are on campus already, as well as students on various fall sports teams who need to get a jump on the competition season. It was quite awhile ago that I was a teenage person entering my first year at college, but each year our students arrive with the same anticipation and excitement I felt. They’re ready to exercise a little responsibility, a little freedom, and to make the kinds of connections–personal, emotional, and intellectual–that will affect the rest of their lives one way or another.

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In the 1970s, science historian and television broadcaster James Burke created and hosted a show called Connections. I was a fan of the series because I loved the surprising ways discoveries, events in history, people, and accident led to innovations and the criss-crossing of continents and ideas. The interdisciplinary aspect of human culture, of science and the arts, fascinated me as a teen. Those networked ideas have shown up many times through my life.

Connections: The photo above was taken by my fellow student Steve Lohman when we were freshmen. Steve later attended Pratt School of Art.  We lost touch for a long time, and–I have forgotten how–I found his metalwork while I was looking for cover art for my book of poems The Capable Heart.

 

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Running Horse by Steve Lohman

Connections: I liked Steve’s wireworks, but I remembered him as a photographer. Granted, what a person pursues at age 17 or 18 is easily liable to change–but I was curious about how he started doing sculpture. When he mentioned he’d attended Pratt, I asked if he had ever met Toshio Odate, who taught there for years. “One of my favorite teachers!” said Steve. “I loved his class.”

Connections: My spouse took a job writing for a woodworking magazine, where he met Toshio, who wrote about Japanese tools and woodworking techniques. Meanwhile, Toshio was creating his own works of art at his home as well as mentoring many students. He’s now a long-time friend of ours. (Photo of Odate’s “Pride of New England,” below, by Laure Oleander).

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Connections: Neural networks, the embodied mind, the ways writing assists in psychological healing, the twists in a good novel’s plot, the turn in a poem, metaphor, surprise. The unexpected thrills us–unexpected connections fill us with curiosity and a kind of joy, as does the closure.

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Connections: The commercial creation Thinkhub, invented for teaching, offers yet another example of connections. A cultural thinkhub project based in Toledo, midstory.org has produced my poem “River by River” as a soundscape: click here.

The project researchers found my poem in the anthology I Have My Own Song for It: Modern Poems of Ohio. Look around, folks–connections are everywhere, and we learn from them.