Saturday, April 24, 2010


I attended a small presentation today. Suzanne Vega, the lovely singer/songwriter, is performing tonight at our local performing arts center and she agreed to give a free workshop on creativity today. Okay, so the words "free" and "workshop" and "creativity" each have their own pull but combine them together and I'm in the front row. (Actually the third row but who's counting.)

So there we were, a small group of about 50 artists, surprisingly few of them actual musicians, but all admitting to being artists, ready to hear the low down from some who's made it. Not surprisingly, she started out with the disclaimer that there is no magic formula, no one special task that will make it all happen.

I knew that. But it bears repeating.

She had some other good points. She suggested that you carry a pen and notebook with you, everywhere you go. And write things in it. I wrote that down in my notebook that I carry everywhere with me, with one of the dozen pens floating around in the bottom of my bag. I started doing that while in school and the habit, fortunately, has stayed with me. It made me smile a little bit.

She said that you need some space to work. Maybe it's a chair. Maybe a room or a corner of a room. Someplace where you can sit and think and no one gets to ask you if you know where something is or if they can eat this. My chair for the last year has resided at Panera Bread but I got the point. I didn't write that one down.

Maybe this is only surprising to me, but the most relevant point she made, in my opinion, was that you have to connect with people, and stay connected, and these days that means on the internet. It means Twitter and Facebook and MySpace and Blogging. I wrote down "Blogging - rituals." because when she said that I remembered where I had been just over 24 hours earlier and thinking about rituals.

My father in law died two weeks ago. It was not sudden. It wasn't unexpected or tragic. It was the passing of a man who had lived a long life into a different part, the last part, of the human experience. But we couldn't hold the ceremony until yesterday. There were any number of reasons for this, not important ones, but we all seemed a bit in limbo for those two weeks.

It didn't seem like it should matter, and maybe in the long run it didn't. Sometimes, when I thought about it, I even felt like it was a good thing. The extra time gave us room to process, time to reflect and think about how we felt. Except for the fact that once we were there, in that small chapel in the Veteran's Cemetery, it seemed all at once like we'd just lost him. Again.

It was a military ceremony. The family had a few minutes to say what they wanted to say and as I listened to his children talk about their father, I both knew him again and knew him for the first time. We laughed a little and cried some. I was proud of them all, these people who were my family through another ritual and a shared lifetime. They were good people who stood to honor their father.

Then, polished and poised young soldiers moved with erect precision through a ritual that has been witnessed by millions of families at this time. The salute, the unrushed and precise unfolding of the flag, then holding it out over the soldier, covering them in the flag of their country while the sharp and strange 21 gun salute is made, and then the even more precise refolding of the flag and it's presentation to the next of kin.

The soldier folding the flag was a young woman, dark hair in a tight bun at her neck and her face solemn and nearly expressionless as she folded the flag. Each bend of the fabric smoothed deliberately with a white gloved hand before moving to the next fold, down the entire length of the flag until the solder at the other end, a young man with a round, young face, tucked the ends of the flag into the triangle, taking time to carefully smooth and secure every bit, every wrinkle.

This was a packet that was not going to come undone. This was a duty that was not going to be rushed. This was a ritual that was as carefully and deliberately performed for an old man long away from his service and his uniform, just as it was for the young soldiers who might have died recently. At the end they gave it to his wife, who wanted to protest, and maybe didn't want it at all, but who took it, trying earnestly to tell this young man, this stranger, this soldier, that Will had been a man of peace. As if that meant that he couldn't be here, in this military place.

Everyone was very respectful to us as we filed out, to complete the ceremony and then complete the ritual, with the breaking of bread and the celebration of life.

And on and off during this entire event, this entire day, I thought about ritual. I thought about how we place ourselves in the context of ritual and custom, to ease emotion. To create space for our minds to work through whatever we have to do now. I thought about the meaning of the senses, the sharing of photos, the sharp report of seven guns firing together three times, the food we eat as we spend time together and the touch of a hug.

How did we develop rituals? What is it about us that creates rituals to deal with the events of our lives? As I listened to Suzanne talk about the use of prayer, meditation and sometimes even things like Tarot cards to access the archetypes of our nature, of our waking dream space, I thought about the rituals of art making.

I read an article recently where an artist, talking about his work and his method, said that the Jewish philosophy is that art is as much about the materials used as what you do with them. That you invest, through your time and attention and intention, added meaning to the materials you select and that you use to create your art. To make important art, you use important materials.

Subject matter, thought process, that zen state when you are working and your hands just seem to be doing what they're doing without you even knowing exactly what it is that you are doing or why, these are all made relevant through the ritual of creating art.

It seems to me that once you go through something like that, the question of whether or not anyone else likes it is actually irrelevant. Someone will see it and understand. Someone will recognize the layers of intent and attention wrapped in and around the work, like the thick waxy coating on an encaustic painting, deepening and coloring the subject. And you will have succeeded, even if you never make a dime.

But its more than that. Because the same is true of your life. Intention, attention, respect for your materials, love of the results, fearless movement in your own direction, listening for the voice of inspiration and heeding the delicate, tentative, almost invisible call of intuition, of the pattern. These are the things that create value in a life, just the same as in a work of art.

And it is a wise person who, at the end of their life, has given that to those around them. Freely, and without reserve.

What is the difference between someone who wants to be an artist and someone who is? I believe it is the person who has incorporated the ritual of art, not merely the act, who is the artist. Suzanne is right, there is no one magic formula or task. There are many. And, like any ritual, they only become more powerful, more meaningful with repetition.