"Faith is the bird that feels the light and sings when the dawn is still dark. 
In effect, the people who change our lives the most begin to 
sing to us while we are still in darkness. If we listen to 
their song, we will see the dawning of a new part of ourselves."

Rabindranth Tagore

Existential Intelligence is the sensitivity and capacity to engage questions about human existence – how we got here, whether we have a purpose, and whether there is meaning in Life. Existential intelligence embraces the exploration of aesthetics, philosophy, religion and values like beauty, truth, and goodness. A strong existential intelligence allows human beings to see their place in the big picture, be it in the classroom, community, world, or universe.

First proposed by Howard Gardner, existential intelligence is one of nine theorized intelligences and is considered to be amoral – that is, it and the other eight categories of human intelligence can be used either constructively or destructively.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Little Nutty Piece

A non sequitur can denote an abrupt, illogical, unexpected or absurd turn of plot or dialogue not normally associated with or appropriate to that preceding it.

My therapist sister, Ann, says she is convinced we all have a little nutty piece. Your little nutty piece can be an elephant in the room if you don’t befriend it and acknowledge it, because a little nutty piece has the power to undo your equilibrium or totally annoy your friends if you don’t admit it’s there.

I've been drawing the conclusion that quite frequently a little nutty piece in your personality is there because it helps you deal with stress. So recognizing when a little nutty piece has kicked in may actually be a warning sign of mounting stress in your life.

When I am stressed I start waking up at four in the morning. It’s not uniformly bad. Four a.m. is also when I’ve gotten some of my best ideas – like the term complex cloth, interfacing stencils, and soy wax crayons. But more often that not, waking at four a.m. is problematic. Thinking turns into a minor panic attack and I can’t go back to sleep. That’s not good when you are expected to be fresh and fulsome for a class at 8 a.m.

I’ve mastered meditational breathing as a coping mechanism for this little nutty piece. Gradually breathing deeply, and focusing on the breath, works. Nine times out of ten I go back to sleep immediately. You might try this if you share insomnia as a sign of stress with me.

Byron Katie’s ideas have also helped. One of the questions she suggests you pose when you are troubled or stressed by your thinking is this: Where would I be without that thought?

When I wake up in the night, I ask myself where I would be without the thoughts. I start deep breathing. The answer is always simple: Without the thoughts, I’d be asleep again. So I go back to sleep. Doesn’t that sound crazy? But it’s true. It’s as if my mind is a little child, easily satisfied with a simple answer to a simple question.

But then there’s that tenth time. No amount of breathing or simple questioning quells the busy thinking in my head. Last night is an example of this.

Do you remember Ode to Billy Joe? If not, click on the title and check out the song.

“It was the third of June, another sleepy, dusty Delta day
I was out choppin' cotton and my brother was balin' hay
And at dinnertime we stopped and walked back to the house to eat
And Mama hollered out the back door "y'all remember to wipe your feet"
And then she said "I got some news this mornin' from Choctaw Ridge"
"Today Billy Joe MacAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge"

Last night Ode to Billy Joe was playing endlessly in my head. Forty years more or less, since the song was a hit for Bobbie Gentry, and I still have the entire lyric in my head.

The fourth verse goes:

And Mama said to me "Child, what's happened to your appetite?"
"I've been cookin' all morning and you haven't touched a single bite"
"That nice young preacher, Brother Taylor, dropped by today"
"Said he'd be pleased to have dinner on Sunday, oh, by the way"
"He said he saw a girl that looked a lot like you up on Choctaw Ridge"
"And she and Billy Joe was throwing somethin' off the Tallahatchie Bridge"

From four a.m. on, one question kept cycling in my brain:
What did “she and Billy Joe” throw off the Tallahatchie Bridge?

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Getting Started Again. Grrrr.

One of the smartest pieces of advice I ever heard, came from a lecture the artist Nancy Crow gave at a conference in Ohio. “Always leave something unfinished,” she advised. “Then when you come home from a trip or you’ve been too busy to work, you’ll know where to begin.”

Good advice, but unfortunately I didn’t follow it the last time I left town.

I could blame it on the hectic preparation required when I am going to travel and teach for a month. I could blame it on the huge amount of time and energy that goes (I am recognizing this on a daily basis) into acquiring a new studio space. I could blame it on the many distractions of friends with hip and knee replacements, cancer, and/or the delight/trepidation of having a daughter who is a year away from college graduation. And assorted traffic tickets and car woes. (hers, not mine)

But it really comes down to not having any ideas.

In January I mounted a personal triumph – 48 pieces in the Etudes series. A few, very small bright ideas popped up in March and April. I assured myself that by the end of the summer teaching bits in August, I’d be good to go again.

But so far, no ideas. At least no bright ones.

What’s an artist to do?

I work best intuitively, but with a purpose. I adore having a goal, building tools to a theme and figuring out the symbolic significance of colors. But in the studio lately? Dry, dry, dry. As dry as the parched grass, or what’s left of it, in my backyard.

This afternoon I played around (rather listlessly) with some new Spoonflower fabrics. Tried combining them with each other, and then with hand printed dyed stuff. Not working. Not bad, but not singing, and why make anything any more - in this over-crowded creative world - if it isn’t going to sing?

Maybe because it’s therapy?
I can recall more than one conversation where all the artists in the room agreed that the alone time, the silence, often proved to be better than therapy.

I must agree. Maybe that’s the ticket. Alone time is what’s been missing. Since I didn’t leave myself an obvious start back into the routine of working (how could I forget about Nancy?) I am going to have to start from scratch.

But as another artist, the great Miriam Shapiro, once suggested, if in doubt or struggling, play. Fool around with materials or paints or whatever grabs your fancy and just begin.

So that’s where I’ll be tomorrow. Back in the studio, giving it another shot.

Because although the Tao te Ching states clearly that the journey begins with one small step, it takes a lifetime to get used to the idea that the journeys are never over. One creative journey begins and ends. If you are lucky or paying attention, you will have left a symbolic map and a compass on the shelf in the studio; ready to chart the course of the next trip.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Back Home

Things don’t always go the way we wish they would. I drove three days from upstate New York; eager to return to my beloved Texas landscape. The morning I crossed the state line it was 110 degrees in Austin. Parched earth and an occasional mini dust cyclone bore witness to the reality that Nature sometimes has a plan for us we wouldn’t choose ourselves. This entire part of the United States was bereft in the 1930’s; a Dust Bowl literally and figuratively. Lack of water dried up the verdant land, and every creative act of commerce attached to it. Hopes and dreams lay in ruins alongside abandoned possessions and property.

It was a sobering drive, since we’ve been in a serious drought here, and there is no sign of rain.

The drive provided plenty of thinking time. A close friend wrote, “Solitary long-distance driving provides respite, and time to process. That sort of aloneness away from our everyday tasks and responsibilities can feel like spending time with a long lost friend.” I whole-heartedly agreed, and added to the mix of my own thoughts, hours of other people’s thoughts. I listened to favorites – Caroline Myss, Krista Tippett interviews, and an assortment of other podcasts and lectures. Modern technology may not be able to solve a drought, but it effectively distracts by rolling rich ideas from a car radio.

Staying the course.

This phrase wove in and out of the landscape of my thoughts. No one will pick up and leave Texas just because we need water. We have to stay the course. While we wait for rain, we take measures to preserve the water we’ve got. When you’re stuck in a situation and you can’t get away from it, you stay the course and maintain. Do what it takes to keep moving forward, even if the forward motion is only baby steps. What other choice do you have? It never feels good to cut and run.

Unless it’s the right time to cut and run.

Because that’s the undeniable other side; the yang to the yin. It’s the small voice of intuition, niggling at first, but gradually growing – suggesting that the time has come to let go.

Dust Bowl settlers stayed as long as they could, but eventually the reality of the drought forced their hand. Leaving was the only choice left.

Dust Bowl. Drought. What did any of that have to do with me?

It’s because I’ve been trying to buy a new studio building. My current space has developed limitations, and I’d rather be proactive than find myself without a classroom space. Forty-five days into the first contract funding fell through, the down payment went up, and the building owner began to behave downright squirrelly - admitting to questionable business practices, and even lying about it.

Stay the course or cut and run?

It took one sleepless night in San Antonio to convince me that the nerve-fraying wasn’t worth it and would probably get worse. By the light of day I faxed my retreat from the contract to the title company. An imperceptible shift had occurred during the night. I recognized that the smartest thing I could do was cut and run.

And stay the course.

Then several amazing events transpired. Is it the proverbial closing of a door so a window can open? Caroline Myss calls it grace. You can’t force it. You may not deserve it. But when grace enters your life you know it. You are humbled by it.

The day after I cancelled my deal, a realtor friend emailed a listing with promise. A foreclosure. Space for an addition. A church parking lot two doors away. Did I want to make an offer? She’d taken the liberty of qualifying me for the mortgage amount.

The next day my offer was accepted. The money that was to be spent on the first property’s down payment can now go to the remodel. As long as I stay the course.

And what’s any of this got to do with you?
You have to stay the course, too. Or cut and run.

In the studio, it’s a delicate balance. Staying the course keeps you working. Keeps the experimentation going until you get that elusive dye bath color perfected. Until you learn how to hold the brush – or even which brush to choose – to make the perfect stroke. Staying the course confirms the intention of your conviction. You will master your materials. You will merge imagination with making. Heart and hands will work as one.

And when it’s time to cut and run, you’ll get it and you’ll do it. No more guilt over unfinished work that went AWOL. No more guilt when you open up studio space by taking a load of stuff to Goodwill. Cut and run at its best is an acknowledgment of growth, of change, and of the power of Intuition.

Wouldn’t this be a good lesson for our Congressmen and women?