“Nervously Taking a Seat at the Table of the Unknown.”

Visiting Rattle Magazine’s website just now to submit some new poems, I found the homepage dedicated to the heartbreakingly beautiful poem by Alexandra Umlas,  “Remembering You, Anthony Bourdain, at the Elementary School Talent Show.”     

Written in tribute to celebrity chef (which does not begin to describe him) Anthony Bourdain, who took his life a couple days ago, the poem was just what I needed this morning, in the wake of the “issue of suicide” media response to Bourdain’s death. And it reminded me once again of how much more deeply and truly and reverently the language of poetry meets us at the moist and messy heart of life and loss. It was such a contrast –in fact an antidote– to the news media’s formulaic responses: responses which  use language to aid and abet our collective, existential scramble-for-safety by quickly producing cheaply-made containers of “understanding” for our anxiety and confusion in the face of incomprehensible loss. 

I was acutely aware of the latter yesterday, when –listening to NPR over the course of the afternoon– I noticed how much focus there was on “the issue of suicide” in response to Bourdain’s death, the producers and broadcasters first shaping “the issue” for us that way, and then responding predictably, unimaginatively and heart-numbingly (as is the news media’s purpose, however unconsciously for many of those involved) to our collective anxiety by delivering “the usual” to it: the usual psychology “experts” soberly and expert-ishly proferring some version of the standard trifeca of Explanations, Advice, and Call for More Mental Health Services…none of which may have had any pertinence at all to Bourdain’s own suicide, and all of which collectively fail to honor the gift of his life, however  much longer we might think that life should have been.

Thought experiment: What if Bourdain actually knew perfectly well that he was deeply loved by, and important to many? And what if he knew his life had meaning and purpose? And what if those around him knew and persistently responded as well as anyone could to help him find relief for his suffering? And what if he did, in fact, receive the best that mental health treatment had to offer?

What if, that is, Bourdain’s suicide was not a result of a deficiency of love, of information, of vigilance, or of attitude, nor representative of a mental health services insufficiency? What if all of these resources were in fact present abundantly and in full for him (which I find more likely than not) and he still found his suffering to be too much to further bear?

What if no-one failed, including Bourdain himself?

After 25 years of practicing psychotherapy, I know how often this can in fact be true, and I believe that any truly seasoned “expert” knows it too. So why the bromides that suggest otherwise in the news media interviews?

But maybe the answer is that as “news,” that is not in fact “news we can use” as news, because that’s where poetry (and music, and stories, and all the arts) meet us instead: in that place where the heart is left to find a way to hold all that the mind cannot solve and decide away. And in doing so, it enlarges our hearts’ capacity for compassion, reverence, and joy.

As does Umlas’ poem, which, in the way it honors the life in the life of Anthony Bourdain, in turn honors the way the gifts of every life enlarge the one Life we all share together…

which is  the heart of the matter.

 

You knew how to savor
an experience, how sitting with strangers
makes friends, that what we put in our mouths
matters—you pointed out the thread
spooled between us when we have a mealanthonybourdain_portrait
together, the connection that takes place over
coffee or beer. This morning, after hearing
you were gone from this world, my daughter
danced on the stage, nervously taking a seat
at the table of the unknown. 

 

(from “Remembering You, Anthony Bourdain, at the Elementary School Talent Show,” by Alexandra Umlas; for the full text, visit Rattle.com)

 

 

To see/hear my archived poem,  “To Tinnitus” published in Rattle in 2011, click on the poem’s title

Seeing with the Eye of the Heart

Halfway through Cynthia Bourgeault’s stunning book, The Wisdom Jesus, I could not wait until I finished it to begin writing about it, so rich it is with wisdom in general, and with a take on Jesus as a wisdom teacher that strikes me as profoundly, radically, and tradition-shatteringly true.  Personally, I could not be more grateful for this book, since it answers for me the question (a question I have simply trusted until now that I needed simply to just ‘hold’ versus seek to “figure out”) as to how it can be that the more “real”  Jesus has become as my primary guide in my own growth in wisdom and in love, over the years since my baptism (as an adult, in the Catholic Church)…how it is then that the more strongly I connect with Jesus, and feel I understand him through my own heart, the less of a fit there seems to me to be between what he was up to (and is up to, still) and the traditional portrayals and understanding of his messages –of his very Being– in Christianity and its institutions now.

In short, it feels like the more I “get” Jesus, the less like a “Christian” I feel.

It also seems less and less to me as though there is any significant difference at all between the radical, challenging teachings of other ancient Eastern transformation traditions and their mystical paths (and we tend to forget that Christianity is one of those “Eastern religions” with its own mystical paths) and the teachings and path of Jesus- an observation that Bourgeault concurs with heartily, being herself a self-described “serious student of the worldwide wisdom tradition” including the work of Gurdjieff, Sufism, and Vedanta and Kabbalah studies, as well as Christian mystical practice traditions.

Early on in the book, Bourgeault (who, by the way, is an Episcopal priest, as well as a 41bf17fb277871f32260d3100ab2910496931fffrespected theologian and writer) addresses this  directly in Chapter 1, “Jesus as a Recognition Event,” where she lays out her primary thesis:

The angle of approach I will be using throughout this book is to see Jesus first and foremost as a wisdom teacher, a person who (for the moment setting aside the whole issue of his divine parentage) clearly emerges out of and works within an ancient tradition called ‘wisdom’, sometimes known as “sophia perennis,” which is in fact at the headwaters of all the great religious traditions of the world today. It’s concerned with the transformation of the whole human being […] from our animal instincts and egocentricity into love and compassion; from a judgmental and dualistic worldview into nondual acceptingness. This was the message that Jesus, apparently out of nowhere,  came preaching and teaching, a message that was radical in its own time, and remains radical today. 

And over the course of the next several chapters, Bourgeault reveals and suggests how mind-blowingly radical Jesus’ vision and intentions were, in the path of transformation he represented and offered. Bourgeault likens it to no less than “upgrading our operating systems” as beings, from “the egoic operating system (a binary system of perception which makes sense of world by dividing it–into “this and that,” “bad and good,” “inside and outside,” “you and me,” etc.) to a unitive system — a system of perception centered not in the egoic mind, but in the mind of the heart. 

In wisdom, she says, the heart is primarily an organ of spiritual perception, a highly sensitive instrument for keeping us aligned […] to the realm of meaning, value and conscience. (p. 36)

This is a very, very different take on Jesus from the Sunday-school Jesus that many Christians were raised to recognize, the essential teachings of which one Southern Baptist theologian has summed up (perhaps tongue in cheek– hard to know!) as “Jesus is nice, and he wants you to be nice, too!”  (p. 28)

I am mindful, Bourgeault writes as an aside (and I love this:) of  one of my favorite quotes, attributed to the writer G.C. Chesterton, who reportedly said, “Christianity isn’t a failure; it just hasn’t been tried yet.” 

This is a great book by way of which to “taste and see” what it might really mean to “try it.”

Meanwhile, below is a contribution of my own to the conversation, since prayer-that-is-poetry is my own primary way of “seeing with the eyes of the heart.” It speaks to another radical notion that Bourgeault suggests and develops: that Jesus’ spiritual path is essentially not a transcendent one; in fact it is a path that proceeds “not through acquisition or attainment but through self [ego] emptying; not through up but through down,” (p.66). It is about bringing down and entering in…wherein lies the possibility to experience that “The Kingdom of Heaven is within/among us.”

(Note: this poem was originally appeared in an issue of Christian Century magazine)

* * *

“And Were the Damned Glad?”

When he’d breathed his last, Jesus
hurried down to hell.

They thought they’d known the worst,
stewing and burning alone in the outer

darkness. Still,
they’d been secure in their fate,

its familiar misery
snug as a nest.

He entered this,
not cruising the rim

like a tourist,
sorry but separate—

dropped straight
into their deadness instead

and relentlessly loved them there,
each wretch in each foulness—

that was torment.
And it seemed

to the damned and eternity before
he left, tearing a hole in the seal

between hell and sky as he rose,
and that hole remained…

                                –Donna Henderson

 

 

 

 

Listen

 

 

A poem for June, and for grieving. 

 

Listen–

some dusk to the varied thrush
keening its single long, cool note.
This is what the thrush has waited for all day:
the busy light leaving,
shadows slipping home from their exile.
For the spacious
silence that hears it, answers.
Lean ecstasy you might have thought
despair—

download

Listen then to your own,
that other
loneliness that is our vast capacity.
You thought it longed for filling.
It longs to sing.

                           Donna Henderson

“Our Soul is an Abode”

 

In the introduction to perhaps his greatest work, The Poetics of Space, (translated beautifully from french into english by Maria Jolas) the twentieth century french philosopher Gaston Bachelard describes himself as an “addict of felicitous reading […] I only read and re-read what I like.” (p. xxv) And I loved that confession, because it is by exactly that way of reading that I was led back, this morning to this book…and it was as though I had never read it before.

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Gaston Bachelard (1884-1962) was one of Europe’s leading philosophers, and for many years chaired the philosophy department of the Sorbonne in Paris. As a young philosopher, his attention was focused primarily on the philosophy of science (physics in particular: one of his earliest of many scholarly books is entitled The Experience of Space in Contemporary Physics) But his interests and investigations soon began moving outside of the established molds. More specifically, his thinking and writing soon shifted away from considerations of reason and science to investigations of the metaphysics of the imagination; to the philosophy of art, aesthetics, and the poetic imagination in particular. Which is where his interest and writing remained concentrated for the rest of his 30-year-or-so career.

The Psychoanalysis of Fire  (1938) was the first book representing this departure, followed by a number of books in which he took on other elements (Water and DreamsAir and Reverie, The Earth and the Reveries of the Will, and others. As he gradually became more involved in poetics, and with the question of the nature and function of reverie itself, his later books reflected that specific focus, and included both The Poetics of Space (1958) and The Poetics of Reverie (1960).

Along the way, as Bachelard’s dive into poetics deepened, he began to question the very definition and function of rational thought, challenging even its “givens.”  Il faut donc distinguer entre la raison qui invente à contre courant et celle qui systématise après coup (“We must therefore distinguish between the kind of reason that goes [invents/creates] against the current, and the one that systematizes afterwards”), Bachelard wrote, and called for a “return to rationality its function as a force for turbulence and aggression.” A rescue, that is (at least as I think I understand Bachelard’s thinking) from a cold and distant rationality to the kind of passionate, engaged rationality that is the realm of the poetic; a kind of rationality that for which he coined the term “surrationalism.”

But I am starting into the weeds here…as I was afraid I would if I even started to write about Bachelard (because it is so, so fun to get into, those weeds).  So, back to The Poetics of Space, specifically.

So what is the book about? It’s hard for me to describe (more about why that is in a minute), so I am going to just quote the publisher’s description (from the 2014 Penguin Classics edition) for the basic gloss:

This lyrical journey takes as its premise the emergence of the poetic image and finds an ideal metaphor in the intimate spaces of our homes. Guiding us through a stream of meditations on poetry, art, and the blooming of consciousness itself, Bachelard examines the domestic places that shape and hold our dreams and memories. Houses and rooms; cellars and attics; drawers, chests, and wardrobes; nests and shells; nooks and corners: No space is too vast or too small to be filled by our thoughts and our reveries. In Bachelard’s enchanting spaces, “We are never real historians, but always near poets, and our emotion is perhaps nothing but an expression of a poetry that was lost.”

Probably for good reason (to invite as wide as possible a readership) the list of “containers” in the description above (which reflect several of the 10 chapter titles) left out my favorites, so I’ll add them here: Chapter 8: “Intimate Immensity,” Chapter 9: “The Dialectics of Inside and Outside” and Chapter 10: “The Phenomenology of Roundness.”

And as I reentered the text itself this morning, I realized why it is so hard to write about Bachelard’s ideas (which I have made attempts before to do): it is precisely because of the way the lyricism and poetic density of Bachelard’s philosophical writing about poetics itself enacts and embodies, in language, exactly what he is writing about. How to say this? In the way Bachelard enters into the very “space” (a space of reverie) about which he writes, and writes from it as much as about it, he invites the reader into that space also. So that a reader comes to an understanding of what he is writing “about” from the inside-out also…which makes it difficult to “describe” from without, without completely betraying it. It’s like trying to describe what a piece of music “means:” it means what it is. 

So instead of trying to do that, I am going to simply share below some favorite passages from Bachelard’s lengthy Introduction, most of which passages are less about the specific focus of the text to follow as they are about his poetics in general (especially the nature and function of the “poetic image”).  I love the way these passages and short quotes reverberate and shimmer with the ideas they present (and Bachelard is all about reverberation and shimmer). In how they stand alone, and in how they engage the imagination, they are as good an introduction as any, I think, to Bachelard’s thought, and his writing.

 

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Shadow selfie with barbed wire (author)

“The poetic image is a sudden salience on the surface of the psyche” 

 

 

 

 

“In this reverberation, the poetic image will have a sonority of being. The poet speaks on the threshold of being” 

 

 

“At the level of the poetic image, the duality of subject and object is iridescent, shimmering, unceasingly active in its inversions.”

 

 

“The poet, in the novelty of [her] images, is always the origin of language.”

 

“To specify that the image comes before thought, we should have to say that poetry, rather than being a phenomenology of the mind, is a phenomenology of the soul.” 

 

Then, in a long reverie on the paintings of George Rouault, he writes,

“The soul possesses an inner light, the light that an inner vision knows and expresses in the work of brilliant colors […]. [A] painter […] knows from what heat source the light comes. He experiences the intimate meaning of the passion for red. At the core of such painting, there is a soul in combat– the fauvism, the wildness, is interior. Painting like this is therefore a phenomenon of the soul. The oeuvre must redeem an impassioned soul.” 

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And finally, the title (of this post) quote…which, come to think of it, probably tells you all you need to know about the specific premise of The Poetics of Space :

                                                            “Our soul is an abode”

 

 

 

“Yes, Einstein was a Badass.”

So declares Neil DeGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist with the American Museum of Natural History, and director of the Hayden Planetarium, in his 2017 book, Astrophysics for People in a Hurry.51kyOGIHeIL._SX306_BO1,204,203,200_

And that single quotation probably tells you all you need to know about how fun a read the book is, as one learns  about what we know (“Matter tells space how to curve; space tells matter how to move.”), what we think we know but don’t ( “Just how voidy is the void of space?” is one of the questions Tyson poses [it’s not very voidy at all, as it turns out]), and what we don’t know: what dark matter actually is, for instance. Though I am pretty confident that I personally know the answer to that: based on its characteristics and effects on ordinary matter –which can be detected– dark matter is obviously the unconscious of the cosmos itself.

Would it not have an unconscious if we do, since we ourselves are stardust? But that’s a post (and poem) for a later date.

Anyway, my brother, a software engineer who designs stuff that keeps the Hubble up (literally) and an astrophysics geek, gave me this book for Christmas, knowing of my obsession (is not too strong a word for it) with the more micro-focused quantum physics, and thinking it would be good for me to (again, literally) expand the scope of my physics-related self-education.

Which I have been doing with great pleasure by way of this book. I love the humor and delight in the way Tyson writes, making for a seriously laugh-out-loud science page-turner…which is also a substantial one. But what I most love is the stuff itself, and the mind-blowing, breathtaking challenge of trying to understand —even a teeny bit— the principles, laws and concepts of physics. I love it because their laws and concepts are ultimately impossible to fully comprehend, and yet we live in the most intimate relationship to them possible: we are made of the very energies and matter and forces and trajectories that physics attempts to comprehend. So to grapple with these intellectually and imaginatively is to plunge deeper into the mystery of oneself also; into Mystery itself. Into “more awe, more awe,” which is perhaps what creation asks of us, in exchange for the consciousness we have been given with which to witness it?

And it occurs to me that the practices of psychotherapy (at least as I practice it), of creative activity (ditto), and of theoretical physics are really pretty much the same thing (not that the scale of my understanding is equivalent!): different roads and means of transportation in the same direction. All three (as well as– needless to say– lots of other disciplines also) are about exploring the mystery of existence in all dimensions, and not about “solving” and “deciding.” The latter impulses and activities have their place –oh yes for sure– but as a reflexive reaction to a confrontation with the unknown, the impulse to reduce everything to a problem or a certainty tends to make the world of our understanding smaller, not larger, since it seeks to make things fit into the frameworks of how we already think things are, and to minimize or “solve” away the stuff we’re troubled by. 

Which brings to mind the beloved-to-me opening stanza of the poem, An Hölderlin (“To Holderlin“) by Rainer Maria Rilke (translation mine):

We are not permitted to loiter
even with the familiar.
From what’s fully-imagined the spirit
casts itself off and plunges
abruptly toward other imaginings
yet to be fulfilled.
Still waters are for eternity only.
Here, it is best to fall, to surrender
from the known feeling into the unknown one,
and beyond.

 

Or, as DeGrasse Tyson himself lyrically puts it: “We are stardust brought to life, then empowered by the universe to figure itself out — and we have only just begun.”

 

 

 

It’s Always Lightest Before the Dark

Just before 5 a.m. the moon set, and it was finally dark, just before the dawn…which this morning brought to mind the saying, “It’s always darkest before the dawn.”

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And perhaps because at that moment that saying had no significance to me whatsoever (that is, I didn’t need its intended reassurance in any way) , what struck me was what a banal and in fact judgement-laden (or at best preference-laden) bromide it really is, not to mention a not-always-factually-true one.

Examined at face value (without the cliché of its significance, I mean), it is nothing more than a self-evident observation of phenomena. Of course it is always darkest before the dawn (except when it’s not, like when a late, bright moonrise complicates the picture): that’s what dawn is: the light that comes after the dark. Night comes, getting dark, then darker, and keeps getting darker until it starts to get light again, which light we call “dawn.” One might just as well say, “It’s alway’s lightest just before it starts to get dark,” which is also stating the obvious: that light arrives, peaks and begins to fade into darkness, which then deepens and is eventually overtaken by light. So to take that moment of peak darkness and invoke it as significant— as the “bad thing” (dark) that is overcome by the “good thing” (light)— is to make the dark about light, somehow, like the villain and the good guy in a story which ends with the good guy saving the day. Whew, the light is here, finally! It was not looking like things were going to end well… 

Making the dark the complication and tension in the plot, the “light” its denouement.

Which brings to mind an essay (“The Narrative Gift as a Moral Conundrum”) by the late, great Ursula Le Guin (which can be found in her 2017 collection of short reflections on many things, No Time to Spare)   51mqlEfbrGL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_   on the difference (and the significance of the difference) between “story” and “plot.”  The novelist E.M. Forster, whom she as having had “had a low opinion of story,” is said to have characterized the difference between the two this way: “‘Story’ is ‘The queen died and then the king died,’ while ‘plot’ is ‘The queen died and then the king died of grief.’” In the first, she says, there is “succession without connection,” (bad, to Forster), while the second, by deliberately introducing causality, plot is introduced to make sense of the story for us. “Story goes,” writes LeGuin, and “Plot elaborates the going.”

LeGuin then goes on the make a case for the plotless story, pointing out that narrative itself has, by definition, movement…and that a narrative cannot be told without choices made by the narrator (what to include, what to leave out), which choices themselves are inherently meaningful.

Situation: a woman and a man are taking a walk from here to there. Notice that I myself just made a choice with that introduction —one had to be made— to begin the description with “a woman and a man,” and not “a man an a woman,” or “two people,” each one of which inherently resonates with a different significance when we read it, doesn’t it? Right from the get-go. Then, there’s the choice of whether the story of the walk from here to there will be told from the perspective of (or privilege the point of view of) the woman, or of the man?  All those choices (and many more) and their inherent significance are going on in the story, even without any introduced complications of plot.

And what I would argue is that that we have become (in the west at least) dangerously dependent on the structured arc of  “plot” (situation, complication, tension, catalyst, resolution) as a lens through which to understand and to make meaning of our lives. And when the only stories we tell and read provide this, they in effect continue to train us to expect it, and to look for it: for everything that happens to contribute to some ultimately satisfying (i.e. existential anxiety-lowering) making-of-sense which reassures us that everything is meaningfully about us, whether for good (in the plot sense) or for ill.

The problem with this is that it encourages us only to see that which fits into those patterns (or which seems to).  Which involves in turn rejecting all that doesn’t “make sense to us,” leaving us no more able than we were as children to tolerate pain and tension without needing to make it go away, nor to become any more capable of exploring questions and complications without seeking certainty (a position, an opinion, a judgement). 

But most of what occurs in the world does not, in fact, “make sense,” so to the extent we relate to phenomena and experience by way of our ideas of how things are “supposed to be” and “supposed to go,” we are not actually engaging to any significant degree at all with the Mystery of Being. And there is terror there, yes, but there is also (and nowhere short of there) awe, and —ultimately— freedom. And we can enter and explore the Mystery of Being in all its mysteriousness only to the degree that we are willing to relinquish the need for “meaning,” in the sense of needing it to be about us. That we are willing to be curious, that is, not about what experience and phenomena mean, but about what they are.

A question often invoked in couples therapy with partners in conflict is “Would you rather be right, or be close? Because you don’t get to have both.”  And I love that saying for the way it is as true about how we choose to engage in our relationship with All that Is as it is true for our intimate personal relationships. We can be “right” (decide how things are and how things should be, and live primarily in relationship with that) or we can be “close,” which begins to happen as soon as we drop our notions of how things are and/or should be…including ideas of what they should mean. To us.

So, to simply observe, then, that  “Light comes and then dark comes and then light comes and then dark comes and then light comes […]” is to recognize and acknowledge something more profound (and un-self-centered) than the reassurance that “It’s always darkest before the dawn” offers to our discomfort with pain: it is to observe and acknowledge instead the nature of  impermanence: of how things simply are in themselves, and of how they change, without seeing in them a metaphor for our own personal dramas.

                                                                   ***

An Afterthought: For these very reasons, I am more and more drawn to reading the kinds of stories that take me into a deep experience of a character’s experience, without the story necessarily ending in any kind of satisfying sense of closure, with respect to its plot.  In particular, stories which take me into the experience of what it is to be someone very different from me, living a life very different from mine. The kind of person who, in life, I might be more inclined to judge and avoid instead of seek to empathize with. The kind of person, for instance, who might join an armed occupation of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge. Which is the kind of character Maxim Loskutoff (who is currently at Playa finishing the draft of a new book) writes about in his short story collection, Come West And See  (to be released in May by Norton). tumblr_static_dbbqt09z0jwog4s80wwkskcwwI love these stories, which I find richly, empathetically disturbing in the way stories are which take the reader up-close-and-personal with a difficult character’s experience, without providing the easy exits that judgement, irony or sentimentally offer.  I’ve already pre-ordered; for a preview, you can access links to many of the stories which have been previously published elsewhere (many of them in the Cimarron Review) through Max’s website: http://maximtloskutoff.com/books

“Leap Before You Look”

Along with walking and watching and writing at Playa (and other mark-making activity; see below), I have been reading a lot: mostly poetry (specifically, Rilke) and a book on astrophysics, both of which have been strongly informing and infusing my new work. But as I was preparing to post about exactly that, my attention kept being distracted by some passages and images in another book I’ve been reading (in fact I am kind of obsessed with it at the moment): Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College, 1933-1957.

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Published in 2016 by Yale University Press, this enormous and exhaustively-researched compendium contains close to 500 high-quality color and black-and-white images (historical photographs and artwork), as well as interviews with and/or other contributions by a huge number of the students, faculty, founders, patrons and others who were part of this singularly legendary and visionary school of the arts in the mountains of North Carolina. And while so much content could make for a tedious read, author Helen Molesworth’s lively and deeply engaged writing style and organizational choices makes it an  enlivening and inspiring one. 

Many of the American poets (Charles Olsen, Denise Levertov, Robert Duncan, John Ashbery) and and visual artists (Elaine and Willem de Kooning, Cy Twombly, Robert Rauschenberg, Annie and Joseph Albers) whose work I have been most drawn to were in some way associated with the Black Mountain School. And Warren Wilson College,  where I did my own MFA studies, was more or less modeled after (and often shared activities with) Black Mountain, which was located just five miles away. For both reasons, I have wanted for some time to know more about the school’s history and vision.

All that is about why I myself personally am so interested in this book. But it only occurred to me to post about it when I read what may be the best articulation I have ever read of the reason that the practice of art (which at Black Mountain was the only kind of required course; all other subjects were electives) is central —in fact crucial to—sustaining a democracy, rather than a frivolous pursuit, to be dispensed with when federal funding is tight.

Black Mountain was a college founded between world wars, and many of its faculty and others involved in its vision and curriculum were European immigrants. Many of those were Jewish refugees who came to the U.S. (or  who were recruited by the college to do so) to escape fascism and its consequences. People who, having been directly subject to (and/or in other ways involved with) the conditions which gave rise to fascism, and the resulting horrors and losses resulting from both totalitarianism and war, knew what was at stake with respect to an individual’s choice of how to spend a life in service of the vitality and humanity —even the very survival— of a democratic society.

And since we are living in a time when our democracy itself is under assault by our elected leadership, and our collective fear seems to be shutting down our abilities, individually and collectively, to listen to each other with curiosity and compassion (which is what fear does, and I mean at a physiological level), it seems to be particularly urgent to comprehend, articulate and defend the role and practice of art in our lives, individually and together.

So here’s the passage I wanted to share (quotes within the passage are from the school’s catalogs):

What most distinguished Black Mountain from other schools was the vital role the arts played in the college’s democratic aims. Both Rice and Dewey [Founders John Rice and John Dewey] believed that art—or the ‘art experience’—was essential for nurturing an individual’s capacity to participate in a democracy. The arts, according to Rice, are ‘least subject to direction from without and yet have within them a severe discipline of their own.”  […] “Through some kind of art experience, which is not necessarily the same as self-expression, the student can come to the realization of order in the world; and, by being sensitized to movement, form, sound, and the other media of the arts, gets a firmer control of himself and his environment than is possible through purely intellectual effort.” “The theory is that the process of making art hones not only observation but also judgement and action, so that students who acquire intelligence through art both notice what is happening around them and develop individual responses to it. In Rice’s words, “The artist thinks about what he himself is going to do, does it himself, and then reflects upon the thing that he himself has done.” By encouraging both self-reflection and the translation of thought into action, pedagogy at Black Mountain began with art to end with democracy.  (bold mine)

Selah.

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“Playa & hills, January afternoon.” (Watercolor, local charcoal and playa mud) DCH

So in honor of Black Mountain College and its visionary founders and artists and writers, here’s a poem I have long cherished by Black Mountain College poet, Robert Duncan.

Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow

as if it were a scene made-up by the mind,
that is not mine, but is a made place,
that is mine, it is so near to the heart,
an eternal pasture folded in all thought
so that there is a hall therein
that is a made place, created by light
wherefrom the shadows that are forms fall.
Wherefrom fall all architectures I am
I say are likenesses of the First Beloved
whose flowers are flames lit to the Lady.
She it is Queen Under The Hill
whose hosts are a disturbance of words within words
that is a field folded.
It is only a dream of the grass blowing
east against the source of the sun
in an hour before the sun’s going down
whose secret we see in a children’s game
of ring a round of roses told.
Often I am permitted to return to a meadow
as if it were a given property of the mind
that certain bounds hold against chaos,
that is a place of first permission,
everlasting omen of what is.
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“Feet of Clay” . 2/3/18. Brown envelope, local charcoal, Playa mud and Conte crayon.