In Loving Attention

The endless tasks will be there, always. But we have a choice to work with and through them, in total attention, or to be pulled from ourselves and others by the noise of the day.

It’s easy and expected to underestimate the value of giving our full attention generously and with love. So many forces in the world can work to divide us from ourselves and each other. Plenty profit from engineering more advanced ways to do just that. It’s frighteningly easy to fall into a habit of looking where we are expected to look. Fortunately, it’s not actually that hard to do the opposite, and look with intention. Most of us just need regular reminders, that this is one of the most valuable acts we can do. 

Considering this at the start of a very full week, I am remembering how moved I was when I discovered the work of artist Marina Abramović through a video about her 2010 MoMA exhibition, The Artist is Present. Here’s a description of this installation:

“The work was inspired by her belief that stretching the length of a performance beyond expectations serves to alter our perception of time and foster a deeper engagement in the experience. Seated silently at a wooden table across from an empty chair, she waited as people took turns sitting in the chair and locking eyes with her. Over the course of nearly three months, for eight hours a day, she met the gaze of 1,000 strangers, many of whom were moved to tears.”

Rebecca Taylor at smart history.org describing Marina Abramović’s “The Artist is Present.”

Abramović speaks about her work with trust, vulnerability, and connection in her 2010 TED talk:

Poet John Clare has written, “Poets love nature and themselves are love.” These lines can be powerful reminder for an artist in any medium. These words remind me back to back to deliberate absorption, which is very different than being absorbed into the pull of endless tasks and distractions. 

The endless tasks will be there, always. But we have a choice to work with and through them, in total attention, or to be pulled from ourselves and others by the noise of the day. The work of a generous artist, offering presence and attention, never fails to remind me back to this. As Greg Boyle, one of my favorite artists of the heart has observed, “We are here to return ourselves to one another.”

So today, my focus is on returning. Not once, but over and over again. The beauty of intentional attention is that its rewards are immediately apparent. We have only to try giving it, to be reminded back to why it matters. We have only to offer ourselves fully, to be returned.

Pigeon Spectrum

Ever notice them in the light? If you look really close, there’s a lot happening there. These feathers, you have to see what she does with them, zooming in.

You gotta come see this.

What?

These feathers. This artist makes these huge rainbow murals from the colors.

Oh, I love peacocks.

Who doesn’t, but this is about pigeons.

Flying rats!

No, but look close. Ever notice them in the light? If you look really close, there’s a lot happening there. These feathers, you have to see what she does with them, zooming in.

Where?

Sides of buildings, chimneys, warehouse walls, shipping containers. They started out more muted, but then it was the winter of sirens and another lockdown and everyone inside. That’s when they started getting really bright.

Huh, there’s a legend I heard once, about what the Cottonwood remembers about the pigeons.

Why people started calling them flying rats?

No, why they became the first birds eaten by another bird. It’s a Caddo story, I think.

Hawk get ‘em?

Owl. Legend has it that in the beginning, no bird killed another bird. All they ate was grass and leaves. Great Spirit didn’t like to see anything she made killed by another creature.

But the owl always hunted at night.

Not always. It used to see fine in the daytime. Matter of fact, that’s how it started. Owl laid eyes on a swan and fell hard in love. 

Always the swan. Great white ladybird. They’re mean, though.

So, owl goes every day to see the swan and then he proposes marriage. Swan’s like, “Come down here.” Now, usually owl knows better than to get near any water, but love makes you do crazy things. So, what do you think happens?

Wet feathers.

Yep, he falls in, can’t get out, and there’s a loon in the reeds cracking up, going, “Hah! Fool!” and Owl is humiliated, furious. Thing is, he can’t see the loon. What he sees instead are these two pigeons above him on a cottonwood branch. The pigeons are not paying the owl any mind. They’re lovers. One’s saying to the other, “Who do you love?” just as the raging owl below them is going, “What are you laughing at?” The other pigeon, addressing her love, says, “You, you.”

Uh-oh. I see where this is going.

Yep. Owl goes crazy and attacks her. Her feathers rain down, brush against Great Spirit’s cheek. Spirit wakes up, sees what’s happened, and punishes owl. And that’s why owl can only see at night now. 

Huh.

I know. 

Point being, you gotta see these feathers. 

Let’s go.

The artist is Adele Renault and I came across an article about her “Gutter Paradise” murals in My Modern Met. Here is a link to the article with images.

The story “The Cottonwood Remembers” can be found at When the Storm God Rides, by Florence Stratton, collected by Bessie M. Reid [1936], at sacred-texts.com

Real Talk with Dead Folks: Here’s to W.G., Absurdist O.G.

My interest to learn more about him was piqued when I learned he was described with the following words, not necessarily in this order: “exiled, absurdist, brilliant, perverse, singular.”

You can’t honor the living if you don’t honor the dead, and large swaths of the current death machine work towards erasing them. One way to erase the past is to erase history. Another is to sanitize it and put our heroes on pedestals.  That’s why I like to engage in conversation and occasional correspondence with dead folks. From time to time, I will write letters to dead artists, writers, and other notable or unknown people. Sometimes, the occasion for this arises organically, from a question or reference in the air. Other times, I may discover that it is the birthday of a person of interest and be moved to strike up a conversation. This can be especially fruitful when it offers an opportunity to engage with someone previously unknown to me, as is the case with today’s entry.

Here’s something I learned this morning as I was wondering what today’s post would be about: On this day in 1904, writer Witold Gombrowicz was born in Poland.  My interest to learn more about him was piqued when I learned he was described with the following words, not necessarily in this order: “exiled, absurdist, brilliant, perverse, singular.” I decided to make him the subject of my next “Real Talk with Dead Folks,” which is one of the Breadcrumbs exercises that I find generative, especially when I am tired of my own ideas.

Dear Witold,

I’m sorry we couldn’t do this in person. Perhaps you would not have talked to me, but I think I would have enjoyed listening to you, at least for a little while. Probably I would have found you a bit too obsessed with yourself and this question of authenticity, and perhaps you would have made assumptions about me when you learned that I worked in schools, which are the places that perhaps best fueled your sense of the absurd. We’d both have our reasons, I’m sure. Fortunately, when it comes to this sort of work, liking or not liking does not need to factor into capacity for deep appreciation.

You claimed that the best lessons of school were in the breaks, when your classmates beat you. Your education, you said, was reading ––forbidden books, especially–– and loafing. You were often ill. Puzzling over your dreams, the symbolism and possibility within them, you considered a possible way out. Of what? I wondered. And you said, The whole farce! Then I knew I loved you.

It was perhaps one long project you were on, a quest to get to the “real” of you. You kept a daily public diary also, but you preferred different lenses: sometimes polemic, other times self-absorbed lens. I am skeptical of claims to authenticity, but I have a soft spot for those committed to an aesthetic with relentless dedication. For this, I can love you also.

They called you “creepy as Poe” and “absurdist as Kafka” and you relentlessly criticized their forms––all of them, calling them covers for the conventions you despised. Refusing to be tamed, you cultivated immaturity as wisdom, imperfection as an antidote to the fake. Every artist has their obsessions; your grail was authenticity. “I am a circus,” you said, “what more do you want?” Hah! I thought. That’s all I need to know.

You raged at the teachers babbling clichés and poked at the nonsense of their often-hollow aphorisms, so devoid of meaning as to be deemed universally palatable substitutions for truth for anyone who prefers the easy nicety to real thinking. “Chirp, chirp, little chickie!” your hero announced. 

Were any of your elders spared your criticism? You called out Schulz on his assent to conventions, you joked that Proust “found more in his cookie. . . than they found in years of smoking crematoria.” You called Kafka “unreadable” and lacking sex appeal. You called your diary the faithful dog of your soul.  You did have a few nice things to say about Kierkegaard.

Rejecting institutions of honor, you baptized yourself a self-made man, planned a life of exile in obscurity, and were soon after celebrated. But Europe broke your heart. You were a bumpkin among sophisticates, and you died soon after.

Relentless in your quest not to be a type of writer, but yourself, you left behind a legacy at once brilliant, hilarious, dangerous, redemptive, perverse, irreverent, heartfelt, and voluminous. Today I celebrate your defiance of easy classification, and I celebrate your love of the absurd.

Titles, for example, you did only randomly. You chose names for your books like one names a dog – “to tell one from the other,” you said. You had, after all, the one faithful dog of your soul, your daily letters, and this was after all, the singular work of a life, continuous and ongoing in all of its embedded and wondrous contradictions. 

You said, “Serious literature does not exist to make life easy but to complicate it.” You reminded, “Don’t be fooled by your own wisdom.” You honored paying attention, observing “the more profound the awareness, the more authentic the existence.”

Thanks for leaving a trail. I’m glad to meet you. I love the way you challenge people to examine contradictions, how you challenge pedestal-making with irreverence, and how you combat calcification of statues built as stand-ins for truth by dancing with the fluid and absurd. 

I hope to see more of you in years to come. 

Follow-up: It didn’t occur to me until this morning to make this a series on Breadcrumbs. Until now, I hadn’t articulated the impulse to be in conversation with dead people I never met, nor had I acknowledged that it’s something I tend to do in my notebooks and in my head fairly regularly.  I’ve done this once before on the blog, in a memo to artist Hieronymous Bosch, posted here: “Curious Sends Memo to Dead Artist of Living Work.” I look forward to more of these. 

The source I used for this exercise is Ruth Franklin’s excellent New Yorker article about the writer, “Imp of the Perverse: Witold Gombrowicz’s war against cliché.”

Against Forgetting

How do you resist the monster that would have you forget your purpose in creating?

Against forgetting, give water to the plant

and notice the light in a stranger’s eye

––and the shadows. 

Notice the work still waiting, against

what would have you close your eyes,

surrendering time, white flag waving

for a moment before it falls like a sheet

over the sleeping body, like a sheet

over the dead.

I’d lose my head, The old women would say, 

If it wasn’t attached, as if to remind us to

hold the tether to what was less securely 

attached; as if to say, you’ll lose your life

if it isn’t attached, by the substance

of a series of tiny actions like clay around

the whisper-thin thread of your otherwise

invisible dreams.

Against forgetting, say to the child unsure

how to begin, Here, and hold out a hand

and keep mealtimes. Against forgetting,

extend an invitation to the table, 

to those cast out, disposed of,

dispossessed. This includes the children

before you and the ones made invisible

and the ones you once were.

To say, I see you, Here 

we are and remember.

To notice the little bird in the low branch,

to say its name and listen for its response

to what you have not said. To walk in

the desert, in the dark, with water and

with light.

“The bottom line is this: You write in order to change the world, knowing perfectly well that you probably can’t, but also knowing that literature is indispensable to the world. In some way, your aspirations and concern for a single man in fact do begin to change the world. The world changes according to the way people see it, and if you alter, even by a millimeter, the way a person looks or people look at reality, then you can change it.”

-James Baldwin, from a 1979 interview published in The New York Times

This post is a follow-up to yesterday’s post, on the monster that wants us to forget.

The Spectacle and the Living

In the day of the spectacle, paying deep attention is a radical act.

On this day in 1936, the Olympic Games opened in Berlin. Adolf Hitler presided over the opening ceremonies. He had gone to great pains to outdo the Los Angeles stadium of 1932, building a track and field stadium to seat 100,000 spectators, among other impressive arenas. It was the first televised Olympics, the first torch relay, and the Nazi Chancellor saw the games as a tremendous opportunity to promote his nationalist agenda.

He didn’t speak of killing or deathcamps. He just made sure that Jewish athletes were barred or otherwise prevented from competing. He tied the image of the noble and beautiful athlete to state power and his voice to high-minded ideals invoking language of unity, proclaiming, “The sportive, knightly battle awakens the best human characteristics. It doesn’t separate, but unites the combatants in understanding and respect. It also helps to connect the countries in the spirit of peace. That’s why the Olympic Flame should never die.”  It’s fair to assume that if he couldn’t stir millions with invocations like this, he wouldn’t have been in a position to orchestrate the terrors that followed. With this in mind, it’s worth considering and reconsidering what moves us, in order to notice who and what gets erased when the primary motivating impulse is grandiosity.

After the games, the Olympic Village was repurposed for use by Nazi armed forces, as a camp, an infantry training school, and a hospital. Because of World War II, there would not be another Olympics for twelve years.

Also on this day, in 1981, MTV began broadcasting. The first video to be aired was “Video Killed the Radio Star” from The Buggles, featuring these famous lines:

In my mind and in my car

We can’t rewind, we’ve gone too far

Pictures came and broke your heart

Put the blame on VCR.

The line of connection is the power of the image. It calls to mind Marshall McLuhan’s reminder that “The medium is the message,” and it’s worth noting the relevance, considering the diverse anxieties of living in an age where the speed and proliferation of messages is so omnipresent. Many a would-be dictator has benefited from the reality of censorship through noise. From the standpoint of anyone doing creative work: of art, education, growth, a movement–– sheer noise is one of the chief weapons of the anti-life force of the machine that works to prevent this growth. Soul and species survival, in this era, necessitates certain questions: what invisible truths are living behind what is projected in this moment? Who and what is not featured? Who and what is erased? 

Erasure is diffuse and happens most effectively when it can go undetected. Any ecosystem that supports the systematic erasure of certain life forms above others is by nature unstable in ways that threaten the entire ecosystem. Where certain lives are systematically erased, all lives live under constant surveillance and threat of erasure. It’s one thing to talk about fighting for life, about defending the threatened, but the problem with this rhetoric is that both invoke the same tired images of victory and conquest that support the erasure at hand. We can’t defend what we’re not noticing. To look well and deeply is an act of courage and humility. So is listening. 

Also on this day, Carlton Douglas Ridenhour was born in Queens, NY. He would later adopt the stage name Chuck D., form the group Public Enemy in 1985, and rise to international fame while delivering a call to social consciousness and resistance against the forces of state-sanctioned violence and racialized social control. In the summer of 1989, the group released “Fight the Power” with this timely message:

You say what is this?

My beloved let’s get down to business

Mental self-defensive fitness

Don’t rush the show

You gotta go for what you know

Make everybody see, in order to fight the powers that be

Lemme hear you say

Fight the power

In an age of senseless invisible killing on a global scale, with the stakes as high as they have ever been, the act of paying attention becomes a radical act. It’s tempting and gratifying to the ego to invoke the same tired images of the fight, the raised torch, the path to victory.  But the spectacle is not in service of life. The spectacle, as employed today, is generally in service of another agenda. Spectacle in and of itself is not necessarily the problem, but it’s not the solution, either. You could argue that the lyrics above, powerful as they are, are part and parcel with spectacle.  

A spectacle designed to move people to resist corrupt power systems, in a world of spectacle, is important and necessary, but the real work is deeper. Children, for example, who need lots of care, will celebrate the wild, crazy uncle that comes to visit every so often, who raises them high in the air, gives piggy-back rides, speaks in funny voices, and feeds them candy before leaving. The kids are reaffirmed with a sense of magic and possibility, but they’d likely be in danger if they were left solely in his care. The care is the slow, unglamourous, painstaking work of the sleep-deprived parent, day in and day out, one ordinary moment at a time. 

What to do with these torches, these stirrings to victory, the way they are all wrapped up in our idea of transcendence? A good symbol is better repurposed than neglected. One suggestion may be, to bring the torch lower–– maybe to the level of the campfire.  To create a space for the opposite of spectacle, where the quiet magic lives, so real we can almost miss it. A place of listening and sharing, under the common sky, unified by a sense of being small beneath it. And against all the spectacles of false strength, to recognize a common fragility, and a call to protect what needs protecting, not with the posture of a blowhard pretend strongman, but through the patient, slow-moving, and restorative acts of the nurturer.

Ways of Looking

Deep attention is precious because it is so rare, and it speaks to what is endangered within us. This is worth fighting for.

I recently finished reading a beautiful, difficult-to-categorize novel that was almost not published. It’s Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai, (the title a reference to the Kurosawa film, which features heavily throughout the story), and it was deemed by most of those who could have published it to be too difficult. People wouldn’t get it. I had never heard of it, and then I heard it mentioned twice, with earnest praise, by serious poets I was following, whose work had been sustaining me in profound ways. Serious poets are one group who tends to know especially well the loneliness of creating what no one is asking for. I had to read the book that they found so sustaining, and now I am so grateful I did.  

I won’t even try to summarize any of it here. It won’t work, because what happens in this book is not going to lend itself to any sort of succinct overview. Suffice to say, there are parallel plots: a boy looking for his father, and his mother looking for some relief from predictable banality. Her artistic sensibilities are extremely heightened, and she is the sort to be in the handful of about five people left in an audience after a renowned composer tries difficult work, exploring really new territory. The composer, too, suffers from a crisis of faith, no longer wanting to perform or create CDs when there are only about five people who would want to listen to the type of music that he finds interesting now. Each of these characters is wearied by the commodification of the familiar. None have material wealth, and all feel the limitations of not having money, in real ways. And yet. The mother, who had tried to kill herself long ago, before the son was born, is someone for whom the presence of deeply honest art may be a life-saving force.

I won’t get into further details here, except to note something profound that DeWitt writes in the afterword.  She is describing the irony of living in a world where “humanities are increasingly dismissed as impractical and whatever counts as STEM is a good thing because practical. But we don’t live in a society where every schoolchild has Korner’s The Pleasures of Counting, or Steiner’s The Chemistry Maths Book, . . . Lang’s Astrophysical Formulae. . .” She goes on to observe that “perhaps we should really be more interested in the unknown capabilities of the reader.” She reflects on the way that her manuscript was summarily dismissed for years, and also on the intensity of the response of those readers who have connected with it. She writes, “It’s not hard to imagine a world where the effect of the book on what has been a coterie of readers is multiplied to the point where general assumptions about what is possible are changed.” Perhaps alluding to the strict ethical code observed by the samurai who feature so prominently in her book, DeWitt observes, of this possible new world, that while it is “by no means unflawed, . . .it looks better than what we have. We should fight for it when and where we can.” I am so deeply grateful to this writer for persisting in her vision when all signs (as they are typically read) pointed to giving up and abandoning her vision for something “more practical.”

“The Last Samurai” by Óscar Velázquez on flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial No-Derivs 2.0 Generic license.

These thoughts happened to coincide with some vague awareness I’ve been coming to lately, about connections between honesty, risk, and gratitude. It came to me while I was observing someone who was being celebrated, who seemed rather bored by their own following, even as they had come to depend in certain ways on the attention. When there’s so much of it, the attention itself becomes excessive, perhaps even cheapened. With some people in public places doing things publicly, an offering of appreciation seems to get absorbed into an echo chamber, validating whatever sense of greatness was already felt before the performance began, looping back the grand stature like the canned soundtrack of some preordained manifest destiny, as if someone has taken a carefully prepared, handmade gift and tossed it without looking on the overflowing table behind them.

But with others, when someone approaches with gratitude, reflecting their light back to its source, they cannot help but wonder: who is this here, seeing; really seeing? How is it that some kindred soul in this moment of abject, naked vulnerability, will manage to stop and look? These others return the gaze, inviting the pilgrim to meet them; to rediscover, in the wild, the sort of contact once thought extinct. The attention is precious because it is so rare, and it is meaningful because it speaks to what is rare and endangered within us. This is worth fighting for.