I can breathe here. With exceptions, like when large groups of tourists descend upon the mountains. When engines rev too high. When children flock to the trails, run, scream at each other, in joy or out of spite. Mostly, it’s quiet enough to hear the mountains. If you listen carefully, you can hear them breathe, too. Not like my breath. Especially not like my labored breath after I walk up trails.
Walking down them is much easier.
But that’s not the mountain’s breath. Its breath is slow and long and like a controlled blast of wind. So controlled, it’s more like a breeze set free.
Sent soaring above the valleys, with the birds, with the higher clouds and their child wisps. How many times have I stopped, stared at the clouds, the birds and their inhuman children and wanted to go there. Not much higher than they are. But a little bit. High enough to see them below me, and then follow them, watch the sunlight change the shadows on the mountain rocks and trees, like a painter with very long arms.
Like a magically large painter, who can see everything. If only. If only the magic in books could be translated to the sky, the rocks and the breezes. I know when something is that good. Then it would be a time for suspending time. It would be a way to capture beauty in stillness, but, impossibly, to keep it all in motion, from top to bottom, side to side, a chaos of flight, an onslaught of inhuman Olympian displays. Kinetic, electric, blue and green and brown, with colors I’ve never heard of before, but always see. Colors I once was afraid to look at but no longer can be, once the magic of books passes into this world, on these ancient rocks, overlooking the Valley of the Crows.
Over the years, I’ve become more and more interested in photography — in taking pictures, myself. When I was young and pursuing a degree in Art, with painting the focus, I was ambivalent about it as an art. I couldn’t really see it at nearly the same level as painting, as involving the same degree of talent, much less genius. Of course, at the time, my list of snobbish opinions regarding a host of different things was too long to detail, and would fill a book or two. Snobbery about books was, perhaps, at the top of that list.
But with age comes, if not wisdom, then at least some understanding of one’s limits — perhaps because those limits are starting to manifest themselves in ways we simply can no longer shrug off. Age, if utilized, causes us to slow down a bit, stop, take notice of our once take-no-prisoners declarations of likes and dislikes, and wonder: Could I have been wrong about this or that? Or, if not exactly wrong, could I have been a bit narrow in my focus, unwilling to consider things outside it?
Which brings me to the current dilemma of the amateur. Mustering enough humbleness in life to do away with many a youthful certainty, I now face another obstacle, and more than a few new questions: Should I invest in professional gear? Is my photography good enough to take another step? Would it make enough of a difference to go for superior tech, filters, learn the ropes of “manual” settings on the fly, etc. etc.?
Composition comes naturally. Painting and drawing and sculpture did that. The eye composes what, for lack of a better metaphor, the heart feels. And the sculpture, especially, helped me figure out abstract shapes in context, within a world that doesn’t always help those shapes, or couldn’t care less about them, forcing me to make them fit, make them work with or without that world. But is the end result lacking in too much polish, the kind of thing that could be remedied by expensive cameras, mad darkroom skills and umpteen specialized accessories?
Taking all my photos with a very inexpensive camera, or my phone, leaves me wondering what if. What if I dove headlong into the art of photography from the point of view of artists of the quick snap, with metal between the subject and me, between the object and my eye, with all of the paraphernalia and knowledge generally associated with that dive? Or should I just accept the way things are, so I can echo Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront, and say “I coulda been a contender!”? Is it better to be Taoist at this point in life, and leave these things for the young, still in their take-no-prisoners mode?
September brings us new poetry by Ali Zaidi, A. J. Huffman and Raymond Farr. Returning champ, Donal Mahoney, writes about the well-springs of art.
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How does one’s health impact writing, reading and making art in general? How does it derail or derange one’s sense of priorities and connection with life’s mission? I am certainly not alone in thinking about such things in moments such as these, when faced with certain severe alterations to the norm. Pick up most any biography of most any artist and you’ll find maladies aplenty — some so painful, endless and agonizing, you almost feel embarrassed for ever uttering a complaint about your own scenario. Knowing that can situate you in the stream and lessen — at least for a time — a natural desire toward overwhelming personal resentment. You shake your fist at the heavens and then remember others had it and have it far worse. Or you laugh until it hurts.
So, here I am, finally getting around to reading Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles and thinking:
What a self-defeating sort of illusion to succumb to pain, or the illusion that you’re above that pain, or the self-lie that merely by naming the pain, you somehow defeat it. But you first have to get out of that intense fog generated by that pain in order to know you’re in delusion, and I don’t have any really cool wells nearby.
The river is real and metaphorical at the same time. Or, perhaps, a shade or two off the instant. It is real only before and after the photograph. When I look through the lens, I’m already behind the times and separate from my river. When I look at the photograph, I am further removed in time and space — there and not there. Being as if. Not being as one.
Such musings are more or less obvious. But what is not so obvious is that the river terrorizes me and makes me laugh with joy and fate as well. Or, perhaps, a shade or two this side of terror and omen. I laugh thinking about all the other people through time who have looked at rivers and seen things like that. Metaphors and such. Poetic phrases both profound and banal.
Isn’t it curious that people would spend even one second thinking about anything but the lush green, blue, brown and grey colors, and the shadows and shapes spreading across the world? Isn’t it curious that people would be there, witnessing that beauty, the fresh, windy smells, the haunting quiet split by the sound of birds and the rolling river, and want to change it all into something else?
I must admit that the need to capture, frame, crop, sharpen and compose in various ways speaks to a much larger problem. I know the river is greater than I am. I know the sky, the trees, the grass and every wild, natural life — all of it is greater than I am. And I know that it is immortal in a sense, and I am not in a sense. And that realization is the birth of Art. Or something opposed to Art. Something designed to still deep waters and keep us amused, oblivious.
I was walking the other night and fell in love with shadows. The play of shadows on the street, in the lamplight. Thinking, as I walked, what it might look like in a photo, I framed a scene here and there. I abstracted part of reality and placed it inside a box, a rectangle, removing it from its natural place in the scheme of things.
This was wrong, in a nagging, somewhat ambiguous way, and it was perfectly, naturally right all the same. Wrong because it meant I was isolating things and removing them from their relationships to one another, discriminating, splitting up what is whole. Right because this is quite nearly the only way to make art . . .
Though my Zen studies have been put on hold for the last few months, I still think about what I’ve learned so far and what I need to learn, and this followed me as I walked and wondered:
— making art without severance, without ripping things out of their relationships, is still a foreign country I want to visit and absorb. Is it even possible? Is it even desirable?
Form and Field. Figure and Ground. Not to mention function and emptiness. All of these things whirling through the night air, like bats. Not the popular kind, not the kind with sparkles . . . .
Perhaps Gestalt is a fruitful mid-step between now and the Zennish future. It speaks of the whole and the parts of the whole and seems not to miss the forest for the trees. Perhaps a direction for research? Were there any great artists who delved into Gestalt Therapy? Any who were healed?
We have new poetry from several excellent writers for our June issue. Donal Mahoney, Corey Mesler, Isaac Black, William Doreski, Ricky Garni and Steve F. Klepetar. They’ve each added a spark to Spinozablue and expand its history.
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Pathways have always intrigued me. Especially deep pathways that go on forever, with tall thick woods all around that deepen as you go further in. They should scare you just a little bit and make you question why you started in this direction, wondering if you’ll ever get out. But at the same time, they should be green and thick and verdant enough to make you not care one way or another. Should you make it back out or not . . . should you ever see the light of day again, your home sweet home, your girl, your trusty steed. Of course, there is always the dragon in the center to find. Or the pot of gold. There is always the contrast between all of that virgin green and the soft, running river and the ugly factory close by. If it’s closed for the day, you can hear the dragon. If not, if it’s bent on being an obnoxious complainer through its soot-filled chimney stacks and the like, the dragon will likely never leave his lair.
I can’t compete with blue and green. I have to just accept that. They are better than I am. Truer. Blessed with myriad connotations, while all I have is one: Doug. Which connotes . . . Doug. Why is it that we, being a part of nature, the same as, separate ourselves so far from it by taking on names, so we lose our ability to connote and denote and provoke a thousand things? I wish I were not a human, but rather a natural repository of similes. Colors. Allegories. Poems and symbols. Richly elegant, maddening, edgy and mercurial. A thousand things cast off here but cherished over there, on the side of the pathway with the Christina Rossetti girls, lying in the pond, taking turns playing Ophelia.
May Day Additions & Another Riff on Sameness/Difference
Spinozablue has new poetry, fiction and photography on tap for May. Valentina Cano, Emily Ramser, Christina Murphy and Ben Nardolilli grace this site with their poetry; Penelope Mermall with her fiction, and Eleanor Bennett with photography. Emily and Eleanor have something in common. They are both in their teens. Their work, however, along with those already mentioned on this fine May Day, combines future promise and present achievement.
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So, I’m reading The Three Pillars of Zen, by Philip Kapleau, and it’s kick-started all kinds of thought-trails. The book is quite good, though it lags at times when it shifts to interviews with adepts. Lags for me, because too many of the stories are similar. But, then I thought, so it is with life. We really do have similar tales to tell, when boiled down. There are patterns. Unmistakable. Our myths have patterns that echo across the world and through the centuries. Our novels have certain structures and tend toward similar evolution. Even our music, which is the most abstract of the arts, usually follows general guidelines we all know or sense.
Basically, our minds work pretty much the same way, for the most part. We process things using the same biological and chemical tools, which makes it harder for us to aggressively diverge from one another. And we all came from the same primordial soup. Responding to the same cues in relatively similar ways is logical, given that common genesis. So, why is it that we get impatient when faced with the reality of that sameness? Because we all want so badly to believe that we are at least exceptional, if not unique.
The thing is, while we do all inhabit the same circle of life, birth, growth, sickness and death . . . it is also true that there is enough dissimilarity between human beings to keep us guessing. There are surprises. There are shocks and moments when we are truly astounded. There are smiles and laughter when others cry. There are talents that seem otherworldly to us, gifts that make us think of gods and goddesses, if not monsters. And that is what makes life sweet and worth living, and the best art deals with those moments.
If the artist herself can not lay claim to those otherworldly talents, then he can certainly attempt descriptions within context — the context being the everyday, the humble, our common humanity. If they are, however, also among the elect, then their art itself is a demonstration, hopefully. Others can describe the differences later.
But, back to the book. The adepts interviewed often reached Satori or Kensho and described similar things. And what they described is also found in the writings of mystics throughout the centuries: an intensely concentrated vision of oneness with all things. In different religious and philosophical traditions, this vision has different names, but is essentially the same thing. Gods and goddesses are invoked, concepts incarnated, but the essentials remain pretty much constant. It is the instant, the moment, when one’s life, past, present and future, violently compresses into unity, and that unity absorbs and is absorbed by the all.
The only trick, really, is to have the discipline, the control, to make this happen at will. Most of us, without even the slightest desire to reach these altered states, reach them, often without realizing it. It may be at a concert, a sporting event, when we cheer along with everyone in elation, and hug perfect strangers in a moment of no-self. It may be the shock of seeing a newborn foal, the giddiness of witnessing an animal’s birth, and again, leaving our own self behind for an instant of joy. It may also be the sight of some glorious sunset over the sea, something no postcard could capture, or the connection made with a song, a poem, a painting, the eyes, the gait of a stranger . . .
There is a pattern behind the patterns, of course. We live in joy most often when we lose ourselves. We live and love with abandon most often when we leave our egos behind. Any art, religion, philosophy or politics that teaches this or enables this . . . is worth its weight in gold.