a hunger for eternity

From the archives, 2017; lightly edited.


Mary Oliver (September 10, 1935 – January 17, 2019) articulates to perfection the way everything in the world sometimes elbows in to stand between the artist and his or her commitment to their passion – creative engagement with they-know-not-what.  Don’t we all experience this: the expectation from our N&D, or our colleagues – and ourselves too – that we can simply blink and be in the silent, open, receptive posture that invites our muse?  That we can zip from chore to chore, demand to demand, and fit our engagement with creativity into time-slots in a diary?  But it doesn’t work that way.  And this, we find, is what those whose allegiance is to a tick-tock, product-driven, left-brain interpretation of creativity can never understand.

For our muse is a jealous lover; she demands sustained attention and even – dare I say – devotion.  She isn’t easily coerced into our studio – or whatever creative playground we inhabit.  She doesn’t respond to invitations but turns up willy-nilly.  She seems averse to any kind of expectation that she will show up merely because we do…  yet we must show up, regardless.  We must show up and we must stay.  And sooner or later, in our dedication, passion and sincerity, and with our “hunger for eternity” we will realise that our engagement is not just with some mythical muse, but with the ceaseless primordial creativity that is powering the whole glorious show.


From voxpopulisphere where it was posted with the title “The Artist’s Task”.   I’m sharing it here because Mary’s observations cause my head to nod and their expression in her unmistakable voice is a treat.  And because I have a feeling that you – yes, wondrously creative you – might appreciate it too.


It is a silver morning like any other.  I am at my desk.  Then the phone rings, or someone raps at the door.  I am deep in the machinery of my wits.  Reluctantly I rise, I answer the phone or I open the door.  And the thought which I had in hand, or almost in hand, is gone.  Creative work needs solitude.  It needs concentration, without interruptions.  It needs the whole sky to fly in, and no eye watching until it comes to that certainty which it aspires to, but does not necessarily have at once.  Privacy, then.  A place apart — to pace, to chew pencils, to scribble and erase and scribble again.

But just as often, if not more often, the interruption comes not from another but from the self itself, or some other self within the self, that whistles and pounds upon the door panels and tosses itself, splashing, into the pond of meditation.  And what does it have to say?  That you must phone the dentist, that you are out of mustard, that your uncle Stanley’s birthday is two weeks hence.  You react, of course.  Then you return to your work, only to find that the imps of idea have fled back into the mist.

The world sheds, in the energetic way of an open and communal place, its many greetings, as a world should.  What quarrel can there be with that?  But that the self can interrupt the self — and does — is a darker and more curious matter.

Certainly there is within each of us a self that is neither a child, nor a servant of the hours.  It is a third self, occasional in some of us, tyrant in others.  This self is out of love with the ordinary; it is out of love with time.  It has a hunger for eternity.

Say you have bought a ticket on an airplane and you intend to fly from New York to San Francisco.  What do you ask of the pilot when you climb aboard and take your seat next to the little window, which you cannot open but through which you see the dizzying heights to which you are lifted from the secure and friendly earth?

Most assuredly you want the pilot to be his regular and ordinary self.  You want him to approach and undertake his work with no more than a calm pleasure.  You want nothing fancy, nothing new.  You ask him to do, routinely, what he knows how to do — fly an airplane.  You hope he will not daydream.  You hope he will not drift into some interesting meander of thought.  You want this flight to be ordinary, not extraordinary.  So, too, with the surgeon, and the ambulance driver, and the captain of the ship.  Let all of them work, as ordinarily they do, in confident familiarity with whatever the work requires, and no more.  Their ordinariness is the surety of the world.  Their ordinariness makes the world go round.

In creative work — creative work of all kinds — those who are the world’s working artists are not trying to help the world go around, but forward.  Which is something altogether different from the ordinary.  Such work does not refute the ordinary.  It is, simply, something else.  Its labor requires a different outlook — a different set of priorities.

No one yet has made a list of places where the extraordinary may happen and where it may not.  Still, there are indications.  Among crowds, in drawing rooms, among easements and comforts and pleasures, it is seldom seen.  It likes the out-of-doors.  It likes the concentrating mind.  It likes solitude.  It is more likely to stick to the risk-taker than the ticket-taker.  It isn’t that it would disparage comforts, or the set routines of the world, but that its concern is directed to another place.  Its concern is the edge, and the making of a form out of the formlessness that is beyond the edge.

Of this there can be no question — creative work requires a loyalty as complete as the loyalty of water to the force of gravity.  A person trudging through the wilderness of creation who does not know this — who does not swallow this — is lost.  He who does not crave that roofless place eternity should stay at home.  Such a person is perfectly worthy, and useful, and even beautiful, but is not an artist.  Such a person had better live with timely ambitions and finished work formed for the sparkle of the moment only.  Such a person had better go off and fly an airplane.

The working, concentrating artist is an adult who refuses interruption from himself, who remains absorbed and energized in and by the work — who is thus responsible to the work…   Serious interruptions to work, therefore, are never the inopportune, cheerful, even loving interruptions which come to us from another.

It is six A.M., and I am working.  I am absentminded, reckless, heedless of social obligations, etc.  It is as it must be.  The tire goes flat, the tooth falls out, there will be a hundred meals without mustard.  The poem gets written.  I have wrestled with the angel and I am stained with light and I have no shame.  Neither do I have guilt.  My responsibility is not to the ordinary, or the timely.  It does not include mustard, or teeth.  It does not extend to the lost button, or the beans in the pot.  My loyalty is to the inner vision, whenever and howsoever it may arrive.  If I have a meeting with you at three o’clock, rejoice if I am late.  Rejoice even more if I do not arrive at all.

There is no other way work of artistic worth can be done.  And the occasional success, to the striver, is worth everything.  The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.

From: Upstream, Selected Essays, by Mary Oliver.  Copyright 2016.


Image: Edouard Manet 1832-1883, Woman Writing c.1863. Public Domain.


In a similar vein:

the alchemy of creativity

wider wonderment; deepening devotion


courting creativity

my seven fail-safe strategies

This post is part of an essay recently added to the WRITING section of this website.

Agnes Martin's studio

In my playground, immanent creativity – often referred to as ‘the muse’ – is decidedly She.  For millennia She has been portrayed in dozens of cultures and lands as the Great Mother, a goddess with a thousand names.  In our modern intellectual era it seems anachronistic to ascribe gender to this ineffable dynamic.   No problem – however we choose to conceive of It and refer to It makes no difference whatsoever.  It couldn’t care less.   It’s totally unmoved by expectation, ever wild and utterly untameable. 

That said, something responds to our acknowledgement and appreciation;
something responds to courtship…  

1          Set up space – a salon befitting a regal muse.  For me, that implies quiet, beauty, order.  Have somewhere to sit in silence, as well as areas in which to play.  We need a place where we can take time to be silent, to receive inspiration without pressure or distraction.  She will come.

2          Show up – commit.  Let Her know you’re serious.  Showing up isn’t specific to the studio.  Creativity is responsive to our attention, curiosity and presence – wherever we are, and whatever we’re doing.  Everything weaves itself into our work.

3          Resist the familiar – it’s the same-old, same-old.  She doesn’t do old or habitual.  She isn’t a follower of fashion or fad.  She’s always at the cutting edge.  Actually, She IS the cutting edge.

4          Question everything – especially your reflexive reactions.  She’s a jealous lover.  She won’t show up if you’re in bed with your beliefs.

5          Befriend risk.  No risk, no encounter.  She enjoys a hearty joust with the dragon called Doubt, but it usually makes itself scarce when she shows up.

6          Play with chance – i.e., ways of sabotaging self-certainty and fostering an innocent mind.  She seems particularly fond of this little strategy.

7          When tired, lie down; rest.  She’ll often drop in with clarity and inspiration when you’re in a heap of weariness, frustration or confusion.  Have a notebook handy.

– mls 2022

You can read the full essay here: wonderingmindstudio.com/writing/courting-creativity


NB:  Although I have personified creativity as a ‘muse’, and as ‘she’, this is only for poetic purposes.  Creativity is not an object.  It’s not something ‘outside’ of us.  At the deepest level, spontaneous creativity is a quality of the Life force that lives us.  To court creativity is to make a conscious, open, orientation towards that unknowable force, Life’s infinite capacity – which we’ve never been separate from.  We’ve just been hoodwinked by assumptions of separation that have hardened into beliefs.


Image – the inner sanctum of Agnes Martin‘s studio.


 

a hunger for eternity

Mary Oliver articulates to perfection the way everything in the world appears to stand between the artist and his or her commitment to their passion – creative engagement with they-know-not-what.  Don’t we all experience this: the expectation from our N&D, or our colleagues – and ourselves too – that we can simply blink and materialise in the silent, open, receptive posture that invites our muse?  That we can zip from chore to chore, demand to demand, and fit our engagement with creativity into time-slots in a diary?  But it doesn’t work that way.  And this, we find, is what those whose allegiance is to a tick-tock, product-driven, left-brain interpretation of creativity can never understand.

For our muse is a jealous lover; she demands sustained attention and even, dare I say, devotion.  She isn’t easily coerced into our studio – or whatever creative playground we inhabit.  She doesn’t respond to invitations but turns up willy-nilly.  She seems averse to any kind of expectation that she will show up merely because we do…  yet we must show up, regardless.  We must show up and we must stay.  And sooner or later, in our dedication, passion and sincerity, and with our “hunger for eternity” we will realise that our engagement is not just with some mythical muse, but with the ceaseless primordial creativity that is powering the whole glorious show.


This offering is reblogged from voxpopulisphere where it was posted with the title “The Artist’s Task”.  The content was originally featured on brainpickings.  I’m sharing it here because Mary’s observations cause my head to nod (and their expression in her unmistakable voice is a treat), and because I have a feeling that you – yes, wondrously creative you – will appreciate it too.


It is a silver morning like any other.  I am at my desk.  Then the phone rings, or someone raps at the door.  I am deep in the machinery of my wits.  Reluctantly I rise, I answer the phone or I open the door.  And the thought which I had in hand, or almost in hand, is gone.  Creative work needs solitude.  It needs concentration, without interruptions.  It needs the whole sky to fly in, and no eye watching until it comes to that certainty which it aspires to, but does not necessarily have at once.  Privacy, then.  A place apart — to pace, to chew pencils, to scribble and erase and scribble again.

But just as often, if not more often, the interruption comes not from another but from the self itself, or some other self within the self, that whistles and pounds upon the door panels and tosses itself, splashing, into the pond of meditation.  And what does it have to say?  That you must phone the dentist, that you are out of mustard, that your uncle Stanley’s birthday is two weeks hence.  You react, of course.  Then you return to your work, only to find that the imps of idea have fled back into the mist.

The world sheds, in the energetic way of an open and communal place, its many greetings, as a world should.  What quarrel can there be with that?  But that the self can interrupt the self — and does — is a darker and more curious matter.

Certainly there is within each of us a self that is neither a child, nor a servant of the hours.  It is a third self, occasional in some of us, tyrant in others.  This self is out of love with the ordinary; it is out of love with time.  It has a hunger for eternity.

Say you have bought a ticket on an airplane and you intend to fly from New York to San Francisco.  What do you ask of the pilot when you climb aboard and take your seat next to the little window, which you cannot open but through which you see the dizzying heights to which you are lifted from the secure and friendly earth?

Most assuredly you want the pilot to be his regular and ordinary self.  You want him to approach and undertake his work with no more than a calm pleasure.  You want nothing fancy, nothing new.  You ask him to do, routinely, what he knows how to do — fly an airplane.  You hope he will not daydream.  You hope he will not drift into some interesting meander of thought.  You want this flight to be ordinary, not extraordinary.  So, too, with the surgeon, and the ambulance driver, and the captain of the ship.  Let all of them work, as ordinarily they do, in confident familiarity with whatever the work requires, and no more.  Their ordinariness is the surety of the world.  Their ordinariness makes the world go round.

In creative work — creative work of all kinds — those who are the world’s working artists are not trying to help the world go around, but forward.  Which is something altogether different from the ordinary.  Such work does not refute the ordinary.  It is, simply, something else.  Its labor requires a different outlook — a different set of priorities.

No one yet has made a list of places where the extraordinary may happen and where it may not.  Still, there are indications.  Among crowds, in drawing rooms, among easements and comforts and pleasures, it is seldom seen.  It likes the out-of-doors.  It likes the concentrating mind.  It likes solitude.  It is more likely to stick to the risk-taker than the ticket-taker.  It isn’t that it would disparage comforts, or the set routines of the world, but that its concern is directed to another place.  Its concern is the edge, and the making of a form out of the formlessness that is beyond the edge.

Of this there can be no question — creative work requires a loyalty as complete as the loyalty of water to the force of gravity.  A person trudging through the wilderness of creation who does not know this — who does not swallow this — is lost.  He who does not crave that roofless place eternity should stay at home.  Such a person is perfectly worthy, and useful, and even beautiful, but is not an artist.  Such a person had better live with timely ambitions and finished work formed for the sparkle of the moment only.  Such a person had better go off and fly an airplane.

The working, concentrating artist is an adult who refuses interruption from himself, who remains absorbed and energized in and by the work — who is thus responsible to the work…   Serious interruptions to work, therefore, are never the inopportune, cheerful, even loving interruptions which come to us from another.

It is six A.M., and I am working.  I am absentminded, reckless, heedless of social obligations, etc.  It is as it must be.  The tire goes flat, the tooth falls out, there will be a hundred meals without mustard.  The poem gets written.  I have wrestled with the angel and I am stained with light and I have no shame.  Neither do I have guilt.  My responsibility is not to the ordinary, or the timely.  It does not include mustard, or teeth.  It does not extend to the lost button, or the beans in the pot.  My loyalty is to the inner vision, whenever and howsoever it may arrive.  If I have a meeting with you at three o’clock, rejoice if I am late.  Rejoice even more if I do not arrive at all.

There is no other way work of artistic worth can be done.  And the occasional success, to the striver, is worth everything.  The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.

From: Upstream, Selected Essays, by Mary Oliver.  Copyright 2016.


Image: Edouard Manet 1832-1883, Woman Writing c.1863. Public Domain.


In a similar vein:

the alchemy of creativity

wider wonderment; deepening devotion


how was it for you?

 

I’ve been reading a great post from Maria Popova at brainpickings about the moment we recognise we are fated to become artists.

“How does one become an artist — not in a practical sense, not by some external measure, but by an invisible and intimate surrender to the creative impulse? It often happens in a single moment of recognition — a point of contact with some aspect of the miraculous in some aspect of the mundane, catalyzing an overwhelming sense of the unity of things and an uncontainable desire to emanate that sense outwardly; to share it, in some form, with others — whose otherness is suddenly dissipated by the very impulse.”

The article is about Patti Smith and her memory of this momentous recognition. It’s inspiring and wondrous. But it left me thinking, well, what was my big moment of recognition? How was it for me? Was it a single moment or did it unfold over time?

 

Wonderingmind Studio - Michael Leunig: Song

 

In my case, it was both. From tinyhood there was always an urge to be engaged in making for its own sake; I simply loved the way the world (and me as well) would melt into a timeless joy when I was ‘making things.’ In that innocent play I felt totally at home, totally ‘right’, fully fulfilled. (Years later I would realise that I’d always been driven by a mix of curiosity and wonderment – and that this mix had also driven the lifelong urge to understand that ineffable state.)

I was good at academic subjects, and at High School that meant focusing on language, math and science. But I was already seduced by the subjects deemed less worthy – by art and  craft and embroidery. I wanted to make, and to make art in particular, even though I didn’t really know what art was.

As a concession, I was allowed to take Art and Design as a ‘failing subject’ for my School Certificate (= O Levels) exams. What that meant was that if I failed in it, it wouldn’t matter because the other four ‘real’ subjects, which I would do well in, would carry me through. Since we had no proper instruction in Art or Design at my academically focussed school, I was set up to fail – I didn’t even know how to read the exam questions. And so it came to pass.

I was knocked back on my failure to answer the questions correctly. And that was my ‘tingle’ moment – that was when I raised my 15 year-old finger to the high priests of the art world and said stuff you. I didn’t have a clue what art was, I was ignorant of art history and criticism, I was a peasant kid in a tiny city at the bottom of the earth. But I knew what stirred my juice. It was the wonder of colour and the magic of making.

Yet even with that early recognition, it took decades for my via creativa to deliver me to full commitment to visual language as my mode of expression: to ‘out’ me as an artist. On the way I tried my hand at some amazing alternatives. Yet like an insidious addiction, the makings continued. And the hunger to be fully engaged in ‘art without apology’ was insatiable.

Eventually that hunger was satiated. There was no delivery to fame, although mini-fame fluttered for a while. I simply made my way by making, and by helping others know the joy of expressing with their own authentic voice.

It’s a long way back to that “stuff you” moment, the moment when that adolescent intuited that she would spend her life busy at an activity that for most of her friends and family (and society at large) would be both incomprehensible and worthless. Yet here I am, now in my 70s, and I wouldn’t change a thing. For me, making things turned out to be my holy pathless path, my Guru, and my gratitude is inexpressible.

I’d love to hear your own reflections: how was it for you?

 


Image: Michael Leunig, Song. I chose this image because it expresses so well the sense of wonder, fulfilment and sweetness that accompanies the visit of the muse (the little bird?)
http://www.leunig.com.au


True art does not look like art.
– Lao Tzu


no artist is pleased
creativity and autonomy