June 24, 2011

Seeing the Essential

In a drawing class I took last year, the teacher asked her students to draw the "essence" of an object.  "It's difficult to do this well," she said. It's natural to want to tell everything we know about the object, and we do this by adding details. Instead, she wanted us convey the object's fundamental qualities with only a few strokes.  Expressing the essence of a sword, for instance, might be about the motions of slicing the air and thrusting.

She was right about how hard it is to do this. My object was a rubber duck, the kind that amuses kids in the bathtub. Abstracting it to communicate its light-hearted playfulness was the most difficult assignment I had all semester.

As I worked through the exercise, I started to think about "essence" as it related to the people in my life.  What if we saw only the essence of our friends, our partner, the neighbor down the street? What if we stripped away everything but the one pure aspect of their personality that best illuminates who they are.

It's like that photo you're lucky enough to take every once in a blue moon. The one where your sister is crinkling her eyes in a look of intense, delighted, curiosity. The one that everyone who looks at it says "Oh, yeah. That's Annie! You really captured her --she's so interested in everything around her!" And what if it was your heightened awareness, instead of your camera, that recognized Annie's essence?

Would we act differently with others if we had that gift of seeing the essential? If "caring" is your husband's defining trait, would you complain when he needs to be reminded to take out the garbage or would you focus on his unfailing kindness toward you when you're feeling blue? If a friend's essential quality is fear, would you substitute kindness and inquiry for your usual impatience? And if someone is characterized by rage, would you decide to step away from the relationship rather than endure it?

And what about your own "essence" --the key quality that you project? How would others define it ? What do you think it is?

Image by Vermin Inc, from Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons license.

June 20, 2011

Wearing My Intentions

When I first started reading jewelry designer Kathy Van Kleeck's blog, long before I met her, she was living in another state far, far away. I loved her jewelry designs from the start, and was delighted to learn that she was planning to moving to my town(!)

You'd think I would have reached out to her at that point, but hyper-introvert that I am, I didn't. She moved here, and I kept reading her blog. Still, I didn't introduce myself. You know... I didn't want to intrude. Well, maybe you don't know. Maybe you're a normal, friendly person who thinks it perfectly reasonable, if you've been reading someone's blog for months and months, and they move to your community, at least to leave a comment on their blog letting them know that you live there too.  Yep. Makes sense. But I didn't do it.

Lucky for me, we ended up taking a class together taught by a terrific mixed media artist and friend.  I did introduce myself then (finally), and we spent some relaxed time talking. We had a number of things in common --a childhood in Florida, for one. She told me that she, too, was an introvert, although I never would have known (which is what people say about me when I tell them I'm not naturally social).

Now we see each other regularly (I did take that follow-up step after the class to suggest we get together), and we have much more in common than those few things we talked about during the class. Often, we find ourselves talking about the rewards and mysteries of living a life with purpose, and how damn hard it can be to stay on track with our intentions.

Among her collection Kathy has a series of delightful Talismans. Each piece combines elements that are touchstones for the wearer's journey. Kathy calls it "the path towards 'waking up'.".  I like the 'look and feel' of these talismans, and I wanted to incorporate my own touchstones --in this case, three words that I chose as the focus of my attention for 2011.*  I also wanted to include a symbol in which I've long found special meaning: a heart resting in an open palm.

You can see the results of Kathy's lovely work. I was enchanted when I saw what she'd created. I like how each element has its own integrity yet joins with the others to create a piece that is much more than the sum of the parts.

I wear this necklace often, and routinely find myself reaching to clasp the pendants. It's become a natural gesture that keeps me mindful of what I most want to practice this year: choice, connection, and gratitude. The heart/hand pendant reminds me stay open: to what my heart is saying, to the people in my life, to new ideas and ways of doing things, to what I still need to learn.

And, of course, wearing a beautiful object handmade by a friend who crafted it with love and attention is a joy that can't be measured.


(here's what I said about the process of choosing my words for last year: 2010)

Images: Mine

June 17, 2011

Making Sense (or Not)

You know how when you're thinking of buying a new car and you've done your research and have one in mind, suddenly you see that car everywhere?

I wrote recently about making peace with not having all the answers. I even managed to turn Woody Allen's new film into a meditation on embracing the uncertainties of the present instead of longing for the narrative of an idealized past. So, when I came across Dani Shapiro's post at HuffPost, I couldn't help but see a huge neon Lesson-Alert sign.

At a time when she faced major upheaval and uncertainty in her life, Shapiro lost her grounding. She found herself questioning everything.  As a writer, she has a natural tendency to look for the narrative arc of her life, for the certainty of cause-and-effect, for chapters whose events resolve themselves neatly. Shouldn't life "make more sense?"  Well, she decides, not necessarily:
Sure, there are the fortunate few from whom the journey has thus far been smooth sailing, but for the vast majority of us, there are fits and starts, hiccups, confusion, mistakes, wrong turns, U-turns, graceless moments. Life's road is nothing if not strewn with pebbles, potholes, unexpected surprises, both happy and not-so-happy ones. As one of my dearest friends, the Buddhist teacher Sylvia Boorstein says, "We are always accommodating to a new situation." That ever-changing new situation is, in fact, what makes up the shape of our lives. And that shape assumes its own kind of integrity, over time. This is how it is, how it has been. The truth of who we are is all we have to offer each other. (my emphasis)
And so it seems that the answer may well be to embrace the complexity of our lives... We are all here, trying our best, muddling through. We make choices, we re-group, we deepen. We learn from each other. We all make sense.
In other words, we may have to accept that the "answer," such as it is, is that there is no answer. Surprisingly, I find this strangely comforting -- and yes, admittedly, a little disquieting. And, that I suppose, is part of the lesson: that experiencing conflicting feelings is natural, and that watching those feelings shift over time is simply part of "accommodating to a new situation."

Don't know about you, but to badly mangle a metaphor simile, I suspect that this topic is like a car-buy that I'll be researching all my life.

P.S. If you haven't read it, I recommend Shapiro's recent book, Devotion: a Memoir.
Image by morten gade, at Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons license.

June 15, 2011

Midnight in Paris

I saw Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris a few days ago. It opened in Paris while I was there, and because I knew it was set to open soon at home, I waited to see it. It felt right seeing it here, feeling a little wistful, like Allen's protagonist.  Like Allen's Manhattan, Midnight in Paris is a valentine to a great city. And although I initially referred to it as a beautiful trifle, I've found myself thinking about the film over the past few days much more than a simple trifle would warrant.

Walking through present-day Paris, screenwriter and aspiring novelist Gil Pender pines for the '20s, the "Golden Age" when Paris was host to a coterie of artists and writers that included Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein and Pablo Picasso. Gil idealizes this past, and, luckily for him, is able to transport himself there each night, courtesy of a magical taxi that appears at the stroke of midnight.

Allen has great fun with this part of the film, and there are some wonderful set pieces as Gil hits the high spots with Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, and has his novel critiqued by "Gert." (Owen Wilson is terrific as Gil, by the way. He gives the character a warmth and charm that perfectly suits the tone of the film).

The present day holds little allure for Gil. He's dragged around Paris by his shallow, materialistic fiancée Inez, who belittles him, dismisses his artistic efforts, and deceives him with the pedantic professor husband of a friend. Allen doesn't hide the contempt he feels for her or for her equally repulsive parents and the obnoxious professor (a fun turn by Michael Sheen). In a film as generous as this one, this disdain could be jarring, but Allen gives the parents and the professor such hilarious dialogue and uses them so well as foils for Gil's good nature that it doesn't ring false.

So what does this have to do with intentional living? The more I thought about the movie, the more taken I was with how cleverly Allen reveals his themes, and in a story that revolves around time, how timeless they are.

I suspect that most of us bump up against these issues regularly. I know I do. Not about moving to Paris, of course (although I never rule that out ;-), but about listening closely to my heart first when I'm looking for answers; about gratefully embracing my life just as it is; and about pursuing my own dreams, not anyone else's. And because the story is packaged in a box of bonbons (I still have these on the brain from Paris!), Allen isn't heavy-handed about "messages."

By film's end, Gil has broken his engagement and decided to move to Paris and write.  He sees that idealizing the past is a dead end. Certainly, it's kept him from from appreciating the present. The catalyst for his decision is his love interest from the 20s, Adriana (a perfect Marion Cotillard), with whom, in a story-within-a-story, he time-travels to the turn of the 19th century. The Belle Époque is Adriana's ideal, her "golden age." She decides to stay, and wants Gil to stay with her. Gil's response is Allen's argument for the value of living in one's own time, but Adriana doesn't buy it, and Gil returns to the modern day alone.

Romantic love, Allen seems to say, isn't sufficient reason to give up a moment in time that's unique to you, a present that invites your dreams for the future.

He also suggests that Gil's focus on the past kept him in mayor denial about the truth of his relationship with Inez. There's an echo of this when Gertrude Stein tells him that she and Hemingway think his novel shows real promise. But hey were surprised, she says. that the novel's hero doesn't realize that his fiancée is sleeping with the "pedantic professor."

When Gil tells Inez and her parents that he's staying in Paris and not getting married, Allen lets us know, with a throw-away line, that this isn't just another version of Gil's idealization of Paris. If he should find later that Paris isn't right for him, Gil says, he'll leave. We understand that he's staying because it's the right place for him right now, not because he's compelled by a romantic notion.

It's not that Allen is mining deep ground here --it's not the nature of a film as ethereal as this one. But he's smart about getting both Gil and and the audience where he wants us to be. Midnight in Paris is a wonderful film --not a great one, but a delight nonetheless. And, although it took me a few days to realize it, it's a thoughtful one, too.

June 13, 2011

The Power of Living with Ambiguity

For over three months now, David Robinson has been writing a series of daily posts on his web site, The Direction of Intention, about recognizing the power within ourselves.  David is an artist, a life coach, and the business partner of the equally multi-talented Patti Digh.

One of David's recent posts refers to the importance of embracing ambiguity:
Stepping back into your self requires some comfort with ambiguity, the capacity to stand firmly within paradox. You have to release what you think you are in order to inhabit who you really are.
Ambiguity is something I've never been good at. In fact, if I had to make a list of things that make me anxious, ambiguity would pretty much top the list.  It's not surprising, given that I've built a career and a life on "getting it right" and "doing it perfectly." Ambiguity, as in a situation in which something can be understood in more than one way, doesn't have a place in either approach.

As a recovering perfectionist and a long-time believer in the theory of The One Right Answer, I keep having to curb my instinct to make quick judgments so that I can move on to the next thing, or conversely, my tendency not to act until I have all the answers. In short, I'm trying to live with ambiguity.

It's like being accustomed to walking down a well-lit path when, suddenly, all the lights are dimmed.  And, oh, you're not allowed to run.  In fact, because you can't see where you're going as well as you did in the past, you have to walk more slowly. And you have to trust your instincts more, instead of relying on the touchstones along the way.

It's a whole new way of traveling. It requires a lot of trust, mostly in yourself.  And that's the big payoff, actually: that as you rely less on the external markers --the "experts," whether people or things-- you start listening to yourself more, gaining confidence along the way.  As my friend Davis says:
You come to see yourself not as fixed, a single identity, but fluid, an ongoing relationship (many identities). When you are ready to cease seeking your power from others you have the capacity to see your power within your self. In fact, you cease seeing power as something possessed by one and not by another. You see power in everything and everyone. You see.

The best reward --at least for ambiguity-averse people like me-- is learning to trust the process, whether tending a garden, creating a business plan, nurturing a friendship, writing a book, or raising a child.  It's the relief that comes from acknowledging that not having all the answers is o.k. (talk about alien concepts!). I'm learning that confusion and conflict and, yes, ambiguity, are not something to fear or run from, but to accept and treat kindly, bewildering as that sometimes feels.

Geesh this is hard.  What's your relationship to ambiguity?

Image by an untrained eye, in Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons license.

June 10, 2011

Travel Re-Entry

Returning home from a long trip tends to disorient me for a few days, leaving me in a kind of limbo. As I try to step into my usual routines, the place I left continues to tug at my emotions. This time, re-entry seems to be taking longer than usual and some of the feelings are both new and more intense.

This is my third day back, so I can't attribute my liminal state only to jet lag. I spent three weeks in France, the last 9 days on my own in Paris. For me, there's something about solo travel that demands extra energy. Sometimes this is physical, but most of the time it's psychic. Without another person to filter experiences through, I'm invited (or forced, depending on your outlook) to process everything on my own, and while that can be exhilarating, it can also be draining.

My time in Paris was heavy on the processing, since I made a conscious choice to "wander" rather than "sightsee." I'm finding that the more I travel for pleasure, the less I "do," and, as a result, the more I enjoy the experience. I did catch one museum exhibition and visited one historic site, but mostly I strolled through neighborhoods. I scouted out vest-pocket parks (a true Parisian art form) for lunching and people-watching, and did surprisingly little planning, other than to decide which part of the city to Metro or walk to each day.

I don't know whether it's simply the way I'm built, or whether others have similar responses, but traveling in this way --I suppose you could call it "slow travel"-- heightens my senses. When I'm not rushing to get to the next place or focusing on what I'm supposed to be learning, I seem to take more in. And this taking in, and ruminating about it (I'm nothing if not a ruminator) left me feeling pretty emotionally depleted by the end of the day --a good kind of depleted, if you know what I mean. I found that I needed LOTS of sleep and that, unusual for a morning person like me, I had a tough time getting going in the mornings.

But wait. Wasn't I talking about re-entry? This time around, I'm feeling as if everything is a bit muffled, as if I'm participating in some sort of test that requires me to walk around with a blanket over my head. That's the physical part (the dregs of the jet lag) but there's this other stuff going on that seems more existential. Damned if I know exactly what it is, but it has something to do with 1) yearning for somewhere/something else vs. what I have here and now, and 2) wondering about the value of what I'm doing in the here and now.

Yeah, I know, it's not exactly rocket science that returning from a trip may spark these type of feelings. And yes, at one level, it's pretty banal. On the other hand --and I'm one of those people for whom there's always another hand-- maybe it's not such a bad thing for these emotions to bubble up right now. What's that Zen adage about the teacher appearing when the student is ready?

It's also possible that my efforts to live more intentionally, as hit-or-miss  as they sometimes seem, may be pushing these thoughts and feelings to the surface (I envision a tiny gnome yielding an even tinier stickpin, prodding away -- don't ask me why).

So rather than fight the discomfort, I'll invite it in and see where the conversation leads, hoping for a little more clarity. Writing this post is a step in that direction.

Does travel throw you for an emotional loop? If it does, how do you handle it?

Image by jah~ at Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons License.