Saturday, March 17, 2018

Why I need a monthly death day

"We do not know where death awaits us:
so let us wait for it everywhere.
To practice death is to practice freedom.
A person who has learned how to die
has unlearned how to be a slave."
  -- Michel de Montaigne

A few years ago I started annually celebrating my  “Death Day.” 

While we know the day we were born, few of us know the day we will die. So, picking a day as my death day was a way to remember that I will die and to remind me to live fully and appreciate each day of life until then. June 17 became my death day as it was half way between birth days.

Last year, I decided that once a year was not enough and began to celebrate the 17th of every month as a day to prepare myself and my stuff for the end of this existence … and a reminder to celebrate the time I have given to me.

Part of today’s activities will be to take care of administrative functions … pick up my health care information package and actually do the paper work of medical directives, etc. Here in Mexico, you need to have a doctor involved, and I’ve finally decided which doctor I want to see, so Monday I’ll make that appointment.

The bigger part of today is to ask myself: If I died tomorrow, what would I be sad about leaving incomplete or undone?

I like the quote above because of the sense of freedom it offers. If I’ve tied up my loose ends physically, emotionally and spiritually, I am free to use my time in whatever ways I choose. Go anywhere, do anything … or not go anywhere and stay home and do nothing. 

Whatever I do, I’ve picked one criteria: to connect me more deeply to myself and the world around me. Since connection is an ever-expanding, never-ending process, it will never be “done.” As long as I stay true to that path, there will always be a next-step … and the last step will always be enough. Being grateful for and gladdened by each sunset means there will be no grief when the next transition takes me to a place of no sunsets. Of course, that is an assumption I’m making about the whatever comes next.

One of my favorite quotes from Henry Miller relates to all of this: 
The aim of life is to live, and to live means to be aware ... joyously, drunkenly, serenely, divinely … aware.      
I am human, of course, so I forget all of the above almost every day. That’s why I need a monthly death day … to remind me to be aware of all the beauty, joy, sorrow and pain that surrounds me. If I can do that, when the actual day of passing comes, I will be awash in gratitude for all the gifts that came to me during my life. 
Photo for the Miller quote: One of the many beautiful doorways here in Ajijic, Mexico.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Egret Dance

Egret Dance by Joyce Wycoff
When I first came to Lake Chapala, I was enchanted by the American White Pelicans, their graceful gliding across the water and the high contrast of their white bodies on the dark waters of morning and evenings. Over time though, it was the egrets I fell in love with and the ones that started demanding their place in my art.

Egrets are part of the heron family and the ones here at the lake are mainly snowy or great egrets. It is apparently mating season now and watching the males fluff themselves up and dart at a normally uninterested female always makes me laugh. As these charming birds have taken over a great deal of my photography and art time, I’ve come to think of them as a “totem.” Basil Johnston, in his 1990 book, “Ojibway Heritage,” says that a totem is “that from which I draw my purpose, meaning, and being.”

I’ve thought about that statement a lot. Egrets are considered messengers in the world of animal/totem symbology, so I’ve wondered what message it is that they are trying to deliver. On one level, I just like the way they look and they seem to snuggle into whatever art I’m making, giving it a richness and life that it didn’t have before they showed up. On another level, it feels like there’s more there, some connection I haven’t quite grasped.

Krista Schwimmer offers an interesting article from her time of watching these birds. She states: 
Watching an egret fish is particularly engaging. I love especially how the bird stirs the water with its beautiful, yellow feet. For me, this gesture with its cheery feet symbolizes the importance of approaching work with an element of enthusiasm.

In her wonderful deck called “the Medicine Cards”, Jamie Sams talks about the message of the heron. She says it is about bringing balance between the mind and the emotions.
I’ll take those ideas for now and try to stay open to other messages this snowy bird offers.

Egret Dance is a piece that emerged from a previous work. I awoke one morning with an idea for adding texture and depth to my images. That led to hours of exploring techniques and being somewhat pleased with the result. However, as much as I liked the color and composition, the piece just sat there until the egrets came waltzing in. I caught these two in their mating dance … an unsuccessful dance … and suddenly the piece felt more alive.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Reclaiming my lost emoji

Enneagram from David O. Wolfe
Breathe in peace. Breathe out love.

During decades of searching for harmony and peace, I let go of judgment, stopped taking things personally, and accepted my perfect imperfection. I learned to remain calm in the face of loss and pain, and I became a survivor, a peace advocate, a conflict avoider.

Well, at least that’s what I thought until one sunny afternoon found me in a garden gazebo in an Enneagram class, a place I really didn’t want to be. 

I had explored the Enneagram in 1992 and found it confusing. I didn’t want to go to the class but my friend, Leela Harlem, needed support and that was more important than spending a quiet afternoon on my own projects so off I went, expecting nothing.

When I arrived, there were chairs to be set up and stuff to be organized. I felt useful, if not fully engaged. Leela and I had talked enough to renew my vague memories of which of the Enneagram’s nine types most fit me; the 7 (the enthusiast) and/or a 4 (individualist/romantic). I confidently put those labels on my name tag.

The nine Enneagram types are divided into three centers: Thinking, Feeling, Instinctive, with each center having a "powerful, largely unconscious emotional response” … Thinking types respond with fear; Feeling types with shame, and Instinctive types with anger. Since I’ve spent a good deal of my life overcoming fear, I decided my “type” had to be in the Thinking/fear center and chose 7 as the best fit.

However, as Leela went through an overview of the types, neither 7 nor 4 seemed quite right. Since nothing else made sense, I just shrugged it off. It wasn’t until we were engaged with an exercise to “walk the types,” that I really began to wonder where I fit. As we were shown how to walk through the space as if we were each of the types, 7 called to me a little, but nothing really resonated … until we hit 9. 

The Enneagram nine immediately felt like me … but that couldn’t be … that one was related to anger. I don’t have anger, and I’m definitely not driven by anger. I tried to brush it away. It just didn’t make sense. I’m calm, easy-going, flexible. I don’t get mad.

Something brought me to this class, though. What if I had missed a piece in all my years of self-exploration?  What if anger really is a part of my being? … A piece I’ve missed in all the books and retreats and workshops I’ve taken trying to figure out who I am and what I’m here to learn.

Nah. Surely not.

I have a calm button. I never yell or cry over spilled milk. I never use the Facebook angry emoji even with the current state of our world where so many things seem crazy and upsetting. It’s important to find the positive, to stay calm and balanced. Buying into the conflict of the world isn’t going to help anyone, including myself.  
Be the change you want to see in the world. Be love.

Breathe in peace. Breathe out love.

I believe those things. I truly believe those things. In my head, I know they’re true. 

However, with morning came the yearning to know what this anger thing was all about. I had to admit I grew up with angry parents in an environment that had no tolerance for a child’s anger. Words said in conflict would be forgotten five minutes later … at least by my parents. Somehow though, they seemed to stay with me like ant bites, red and itchy. Angry responses on my part met with physical repercussions. It didn’t take long to recognize that the best strategy was silence and appeasement.

Reading about Enneagram nines, I  found a common message about anger going to sleep and being denied. Here’s one comment that struck home:

According to Jerome Wagner, in The Enneagram Spectrum of Personality Styles, the defense mechanism favored by 9s is narcotization:
To avoid conflict you numb your feelings, wants, and preferences. You make everything the same and highlight nothing. You make molehills out of mountains.
Perhaps a new piece of my journey of waking up to myself is just beginning. I don’t think I’m in danger of becoming a rage-aholic. I highly value the part of me that is a peacemaker. However, I am starting to realize that maybe there is an element of anger … both at myself and the world. A few weeks ago, a friend and I started a Facebook page: Bold Storm Rising, after the school shooting in Florida. As we were setting it up, I remembered the line from the movie, Network: 

"I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.”

Until yesterday’s Enneagram class, I rejected that line as not productive. Slowly however, I’m starting to accept that I am angry. I am angry that all of us baby boomers who thought we would change the world, lost our way and the children today are having to stand up and say: ENOUGH! 
I am angry that we may have trashed our beautiful planet beyond redemption. I am angry that I thought denying my own anger was a way to stay safe. I am angry that it has taken me so long to discover the well of my own anger.

I don’t know where this is going, but, if you're on Facebook, I expect you’ll see a lot more angry emojis coming from me. And, if you’re interested in the Enneagram, there is a lot of information available on the Internet, and Leela Harlem is always willing to do coaching or group work:

There are many Enneagram tests online, some are free, some charge a small fee. Read your results and see if they make sense for you. Here's one to get you started ... who knows you might be surprised, too!

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Sunday Review: Connecting through art

Time to Move On
The young, Mexican man stared at “Time to Move On” for a long time, long enough that I thought he might have a question. I floundered around in Spanish for a few moments before he quietly replied in English. He repeated the question above the image twice because it was written in both languages … Time to move on … from what? … to what?

Searching for conversation, I explained that one section of the image was from Oaxaca … the massive buildings and the parades that turned the walking streets into rivers of people … and the egret was from here, at the lake. I was surprised when, after many more quiet moments of staring, he asked about buying it and said he had to make a call because she had the money. She apparently wasn’t home and as he was leaving, I asked his name: Roberto.

It was my initial conversation in the opening of Ajijic’s first digital art show: four artists with very different styles working in an arena that a lot of people don’t understand. “What is digital art?” was a common question.
Digital art is art made with electronic tools … cameras, Photoshop, Painter and other software. It can be super-realistic or wildly abstract. Digital art is not a style … it’s a way of making an image, sometimes starting with photos or scans, sometimes “painted" on the screen with a stylus or mouse, sometimes feeding algorithms into a software program. Like acrylics, oils, watercolors or pastels, “digital” is simply a media.
The underlying question of "Why?"

Recently, in one of those trying-to-figure-out-who-I-am exercises, I was searching for the underlying reason of why I make art. Below the sheer joy of putting images together to see what comes forth, I wanted to understand what my purpose was in making art and why I seemed to be drawn to putting it out into the world. Why wasn’t it enough to just make it and let it sit in the electronic attic of my computer?

I’ve now been in enough galleries and shows to understand how hard it is to sell art … especially wall art. I’m not particularly driven to do the work necessary to become a commercially viable artist. And, yet, having my work seen is important to me. It’s a part of being visible in the world. 

In my exploration of “why,” the word “connection" appeared over and over. Eventually I realized that making art is how I connect to myself and to the world around me. It helps me see what I wouldn't see just walking through my life. And, putting it out to be seen is an act of courage, of being vulnerable, being open to rejection, indifference … or connection. It’s a fragile tendril stretching toward the warmth and light of personal engagement.

Beyond the Boundaries
It became clear that connection is my “why.” To build that into my art and the digital art show, I adopted the tagline, Connecting through art, and devoted part of my wall to questions. People were invited to put their thoughts and answers on the board around the image (push pins, sticky notes, and pens provided). Not everyone did, of course, but some folks did, and some deeper conversations were prompted. 

At the end of the opening, my friend Marge had sold one of her paintings. I had sold none. In a judged show which opened at the same time, I received no awards from the judges. As much as I had armed myself for disappointment, I felt deflated, defeated. I had put my best foot forward and the Universe neither clapped nor showered me with fortune or fame. Afterwards, in the solitude of my apartment, I wanted to pull up the covers and quit.

Fortunately, morning came and I remembered Roberto and those silent moments when we had both stood staring at an image that had come from within me. In those moments, we were connected. I remembered that my “why” was not about sales or ribbons; it was about recognizing my connection to myself and to the Universe. Quitting would mean giving up a piece of myself and all those possible connections that might be sparked by my images.

Scientists have recently discovered cave art, done by Neanderthals 65,000 years ago. We may not know exactly why they made their art, but it seems obvious that they weren't doing it for money or ribbons, so perhaps I'm in good company ... or maybe, I need to find a friendly cave.

P.S. After I write about something, I like to see what others say. In this case, I found an article from Greater Good Magazine: "Why we make art."

There I found a statement by Harrell Fletcher which could be an intention statement for me ... as a matter of fact it is going to be my intention statement for 2018:
So back to the question why I make art. In my case, the projects that I do allow me to meet people I wouldn’t ordinarily meet, travel to places I wouldn’t normally go to, learn about subjects that I didn’t know I would be interested in, and sometimes even help people out in small ways that make me feel good. I like to say that what I’m after is to have an interesting life, and doing the work that I do as an artist helps me achieve that.
Harrell Fletcher teaches in the art department at Portland State University. He has exhibited at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Berkeley Art Museum, Socrates Sculpture Park in New York, and in numerous other museums and galleries around the world. In 2002, Fletcher started Learning To Love You More, a participatory website with Miranda July, which they turned into a book, published in 2007. Fletcher is the recipient of the 2005 Alpert Award in Visual Arts.