Visualize This: Creating and Creator, an Intimate Life (please hold the applause)

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You know how it’s become pop psychology/spirituality to visualize something, hold it in your mind with surety and expectation of success? Maybe even draw a picture of it or write it down in bold letters to make it more concrete. Then stare at it until memorized. Take time to fully focus on the one heartfelt goal. We are assured this will help us make that goal materialize. What we want needs more formal shape to latch onto or it might slip away into the fog of nothingness. So get to visualizing and what we fervently hope for, we will eventually get. Right?

If I take a hard look at that idea, I’ll admit I’ve not been an all-out fan. I have not often constructed a definitive conclusion for anything way ahead of time. I don’t imagine a final fabulous product of my efforts– or if it is imagined at all, vaguely, in passing. It seems almost counter-productive, rather than a sure avenue to full materialization. I don’t want to limit outcomes; it is difficult to know what will be best in the final rendering. (And I say this although I am a writer. I don’t make up things, not really; they make unbridled appearances while insisting I write them. More on that later.)

There are reasons why this visualization business is not my chosen methodology for accomplishing things.

The first is that I don’t believe in an easy magic (visualize=realize) when working toward something. I find it a bit insulting that one would think I’d believe in that. This is based on experience; my entire semi-rebuttal is based on real events. (I qualify it as semi since the concept is more complicated than it appears.) Visualizing feels good, it can stir up motivation. It might provide relief from the gritty work that must be done. But it doesn’t guarantee anything more than a sense of expectancy, a hopeful respite from variable reality.

There are always exceptions. For one thing, I know that visualizing healing processes for my beleaguered muscle of a heart likely has made a difference. I thought of each procedure being done, how it carefully fixed things and further researched how all parts work together. Linking this to calls on the One Above, a far wiser resource for life wellness, further helped move me from illness into states of repair. Finally to returned well being. But I commit to getting up and running each time I have to rebound. I have also seen people self-heal. But this is other territory, an impressive intersection of the scientific and perhaps mystical. It’s not mere magic, fantastical trickery or just thinking good thoughts. It’s amazing.

But all that is not the sort of thing I refer to when noting I am not a such a cheerleader of visualizing Clear End Results.

I have written of growing up in a competitive, achieving family, with parents who held high expectations. It wasn’t wrong; it wasn’t right. Such an orientation can spur a youngster on to greater things; it may also create perfectionism that is damaging. Or some of both. Each child is built differently but the belief was that we all were capable and so had things to accomplish. We were tasked with doing as well as possible because it would be foolish to not do so. Even more, an insult to family and God to shrug off abilities, opportunities. Thus, I learned about self discipline from a very young age. I did what was required to conform to the cozy family unit. I liked my parents, admired them, enjoyed my siblings generally, appreciated challenges I was given. It wasn’t hard to be thus trained–this was the American way my friends and I grew up with during the fifties and sixties. I didn’t chafe for many years within those parameters, under firm directives. It lent security to have clarity about cause and effect, the rewards of civilized behavior and meaningful work. Or lack thereof if there was significant deviation.

This is not reflective of rigid gender roles that might have hemmed us in. My parents were forward-looking, educated and happily employed. They expected the best from us regarding scholastics and personal development. (If a brother or I had had a talent for cooking or sewing like my mother we may have learned and done that, as well, but I had less than said brother.) The Christian faith certainly guided us all. But I did not find it restrictive.

I mostly felt strong, confident and tackled what was before me, my life aimed at the goal of excellence. I worked to do as well as possible: to dance and figure skate, sing, play cello, act in plays, write poetry/ plays/stories, stay on the honor roll in school, cheerlead, make decent friends, do good things via church. My main motto by sixth grade was “Excellence Above All;” it was put all over my notebooks as other girls were covering theirs with boys’ names and flowery doodles. And I believed in its shining virtue. So this was a kind of early creative visualization practiced many years: Imagine the very best you can do, practice for mastery of each step or technique, work more, correct and then eliminate errors, practice harder until the result is what was envisioned. Needed. Required. Perfection if at all possible.

And then something gradually occurred that began to change me. I recall how it all began and what it felt like even now.

I was learning much could happen due to disciplined effort and time well used. The goals were rewarded when you took right steps and got to it. They indeed brought about consequences: applause, attention and accolades. Admiration. Ribbons and medals garnered for competitions won. Opportunities to perform more, entry to rigorous music camps. Skating events demanding more hours. Writing praised at a young age, published and displayed at a child education conference. With all this came greater expectations, more unrelenting work. So many people to please, oh my.

There was satisfaction in it, of course. I was a born performer or appeared to be, someone who naturally got out there, wanted to DO things. For a anyone who knows what it is to stand on the wide stage,heavy velvet curtains swinging open to reveal waiting audience and then a spotlight locates you… and then your song, dance or character is bit by bit revealed by your voicing and movements….well, it is thrilling, yes. It is darned fun. And the applause is that longed-for reward, the answer you had hoped for, appreciation and acceptance by peers, even. And for the audience has experienced satisfaction, too. If there are any other material gains to be gotten, you wait awhile backstage or pace hallways, breathless, until the final vote comes in that you measured up. After a decent performance, whether on ice rink or stage, people find you, circle about, press flowers, compliments and hugs onto you. And the most final, coveted word comes from parents: that I did well or that I did not quite manage this one, after all.

So it went, years after year. And I went along with it, busy and making gains.

Then, at around fourteen or fifteen, there was a turn that I took. Those rewards began to feel slight, temporary and in fact, were not what I truly wanted. They were feeling heavy with responsibility. Granted, I had some issues going on–I was a teenager, first of all; second and third, I was a survivor of abuse (not from immediate family) and taking prescribed drugs to alleviate symptoms. But this aha moment was about creativity and performance, two things that mattered most in all the world to me. My safest and happiest place, the arts. I fit there  just right yet I wasn’t feeling so giddy about those outcomes.

I remember being in a shadowy and dusty, rope-slung, prop-filled backstage, chatting with others after performing. The stage hands were shouting and doing their work.It was where activity first concentrated just following a concert or show, with performers thanking friends and family and teachers for their appreciation as they headed to change clothes. I gazed out onto that stage, the lighting softer, then dimming to nothing. and suddenly all I wanted was to disappear with it. To be free of expectations, the smiling and talking and being surrounded by excited faces. Who were these people? How much did they matter? How much of it was that my father was a beloved public figure/musician and so it was expected of me (and the rest of us) to excel? How much of it all was necessary? Which was better, playing cello or singing on a stage or in my room? The place I felt most at home was playing and singing and writing in the woods of Interlochen, the summer music camp I attended (along with my siblings, where my father also taught). Being with others who had the same passions. Why did that matter so much more than being recognized as capable?

For a couple more years I decided to perform only for myself, stay right in the moment for the art, itself. It worked so well, it scared me. The results were even better. But more ever than before, I leaned toward wanting the experiences for myself–to the consternation of parents and teachers. (Let it be known that being a talented child born into talented multi-generations of family within a smaller community is a  strange and difficult thing.) Why was I easing off? There were plans to address, a future to consider.

Sure, it was the performing arts, not private and static arts. But then it came to me: it was the doing of it that I loved best, the literal creating of something, giving shape and more freedom to music, making a bold call with soul and body, finding life in even the full, rich pauses. It was inhabiting deeply solitary work, being moved by unfolding of more creation. The merging with the vitality of one note, a word that seeks another, an array of feelings speaking one to the other. Becoming more alive in the center of devotion to the moment, the messy and despairing and elated work of it, that chasing and opening and finding. Losing myself, beauty and mystery awakening of its own accord. My own self only an instrument–mind and heart useful for a blossoming of something truer if I allowed and encouraged it.

This was what I loved about writing: it required no audience if I chose not to let it out into the world. It was alive in a very small space as it flowed from my mind and hands. A character or even observation needed no applause to sit up and start walking, finding company and goofing off or forging ahead, getting into this or that. And so I horded the time I had to write things for my own mind and my eyes. It was  mine first and last if I said nothing of it. And I found myself singing out anything at all that I desired when the house was empty, fingers crashing across the keyboard of our baby grand piano. And I was happy for that much.

So, I realized that acting on creative urges wasn’t actually about those trimmings,  nor was meeting the wishes of various factions. It wasn’t even the end result that felt momentous. It was the steady making of music, crafting a dance, honing spins and figures on ice, the delving deep into language and finding grab bags of treasures. I wanted to be fully moved, gathered into authentic experience as I made my way through passages spiritually, emotionally, physically. To be myself yet stretched far beyond self. And to do that, I saw I might need to forego robust applause or stern judgment. Or at least take a break. Because at that time it felt inauthentic more often than not.

Making any kind of art is first and last an intimate act. I needed more privacy with it, a quietness where smallest stirrings could be felt, even intuited. And needed to celebrate the living parts, not only the tedium of attempting mastery. Let the songs or stories be whatever they chose. I could shepherd them. I could tend them until they were done browsing and fattening. I had some skills and I had passion for it, and I learned more each time I started again. And as I saw that was more the way I wanted to go, there came relief. It wasn’t perhaps as secure as before. Stepping away from the rhythm, the meter, that composition of a well-trained life, that protective cocoon, I found myself falling far as well as rising up.

Many things happened that pulled me from the youthful life of performance and achievement, aiming for the next valued high bar. By the time I was out of high school, I was often using drugs legally and illegally. I soon sang less. I was not a bar singer (tried being in a bar band and hated it), not any more a classical “art” singer, no longer appearing in musicals. Jazz was still too new to me since I had rarely even heard it growing up. I was a hippie so sang folk songs, while privately I still wrote other songs, helped by keyboards and my guitar. They had been stirred up in me at a young age and kept nagging. But I rarely performed. My college friends and I sang in crowds at music festivals, smoke-filled living rooms, sometimes alone at coffee houses where everyone was loaded, so pleased. I studied art history and painting, sociology and literature and writing in college. In time, I sang and played my cello not at all. I got married. Ice skated and danced now and then. I painted as if possessed, wrote long into the night. Participated in poetry readings. The last activity was the closest I got to more regular performances. But it was different than years before. This time, It was entirely my choice to perform, as well as how and what.And it was with other poets.

Over this past Christmas I decided to share an old tape put together in 1978 for my parents, when I was twenty-eight.I don’t recall if they said anything, so likely they did not. I rarely made music after marriage and three, then five kids to raise. There wasn’t time or energy left.

That recent night I shyly gathered two visiting daughters and put it on. There was one song created during my early twenties that I thought they might appreciate. I was afraid, really, to show such a private thing as a song I wrote, sang, loved. They listened intensely. I soon saw they felt tearful so I closed my eyes. Waited. Not for anything, really, just for the song to be finally done, my twenty-something voice to stop being so plaintive. And for them to know what it had meant to me to make, to do such things.

“That was amazing, Mama, but why did you stop? How could you have stopped writing and singing songs like this? I didn’t know you were a songwriter, too!” My youngest daughter’s face, this one who sings like a jazzed-up lark, has even recorded but she has a career in the arts with little time so her own music has stepped back.She was incredulous, happy. Sad.

As if I had somehow let them down, me down. Or was that just in my mind, that old echo ringing in my ears? The fears of failure, the losses endured?

My oldest daughter, the visual artist–who sings so sweetly under her breath, once played a pure flute– looked away, hair falling over her wide-eyed face, infamous composure crumbling, her silence speaking loudly.

The tautness of truth rings like a wire disturbed; revealing one’s self can be painful for all sides. Don’t cry, I wanted to say, please do not cry for me but only any beauty you can find there. It was only this song I want you to have and keep.

I hadn’t expected such a response. I took a tremulous breath, willed myself to be calm. Lighter. This was no time to say more than intended or wise. “Thank you for listening to it. ..Music was really that great a part of me. And it remains, somehow. Life changes things; then I changed priorities. I had all that music humming inside me so sometimes made more songs. I sang some to you kids, you just didn’t know what they were. But for the most part I stopped making and singing them, at all.” I managed to smile, lingered over their shining eyes, their love. “I write stories and poems, as you know. That creative activity became my truest passion.”

The vulnerable moments inched away, that window when they saw me for a separate person, the woman I always was and still am–it closed a bit. And they do know writing and I are made for each other, that it isn’t ever about being “known.” They have read my poems and prose, comment intelligently. We talked of art in general and I was flooded with tenderness. Was glad I had shared it. That meant something. Not being on any stage. Not even any accomplishment.

I by now probably lack any driving forces of ambition along with the correct successful visualization. But the fact is, I am rarely free of visualizations whether I want them or not. The brain naturally conspires to brainstorm– and acknowledges no clock. And I know how to work very hard and quite long hours. But still, I am not yet, if ever, envisioning publishing a book, for instance. A poem here, yes, a story there. I am just too busy writing, thinking of writing, rewriting in the middle of a dream, on a walk, even when talking to someone. I am getting older. My hands are not as fast as the words that want to play and cry out and make clear. It hits me anew that time is scarcer, worth more.

Besides, we all know life is essentially pretty random. I mean, how much reality can we hope to control? Can a visionary plan make things happen? I don’t know. Work can, often. Passion matters. For me, it may take more toil and trouble than I care to know. I learned some basic lessons (“let go, let God; keep it simple; easy does it but do it; one day at a time; forgive and love one another “) the hard way awhile ago.

Mostly random, not carefully planned, is this life. It seems that what has happened year after year has been revealed to me unbidden as I trod fresh and worn paths through the uncoiling years. The surprises have been my guides and glorious wonderments the unexpected gifts, and any successes seem more like flukes or kindnesses than deserved good fortune. Everyone has visions of what life could or should be, a hope that their finest dreams endure. I have been lucky, overall. Not money, not status. Just joy in many different activities, embracing a kaleidoscope of inspirations. I keep making do with such fascinating pickings. The discovery I seek happens right now. Purposeful acts of creation go right on with or without me, it’s a well known truth. I am not the point of all this, the story is. I long ago wanted and still want first to be a small conduit for good things and know, too, the blessing and power of such a thing.

You have to adore what you want and be loyal, love yourself well enough, and then design something from the lovely mess as you go. Maybe without visualizations we cannot begin to see all options, but the heart’s desire tends to entrench itself. Just get ready, set, go.

Here, I also write for those who come to read. And so now I will engage in visualizing, in case it works better than I imagine:May all who seek, find their truest, best selves and thus find the Divine within untidy mishaps and good tasks of each day’s living. This vision looks like light spilling from a main point way out there to all other points, more light to and from you, then spiraling back. I call that a prayer but it could be a song, a line of poetry, a dance of angels, a thought that vanishes on quickening wind.

 

A Valentine to the Arts

I am a dedicated writer, so I appreciate the vast potential of words. They can create irrevocable damage; they can also illuminate mysteries and secrets. They are as apt to build a mighty life as take it down. Well-chosen, measured words are powerful enough to divide or unite nations. They teach us much about the natural and human-made worlds we love so much to inhabit. And words can convey crucial needs and flesh out our dreams.

It has been impossible to imagine a life without the written word since childhood when I was swept up by an early passion for playwriting, then poetry, soon followed by short and longer stories, and finally, as an adult,  novels that wait to one day be shared with many more.  A few things have been published. But the joy of creative journeying has been far greater than words alone might have allowed. 

Before all those words there was, for me, a way of being that was based largely on an absence of language spoken or syllables committed to paper. There was music.  Because my father was a classical musician, conductor and music teacher, our home was filled with music from morning until night. All five children played instruments as early as possible, some before school age. I sang, then played cello and sang, and when I could wrest the baby grand piano away from my siblings and father, I would noodle around on the ivory and ebony keys, making up tunes with a jazzy beat or melancholic drama. I played, studied and when sleeping, dreamed music.  In those otherworldly places within mind and spirit were childish symphonies that grew from happy hours climbing trees and floating upon clear lakes, figure skating against the frosty wind and playing kick the can with friends. I was trailed by music all day long. As I grew up, my cello warmed under my hands and spoke to me in deeper melodies. For a short time, the harp intrigued me and a guitar found its way to me, unleashing songwriting attempts. Singing often felt more natural than speaking. I understood that music was God’s language, and I was a willing believer.

Where there was music, dance surely followed. It didn’t always require the stereo, radio or a sibling’s instrumental accompaniment–just a tune whirling in my mind that set my feet sliding, leaping, spinning. I had discovered the best of both worlds: melody in motion. When multitudinous scarves were added, I was a firebird, a lowly flower seller, a warrior princess, a small, disheveled empress of all. Rhythm and melody moved my body as much as my heart and I felt freed of gravity.

Equally wordless was drawing. I had a small talent, but I did have vision. I drew what I observed but often I let the pencil or pen carry me away, as it seemed to move of its own accord. Houses became a near obsession and I could not have explained why. But they had substantial possibilities with their sun-reflective windows, their elegant porches, the way the chimney gave forth ribbons of smoke, the interiors sketched carefully so that I might wander from room-to-room as eye followed pencil. Add paint and an entire idea turned into a living thing. Later, photography would become a medium I loved. Visual arts were as magic as music and dance.  

I learned I could think of something, then provide it a life of its own, or, rather, simply give rein to imagination and let it express itself. Creating required work, but it most often felt like play. Discipline only increased the pleasure.

I might have felt lonely even within a large extended family of musicians and other creative souls, but there were always summer camps. When I arrived at Interlochen Music Camp in Michigan it was as if I had stepped into the only universe that ever mattered: it was like home except populated by hundreds of youth and adults from all over the world.  Everywhere were people making art: music, theatre, dance, visual and language arts.  It was here that I realized the vast scope of the fine and performing arts. It was here that I learned that while language had its place of pride in my heart, all other arts cast a similarly powerful spell on me. I watched (and later joined) the dancers with awe, their graceful, sweaty bodies illumined by sunshine refracted from the lake beyond. I performed on open-air stages under the pines and was moved by the majesty of Beethoven and the delicacy of Debussy. Art studios drew me with the heady scents of linseed oil, turpentine, clay; there was the flash of a welder at work, the intent gaze of a jeweler as she aligned gems with silver and gold.  Stage plays shaped up with each rehearsal; I left light-hearted and inspired.

And not the least of my experiences occurred in the practice rooms beneath great trees and shimmering sky, when my cello and I became intimate allies in the effort to make good music. And my singing voice? It got to ride with the wind, carried high on the wings of birds.

I fell wildly, mysteriously in love with the arts from a young age, with the act of simple or complex creation.  Language has given voice to what matters most to me  and storytelling never fails to surprise, challenge and keep me company. But all the arts have saved me more than once and made beautiful this world in which we each struggle, strive and hope. Like wise spiritual teachers, they have mentored me every step of the way as they do countless others.

One should be so fortunate to experience a lifelong love such as this.