I met a man named Karl Knobler at Deb Fink’s party for the closing of Dead Mother, the recent TJT production I was in. Karl’s a psychologist, about my age, and we immediately began the kind of allusive conversation full of digressions and surprising sudden turns that feels very similar to Jazz. The kind of conversation I take delight in.
As we jumped between a few dozen topics, Karl mentioned the idea of “Affective regulation” (see the work of Dr. Allan Schore, www.allanschore.com) To explain the concept, Karl told me how women, whether they have had children or not, will exhibit dilation of the pupils when hearing a baby cry. Men’s pupils do not dilate under those circumstances unless they have already become fathers.
Reflecting on this later, I was reminded of some lines from a poem by Rilke: “…that harsh hand / that kneaded him as if to change his shape.” (Robert Bly, Tr.) and thought about the ways we are worked upon by the aggregate of experience, time, the natural world, the stories we live until we become utterly transformed.
I remember a moment in Australia, thirteen years ago. I had just come out of the ocean. I’d been swimming for a long time at Bondi Beach, even body surfing a little. When I got out of the water I could still feel the energy of the waves surging inside my body. And I imagined myself as having been reshaped by the water. Could this be the “purpose” of a life: to be transformed – cooked, in a sense, ripened – into something nourishing for some larger being?
Usually, when I think about creativity, I’m the creator. But these notions of being changed on a neuro-cellular level by life, reverse the field. I’m the raw matter, we all are – being sculpted, carved, tuned, plucked, dissolved and reconstituted in new forms.
I welcome another path away from seeing the “Artist” as some isolated, unique, solitary, almost hermetic figure; a controlling, masterful, domineering archetype which the world can maybe do without for a while. Perhaps it was in recognition of being altered by powerful forces that the first “art” emerged in the world. In expressing our creativity we are continuing a dance with Big Life, simultaneously tasting our power and our humility, harmonizing our unique voice with the great chorale.
One more memory. 1987. The Cevennes, hill country of Southern France. My wife has just departed for Poland, where she will join nearly a million Poles on a pilgrimage to the Black Madonna at Czestochowa, the patron of Poland and symbol of the Solidarity movement. I’m staying on in the Cevennes to continue a very arduous kind of voice work led by a members of the Roy Hart Theatre, a compelling and eccentric theatre company based in a chateau in the region. I spend 5-6 mornings each week in a studio there and, after lunch, ramble around the rivers, streams and gullies of the Cevennes, seeking rumored swimming holes and stumbling over vestiges of old dry stone walls that had been assembled with precision and love in another time. One hot, bright afternoon after finding a perfect swimming hole, big enough to stoke across, deep enough to kick down into numbingly cold water, after hours in and out of the sweet clear water, after drying myself for the last time on a granite slab, I walked back to the village where I was staying in blissful exhaustion, letting my voice roam free, wordlessly singling melodies I’d never heard before. As I walked, my voice opened in all directions and suddenly a sound clearer and richer than I’d ever heard come from my body rang out and at that very moment, a large bright-green lizard, shot into view onto the bone-white stucco wall of a house. In the logical magic of the time and place, I had no doubt the sounds that had been coming out of me had conjured or summoned the Lizard. Its color and my sound were identical.
The Man Watching
I can tell by the way the trees beat, after
so many dull days, on my worried windowpanes
that a storm is coming,
and I hear the far-off fields say things
I can’t bear without a friend,
I can’t love without a sister
The storm, the shifter of shapes, drives on
across the woods and across time,
and the world looks as if it had no age:
the landscape like a line in the psalm book,
is seriousness and weight and eternity.
What we choose to fight is so tiny!
What fights us is so great!
If only we would let ourselves be dominated
as things do by some immense storm,
we would become strong too, and not need names.
When we win it’s with small things,
and the triumph itself makes us small.
What is extraordinary and eternal
does not want to be bent by us.
I mean the Angel who appeared
to the wrestlers of the Old Testament:
when the wrestler’s sinews
grew long like metal strings,
he felt them under his fingers
like chords of deep music.
Whoever was beaten by this Angel
(who often simply declined the fight)
went away proud and strengthened
and great from that harsh hand,
that kneaded him as if to change his shape.
Winning does not tempt that man.
This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively,
by constantly greater beings.
In the current issue of my newsletter, Musing on the Muse, I suggest the following as a response to the idea of “being created” that I explore in a much shorter version of the above writing;
Do a ten minute timed writing experiment. Alternate beginning each sentence with “Once I was….” and “Now I am…” Complete each sentence as you go, writing as quickly as you can, not allowing your hand to ever stop moving on the page until the 10 minutes is up. Let go of any need to “make sense.”
Here’s what happened when I tried it myself:
Once I was sap
Now I am crystallized honey at the bottom of the jar
Once I was heaven
Now I am a water logged plank
Once I was golden tumbling
Now I am reddened patience
Once I was hungry all day
Now I feed wolves
Once I dreamed of a blazing touch
Now I dream of maps
Once I remembered all their names, the color of their thighs and the songs they sang
Now the glue is dried out and the photos have fallen from the album
Once I ran along the shore until the sun was gone
Now I am wrapped in blankets
Once I bit cords of silk
Now I sew dishrags
Once I barked in confusion, circling the city
Now I know how to breathe
Once I slept on the moonlit roof
Now I give my body to the water.