My landlord moved out about 8 months ago. In getting rid of his unwanted stuff, he offered me an old dictionary, it didn’t even have a binding. “I’m going to throw it away, otherwise,” he said, “but I thought you might like it.” The implication is that geeks and writers like dictionaries, and how could I not love receiving a dictionary. I reluctantly accepted the gift, not having a clue as to what I would do with it. I thought I’d do him the favor of taking it off his hands so that he could get on with his moving, and then secretly trash it at some point.
Besides, people like to give things to other people, especially when it acknowledges that they know a bit about you (“writer” and “dictionary”), it makes them feel good, so I didn’t refuse.
This dictionary is old school, and, as the binding and frontispiece information are missing, I don’t know the publication date. I’m guessing the 1930’s, maybe even 1920’s. It’s almost like an encyclopedia. Weighs no less than 15 pounds, the pages are delightfully fragile and yellowed and tattered. The main body is the dictionary, and the back pages are a trove of those small, detailed antique botanical, zoological, and entomological illustrations. I wonder: who created these unsigned illustrations, artists without a name, selling their meticulous skill without recognition or glory? And who transcribed the illustrations for printing, what hands made sure that these images were properly detailed onto a plate — I assume — for the printing press? Hundreds and hundreds of small illustrations of flora, fauna, animals, fish, insects, butterflies, bats, as much of the natural world as the editors could stuff into a dictionary, given their publication restrictions.
There are also world and U.S. history graphs and charts galore, and tens and tens of pages of historical illustrations and maps, all printed in those beautiful antique fonts and in the stark simplicity of black on yellowed white.
I received this gift before I undertook my art journals, and hadn’t a clue that I would be doing them with pleasure and perseverance. This morning, while puttering between writing and Facebook and feeling sorry for myself because of the mountain of stuff that I seem always to take on, I was thinking about an art journal page that I was working on. It needed something — well, it needed more than something — but I had to take the next step. I had already gessoed over the first attempt, which was an epic disaster. There sat the page, a mess of gesso covered failure, a haunting metaphor for my life if I didn’t do something to the page.
The dictionary. Stuffed in the corner of the front bedroom, the answer came to me from nowhere, “the dictionary.” All these illustrations and maps and graphs and words waiting for me to cut-up, embellish with indigo blue gouache, splatter with black acrylic, line with magenta and pine green washi tape, etch with white watercolor crayon, and layer with the soft velvet of oil pastels. All this stuff waiting for me to lovingly exploit, reworking it into something that makes my day centered, and more hopeful for creating beauty from waste.
The page that was a horrific failure became something better than myself, for it encompassed giving, receiving, and creatively using what might have otherwise been put into the dumpster, without its value being recognized.
And now, someone else’s art silently lives on, having traveled down time’s stream in an old dictionary, and into my art journal.
Often the hands will solve a mystery that the intellect has struggled with in vain. — Carl Jung
I’ve worked with mandalas off and on for a long time, and I’ve been something of a Jungian for as long, though I’ve never consciously linked the two. Until recently.
As I wrote in “Creative Confluences,” I’ve returned to making mandalas and working with art journals, creating a dialogue between hands-on works, self, life, and writing. Mixing, coloring, painting, they inspire. I lose myself, and, in the process, I see connections that my writing self fails to make. According to Jung, mandalas are especially powerful, an unconscious and universal symbol of wholeness, a snapshot of the psyche artistically captured. So evocative is mandala practice, that in Buddhist ritual, monks create an intricate, large scale sand mandala, have a community ceremony when its completed, and then ritually destroy it, in a striking meditation on life’s impermanence.
My mandalas are private expressions and suffer no such fate. I quickly finish them, a few hours or so for each. Regardless of the quality, I sign, date, apply a clear acrylic protectant, and place the piece in the growing pile of finished works. They are self revelations and respectfully handled, even if they lack artistry. Modest creatures, they are at home in seclusion — and the better for it. My simple works are offerings made to myself, by myself. Playing both child and parent, I am proud giver and doting recipient.
Freedom. It’s there, in these circular meditations.
Or, as Jung describes them, “psychological expression[s] of the totality of self.”
These expressions have become a primary spiritual practice, as I wrestle my self from myself in the middle of nowhere, while I write a book without a whit about book writing.
Everything’s connected. The book. The mandalas. The spiritual journey that I set my mind to when moving here. The dreams that appear, disappear, reappear. The imaginative roads whose distances shimmer while I put words on the page. Everything’s connected, but if I try to delineate the contours, what I’m doing vanishes in its own mystery. I don’t know what any of it means, or what I’m doing while I’m doing it.
During a conversation last week, I told a friend that I’ve stopped building the social media platform, it’s “a diversion at this juncture. It makes me crazy. There’s so much information, that we’re all getting stupider. Noise, it’s noise. Writing’s the thing, now.”
My ever patient business savvy friend said to me, “I know what you’re doing, and . . .”.
I nearly jumped through the phone in a breathless, ecstatic excitement. Someone who knows what I am doing. I thought my friend literally had an insight that I could wrap around my existence. Apparently, it was merely a convenient turn of phrase. But all I could think of during the comments that I have replaced with ellipses, because I quit listening after, “I know what you’re doing,” was, “Really? You know what I am doing? It’s obvious to you? Tell me, what am I doing, because I haven’t a clue.”
I am writing. I am making mandalas. But I don’t know “what I am doing.” And I’m not certain that I want to, which is frightening and beautiful.
A couple of weeks ago, I started a mandala. Nothing was coming together, the design was strange, the color choices were off, and I was fumbling around, vainly trying to make it better. I put it aside for several days, if not a week. I returned to it. It was as strained and uninspired as I remembered. “Toss it,” I thought, “not salvageable.” Then I begrudgingly remembered the contract that I’ve made with myself, to respect my work, no matter my feelings. Especially the mandalas, given their now privileged status.
“Don’t throw it away,” I told myself, “think outside the mandala.”
I did. I literally thought outside the mandala, started laying down layers around the edges, filled the space beyond its borders, created a deep teal background, and resisted the constraints imposed by the paper’s edges, filling the entire page. I then worked on bands within the circle. Normally, I begin from the center and work out, it avoids smearing, and allows the work to naturally unfold, as is common in mandala meditation practice. I was working from beyond the edges and moving in towards the center. The periphery informed the development: instead of unfolding the work from the core, I folded layers in while reaching for the center. I incorporated the smooth and vibrant ink of gel pens, which I’d never used on a mandala, a few metallic gelatos for sheen, watercolor pencils for rich color washes, and then highlighted areas with oil pastels for added texture.
I ended up with one of the most detailed and multilayered works that I’ve yet made.
Is it one of my favorites? No. Aesthetically, it’s an odd thing. Cohesive, vibrant, multilayered, yet odd. But emotionally and creatively, it’s one of the most satisfying pieces in recent memory. Although I’ve worked outside the mandala in the page’s empty space before, not with this degree of invention. I’ve usually seen the empty space as part of the mandala, coming to the page with an idea of the whole, superimposing my will on the sphere and its surrounding space: I envision what I will do, and if I decide to work beyond the edges, the work is still essentially defined by the mandala’s sphere and it’s center. I’ve rarely if ever truly thought outside the mandala, I simply enlarged its borders, while flattering myself for my cleverness.
In this work, the space outside the sphere existed on its own terms, for itself. I was struggling with the circle’s interior, hadn’t given a thought to exploiting its periphery. The emptiness surrounding a sphere in the middle of a 12 inch by 12 inch piece of paper was a complete unknown that I falteringly entered in order to make sense of the predetermined space that wasn’t coming together. I had to think outside the mandala, because I hadn’t a clue as to what I was doing, and I had committed to completing a ragtag work, no matter what.
“God is a circle whose center is everywhere and circumference is nowhere.”
Nowhere. Emptiness. The unknown. Outside the imposed limitations that we bring to experience, the “I live in the middle of nowhere, and I don’t know what I am doing,” that’s where life begins, because we put ourselves beyond our cherished and limited ways of looking at the world. This mandala’s most important narrative doesn’t exist on the page that I have signed, dated, sealed, and saved, but in the story born by stepping into a page’s nowhere, its now here, beyond the confines of an inked circumference, and my understanding of that boundary.
Mystery existed in a space that I hadn’t any presumptions about, an experience of not knowing, but that I was willing to enter. When I saved a little faltering mandala and thought differently about its space, I mirrored a deeper reality, one rippling through my psyche and life. I didn’t just enter an unknown space on a piece of paper, this is the life path I’ve chosen. I’ve freed my self to live in the middle of nowhere, to write a book whose destiny is uncertain, to live at peace in this creative uncertainty, and to embrace its mystery. In this acceptance, I’ve touched something that historically we’ve labeled as God, an unfortunately small if not unkind word.
After a lifetime of pursuing knowledge, thinking that “knowing” had something to do with enlightenment, I think I’ve come to understand that it’s not “knowing” that gets us where we desire to be.
Rather, it’s “not knowing” that deeply, radically, and beautifully transforms us, rends the veil between the ego’s illusions and our freest, most creative, loving selves.
To enter the kingdom of God, one must approach as a child, Jesus famously taught. Perhaps he meant that one must not know.
If Buddhist monks destroy a mandala, possibly it’s not just a meditation on impermanence, but a profound archetypal leap into the great unknown, beyond understanding’s circumference, and into life’s mystery.
A leap that’s the greatest gift that we can give to ourselves, when we’re ready.
(YouTube video: Tibetan Sand Mandala, Creation And Destruction)
I’ve recently returned to visual art. I’m making small mandalas, mixed media projects, and developing art journals. These journeys are explorations that I prime, color, pencil, layer, blend, embellish, color some more, blend, and layer again. I then sign, date, and protect the work — an uncensored journey whose colors and forms I uncritically inhabit and own. Because of these artistic jaunts, there’s a creative dialogue emerging in my life, as art seeps into writing, bit by bit.
It’s been a drink of water for my soul, like watching a withering plant come to life after a long needed soaking. Yes, it’s a worn metaphor. But it’s the best one available to me, today.
This hands on practice has flowered in several ways, the best bloom being a satisfaction in greeting the day’s work. All of it. I’ve become less worried about facing demons on a page, and more inspired to simply create — and create a lot. Visual art isn’t an unruly forest of ideas for me: it’s a simple place that I visit in a sacred and unquestioning act. I don’t blind side myself by over thinking. Art. I just do it. After these colorful and arbitrary excursions, when I return to the black and white of words on a page, instead of facing a hedgerow of ego, ideas, and revision decisions blocking me from the story, there’s a more serene acceptance of process, and a kinder forbearance for development.
Writing’s restored. Or at least given a bit of space to grow.
A few weeks ago, in a radical creative declaration, I splurged on art supplies. Not the cheap ones. The good ones. An excess of indulgence, I told myself. “You shouldn’t do this,” I thought, “too much time and money on the superfluous, focus on writing and the social media platform. Buy the art supplies, later, when you have real income. Assuming you will actually have real income someday, dreamer.”
Yes, I still speak to myself like that. I’m working on it.
But the iris purples, cornflower blues, teal greens, assorted roses, marigolds, and metallics of Caran d”Ache kept calling, as did the cotton watercolor vellum, the smooth flow artist pens, the brilliant colored pack of origami papers for folding and collage, and the other miscellaneous media.
Though I tried, they would not be ignored.
When I uneasily hit the order button, the words, “jump and wait for the net to appear” went through my mind.
I jumped. The net did indeed appear.
The pleasure of the materials is near indescribable. A minor purchase for a professional, a luxury for an amateur, these are artist quality supplies whose pigments and application are like a trip to Paris, without packing a bag. There’s sensuous delight in the wealth of variegated color, and in laying down layers effortlessly, exploring depths of hue and overlay, playing with opacity and transparency, mucking around in matte, gloss, and sheen, painting, outlining, stippling, blending, smudging, and then doing it all again. I don’t worry much if my composition is correct, or my color choices are the best, and I don’t double guess if the materials are serving their purpose. I just do it. If I don’t like it, I fix it. Or I don’t fix it, and I move on. I don’t take the visual creations as seriously as the writing. There’s freedom in the process, creative respect in the acceptance.
My analogy machine went into predictable overdrive, and I made the obvious connection, “don’t take your writing so seriously, either.” Prolific ease comes with creation as focused play, letting stuff emerge on a page, learning techniques as you go along, stumbling on different ways to achieve effects, discovering a smarter more nuanced method with practice.
Same with words on a page.
Same with life.
“I’m working on it” revised is better understood as “I’m letting it happen, and it’s better this way. This is the way it’s supposed to be.” It referring to life, creativity, and the production of meaningful artifacts and ideas, and my relationship to them.
Austin Kleon, who published the first blackout poems, writes in “Steal Like An Artist”:
“Side projects and hobbies are important. . . . one thing I’ve learned in my brief tenure as an artist: it’s the side projects that blow up. By side projects I mean the stuff that you thought was just messing around. Stuff that’s just play. That’s actually the good stuff. That’s when the magic happens. The blackout poems were a side project. Had I been focused only on my goal of writing short fiction, had I not allowed myself the room to experiment, I’d never be where I am now.” (Italics and bold added.)
Magic happens. On the page. In life.
I’ve gotten some tool and practice tips from an artist, whose first vocation is image, words are her reluctant side. Today in my universe of magic and creative confluence, she shared an Ira Glass talk on storytelling, as a creativity prompt for her visual art friends, and those of us who inhabit multiple worlds, though not entirely living in any single one, yet.