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Andrew Wyeth - "Frostbitten" (1962)

Frostbitten by Andrew Wyeth, via Flickr

As a writer and as someone who has long been an admirer of the art of Andrew Wyeth, I immediately clicked a link to an article titled  was  “A Writer Learns From Wyeth.”

Andrew Wyeth worked in pencil, charcoal, watercolor and tempera, and not much in words. Yes, I believe his paintings do tell stories, but words were not his medium of choice.

Wyeth would have turned one hundred this year. That may account somewhat for the fact that Andrew was not entirely literate. Peter Hurd, who was Wyeth’s brother-in-law, asked 12-year-old Andrew to look up something in the encyclopedia and discovered he could not do it.

Andrew was home-tutored because of his frail health and his father, the artist N.C. Wyeth, was his only teacher.  He learned art and he appreciated hearing stories and poetry read aloud, but reading and writing were not a regular part of his “studies.”

The article’s author, Beth Kephart, the author of 22 books, feels that “there is much to be learned about the literary arts from Andrew Wyeth.”  Like Kephart, I have made a pilgrimage to “Wyeth Country” in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania and to the Brandywine River Museum where much of his artwork is displayed. I went out with my camera to find some of the actual locations of his paintings near there.

Wyeth found inspiration at the Kuerner Farm. The early 19th-century farmhouse, the red barn and the family were subjects for hundreds of paintings and drawings over seven decades.

Kuerner farm

The barn at the Kuerner farm.

Besides the stories in his painting, Kephart does find advice is some of Wyeth’s words about his work.  “I feel that the simpler the thing, the more complex it is bound to be,” is something any poet will identify with about poetry and probably their writing.

As a writer, I spend a lot of time writing without pen and paper or computer. As Wyeth said, ” I dream a lot. I do more painting when I’m not painting. It’s in the subconscious.”

I look at some of his sketches and prep for a painting and I immediately think of writing drafts. Wyeth’s advice on revision to writers might be the same as he said about his art  “I obtain great excitement in the changes. Because with them, the painting begins to discover itself. It begins to roll. It’s like a snowball rolling down the hill.”

Drydock

Drydock, 1987, Watercolor,

I like looking at his watercolors (like Drydock above) done on the same kinds of spiral bound pads that I use for my own watercolors. He has his own favorite tools, as do most writers. His medium rough watercolor paper (not stretched and 22 x 30 inches) and only three sable brushes (Nos. 5, 10 & 15) and no flat brushes for the background washes.

I particularly like Wyeth’s use of titles. The painting at the top of this post might have simply been called “Apples on a Windowsill” but it’s called Frostbitten which suggests a lot more. What would the title Faraway suggest to you? Take a look at his painting with that title – Were you close? If not, what story is suggested in that painting?

The paintings do have stories, though the stories behind them are mostly not known to viewers. For example, his painting Winter.

“Winter” — 1946

There is only a small patch of snow in the painting, where we might expect a white, wintery canvas.  The painting was inspired by a day when Andrew was walking near the railroad tracks where his father was killed.  He saw a local boy running down the hill facing the Kuerner farm and joined him. They found an old baby carriage and used it to ride wildly down the hill. The painting shows the boy and a shadow stand-in for Wyeth. Wyeth said of the painting, “The boy was me at a loss, really. His hand, drifting in the air, was my hand, groping, my free soul.”

That hill is the same one Wyeth would use two years later for probably his most famous painting, Christina’s World

Christina’s World

 

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I was talking with a friend this past week and he said, almost apologetically, “I’m not really religious but I guess I’m what you’d call spiritual.” I don’t see being “spiritual” as anything to be uncomfortable about admitting to be, but I know he felt it was somehow below being “religious.”

He is not alone in that feeling or that self-evaluation. A Pew Research study this year found that:

Some people may see the term “spiritual but not religious” as indecisive and devoid of substance. Others embrace it as an accurate way to describe themselves. What is beyond dispute, however, is that the label applies to a growing share of Americans.

About a quarter of U.S. adults (27%) now say they think of themselves as spiritual but not religious, up 8 percentage points in five years, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted between April 25 and June 4 of this year. This growth has been broad-based: It has occurred among men and women; whites, blacks and Hispanics; people of many different ages and education levels; and among Republicans and Democrats. For instance, the share of whites who identify as spiritual but not religious has grown by 8 percentage points in the past five years.

I think the path of spiritual growth is not just stepping away from formal religion, but it is not a clearly defined path. There isn’t even only one path to take toward enlightenment. Even in a structured philosophy such as Buddhism, it can be confusing. The Buddhist tradition gives a variety of descriptions of the Buddhist Path (magga). There are the Seven Purifications, the Three Dharma Gates, the Four Ways of Knowing of Hakuin, the Eight Gates of Zen and probably more that I have not remembered.

For myself, looking back I can see stages that I went through in my own journey. I can’t say that everyone follows this path, but I suspect that anyone who feels they are on a path to spiritual growth goes through similar stages.

The starting place is actually before you step on the path. This is a time when someone has no awareness or connection to any spiritual self. You don’t acknowledge that there is anything other than the material world. Some people live their entire life in this way and may be successful and happy.

If at some point, a person has the sense that there is something more to life than what they see, then they may search for a way to find that unseen something. They may not have a name for it. They may not call it spiritual.

This seeking may be triggered by a crisis or difficult period in our lives. It may come from an experience that we label as “spiritual.” For me, it happened because I came in contact with other people who were already on a spiritual path.

Realizing that there is something more to this life and actually starting out on a path toward it may not happen immediately. You can stand at the edge of the path for years before you take that first step.

 

Some curiosity about spirituality grows and you begin to investigate and seek out knowledge and others. At this stage, some people will embrace an established religion or an organized group. That makes sense because it follows the school model we have grown up following. Why find our own path when others have found a path that works for them and will help you along the way. That can feel safer.

I tried several of those well-established ways, but none took me to the place I felt I needed to go. more and begin to wonder about our existence. This can be a difficult time for some. May people jump into an established religion at this stage. Thought this is right for some, it can also come from a discomfort at the uncertainties of spiritual life.

This is an important stage: finding your spiritual path.  It may be one that has been well-travelled by others before you. It may be one you blaze on your own. Your own path may cross or at times follow others’ paths for a time. This is a stage of exploration and openness and you need to have some comfort with uncertainty when you strike out on your own.

You step onto a path and begin your journey.

If you took a path that others have taken and that is established, there are probably lots of guides, writings and others to help you. If you have decided to find your own way, as I did, that doesn’t mean you can’t read about other ways and talk with those traveling other paths. This eclectic approach was the one I felt most comfortable walking. And I walk slowly.

This is the longest stage of the journey. I love the discovery of this stage. I like some of the ways I have changed as I walked this path.

I have come to accept that my spiritual path is not the only correct one. I am much less dismissive of other paths. I am more comfortable with information that might contradict my beliefs. I believe this shows that I am more secure in my own spiritual nature.

There are times of bliss. There are also still times when I slip back into fear and doubt.

You enter a new stage when you establish a spiritual practice. Whatever composes this practice (meditation, prayer, writing, nature, walking, art, service to others, music etc.) becomes a regular part of your day and as comfortable as sleeping or eating meals.

Some people have a lot of trouble with establishing a practice. part of mine involves my daily writing, some of which I make public and some that is only for myself. Friends often ask me how I have time to write every day. I don’t want to criticize them, but they probably have time every day to watch television or surf the Net or check on social media. You may to give up an hour of one of those other non-spiritual “practices” in order to have a spiritual one.

 

Establishing a practice is like continuing to walk a path. You progress, but that doesn’t mean you still don’t explore other ways or sometimes wander off and need to find your way back.

mountaintop in clouds

Reaching “enlightenment” seems to be the goal, but I don’t think it is a very realistic one. It puzzled me when as a younger person I read spiritual texts and someone would become enlightened and then continue on with their life. I had expected that something transformative would occur. Maybe I thought you floated into Heaven or Nirvana. At one time in my life, I believed you died. Now, I believe you just keep walking the path.

I see the path as one leading up a mountain. Eventually, I will be so high that I will enter the clouds. This is a good place to be, but the way ahead will actually be less clear for a time. I may never reach the top. maybe there is no top where the journey ends.

You can enter a stage when spirituality stops being something you think about very much because it is just a part of your being. This is a very difficult stage for anyone who has a job and responsibilities to a mate or children. Maybe that is why the enlightened ones are always shown as older and living in isolation. It is very hard, perhaps impossible, to reach a spiritual maturity where everything is one and the illusion of separateness can fall away in the world most of us live in.

I am certainly not there, though I am closer than I have ever been before.

And, according to some spiritual quest stories, there will be a very low point on this journey yet to come when everything seems to fall apart. A dark night of the soul before the light or the spiritual maturity or enlightenment.

Where am I on the journey? I think I am in those clouds. I know I am farther along, but I am not sure that there is an endpoint. That sounds frightening, but I am okay with that. I think it may be all journey and no destination.

bildungsroman shirt

Wear your coming of age proudly

The word bildungsroman showed up in an article I was reading.  It is a German word that you are only likely to encounter in a literature class. It describes a novel of formation, education, or culture. In English, we are more likely to call a novel or film like this a “coming-of-age” story.

Generally, these are stories of youth, but reading it now much later in my life got me wondering about when coming-to-age ends. In some ways even with six decades passed, I still feel like one of those protagonists.

The typical young protagonist is a sensitive, perhaps a bit naïve, person who goes in search of answers to life’s questions. They believe that these experiences will result in the answers. Supposedly, this happens in your twenties, but I don’t know if I have finished this journey yet. I suspect I am not alone in having this unfinished feeling.

Young adult novels certainly deal with this, but so do literary novels whose authors would not want the YA label stamped on their book’s spine. These are good novels to teach. They often focus on the psychological and moral growth of the protagonist from youth to adulthood and character change is very important.

Scanning my bookshelves I see lots of books that fall into this category, from The Telemachy in Homer’s Odyssey from back in 8th century BC, to the Harry Potter series. I would include that early novel The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling by Henry Fielding,  A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce, The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger, Lord of the Flies by Aldous Huxley and The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath.

When I taught middle school and high school, teaching The Outsiders, Romeo and Juliet, The Pigman, To Kill a Mockingbird and other bildungsroman works just seemed like the right places to spend time with my students.

In our western society, legal conventions have made certain points in late adolescence or early adulthood (most commonly 18-21) when a person is “officially” given certain rights and responsibilities of an adult. But driving a car, voting, getting married, signing contracts and buying alcohol are not the big themes of bildungsroman novels. Society and religion have even created ceremonies to confirm the coming of age.

I’ve passed all of those milestones, but I still feel like I haven’t arrived.

Charles Dickens wrote in David Copperfield, “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” We are all the protagonists of our own lives. But hero…  I’m not so sure.

Since I am still coming of age, I am a sucker for films and television live in that world of transition.  If I was teaching a course on Bildungsroman Cinema, I might include Bambi, American Graffiti,  The Breakfast Club, Stand by Me,  The Motorcycle Diaries, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Boyhood, and Moonlight. I could include many other “teen” films of lesser quality.

On television, series like The Wonder Years, Freaks and Geeks, Malcolm in the Middle, and The Goldbergs are all ones that deal with coming of age. They are also all family sitcoms. Coming-of-age has a lot to do with family. And it can be funny as well as tragic. It’s good materials for books and media because it has all that plus relationships, sex and love. On the visual side, it means physical changes that you can actually see, while the internal growth is often hidden and slow to catch up with physical growth.

I have read plenty of things that contend that adolescence is being prolonged and therefore adulthood and coming-of-age is being delayed. The new Generation Z cohort is supposedly an example of this. I have also read about the Boomerang Generation. This is a very Western and middle class phenomenon and the term is applied to young adults who choose to share a home with their parents after previously living on their own. They boomeranging back to their parents’ residence.

I remember reading about the “Peter Pan syndrome” which was a pop-psychology concept of an adult who is socially immature. It is not a condition you’ll find in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as a specific mental disorder.

In Aldous Huxley’s 1962 novel Island, a character refers to men who are “Peter Pans” as “boys who can’t read, won’t learn, don’t get on with anyone, and finally turn to the more violent forms of delinquency.” He uses Adolf Hitler as an archetype of this phenomenon.

Do some people never come of age? How old were you the last time someone told to “grow up” in some way or another?

Huxley’s Peter Pans are a problem, but what about people who are quite mature and adult but still are in search of answers to life’s questions and the experiences that might result in the answers? What’s the name for that syndrome?

End of summer and early autumn sometimes trigger regrets for the things we didn’t accomplish over the summer. The very end of the year also has this effect and sometimes leads people into a funk or depression. So, it was with some hesitation that I read an article about “warning signs” that your personal growth has stopped. As the plants and trees and insects and animals die off or go into some hibernation, I think it makes something similar click in our brains too.

The article gives five warning signs:

  1. Feeling stuck in life and as though you are struggling to get the results you want or that you have lost control.
  2. Avoiding responsibilities because solutions can be more difficult than the situation itself.
  3. Feeling confused and not knowing what you are confused about.
  4. Making unstable emotional responses because you feel overwhelmed.
  5. Feeling like you don’t know yourself.

That last one is huge. The article does offer some advice to fix things, but it is pretty much common sense. Plus, solutions are often quite difficult. For example, for #5 “Get to know yourself the way you would another person.”

Hopefully you, dear reader, doesn’t have any of these warning signs, but I suspect all of us have at least one. It’s part of being a human in 2017.

Back in the 1930s, Carl  Jung went on at length about his views on the Tarot, noting the late Medieval cards are “really the origin of our pack of cards, in which the red and the black symbolize the opposites, and the division of the four—clubs, spades, diamonds, and hearts—also belongs to the individual symbolism.

It is said that Swiss psychologist Carl Jung discovered “the internal Tarot” of the human mind with his notion of archetypes. And it could be also argued that Tarot was already an underlying layer of the collective mind, which is where archetypes are printed —those fundamental images that constitute the psychic constellation of the human being.

The meaning of the tarot cards (like he meaning of rune stones) changes depending on whether the card is seen normally or reversed. There is a lot about opposites in tarot, runes and the I Ching.

There are 78 Tarot cards which are like the 64 hexagrams of the I Ching. There are many possibilities in those relationships. This post is not meant to teach the intricacies of using the tarot cards, but you will find that there are many ways they are used. There are many “spreads” of the cards – dream spread, mandala spread, 10 cards, 3 cards.

I was never sure that Jung thought you could use the cards to predict the future. In fact, he said “We can predict the future when we know how the present moment evolved from the past.”  He viewed it, as I view it, as a way to examine your past and present in order to consider (rather than predict) the future.

A Tarot card or a hexagram plays into Jung’s “synchronicity” theories. Mary K. Greer’s tarot blog came up near the top of my tarot search results and she also has discussed Jung and how as psychological images these tarot symbols combine in certain ways, and the different combinations correspond to interpretations that Jung even called “playful.” The Fool, The Tower, The Lovers and the Hanged Man and the others are archetypal ideas.

Before we get too deep into that territory, let me say that we can use this divination as part of what Jung would call “individuation.”

Individuation is the psychic process by which one becomes himself, indivisibly, uniquely, a monad, as an expression of uniqueness and self-sufficiency at microcosmic level. It is, in Jung’s terms, the realization of the Self.

For my previous post, I used the I Ching to answer my question about whether I should continue teaching this year. The hexagram  “answer” was not clear to me. I thought it only fair to ask the tarot cards the same question.

I did a one card pull and got The Fool card.

The Fool is a very powerful card in the Tarot deck, usually representing a new beginning. And a new beginning means an end.

I didn’t do a full spread where the card’s position would tell me what aspect of my life would be subject to change. The Fool portends important decisions ahead. Not always easy ones. Maybe an element of risk. for you. Approach the changes with optimism and care to gain the most positive outcome.

I read the card as telling me that I am entering a new phase of life. Is it good or bad? Not clear. I would need to do a spread with a future position.

 

The Fool can indicate foolishness, but it seems to be more optimistic and is usually interpreted as a “Yes” answer to your question.

Maybe the tarot answer is the answer I wanted. Maybe I willed it to be the card. Maybe it is a coincidence.

Maybe if I did the I Ching again, I would get a better result.

So I did the I Ching again. This time I got TUI. This is known as “joy”. It has the elements of Lake over Lake. It is a good hexagram to get as Tui indicates a period of success and prosperity is entering your life.

Isn’t that the answer I wanted?

I think I will let the summer end and when autumn arrives I will look to the runes and spirit animals and other divinations. I predict that there will be more changes and predictions in my future.

I went to a workshop recently on using the I ChingThe I Ching is also known as Classic of Changes or Book of Changes. It is an ancient Chinese divination text and the oldest of the Chinese classics. There are more than two and a half millennia of commentary and interpretations. It is an influential text and it is read throughout the world. Besides its use for divining the future, it has provided inspiration to the worlds of religion, psychoanalysis, business, literature, and art.

It is a complicated book to study. I had a copy from my college days that I had annotated with tips on how to the read the toss of coins and the resulting hexagrams. But that copy was loaned to a girlfriend many years ago and never returned. I bought a used copy from Amazon a few weeks before the workshop and tried to relearn what I had once known about using it.

I was intrigued by a series of Post-It notes that the previous owner had left inside the book. Reading those notes took me back to my earlier uses of the text.

The previous owner had written her questions on pages with the hexagrams she received.

“Hexagram 31  What is my true calling?
Hexagram 49  How can I regain my sparkle and preserve?
How can I go about enforcing myself to go in the right direction regarding work and happiness together?
Hexagram 47 In what ways can I go about healing myself that I have not yet covered. What is my missing link and how can I find it?
How can I ensure that I will make the right decisions to go down the right path?”

Those are big questions.

Working with this 5,000-year-old Chinese book of wisdom, some people turn to workbooks that are designed to help novice truth-seekers find meaning.

But this is 2017 and so there is no need to have the Book-of-Changes and Chinese coins. You can ask your question online, click six virtual coins and get your hexagram. I just did that.

I asked about whether I should continue teaching this year, as opposed to fully retiring. My answer was Hexagram 27. Here is the virtual version of the answer or guidance. It is simplified but not simple.

Hexagram 27
Beneath the immobile Mountain the arousing Thunder stirs.
The Superior Person preserves his freedom under oppressive conditions by watching what comes out of his mouth, as well as what goes in.

Endure and good fortune will come.
Nurture others in need, as if you were feeding yourself.
Take care not to provide sustenance for those who feed off others.
Stay as high as possible on the food chain.

You are a conduit in this instance, able to provide the sustenance needed by others. Position yourself to nourish the truly needy and worthy. Avoid situations where you might be coerced into supporting the parasites and vermin who deprive your true charges.
Your own nourishment is an issue here, too.

Remember Lao Tzu’s three Great Treasures: Only the person possessed of Compassion, Modesty and Frugality can remain fit enough to stay free of desperation and keep control of the situation

That is very open to interpretation – as with a horoscope, runes or tarot cards. What is my answer? Not clear.

The I Ching was originally used for divination. But it is not simple prognostication. Any serious user will tell you that that you, as the diviner, cultivate an understanding of the world and the self. Without this understanding, the text is useless. That is why most version have the commentaries.

Tomorrow, the tarot cards…

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