The process of putting the thing you value most in the world out for the assessment of a stranger is a confidence-shaking business even in the best of times.
-Ann Patchett, Truth and Beauty
Truth and Beauty, a memoir about the friendship between writers Ann Patchett and Lucy Grealy, was one of the most difficult books I never read.
A few weeks ago, a friend gave me her copy of Truth and Beauty and asked me to give her my take on their friendship. Having never read anything by either author and knowing almost nothing about their lives, I entered into my reading without any preconceptions. But, just a few pages in, I was sickened by Patchett’s assessment of herself, of Grealy, and of their friendship. In the end, I only managed to read the first and last chapters of the book.
Why? Because it hit a sore spot. Because their friendship, unfortunately, reminded me of too many unhealthy friendships I have had.
In the above quote, Patchett is referring to the vulnerability an artist experiences, but I think it is not too unlike the vulnerability a friend experiences. And, it is Patchett’s abuse of Grealy’s vulnerability that is the source of my upset. Patchett portrays Grealy as needy and self-absorbed, and paints herself as the stoic and forbearing friend, who puts up with her friend’s addictions and dysfunctions. Later in the book Patchett justifies her approach: In our friendship I had spent a lot of time telling Lucy to pull herself up, to get over the past and move on. That was my role, the best of my Catholic education in action, and I didn’t worry about it because I knew that she had other friends, friends who were as close to her as I was, who were more tender.
That’s a cop out, in my opinion. In the end, I don’t think Patchett really liked Grealy.
Real friendship requires truth; and most significantly, it requires both friends to be honest about their regard for one another. The only way we can be truly vulnerable in a friendship is if there exists true AND mutual trust, love, respect, and admiration. Tolerating someone is not ok. Needing someone who obviously can’t meet your needs is not ok. Finding the beautiful balance of a true friendship is not easy…but it’s worth it.
I encourage you to take a look at your friendships. Are they mutual? Do they drag you down or make you feel needy? Or, do they give you wings and encourage you to see the best in yourself? I hope the latter, because you are worth it!
The best boundaries are boundaries that aren’t defensive or offensive; they just exist.
From “NLP-The Essential Guide”
I love open kitchens; the ones with open shelving, glass, and light colors. There’s something so inviting about their simplicity and openness. No mess, no confusion, no wondering where stuff is; it’s all out there in the open. You know where you stand.
I think boundaries are a lot like that.
Boundaries provide definition, clarity, and security, yet all too often they are a source of stress, inner-turmoil, self-doubt and conflict. But, maybe we can start taking the drama out of boundary-setting.
First of all, when possible, we should clear our lives of any kind of toxicity—animal, mineral, vegetable, etc. But, despite our best efforts to live clean and pure lives, we are exposed to toxins; maybe it’s polluted air or hormones in the milk or maybe a nasty boss or maybe—perhaps the most challenging—a family member.
When dealing with toxic people we first have to accept that we cannot change another person. Let me repeat myself—we cannot change another person. And very often—not only will the person not change, he or she won’t even think there is a problem! So, all we can do is just let go and let them be.
But, and here is the empowering part, you decide the parameters of the relationship. Your first priority is inner harmony, not family-harmony or office-harmony. The best thing you can do for the world—really—is take care of yourself, and only you can decide what that means. Weigh the options, make a decision and honor your decision.
Just visualize the open kitchen—the light streaming through the translucent window, the clean counters, the wildflowers in the terracotta vase. No one is going to come in your kitchen and tell you how to arrange your dishes; likewise, no one is going to come in your life and set your boundaries. Keep it simple. Keep it clean. Let them be.
Every thing must have a beginning…and that beginning must be linked to something that went before…Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void, but out of chaos; the materials must, in the first place be afforded: it can give form to dark, shapeless substances, but cannot bring into being the substance itself…Invention consists in the capacity of seizing on the capabilities of a subject, and in the power of moulding and fashioning ideas suggested to it.”
-Mary Shelley, from Maria Popova’s “Brain Pickings”
Maria Popova’s blog “Brain Pickings” is one of my favorites. I definitely suggest you check it out! In a recent post, she quoted Mary Shelley as part of a larger conversation on the multi-faceted nature of the creative process.
I have been blessed this summer to spend a few weeks in Paris and several in Tel Aviv with my youngest daughter, and it’s been a very art-focused trip—with visits to museums, art classes, and hours spent in cafes with our sketchbooks. Hence, subject of creativity is one very close to my heart.
I believe that Shelley was expressing here the necessity of the artist to recognize that nothing exists in a vacuum and that it is the artist’s responsibility to perceive and expose the hitherto unmasked essence of the subject of one’s art.
I’d like to go one step further and address how the artist goes about doing this.
What I have been struck with this summer—whether wandering through museums or trying to decipher the multi-layered meanings of graffiti, is that inspiration springs from dialogue. It is a dialogue between the artist and Source and a dialogue amongst artists.
When you look at a Picasso painting, you see the influence of Braque. When you read Rilke, you hear his conversations with Rodin. These artists weren’t copying one another; they were inspiring one another. One example of this is the recent collaborative poetry project, “Envelopes of Air”, written by Ada Limón and Natalie Diaz, which is a series of eight poems written in correspondence between these two poets. The result is beautiful. Inspiring.
Taking it even one more step further, beyond the artistic dialogue and into our every day lives…I think more and more of us are recognizing that neither do we live in a vacuum.
If, like Michelangelo looking at a slab of marble as a sculpture waiting to be set free, we could see each person or place or experience as a work of art waiting to be set free, we would have a very different relationship to our fellow humans and to our own personal experiences. We would be more open, more curious, more encouraging, looking for connections rather than discord. And if, like Picasso and Braque, we entered into dialogue with more of our fellow human beings—not just the ones in our echo chamber—we would begin to have conversations about others’ joys and pain and struggles and questions, and we might shift some of our thinking.
And then maybe, this collaborative dialogue would inspire us to create beautiful art together.
We have to be careful of saying ‘our culture’; we are all citizens of this world, and we travel. If you bring music from somewhere, you bring it to your way and say ‘this is what inspired me’. We can’t talk about cultural appropriation.
I am a huge fan of singer, songwriter, activist Angelique Kidjo, but even I was a bit skeptical when I heard she was planning to cover it its entirety the Talking Heads album “Remain in the Light”.
I decided I’d listen to the whole album on my morning walk, and wow—it was beyond amazing!
No, it’s not the Talking Heads, but Kidjo wasn’t trying to duplicate the 1980 masterpiece. Rather, she wanted to capture the essence of the album and relate it to our current global concerns.
Kidjo’s message is clear. We are one people. Yes, we come from different cultures and speak different languages, but we are one, and none of us can thrive if one of us is suffering. She expresses this by masterfully weaving together the Talking Heads’ words and lyrics with her native Yoruba language and the many musical styles—Afropop, Caribbean zouk, Latin, and Congolese Rumba to name a few—that have influenced her.
Kidjo’s album reminded that I am a mixture of so many influences—so many cultures and religions and individuals. I own none of these influences, and whatever I have—whether it be knowledge or recipes or style or traditions or time or wisdom—I want to share it. You give to me; I give to you. I think the world would function much better if we realized that actually we are all appropriating culture. Let’s open our arms, open our eyes, open our hearts, open our windows and let the light in…so that we may remain in the light.
The time will come
When, with elation
You will greet yourself arriving
At your own door, in your own mirror
And each will smile at the other’s welcome,
And say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
To itself, to the stranger who has loved you
All your life, whom you ignored
For another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
The photographs, the desperate notes,
Peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.
-Derek Walcott, Love after Love
Last week a friend shared this poem with me, and it came at just the right time—as most things do.
At some point in our lives, we realize that our journey is less one of discovery and more one of re-discovery. Rather than learning, we seem to re-learn and remember. Those “ah-ha” moments seem to happen when we realize something we’ve always known but were somehow unaware of or disconnected from.
These realizations can be joyous. And sometimes they can be painful—especially when they require us to break with previously held beliefs or even with friends or family. But all realizations are freeing, because we know—on some level—that we cannot live disconnected from ourselves. And the feast happens when we can sit back, see ourselves and love what we see.
How do we get to the point of sitting back and feasting? Sometimes it feels as if life reaches out and grabs us—through tragedy, through loss, through love or bliss. These moments seem to come out of nowhere and often encourage us to dig deep within. And a great deal of insight can come from these experiences. But, I don’t think we have to wait for life to surprise us to gain insight.
We can try to find time every day to put ourselves in a “remembering state”. We all have our own ways to find that space—through prayer, meditation, singing, running or doing yoga or taking long walks in nature. By getting out of the thinking-planning-always doing mind, we can find inner calm and peace to see, to hear, and to remember who we truly are.
And then–the only thing left to do is feast on your life.
I laid me down upon a bank,
Where Love lay sleeping;
I heard among the rushes dank
Then I went to the heath and the wild
To the thistles and thorns of the waste;
And they told me how they were beguiled,
Driven out, and compelled to the chaste.
I went to the Garden of Love,
And saw what I never had seen;
A Chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green.
And the gates of this Chapel were shut
And “Thou shalt not,” writ over the door;
So I turned to the Garden of Love
That so many sweet flowers bore.
And I saw it was filled with graves,
And tombstones where flowers should be;
And priests in black gowns were walking their rounds,
And binding with briars my joys and desires.
-William Blake, from Garden of Love
Though deeply spiritual, William Blake did not ascribe to the conventional religious beliefs of his day. In fact, he was critical of organized religion, believing it to be harmful to one’s imagination, creativity, and even more to one’s particular connection to the Divine. In this poem, we see Blake representing organized religion as different types of deaths: the death of love, the death of beauty, and the final death.
Blake’s very bleak view of religion is not so different from what I see in our contemporary culture. We have grown weary of the radicalized, the right-wing, and the self-righteous haters. And an unfortunate result, is that we have thrown religion and spirituality into the same category—all just a bunch of useless, outdated, and harmful propaganda.
Like Blake, I am not eager to embrace a belief system that would have me condemn those who don’t share my beliefs to death. And like Blake, I think that it is far too easy to allow other strong and seemingly confident voices to squelch ours and dictate our personal connection with the Divine. But, unlike Blake, I think religion still holds great value and can be a source for spiritual seekers. And unlike those who lump religion and spirituality together, I think it is harmful, and in the long run dissatisfying, to disavow any connection with our soul or spirit. And really, we’ve simply replaced the God of religion with the god of money and the god of the State, and the god of pleasure.
Because meaning is what we are really looking for—our purpose, our contribution, our place in this vast universe. Though we are small, we play a significant part, a necessary part. So, maybe in the midst of so much chaos and instability and fear, we can create our inner connection to our Purpose, our own Garden of Love—one that cannot be swept away by any voice or opinion or death.
I encourage you to take a few moments and free- associate. Imagine what your Garden of Love would be…
Then manifest it!
All are architects of Fate,
Working in these walls of Time;
Some with massive deeds and great,
Some with ornaments of rhyme.
Nothing useless is, or low;
Each thing in its place is best;
And what seems but idle show
Strengthens and supports the rest.
For the structure that we raise,
Time is with materials filled;
Our todays and yesterdays
Are the blocks with which we build…
Build today, then, strong and sure,
With a firm and ample base;
And ascending and secure
Shall tomorrow find its place.
Thus alone can we attain
To those turrets, where the eye
Sees the world as one vast plain,
And one boundless reach of sky.
-Henry Wadsworth Longfellow from “The Builders”
Whether we build monuments or sell coffee or run governments or push strollers, we serve an important and necessary purpose. We—together—make this world whole. But it only works if we do our unique and special part; it works only if we are authentic and genuine.
This isn’t easy in a world where individuality is a rare commodity. Everywhere we are flooded with chain stores selling the same clothes, the same coffee, the same food. Everywhere we have plastic surgery to lose our unique ethnic expressions of beauty—shapes of eyes and hips and textures of hair. We fear being ourselves. We fear dancing to the beat of our own drummer.
There is not one way to be. There is not one journey. A cathedral could only be built because there were bricklayers and painters and stained-glass makers. Everyone did his or her own job. And now this world—more than ever—needs us to do our jobs, to go deep within and be the poets and plumbers and politicians this world needs.
We know what to do; if we are quiet, we can hear the beating of our hearts, the unique song of our soul. And maybe then, by doing our part, we will be able to become authentic architects of Fate and see beyond where the eye sees the world as one vast plain, and one boundless reach of sky.
He smiled understandingly—much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five time in a life. It faced—or seemed to face the whole external world in an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It would like to believe in yourself and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey.
-F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
How powerful it is to be truly seen—seen as we see ourselves, our pain, our issues, our challenges, our gloriousness. Yet, all too often we allow the impressions of others to cloud our images of ourselves. And often as well we are guilty of projecting our biases on others.
It’s time to change this unhealthy dynamic! First of all we need to stop surrounding ourselves with people who don’t see us as we know we are. We need to ask ourselves if our friends—and even some family members—see us. And we might have to make some hard decisions, but we’re worth it!
And we need to be honest with ourselves about our own biases and how we might be allowing certain implicit group stereotypes to affect how we see individuals. Generalizations are helpful only up to a point; they lose their efficacy when they keep us from seeing the humanity in individuals.
Perhaps we should adopt the philosophy with which Nick Carraway, The Great Gatsby’s narrator, begins the story:
In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. “Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone”, he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”
For need can blossom into all the compensation it requires. To crave and have are as like as a thing as its shadow. For when does a berry break upon the tongue as sweetly as when one longs to taste it, and when is the taste refracted into so many hues and savors of ripeness and earth, and when do our senses know any thing so utterly as when we lack it? And here again is a foreshadowing-the world will be made whole. For to wish for a hand on one’s hair is all but to feel it. So whatever we may lose, very craving gives it back to us again. Though we dream and hardly know it, longing, like an angel, fosters us, smooths our hair, and brings us wild strawberries.
-Marilynne Robinson, from Housekeeping
The longing for oneself, I believe, is the most visceral expression of longing, for which so many other forms of longing are really a substitute. And while grounded here on this planet, we also long for something more, for, the deepest and truest parts of ourselves are both intimately unique and transcendent. This process of coming to dialogue with ourselves, as Marilynne Robinson so beautifully articulates here, is defined by pleasure and pain, because there is something in the space of the lack or the longing that leaves room for infinite miracles, for the realization of dreams, for the connection with the ineffable.
Similarly, the 13th century Persian poem Rumi wrote:
Listen to the story told by the reed,
of being separated.
Since I was cut from the reedbed,
I have made this crying sound.
Anyone apart from someone he loves
understands what I say.
Anyone pulled from a source longs to go back.
That gnawing, tugging, craving part of ourselves longs to go back. And this longing reminds us that there IS a place (both personal and transcendent) to go back to. Though it’s so easy to get distracted along the way—with addictions and unhealthy love affairs and destructive desires—this quiet and loving voice of longing is really taking us home, and like an angel, [it] fosters us, smooths our hair, and brings us wild strawberries.
But what is worship? –to do the will of God-that is worship. And what is the will of God? – to do to my fellow man what I would have my fellow man to do to me – that is the will of God. Now, Queequeg is my fellow man. And what do I wish that this Queequeg would do to me? Why, unite with me in my particular Presbyterian form of worship. Consequently, I must then unite with him in his…”
-Herman Melville, from Moby Dick
At the beginning of Melville’s epic novel, Ishmael meets Queequeg—a pagan who sells dried heads, a cannibal covered in tattoos, and a prince from a remote Polynesian island. He couldn’t be any more different from Ishmael. Throughout the novel, Queequeg teaches Ishmael about bravery, loyalty, generosity and true friendship, and Ishmael is forced to question his bias and preconceptions of the other.
The challenge of engaging with those different from us is not new, and nor are the various responses. In Ishmael’s case, he decides that he must turn idolater. Others in the book make false assumptions about Queequeg and deem him to be dangerous and unintelligent. Many of us would probably not choose to become idolaters; yet nor would we choose to judge others and isolate ourselves from them. Where’s the balance?
I love that Ishmael starts with thinking about what he would want, and that is what he offers to Queequeg. Maybe it would be helpful for us to sit and think about what we want—acceptance, validation, peace, respect. And, maybe we could then try our best to give that to others.
Our differences make us beautiful. We need all of us. I think the words of the beautiful Rav Kook express this sentiment:
I love all;
I cannot but love all:
All the nations
From my very depth, I want the glory of all,
The perfection of all.
May we pray for the perfection of all.
The only regret I will have in dying is if it is not for love.
-Gabriel Garcia Marquez, from Love in the Time of Cholera
Love in the Time of Cholera explores the many iterations of love—love as illness, tenderness, unrequited, love as “ideal” and love as “depraved”. As we approach Mother’s Day in the States, I find myself thinking a lot about the iteration of maternal love.
I’m a mother. I have a mother. I have been “mothered” by many amazing women who have shaped my life in tremendously powerful ways. I think about these women and the effect they have had on my life. I think about my own mothering—the high and low moments, the lessons learned and the unexpected moments of bliss. And so often I feel like Lady Justice holding the scales, trying to balance positive and negative, and not slip into self-deprecating thinking.
That’s precisely why these lines shot straight through my heart when I read them this morning! Garcia Marquez probably wasn’t thinking about the complexities of maternal love when he wrote these lines to describe a character suffering from unrequited love, but for me they certainly did! I felt Garcia Marquez asking me—what is worth dying for? The answer is simple. Love.
But more than dying for love, these words showed me that I live for love. These words showed me that, while my love is not faultless, it is and always has been the underlying focus of my life. And so it is for many of us. We’re not perfect mothers or daughters or friends or partners, but we are trying our best. We have trauma and pain and ghosts. And despite and through all of this, we love, we learn, and hopefully we grow every day.
So in this world that sometimes feels so broken and confused, and is filled with so many in need of love, let us remind ourselves to live for love. And that starts with ourselves.
You don’t even have sense enough to drink when somebody brings you a cup of consecrated chicken soup—which is the only kind of chicken soup Bessie ever brings to anybody around this madhouse. So just tell me…how in the hell are you going to recognize a legitimate holy man when you see one if you don’t even know a cup of consecrated chicken soup when it’s right in front of your nose?
-JD Salinger, Franny and Zooey
In the first part of Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, college student Franny has an emotional breakdown. In the second part, she is at home in New York City’s Upper East Side—surrounded by her loving and somewhat eccentric family and being nursed back to health. Franny explains at length that she is overwhelmed by the meaninglessness of of life, by the greed and ego and selfishness that surround her. She is looking for truth, for goodness, for spirituality. And here we see, at the end of the story, Franny’s brother Zooey explaining that the spiritual life she seeks is closer than she perhaps realized.
Like Franny, I sometimes feel disconnected and even beaten down by “the man”, or the negative political climate, or disputes at home. I occasionally feel misunderstood, isolated…all the while looking, as did Franny, for the holy man. Yet, I’ve also had experiences of connection—being with loved ones, reading a few great lines in a book, or witnessing a glorious sunset. But these times are few and far between.
Or are they? What if the holy man is here? Now. What if everything we see or hear or taste or smell—however big or small or spectacular or mundane—is the holy man bringing us into this universal conversation?
The holy man is the chicken soup and dirty dishes and the cherry blossoms and my daughter’s texts from college. He is the heartbreak and surprises and lessons and every line of this novel that we are writing together. The holy man is here.
Maybe it’s time to take off my blinders, stop seeing the world only from my limited perspective, and open up, listen, absorb, take notes, and walk—hand in hand—with the holy man.