Friday, October 11, 2013

Instructions for Living a Life

This week I will do what all honest artists do in every moment of creation: I will borrow from another. It’s okay. The last original thought happened when the first Artist said, “Let there be light.” Everything since then has been derivative of all the infinite passion and imagination present on that youngest day. And still the universe is a bottomless well of new ways to see. This is our heritage—playtime that never ends!

And so I start with Mary Oliver’s words:

Instructions for living a life:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.

Twelve words. Twenty syllables. One hundred million practical applications—and an uncountable number of impractical ones.

Instructions for living a life. I am tempted to add a modifier: Instructions for living a creative life. After all, we have come here in search of The Way of the Artful Warrior. But at the last minute I catch myself and imagine the poet left the training wheels off her words on purpose. Maybe she is saying that life is just life—always creative, always free, always a handful of possibility from which we make what we will. Living is creating. Creating is living.

Pay attention. Has it occurred to you that every time someone scolded you to pay attention as a child, or as a dream-walking adult gazing through windows during meetings and other Important Matters—is it possible that you were paying attention, just to the “wrong” things?

To pay attention well often means to rob from others in order to fill yourself. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Thou shalt not profess that which thou dost not believe…Thou shalt not heed the voice of man when it agrees not with the voice of God in thine own soul…The life of the soul in conscious union with the Infinite shall be for thee the only real existence.”

Steal back your attention from those who have questionable use for it—sometimes even from ones you love—and pay it into seeing what poet Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer calls “the scarlet worship along the edges”—of everything.

Be astonished. If the dusty yet prolific cataloguers of the world have taught us one thing it is that looking is not the same as seeing. Here is what Wikipedia has to say about a pine tree:

“Pines are native to most of the Northern Hemisphere (see List of pines by region), and have been introduced throughout most temperate and subtropical regions of the world, where they are grown as timber and cultivated as ornamental plants in parks and gardens.”

Not an ounce of astonishment at the way a pine tree clings to cliff faces; turns forest air into another substance entirely—ancestral breath and aromatic music; speaks the poems of its kind in the house of flame; shelters the titmouse and the eagle; sways in wind like a sufi mystic; feeds the squirrel and the beetle; pries the mountain away from itself for a long journey to the sea; catches winter snow and holds it back to the sky in thanksgiving; in a long life, washes in the light of ten thousand full moons.

Astonishment is hard work now. The door opens when we commit to un-naming things. Un-knowing the facts. Un-learning “the way things are.” Read Neruda, go blindfolded into the woods, beat a drum and listen for voices chanting in the rhythm, be the fool for once.

Tell about it. Shout it! Bleed for it! The world is full of “art” that does everything right—form, color, story structure in three acts, verse-chorus-verse, dances of impeccable perfection—and is utterly unmemorable. It is the difference between hotel room carpet and a carpet of autumn leaves on the forest floor, still quaking with the astonishment of being. Speak nothing, make nothing until you are standing inside its magical, pan-dimensional, un-effing-believable soul.

Post these instructions everywhere. Let go of the shore and leap into the great current of living a life.

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