Thursday, 20 June 2013

the doorway to simplicity

Giving away, again....

The Doorway to Simplicity:

The doorway to a radical, numinous, simplicity, seems to be reached by the long and difficult path of generosity. Firstly, we are invited, against our will, to unfold our grip and give away what was never ours in the first place: secondly, we are then asked, or at times forced, to let go, of what was once ours, but which we have held to far too long and far too tightly, long beyond its proper season. Thirdly, and lastly, and with great difficulty, we hear the unwanted call to give away those things that have always been ours, but which we somehow managed to love in the wrong way: we are asked to give away people or things we were close to, but people or things we named in the wrong way.

At the end, we are left with is what is actually ours, a living, robust, but hardly identifiable thing, that is a flowing, everyday representation of our essential spirit; a wave form passing through us, a way we hold the everyday conversation of life: in the silence of a room, in the city street, in the office or at an ocean’s edge, but still, an essence we are asked to give away again and again; in the right way, to the right person, or the right place, at the right time; time after time.

In the midst of that last giving we seem to take a step into the numinous doorway of permeability, and are suddenly found ourselves by the world and seemingly, by the light, we become a strange new receiver of the world’s own generosity; we find ourselves being given back to, in the right way, at the right time by the right source; we stand in the living, breathing doorway where giving and taking become one thing.

Thoughts from Avignon: © David Whyte 2013


Wednesday, 19 June 2013

a response to an artistic action

'David Whyte calls on his poem "Tilicho Lake" in describing artist, author Jerry Wennstrom's creative journey. He defines Wennstrom's encounter with the void as as "the ultimate artistic step." In 1979 Jerry Wennstrom took the ultimate artistic step -- he destroyed his large body of art, gave away his possessions and leapt into a creative void that required deeper faith and "trust in the Great Belonging." 

David Whyte originally offered this testimony in the documentary film, "In the Hands of Alchemy: The Art and Life of Jerry Wennstrom" (Parabola and Sentient Publications videos.)

Jerry Wennstrom destroyed his life's work (all his paintings) when he saw that his art had become a "false god" to him. He looked instead find God and creativity in all that he did in everyday life. Following this experience Jerry lived with only what life presented to him.

In Part One, David Whyte's inspiring discourse is both gripping and challenging. Whyte talks about facing death in all its manifestations. He refers often to Wennstrom's art and his path, but Whyte's wisdom and message is for anyone who has faced the metaphoric death of an identity that no longer served their lives.' in emergence....
....lack of willfulness....


Monday, 17 June 2013


My last post wandered into some very deep areas. I had been stuck in that place for quite a long time and I hoped that by sharing my meandering thoughts someone would help me to see the situation differently. I knew I was venturing into some very personal areas, but the risk of that vulnerability seems to have paid off. Something in these two responses (from two different people) shifted things for me:

...this is a very interesting area. Your true reward is in doing the work but putting it into the world requires a price tag. I don't think there is an easy option, too cheap and people don't respect it, too expensive and people baulk at it, so you have to find a price that ultimately you feel comfortable with. The whole pricing structure of art is totally crazy anyway and I have never come to terms with it personally, my only advice is don't make it too cheap because people that are passionate about their work tend to do that.

Hm... I have a feeling you are undervaluing yourself. You're quite right about this inner battle and finding what replaces that feeling of 'wrongness.' So many people, however, have an uneasy relationship with money. It is just another form of energy and it needs to flow like any other. People are buying your artistic intention and energy. The higher value you place on this the more likely people are to see it as "something" of value (particularly people outside of your social group). It's a strange world we live in where people think money means quality but unfortunately this is the belief that a lot of people seem to have. I'd honestly be inclined to charge a bit more than the £50 to £70 you suggest. It's one thing to say you may sell more at the lower price but on the other hand you only have to sell fewer at the higher price and they'll be bought by people who really want or appreciate them.

I suddenly see what is of value here. My artistic intention and energy actually are something. I'm not sure I properly saw that before.

I'm finding it a little sticky to be getting so personal here, and yet I don't believe that this problem is confined only to me. We don't see ourselves. We don't understand our value. Our unique, human value, simply as who we are. No-one special, no-one more valuable than anyone else. Each one seriously, properly, valuable.

Perhaps this is one of the roots of blocked creativity.


Friday, 14 June 2013

a question for you

I'm pretty vexed at the moment about the issue of how I price the paintings in my exhibition. My overriding feeling is that it doesn't feel right for these paintings, coming as they have, out of the process and for the purpose they have, being exchanged for money.

My writing, music, movement, and painting, have come to me as a gift. They're not, as in the past, the result of a bargain I made with myself, specifically the bargain that it was ok to do work that didn't sit comfortably with me in exchange for money.

The gift of my art came back to me as a result of  a manoeuvre that I was unaware of at the time; the moment when I decided, unconsciously, that I was going to stop giving myself away at my own expense. To stop pouring myself into the world without ever stopping to replenish my resources, trying to fix the ocean of suffering and injustice wherever it crossed my path.

After more than two decades of such behaviour I was dry as dust. Empty and barren, though still determined - still trying to squeeze the strange mixture of creativity-for-money and creativity-for-meaning that was academic research for a sense of internal replenishment, to no avail. (Something that still foxes me about this is that it hadn't always been this way. You note that I say two decades, not three or four. I'm not someone who followed a conventional academic path, or the societally assumed path towards material gain. I rejected all of that, looking for something else, from a very early age. But my unseen vulnerabilities tripped me up nonetheless...).

The gift that came back to me when I gave up what I was doing and decided to lie down for a while was the gift of my abandoned self. Uninterested in therapy, judgemental about what I saw to be the self-obsessed ways of 'western' capitalist societies, I'd been blind to the complexities of my own biological, physiological, souliological, feelingological self. I'd been losing outwards, soul-haemorrhaging, for a long, long time.

The gift of the self is not a diving further into ego; into insularity, a sense of self-importance, external recognition-seeking. It's quite simple, in a way. Respect for basic needs, for air, space, food and water, both literally and metaphorically. Attention to what feels right, and what feels, in a certain way at least, easy, as opposed to accepting a constant battling with what I knew, really, felt quite wrong. Recognising that feeling of wrongness (such an old, old friend....), and deciding to stop ignoring it. Finding out what might take its place.

The space I made was immediately filled by my painting; by images and words, and then by music and movement. Those first, tiny, steps towards making space for myself prised open the edge of a strange, frightening, welcoming portal. Overgrown with weeds, rusty with disuse, the entrance to another way of being.

The gift of myself, of care, respect, food and space, gave me the gift of my art, which is the gift of my life. The natural movement of what now comes through me is outwards, to the world. But which world? It has to be chosen so carefully. I know it isn't the contemporary commercial art world. The means of sharing which chose me at the start was availability for anyone who chose to come and look, via the Internet. No promotion, no competition, just word of mouth.

There's been good feedback from this tiny, limited audience, and I'm content with that. My focus is to stay true to the process that wants to happen, protecting it as much as is possible from the outside-world-pleasing effects of feedback. Anything beyond that is a gift upon the gift, riches. If one painting touches just one person for even a moment, I'm blessed a thousand fold. And now I have an exhibition. Which is raising a lot of tricky questions. Not least, how, do I, charge for these paintings?

From the start I've considered the Amanda Palmer route, fully aware that 41 followers on a Facebook page does not an Amanda Palmer make. This would mean that people would pay what they wanted to pay in order to take an image home with them. I keep rejecting this, hearing all the objections to it, and then coming back to it even more strongly.

It would be nice to cover the costs of the show, which are considerable. An inbetween route would be to price everything very 'reasonably', but I see problems there too. I would possibly rather give a painting away, at my own expense, than allow money to change hands at a rate that possibly 'undervalues' the painting. And that's the issue. What is value here?

Do we sell lambs? Yes. Do we sell children? No. Do we sell gifts? On the whole, no. When I lived in the Tibetan community in North India I was very struck by a cultural principle explained to me as sonam chembo. Literally, if I remember rightly, it means, 'large luck'; it seemed to signify a principle of outward-flowing generosity. Watching this in operation, over and over, taught me a number of lessons which I never forgot (and which, come to think of it, probably fed into the psychic/emotional cocktail which would manifest not long afterwards as those 20 years of excessive outward flowing of the self...).

Amongst the folk I hung out with, one aspect of sonam chembo seemed to be that, in a refugee situation where most people had very little, any unexpected financial or material gains were shared out. When I came home and started doing this, people thought I was a sucker, or an unreconstructed female, but when the whole society is at least aware of this principle ( I can't comment on anything but what I actually observed in terms of its workings)  it has some notable effects. The idea that you share out what has come to you has never left me.

The gift that I now receive daily as my creative life wants to move outwards,  in its various forms. It came to me for free, like a child, bringing all that a child brings (joy, incredulity, expense, idiosyncrasy, willfulness, connection.....).  It seems to have a function beyond myself, in terms of (some) people's responses, and I want that function to continue, to flow, wherever it finds its path. I didn't go looking for a solo exhibition in a local festival, but it came.

The people who will walk in that door, however, are not my Authentic Artist/Discipline of Freedom fellow artists, or my friends and supporters. A little further into Lewis Hyde's book now, his discussion of studies of gift-exchange cultures suggests that gift-giving is usually limited to those in the immediate group, that it doesn't extend to people outside that group. That struck a chord. Perhaps it's ok to charge strangers if they want to take my gift home, at least to the extent that making, mounting and framing have material costs.

Context is all, though. I've had cards of my work in a very centrally-placed art/craft shop in Stirling for three weeks and have sold two. It may be that this work can appeal to people within my creative community, but that it will find no resonance beyond that. I'm ok with that emotionally and philosophically, and I need to keep that at the forefront of my mind as I branch out into this public experiment.

Right now I'm of the view that I will charge something, because of the expenses involved, but that I won't charge the 'more' that everyone says you should. Who cares if people who interact with the commercial art world say that I should charge more, or that I'm 'not valuing' myself or my paintings. These comments come from that world, and are not the point, for me. £50 for an A4 original watercolour, mounted and framed (cheap frame, but it looks quite smart; high quality, acid-free, white core mount...), £70 for an A3? Or less? If someone wants the painting, I want them to take it home. What the hell am I going to do with so many paintings on my walls, anyway?


Friday, 7 June 2013



Today I'm thinking about locks. Not locks with keys, but locks in canals, you know, the way that water is controlled over uneven ground.... The boat floats in at the lower level, the lock closes, the water is let in from the higher level, the boat floats up, the second lock is opened, and out it floats at a higher point. For those of you who may not have a canal nearby, a lock looks like this:

I'm thinking about locks after an email conversation with Jools Rixon. I was commending him for being so open about his own personal experiences and he said:

I love sharing all the aspects of my inner journey. I find it really useful to hear other people's experiences and there are no secrets as far as my own are concerned. It's been such a long journey to arrive in a place where the opinions of others don't affect my own journey. My family think I'm a bit strange but, love them as I do, I just have to do my own thing.

When I read that, I started thinking about the locks. That when you keep all your important observations, your vision, your experience, private and closed up inside yourself, you're like a boat sitting outside the lock at the lowest level. You want to flow forwards, but you can't, because there's this big block of wood in front of you, and nothing is moving. You keep it all locked away inside because you fear that if you share it, you may be laughed at, or judged; that people will mock you if you tell them how you see things, or what's happening to you. Who am I, you say to yourself, consciously or unconsciously, why would anyone want to know what's happening to me?

And as you say that, you cut yourself off from two things. Firstly, the kindness that you owe yourself, which could be nourishing you and sustaining you. Secondly, you cut yourself off from all the other human beings around you, many of whom are also feeling stuck in front of an immovable wall. But nobody's saying.

When I first started writing this blog, I felt exposed, raw, vulnerable, at risk. But my instinct told me that if I wanted to learn how to begin to flow freely as the flawed, simple human being that I really was, I had to step out from behind all the stuff I had been hiding behind for so long. I had to accept the kindness of my own attention, and I also had to risk being ridiculed or dismissed by others.

I couldn't have been more surprised at the results of such a move. Of course, most of the world carries on oblivious, not even deigning to grace me with criticism or ridicule. But that, in itself, is an important point. No-one comes running out of cyberspace to point and mock. Actually, pretty much nothing happens at all. It turns out that you can write deeply personal things, risk all sorts of reports and stories, and the world doesn't so much as blink in your direction.

The really great miracle, though, is that every now and again, someone does come out of the ether, and they tell you that they connect in some way with what you've written. That they feel less alone, less underconfident, perhaps, in some part of their own process, or more hopeful. My risk leavens their bread a little. And their telling me this leavens mine in equal measure, or more.

Little by little, as I've moved out into this (albeit limited) public space, the sharing of experience becomes less and less momentous, less and less of a risk. The fact that even one person comes forward to make contact is  riches beyond all of my previous understanding of what was possible in the world.

When I was thinking about this as I was talking to Jools, it occurred to me that as you increase your capacity to risk openness, so you also reduce your sense of distance, in terms of the differential between your  'inner' experience and the 'outer' social world. There are all sorts of boundaries involved in this subtle business, but if the necessary boundaries are more or less in place, my experience, at least, is that I feel less and less fear, and more and more connection. By taking and sustaining my risk, I seem to have been stealthily lifted up on the rising water, and have suddenly noticed that the huge wooden door has begun to open, and the water is beginning to flow.

Perhaps this is true for art/music/singing/comedy/writing/making of whatever kind. Keeping yourself entirely to yourself serves no-one, neither yourself, nor the humans around you - who need your art, and your uniquely flawed humanity, just as it is....


Tuesday, 4 June 2013


When I was eighteen, I left art college, disappointed with the world of abstract art and conceptual discussion, and went to live in Edinburgh. Swinging back to the other pole of a binary dance that had begun for me at the age of twelve (when I had to choose between doing art or being in the orchestra), I went back to music, picking up my violin for the first time in about six years. The gap between playing at twelve and starting again at eighteen seemed like a lifetime. I found I could hardly play a note. I used to stay behind in the cafe where I worked to practice, so I could play without worrying about the terrible noises I was making.

At that time, most of my friends were musicians. I can remember stealing into the Netherbow Theatre after two of them had had a concert there, finding a guitar, and singing in to the microphone -  only able to do it because I was sure that no-one could hear me. I also remember countless evenings with groups of people who would sit around jamming until the early hours, while I sat on the sofa beside them, almost drowning in the longing to be doing it too. There was one time when we loaded up the cars with food and drink and instruments and drove off to some remote cottage on the West coast of Scotland somewhere. The playing  went on day after day, night after night, while the wind and the rain lashed outside, and the wood burned in the grate.... As the years passed by, I forgot most of the things I had done. But for some reason I never forgot that weekend.

It seemed utterly impossible for me to even think about getting to a point where I could do such things. I had missed my boat; not continued to play through my teens, hadn't done my grades, and now had no chance of  'catching up'. I was convinced that to play the wild improvisational fiddle I could hear in my head, the only way had been to do my grades, all the way up to grade 8, by the age of eighteen. I had no idea how to go about studying something on my own, and within about eighteen months, I was off travelling with no violin, leaving all my tortuous music-playing dreams behind me.

There were strange moments, like the time I got a friend of mine, an Omani prince, to agree to go to my mother's house during a trip to Scotland, and collect my violin for me. Despite the impossibility of it all, it just didn't feel right not to have it with me. I've talked about my various attempts to start playing again here before. Things inched forward for a little while, but then everything stopped completely in my late twenties. Music was finished. Art was finished. Life was travel, working abroad, exploring, and getting out of various troubles.

I'm writing this post to celebrate two recent moments in my life. The first was in April, doing my improvisation workshop with Mairi Campbell on the island of Lismore. The Saturday night found me sitting on the edge of a big sofa, surrounded by musicians, in front of a huge coal fire, playing my socks off, in a lovely quite, relaxed way. It was dark and cold outside. And I was playing. Without any manic excitement or drama, I knew that I was sitting in the middle of what had once been an impossible dream.

The second moment was the yesterday, when my niece, Mairi Britton, came over to spend the day with me to play music. In the morning we explored all sorts of combinations of piano, clarsarch, viola, voice, harmony, violin and mandolin. And in the evening, we sat around the kitchen table, here, in my house, with my partner, the three of us playing our little socks off once again.

For those of you who had the sense/capacity to follow your lodestone, who've been sitting in kitchens and front rooms playing with friends all of your life, this will seem so normal as to hardly merit a mention. But me, I'm just quietly basking here in a sea of quiet satisfaction....


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