Barefoot Zen?

Barefoot Zen?
Namaste, Y'all...

Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Artist is Present. Are We?

Performance art.  The phrase conjures some pretty horrific imagery, doesn't it?  An audience peppered with black sweaters and berets, gasping at such oddities as a crucifix submerged in urine, a naked woman chained to a 10 foot tall ironing board, or a dancer dressed as a chicken reciting Ginsberg's "Howl" in German while Nazi propaganda films play in the background, set to polka music.

OK, I made those last two up, but I think they've really got a shot if I can find a space in Little Five Points.

Performance art always reminds me of that classic scene from "Manhattan", where - after Diane Keaton and Woody Allen take in a day's worth of impressive paintings and sculptures - Diane's only fixation is a simple steel cube.  Woody is puzzled.

Isaac Davis: The steel cube was brilliant? 
Mary Wilke: Yes. To me it was very textual, you know what I mean? It was perfectly integrated, and it had a marvelous kind of negative capability. The rest of the stuff downstairs was bullshit. 

The steel cube syndrome comes up a lot with performance art.  But one man's Karen Finley covered in chocolate as a gender-driven political statement is another man's Hershey's-laden horndog heaven.   Who can say what moves us?  I always found Spalding Gray compelling, but a friend once told me if she wanted to listen to a gray-haired guy ramble on about himself for 90 non-stop minutes, she'd ask her granddad how he was feeling.  

Which leads me to Marina Abramovic, a woman I'd never heard of until this week.  NPR interviewed Abramovic about her new HBO documentary, "The Artist is Present", named after a 2010 interactive exhibit she performed for three months at MOMA.  As you'll see in the clip, once you get past myriad examples of some of her polarizing earlier work (Nudity! Whips! Military symbolism!) - if any of these bother you, skip right to around :40 in the clip here, by the way - you'll see the project that is the topic of this documentary.

I find this particular exhibit to be, both, pretentious and powerful.  It's artistic narcissism and altruistic compassion all rolled into one.   For the better part of three months, Abramovic sat in a chair.  Just sat.  Visitors were encouraged to silently sit in a chair across from her and become a part of the experience, for however long they desired.  The radio interview indicated that the practice of Zen Buddhism played a big part in her preparation to be present for every guest who sat with her.  She gave them her full attention.  The results are what confound me.

It's easy to write this off as another one of those "Please don't tell me people - or my tax dollars - paid for this" scenarios. As a fan of bebop and Jackson Pollock, I know this argument.  I understand it, to an extent.  However, people's reaction to the experience included levees of tears streaming forth, genuine smiles of gratitude for someone who paid attention to them, and even fits of laughter forged not of mockery, but mirth.  Those who took part in the event experienced someone who was truly present for them, and perhaps, opened them up to being present as well, some obviously for the first time in a very long time.

In a world where we are so distracted by the overwhelm of media available to us, where we seek escape at every turn, this simple performance reminds us what a profound connection we can make with others, and the manner in which we can affect humanity, even in moments of simple solitude.  Imagine gazing into a stranger's eyes with such presence that you weep, or a loved one's face until your wayward thoughts are eclipsed by a genuine, sustaining smile. These are gifts we've largely forgotten how to give ourselves.

Performance art is hit or miss, and it misses most.  It misses me much of the time.  Something about this exhibit struck me, though.  The ultimate message outshines the David Blaine sideshowness of it all.  I'm compelled to watch, despite my inner cynic.  Maybe because this exhibit purports to offer what I - and many of us - long for most:  the elusive power of presence, in moments strung together, one after another.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

It Ain't Heavy, It's "The Weight"

Levon Helm's passing last week has sent many a fan to YouTube to post their favorite version of the seminal classic by The Band:  "The Weight".  It's one of those songs that everyone wants to cover, because you (almost) can't go wrong with it.  The folk parlor harmonies, the enigmatic lyrics, and that undeniable chorus have made the song irresistible to everyone from Aretha Franklin and Cassandra Wilson to Waylon Jennings and Joe Cocker.

Of course, while myriad cover versions do the song some sort of justice, it was always Levon's voice coming in on that very first line - "I pulled in to Nazareth, I was feelin' 'bout half past dead" that hooked you.  A voice some say sounded aged in a whiskey barrel, smooth and knowing, assured us that the journey ahead was going to be an unforgettable one.

The four and a half minutes that followed were just that.  A traveler wandering the streets of a town populated by offbeat characters who either cannot help him, or seek help from him.  The ever-elusive 'load' heralded in the chorus.  The inkling of Biblical allusions.  Levon said the characters in the song are based on friends of The Band.  Robbie Robertson who, right or wrong, gets writing credits for the composition, says the song was inspired - in part - by the work of filmmaker Luis Bunuel.

However, the reason "The Weight" works for me, at its highest level, is precisely because the writers (Plural. Let's be honest here, Robbie) were smart enough to give us as listeners room to impose our own meaning on this mythic journey.  This song - perhaps more than any other - has kept me up nights wondering what the hell it meant, and imagining my own stories around the seeds planted within its verses.  That's what great art does.  It invites you in, but lets you fill in the gaps. It's why I like abstractionists and surrealists over guys like Monet and Rockwell.  Great art has the capacity to mean one thing to its creator, and something else altogether to its audience.  In fact, the more meanings the work can culminate, perhaps the greater testament.

For me, the song was a catalyst to a short story I wrote a few years ago called "Free Refills (50 Cents)" about a philosophy professor who sits in a diner, contemplating his stubborn agnosticism and the futility of life.  He looks to the waitress that night for a single act of kindness, something to make salvation seem somehow tangible.  He receives it only to realize that's still not enough.  His last act is to leave his car keys on the table as a tip for the financially strapped woman, as he walks onto the freeway.  "You put the load right on me", indeed.

My interpretation may never win a Pulitzer, but the fact that thirty fledgling artists could listen to "The Weight" and come away with thirty different manifestations of what the song might mean - on the canvas, on the page, in dance, in a monologue or short film - speaks to what a seemingly simple song can do.  Miles Davis once lamented lyrics because they told you what to think.  "The Weight" doesn't do that.  It just opens the bottle, and lets you decide whether there's whiskey, a note for help, or maybe a genie inside.

Levon Helm has been rightly praised this past week for the unforgettable high husk of his voice, his influential drumming style, and his role as the backbone of a band that influenced scores of contemporary artists.  Without this quintet, and maybe Gram Parsons, much of the music many of us listen to today would never have been created.  But, for me, I'll always be indebted to Levon and The Band for the road trips and time travel they have allowed me.  "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" does in three minutes what "Gone with the Wind" took four laborious hours to do, "Up on Cripple Creek" took me down the Gulf of Mexico to meet a girl, both quirky and familiar, who reminds me of no one so much as my sweet wife.  Their cover of  Dylan's "When I Paint My Masterpiece" is pure ascension.

Then there's "The Weight".

Talk about painting a masterpiece.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Sidewalk Bodhisattva

It's been a long weekend, and by that I mean I don't feel like I had a weekend.  Weekend writing work, kids, ball games, errands, housework.  So, when I had the chance to steal away for an hour or so to read a book at the downtown Decatur Starbucks, I jumped at the chance.

As I was walking toward the coffee shop, I heard a street musician - a lone trumpet player - warbling his way through a standard - something by Chet Baker, I believe.  He spotted a family with a small boy walking past and immediately switched to "Three Blind Mice".  As I approached, wearing my Jackie Robinson Dodgers jersey, he transitioned into "Take Me Out to the Ball Game".  I tossed him a dollar and said, "You've been reading my mail."  He thanked me and drifted back into the standard he was playing when I pulled in.

I bought my coffee, kicked off my shoes, and folded into a soft chair nestled in the corner of Starbucks.  They were playing Louis Armstrong and Jack Teagarden through the store speakers.  They were swapping solos on "Gone Fishin'".  I opened my book and began reading.  It was perfection.  Almost.

For some reason, tonight, Satchmo wasn't enough.  I knew Louis' story.  I could recite it to you chapter and verse.  But just outside the coffee shop, there was a man whose story was unfolding in real time.  Tonight, that music mattered more.

I took my coffee outside and sat on a park bench in front of City Hall adjacent to Starbucks.  For the next half hour, this sidewalk Marsalis serenaded the city with a tapestry of riffs and grooves.  Sinatra, Stevie Wonder, Dave Brubeck, Armstrong, "Eleanor Rigby",  Coltrane,  Diz, "Amazing Grace".  For the kids passing by, there was the theme from "Sesame Street", "Won't You Be My Neighbor", and "Pop Goes the Weasel".

The segues were seamless:  verse and chorus, or sometimes just chorus. It was the ultimate improvisation.  But, rather than playing off of the spontaneity of bandmates, he'd turned the entire town square into his communal combo.  

Ironically, I was reading a book on mindfulness and meditation, a Shambhala publication about being present, "In the moment".  I put the book away.  The lesson was going down on the street, offered up by this sidewalk bodhisattva.

As I left, I gave him another tip: a five spot.  Seemed only fair.  What he gave me this evening was priceless.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

A Different View of the Light

I was saddened to hear of the passing of artist Thomas Kinkade this weekend.  While I was not a fan of his work, my sister - in particular - was moved by his comforting paintings of light and landscape.

I continue to marvel at how two souls, born from the same gene pool (12 years apart), can find our sources of light in such disparate places.  Susan finds great peace in choral music, folksy stories, church activities, and reassuring artistry by people like Kinkade.

Meanwhile, I'm over here playing out the role of the wandering spirit, seeking truth through the dharma and meditation, opting for the surreality of Dali over the Main Street musings of Rockwell, reveling in reading (and writing) dark satire, and finding divinity in Coltrane rather than Kinkade.

I've always been quick to criticize what I see as banality.  I want my artists to leave an indelible mark on my spirit.  I want fire and heat.  Kinesis and karma. I need to see the depth of the darkness to believe that there is something for the light to pierce and radiate.  It's why I'd rather listen to the downer that is "Nebraska" over any climb-every-mountain ballad Celine Dion ever sang.

When all is said and done, though, we're all seeking the same thing from art, and from life.  We want meaning, both in the artistry and where it points us.  We want someone to help us make sense of things.  Some of us like to be thrown into the confusion and madness to appreciate how it all unfolds.  We love the contradictions that life provides.  Others choose to look away from that and just focus on the light from the start.  There's the blind faith that keeps you in the pew, and the vagabond soul that takes you to the most treacherous precipice.  Viva la difference.

So, today, I cannot criticize Thomas Kinkade.  I made my fair share of scoffing remarks over the years, but as I read in his obituary today, he said all he wanted to do - like Rockwell and Disney before him - was to make people happy with what he created.

That is a noble calling, no matter how your talents manifest themselves.  So, rest well, Mr. Kinkade.  Know that you brought light to a lot of people. I hope you followed that light home.

Creation of a sand mandala

I saw this at the Carlos Museum at Emory today.  The most amazing element to me, aside from the training and artistry involved, is that as soon as they complete the mandala, they destroy it - a reminder of our impermanence.

That sorta put our time here - and how we spend it - into perspective.

Create art with your life.  You can create something beautiful, if only for a brief time.

Friday, April 6, 2012

The Joy of Quiet

You're not going to buy this for a minute.  If you know me, you likely know these truths:

1)  Facebook is my meth.

2)  Human interaction - even cyber-interaction - is a lifeline for me.

3)  I (think I) need consistent sonic stimulation.  I carry music w/ me wherever I go - the car, the computer, my iPod while I make dinner.

So, the revelation that, should I find myself living a life other than the one I've been blessed with here and now I would opt for something more monastic, might surprise you.

The idea of quiet, of living with less, of nature piercing the veil of manmade pollution, appeals to me dearly.  I'm not sure if I would last a day, much less a month, but the thought of a retreat - a few days with no conversation, no music, no cell phones or social media, sounds like a spiritual renaissance.

Could you do it?  Would you even want to?

I read (in "Buddha Standard Time" by Lama Surya Das) about a woman who takes one day a week to live in complete silence.  With two kids and a work-from-home business, I am not sure how realistic this is, but I am definitely entertaining the notion of finding an hour a day, inclusive of meditation time, perhaps, to honor the silence.

Here's the article that spurred this thought.  Check it out and share your thoughts on the idea of being able to not only unplug, but shut down:

The Joy of Quiet -

Jack Spoke Truth.

The best writers tell the truth.  Their own truth, mind you.  A private and personal truth that they either hope is universal enough to connect, or unique enough to intrigue.

Jack Kerouac has always, for me, been a personification of that kind of brutal honesty.  From his approach to writing (unedited, spontaneous, and free) to his subject matter (the open road, the condition of the heart, the quest for dharma and truth), Jack lived and wrote from a place that few of us are able to access.

There's too much static in the air, too many conditions on our spirit, too many rules to follow, too many skeletons in the closet that we feel we must keep locked away.  Jack saw none of that.  He lived and breathed a quest for ecstasy and honesty, and he only slowed when the conditions of his celebrity compromised his search.  He found as many answers in the bottle as he did the Buddha, and we lost him too soon and too sadly.

But, he left us with an embarrassment of riches.  Some more crystalline than others, to be sure.

Here are 31 thoughts from that vagabond bodhisattva, for all you writers and wanderers.  Follow this link:

Jack Kerouac's List of 30 Beliefs and Techniques for Prose and Life | Brain Pickings

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Guest on Run Barefoot Girl

OK, I know i'm not a girl (despite what some of my NASCAR and football lovin' relatives say).  But, I was honored to be a guest on Caity McCardell's podcast program "Run Barefoot Girl".

My story of how a snake bite on the foot led me (indirectly) to barefoot running has gotten a bit of attention from the minimalist and barefoot running community of late and Caity was kind enough to invite me to share my story on her show.

Here's a link to the podcast page of her site.  The episode I am on is #37.  Check it out!

Podcasts » Run Barefoot Girl