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"Until he outran running itself and the sure life of the spirit, moving and not moving, carried on, yes, carried on into the glow that smiles upon birth and death alike. That smiles upon the entire stir-fry of existence." 

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Longing, Art and the Problem of Nearly

September 1, 2015

The scent of Autumn begins to find us this time of year in Oregon. Last night’s storm, the gusting winds, big rolling thunder and oh so sweet rain brought that Autumn feel all the closer. Growing up in New England when October was nothing less than enchanting has left me with a fondness and longing that makes this season so special.

My heart is already primed for the presence of longing following the departure of my oldest son for college. There are days it feels like a log has fallen on my chest. His younger brother is occupied with the fun and frenetic pace of high school life which makes for more missing and a yearning to connect that more often than not falls flat with teenagers.

As the season begins to turn and the reality of the changes in my role as a father becomes clear, I am more than ever left to wonder about the nature and power of longing. What is this longing that wells up in us? What is the longing that compels us to make art? Why is it so difficult to hold this emotion in heart and mind and not act so as to blunt its full force?

Yesterday I went to a show put on by three wonderful artists here in Portland. The walls of their gallery were filled with compelling portraits, remarkable drawings and captivating abstract paintings. Besides being captured by the depth and skill of their work, I was moved to experience a longing to run home and write. In fact, this blog, which has languished on my to do list for a month, suddenly came alive with ideas. Why?

Human beings have a strong desire to live in and be surrounded by, a state of beauty. Art has been one of the primary ways that we have brought the radiance of the beautiful closer to our lives. The paintings and drawings in last night’s show would not be described in conventional circles as “beautiful,” but they all evoked in me, the viewer, a powerful resonance with beauty.

That resonance gives one the experience of being touched by something big, something we see and feel in autumn colors, and something we cannot see but is communicated in the relationship between the observer and a work of art. My friend’s work is a sampling of what we long for that is not “pretty,” but is an expansion of our sense of aliveness and self. You could say that in addition to being with beauty, we yearn for a transformation of self and our relation to the world.

That same transformation seems to take place for me in the making of art. When I am in the groove writing this blog or a piece of poetry, I feel enlivened and in the proverbial river, feeling the flow of life and connected to the pulse of a creative force that is not mine but seems to like to hang out with me now and then. It seems obvious that human beings long for connection with their core self and with the heart of others, and that the making of, and participation with art are exceptional ways of finding that connection. Or should I say, being found.

There is another way to understand longing that isn’t talked about much. That would be the longing to disappear: to disappear into the wholeness of life’s creative movement. I first had the experience of disappearing as a kid running home in the dark. The movement was effortless and I soon lost touch with my body and was only aware of breathing. When that fell away, “I” was nothing but this big aware presence whose boundary I could not detect. It was intoxicating.

A very similar experience occurs when I am writing. At some point what I think of as myself begins to fade away and I am gone; writing is happening, ideas are cascading and what is left of me is doing what it can to put words and sentences down on paper. Again, this doesn’t happen all the time, but when it does it feels so free and enlivening that when a project or writing session is over I can soon feel the postpartum blues…

And, a powerful yearning to return to that place. I am convinced that most everyone has these moments. They can come and go quickly, but we find it in the experience of breathlessness; what takes your breath away? Is it that moment when you look into the eyes of an infant, or look up at the Milky Way, or hit a great golf shot, or have that first kiss, or a sip of wine, or…the list is long.

Those moments of connection, of entering the stream of life’s continuous impulse to create, and the precious experience of disappearing, when the self-conscious identifications of age, gender etc. fall away and what is left is empty and full, and you and not you; those moments are wonderful and inspire longing and a familiar hunger to return to that place of magic.

Which brings us to the problem of nearly. Moments of connection and transcendence are fleeting. The longing to find our way back is often frustrated and the desire to communicate what is in one’s heart invariably falls short. The love letter doesn’t quite match the emotion, the painting is nearly there, but not quite, the poem touches the soul, but only so much.

We are now in the territory of the dark side of longing. It is everywhere you look in our American Culture and the neoliberal economy is shrewdly adept at exploiting it. Hurrying and impatience have taken over our brains like the invasion of body snatchers as we scurry to have it all now — desperately seeking to find that precious moment through accumulating and consuming: the capitalist house of cards needs us to be insatiable and not content with creating our own meaning.

The burning nature of yearning, the unbearable quality of it is, I believe, the drive behind the torturous perfectionism of so many creative people. It is responsible for the crippling loss of confidence that can infect an artist’s life. Just the other day I heard a program about the curator for the Impressionists in Paris during the time of Monet. This man saved Monet from shredding his paintings when he had completely lost faith in his work. Imagine, what for us are masterpieces were for Monet junk.

We will despair when our work falls short of meeting our desire. Hopefully our emotions will stay at the disappointment end of the continuum and we won’t be taking the scissors to our writings or canvases! I think this is what the myth of Sisyphus has to say to us in the 21st century. We will despair. Our longing to communicate and make art that expresses our vision and feeling will fall short. The work I saw last night was fantastic, but I know that the creators of that work often felt they had not entirely satisfied their desire to make art that matched their vision.

You might say that our problem lies in the capacity to hold the longing, to work with and from it, to bear the inevitable incompleteness of human desire and action, the glorious imperfections — the agony and the ecstasy. Making a place for longing to live may be a lot like the creation of the color orange, blooming and radiant in October light: a blend of red and yellow, the sweet and the bitter, hope and despair, joy and sorrow.

Humanity longs for what cannot be had, and reaches for what cannot be touched. We can’t seem to help ourselves and our big wanting. At the moment it seems it may destroy us unless we find a way to redirect and hold our yearning tenderly, like an infant. Unless we can bear the weight of this imagination that knows no bounds, hold the power of that longing and shape it into the practice of goodwill towards the world, we are in for big, big trouble.

What do humans want? Let’s hope and pray what we really want is to disappear into creation’s breath and not just disappear.

Thanks for showing up and reading.

Namaste,

Phil

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