A Life Bigger Than Your Art

This was a day at the beach, Diana+

I wish I could remember where I recently read that one must always have a life that is bigger than one's work, or one's art.  The thought has been traveling with me since.  My journey seems to expand in fits and bursts like this, and I've been watching it ever since the first time I wrote all the way to the fence (audio recording of that piece at the end of this post, print version available here).  Every time my work expands, my life has to expand as well.  I raise the stakes, deepen my awareness, place my feet even more solidly yet on Brooklyn earth.  I get enlisted in Love Boot Camp.  I face my shadow in all her gory and renegotiate our peace.

I can only imagine that our work would stagnate without this willingness to create to our borders, and then blow them up and explore beyond them.  We become vulnerable to producing gimmicks and imitations, without new artifacts to display from our personal geography--the life and the self which are, as Julia Cameron says, the origin of our work.

I don't enjoy it, it's not like a day at the beach. I don't always like what I see, in myself or my relationships. In fact, usually I don't.  But if I cease to see myself and my surroundings as honestly as I can, then my words will just posture and pose and leave a bad feeling in your eyes.  If we are to make good art, if we are to be true to our work, it requires courage.  Courage to let the work expand, and courage to live a life that is bigger than the work. Bigger than the art.

Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one's courage.  --Anais Nin

"I've Never Done This Before"

Central Park, Earth and Sky, Diana+ with Velvia 100 filmI'm a total beginner over here these days, doing all kinds of things I've never done before. When my daughter goes back to school next week, I'm using the extra time for a couple crash courses of my own.  I often feel pressure to look like I know what I'm doing (the looking like part is even more important than the actual knowing part), which makes learning about saving face and looking good.

Eh.  As you know, my growing suspicion is that looking good is overrated

How great would it be to just own my beginner status?  I'd love to have a t-shirt that said, "I've never done this before," that I could wear.  Or, I could just live as if I were wearing that shirt. I soften and slow down when I learn the barista is new on the job, I dig up extra patience for people who are still in training.  I have great affection for people who aren't slick or put together yet, but are putting themselves out there anyway.

We often extend extra grace to beginners, and I will be happy to draw on as much of that grace as I can this month.  I'm not sure if the t-shirt will get made or not, but if you see me looking disorganized, clumsy, awkward or disheveled, just think, "She's probably never done this before."

What t-shirt could you use today?  What would happen if you just started living as if you were wearing it right now?  I'd love to know.


The Way They See Me

Tracey Clark takes my camera for a spin, Chicago 09, Diana F+

This last year brought me many opportunities to find myself, to pull something of myself into focus like never before, as I was seen by communities and friends who welcomed me with love. It's clarifying to be thrown into a mix, like a crew of actors on a rehearsal stage because you see what you bring that's missing when you step behind the curtain. I play a good sage to her queen, or I am the wild woman in the woods. This is a point-of-view that's hard to get when you're alone with your life and your work.

"Listen to who we say you are," I tell her now. "Can you just step inside that picture of yourself long enough to play in it a little--try it on to see how it feels?" I know she will feel like a child trotting around in high-heeled shoes, but I ask her to trust us. To trust that just maybe (or quite likely) we see her more accurately than she sees herself.

"I want to tell them about this," I tell Jen later, "about how we find ourselves through each other's eyes. But I'm afraid. I don't want to cause despair for anyone who doesn't have this experience yet."

I need not worry, she says. "The desire to see comes with it a willingness to be seen. Desire is the beginning of everything, don't you think?" We are like old ladies when we talk to each other this way, knowing more than our present selves could ever claim.

Nodding, I think it must be so. I know plenty of people happy not to be truly seen (I have been one myself), but those who desire to see and be seen seem to get what they wish for, even if a small dose of patience is first required, like a faith offering.

How about you? Are you willing to be seen? Can you pry those clenched fingers open, smooth them flat against the table top so when love brings you your first morsel, you have a surface on which to receive it?

Receiving the love is the hardest part of being seen.

I feel you cringing. Yes, it might sting, because it won't let you keep that distortion you call your self-image for long. But it's the pain of healing, and the relief and balm that follow are worth every risk you take, and then some.

I've known this healing, and I'm becoming more whole and true all the time. It doesn't happen as often now, but I still have spells in which I'm waiting for someone to notice me, feeling like a quiet wallflower at the the party--holding the fireworks behind my back and just waiting for someone to clear a space on the dance floor and invite me to set them off.

But how can I keep convincing myself that no one's noticing me here, when they keep seeing me and putting me out there for the world to see? (Not very well, that's how.)

[I just want to make sure our photog/visual arts friends understand the priceless gift they give us when they see us, and let us see ourselves through their eyes.]

My friends, old and new, teach me how to be seen. You don't have to smile, they school me. It's safe to let the curtain drop. So I look deep past their lenses and their skin, and I let them see my intensity, my love for them, the way my heart looks when it's been dismantled by raw, wild love.

After all these photos of this woman, try to believe these old thoughts she once harbored:

  • I'm not really beautiful.
  • I'm a wallflower at the dance of life, and no one sees me.
  • I'm not good at being myself, just a master role-player.
  • It's too scary to be seen; I should keep hiding out.
  • If I show them the Real Thing, they won't appreciate it.

Do you see how the way they see me is remaking my vision of myself? This is how even when I am lost to myself, I am found in their presence. Their eyes. Their love.

This is the opportunity we have (no cameras required) in every conversation, with our eyes and with our words. We can really see people, and tell them who they are: to us and to the the world. And when others do the same for us, from a place of love, we do well to believe them.

Desire is the beginning of everything, she says. Do you desire to see? Are you willing to be seen?

You will never be the same.

a post in which i say "you" because it's easier than saying "me"

Ticket booth at Coney Island, Diana+After a year apart, I'm in the homestretch now, just a week away from being with friends again on the Pacific coast.  Close enough now to be thinking about it a good portion of the time.  Close enough to feel like I'm coming apart a little at the seams.

Have you ever noticed this phenomenon?  When you are in sight of an opportunity to let your hair down, suddenly hair pins start spontaneously popping out on their own accord.  Locks fall in your face, and as the pin-popping trend continues you start to look tousled and disheveled.  What is happening, you wonder. I've been holding everything together so famously for so long.  But that's just the point. You know soon you won't be required to, and the part that's been holding in its breath can't help but start to exhale in little bursts at the sheer anticipation.

I can't be a mess when I arrive. Deep down you're worried about the embarrassment of being seen in such a state: human. Full of paradox. Grateful and grieving. Lost and found. But you cover it up with thoughts like these: What if someone else needs to fall apart, and she needs me to be the strong one? This is the kind of justification you always use to keep your own experience at bay, so you don't have to really inhabit it. 

The truth is, no one needs you to be anything. You will be all that is needed simply by being present.  By being there.

You know this is true about these people, and this place, and it makes you wonder if it could be true in the rest of your life, too.  If the coifed hair and held breath are ever helping, or if they are just encouraging others to do the same. 

Stoop Surprises

I believe that we're given everything we need.  This shows up in my life in strange ways.  One of the most common is through a practice in the city, especially in neighborhoods like mine, in which people put things they are done with out on the stoop to give away.  Clothes, kitchen appliances, and boxes of books are frequently sighted.  Personally, I love this practice, and the way it promotes fluidity in the economy of things.  Possessions don't come to us to stay for life, but to serve their purpose and move on to another.

A couple months ago I picked up a book that changed everything for me.  It gave me the keys to unlock the mystery of how to be myself--something which, if you think about, seems ludicrous to have to learn from a book.  But so much of the knowledge in life that we value is really just a collection of bad habits that we have to unlearn later.  I have spent many years perfecting these behaviors, so I'm trying to be patient with myself as I oh so slowly let them go.

I'm leaving in the morning for a large conference with a lot of people. It's the kind of thing that traditionally would send me full-on into Looking Good mode, but not anymore.  My only intention for the trip is this: I am going as myself.  For me, that's meant that aside from a couple shawls (I remembered that excessive air conditioning is really a problem at such events), I haven't bought any clothes.  I'm wearing what I have.  I'm being who I am, and it feels really revolutionary.  In the past, most of my life felt like a costume party and I was always trying to show up in the right part.

For this, and for my life, I'm going as myself.  That's a gem to pick up off the sidewalk in the city, and it's only the beginning.

A Category for "I Love Your Guts"

Photo: potato heads and pieces, Diana F+ It was years ago when I was sitting in a room with a group of people who were engaged in an inquiry about authenticity, that one man got up and began to tell the story of how he had done something so heinous to another person that we would usually shrink back or lock one up behind bars for such a confession.  He was ashamed, and frightened to be so exposed in front of so many, but this thing was not going to let him go until he cleaned it up and left it behind.  He wasn't making any justifications or excuses, he was seeing and understanding the harm he had done and he was completely broken over it. 

I wasn't shrinking back, I was leaning forward.  I wasn't locating evil over there with him, I was seeing my own humanity in his eyes and I was filled with compassion.  He went on to tell about how he had called the woman he had hurt, so long ago, and how she forgave him.  I watched the forgiveness undo and then mend his soul, right before my eyes. 

I had been frightened, too, when he began to speak--I always was when anyone pulled back the curtain on their true selves, because I thought that some cruel abandonment was surely looming.  But I learned that day that I, too, could be brave.  That I might tell it the way it really is and magically find the room filled with love and not judgment.

I forgot that story, until yesterday when Phyllis told me another one like it.  She told me about a mentor who would point out this phenomenon in one of her groups.  When authenticity broke through like a ray of light through the clouds, he would say to them, "Look at this face. Have you ever seen such beauty?"  He would do this with men and women alike, and he challenged them all:  dare to be beautiful.  When we pull back the curtain, when authenticity breaks through, we are stunned by the beauty of the human soul.  It's sacred.  It's holy.

Phyllis and I talked about this kind of love for a long time.  It's distinctive from friendship because it doesn't really require a past or all the other kinds of knowing that friendship entails.  It's a kind of love that stirs you, wakes you up inside.  A kind that makes you want to reach out and take someone's hand or fold them into your arms or just look into their eyes in a way that says, I see you.  I know. Or, amen.

Classic movies like When Harry Met Sally have long occupied themselves with that old tennis match: friends or lovers?  Friends or lovers?  But I was so relieved when Phyllis told me these things.  "Thank you," I said.  "I just needed a category to put that in."  And I knew I wasn't the only one. 

This is an occupational hazard of doing authenticity work, whether you're a storyteller or an artist or even the rare scholar.  You can't help being wakened by the beauty of others' souls, or falling in love over and over again.

"It's really sad, isn't it," Phyllis replied, "that we don't have a category for I Love Your Guts."  Yes, I said. It's time for that to change.