Posts Tagged ‘existentialism’

Morning Coffee in the Wet Wasteland

October 19, 2018

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Waking to yet another cold, wet, dark Texas rainy morning, my first thoughts were recollections of James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man being read to me via audiobooks as I drove on yet another long business road trip yesterday. I’ve posted these words before, but they are always worth repeating:

Towards dawn he awoke. O what sweet music! His soul was all dewy wet. Over his limbs in sleep pale cool waves of light had passed. He lay still, as if his soul lay amid cool waters, conscious of faint sweet music. His mind was waking slowly to a tremulous morning knowledge, a morning inspiration. A spirit filled him, pure as the purest water, sweet as dew, moving as music. But how faintly it was inbreathed, how passionlessly, as if the seraphim themselves were breathing upon him! His soul was waking slowly, fearing to awake wholly. It was that windless hour of dawn when madness wakes and strange plants open to the light and the moth flies forth silently.

The serenity I felt as I drove for hours yesterday, listening to this book of abundance cannot be overstated. The theme that resounded the most with me yesterday was that notion of living a life alone. This morning, I opened the volume to a couple of texts that jarred me yesterday while driving:

He was alone. He was unheeded, happy and near to the wild heart of life. He was alone and young and wilful and wildhearted, alone amidst of a waste of wild air . . . 

–You’re a terrible man, Stevie, said Davin, taking the short pipe from his mouth. Always alone.

Long ago, in the sermon by Paul Tillich, “Loneliness and Solitude”, I found an ace I could play repeatedly throughout my life: loneliness is the injury suffered from being alone, whereas solitude is the healing balm. And since the day I read that sermon, I have unfailingly acknowledged that I, though living and traveling alone, am very seldom lonely, instead feeling solitude. I relish the space, the internal quiet, and even the frequent feeling of disconnectedness.

It does not alarm me, the feeling of being tossed headlong into the midst of an enormous, chaotic, swirling planet that seems to follow no logical plan. Reading existential writers perhaps helped me with this sentiment. But the way I see it, I am surrounded by currents of activity that sometimes include me in the “plan”, but most of the time seem oblivious that I am here. And I don’t find this threatening. Rather, I feel a dizzying freedom to follow my bliss, live the dream.

In chapter one of Melville’s Moby Dick, Ishmael muses that Providence has cast his life as a minor role between two major plays:

“Grand Contested Election for the Presidency of the United States”  “WHALING VOYAGE BY ONE ISHMAEL.”  “BLOODY BATTLE IN AFFGHANISTAN.”

As the world population, fixated on the news, chattered away about a presidential election or a bloody conflict, an obscure young fellow named Ishmael boarded a whaling ship and sailed out to sea. His odyssey, important to him, would go unnoticed by the world at large. And alone in that odyssey, he spun his story.

I have always had a fascination with a biblical passage that I’m sure most readers would pass over without a second thought. It is from The Prophet Jeremiah 1:1-5:

The words of Jeremiah, the son of Hilkiah, of the priests that were in Anathoth in the land of Benjamin, to whom the word of the LORD came in the days of Josiah, the son of Amon, king of Judah, in the thirteenth year of his reign.  It came also in the days of Josiah, king of Judah, unto the end of the eleventh year of Zedekiah, the son of Josiah, king of Judah, unto the carrying away of Jerusalem captive in the fifth month.  Then the word of the LORD came unto me, saying, Before I formed thee in the womb, I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb, I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations.

In my studies, I have read commentators writing page after page of text concerning those final words of the LORD knowing Jeremiah before he was conceived. But what has always held my attention is the larger context: Jeremiah arrived on this planet in the matrix of enormous national and political events that would hold the attention of the population of his day. As the nation of Judah swirled in the maelstrom of the news of its day, a Word came to a solitary man in a small town obscured in the shadows of the metropolis of Jerusalem. The Word of the LORD came (“happened” is a better rendering of the Hebrew text). Something HAPPENED while the world at large chased the swirling winds of the national news.

Whether it is Ishmael tossed on the unruly waves of a boundless ocean odyssey or Jeremiah receiving enlightenment in a small town, my heart quickens when I think of solitary people engaged in large ideas even as their surrounding climate is oblivious to what is going on inside them. Yesterday as I drove, I savored the text of Joyce’s Portrait, thinking of this young self-exiled writer recalling his youth in Ireland and laying out those powerful lines of text.

When Ralph Waldo Emerson suffered the loss of his wife at a tender age, and then resigned the ministry, no one accompanied him to the docks when he sailed out of Boston harbor for a two-year European odyssey, seeking some kind of purpose to his existence. A solitary man, he finally found his voice and launched New England Transcendentalism. In later years, as he penned “Self-Reliance”, he gave us this challenge:

Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.  Accept the place the divine providence has found for you, the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events.  Great men have always done so, and confided themselves childlike to the genius of their age . . .

In those words, all of us can find hope. We have been placed on this planet and given a number of years to find our way, to seek something that matters, to pursue our bliss and offer no apology for it. And the great majority of us are destined to obscurity. The world at large is not going to read about us, talk about us, and the footprint we leave behind may not affect a large multitude, But still, we have been given this gift, this opportunity, to explore life and decide what we wish to do. As for myself, I am still enjoying this gift of adventure, and if anything I write and send up as a smoke signal offers good to others, then I am all the more happy.

Thanks for reading.

I make art in order to discover.

I journal when I feel alone.

I blog to remind myself I am not alone (though being alone is O.K.)

 

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My Toolbox

May 24, 2018

my toolbox

Two Days of Delicious Down-Time

The mind races around like a foraging squirrel in a park, grabbing in turn at a flashing phone screen, a distant mark on the wall, a clink of cups, a cloud that resembles a whale, a memory of something a friend said yesterday, a twinge in a knee, a pressing deadline, a vague expectation of nice weather later, a tick of the clock. Some Eastern meditation techniques aim to still this scurrying creature, but the extreme difficulty of this shows how unnatural it is to be mentally inert. Left to itself, the mind reaches out in all directions as long as it is awake–and even carries on doing it in the dreaming phase of its sleep.

Sarah Bakewell, At the Existentialist Cafe

During my 48-hour respite between appointments, I have enjoyed sleeping longer hours and devouring this book (over one hundred pages into it on this second day) by Sarah Bakewell. In the past week, I have enjoyed three days of primitive camping with a friend and an all-day road trip across Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas. Now, I stop before heading to Palestine to set up my booth for an all-day display and sale of my railroad art to coincide with the opening day of the new season of the Palestine-to-Rusk excursion train rides. On Saturday, they will tow their historic steam locomotives out of their sheds to sit in the open air all day to the delight of photographers, videographers and adventurers buying tickets to board the train that makes its first run at 10 a.m.

In an earlier post, I mentioned the frenzied schedule that has driven my life the past couple of weeks. Once this weekend finishes, the spastic race will be completed. Approaching the one-year anniversary of my retirement, I grin in acknowledgment of the many who said I would be busier in retirement than when I worked full-time. They were right. But there remains a major distinction–as a student said to me a couple of months ago: “If you like what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life.” How true. I have not worked in nearly a year; what I do now provides me pure pleasure, even if it tires me out from time to time.

What I want to talk about now is my toolbox, my central aid to coping with life. I’m speaking of my education. I have been aware of what I am about to write for a number of years now, but never tried to put it on the printed page. I came from a family that did not pursue the university. Mom and Dad were reared in farm country after the Depression, and were sent to the one-room school till they were sturdy enough to work in the fields, she for four years, he for three. They learned to read, write and do simple math. My brother entered the Marine Corps, my sister a two-year secretarial school. All of my family members received the education needed to pursue their respective occupations. As for me, I was always the least practical of the brood. I was the artist, the dreamer, with no clue of a profession.

I entered the university because my art skills landed me a scholarship, not because of academic prowess. During my years of Bachelor’s study, I awoke, late, to the world of ideas, and entered the ministry. That led me on to seminary where I earned the M.Div. and Ph.D. The life of the mind was what grew in me, and once my education was completed, I entered the teaching profession, twenty-eight years of full-time high school, along with thirty years of adjunct university.

Throughout those nearly forty years of post-high school odyssey, the river that carried me was a torrent of ideas gleaned from books, from art, from music, from travels, and from thoughts scribbled into journals (over 130 volumes now). That collection of ideas has become my toolbox, my coping mechanism for understanding and navigating life. This magnificent book that has so held me the past couple of days describes existentialism through the lens of biography. Because of my past dealings with Sartre, Heidegger, Jaspers and Merleau-Ponty, I’m reading the volume with elation, thankful for the tools given me in past educational settings.

I have felt the sentiments of those who view reading and thinking as a waste of time. I learned long ago that those practices matter very much to me, and they have been my sustenance. Maurice Merleau-Ponty put it this way: “Life becomes ideas, and the ideas return to life.”

Thanks for reading.

I make art in order to discover.

I journal when I feel alone.

I blog to remind myself I am not alone.

Request for Von Rad Collage

July 31, 2017

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The Colorado Rockies are restoring my weary soul, as I’m spending plenty of time fly fishing in the streams and practicing my plein air watercolor craft. But I’ve paused to duck into a public library so I can get steady Internet access.

One of my respondents expressed an appreciation for my studies and art concerning Paul Tillich and Gerhard Von Rad.  He requested to see the Von Rad collage that one of my high school students purchased this past year. So, this one’s for you!

Thanks for reading.

A Quiet, Reflective Afternoon

August 17, 2016

baroque cat

Baroque Still Life of Rich Foods and Sleeping Cat

Emerson lived for ideas, but he did so with the reckless, headlong ardor of a lover.

Robert D. Richardson, Jr., Emerson: The Mind on Fire

Good afternoon from a dark, rain-soaked Texas afternoon. After weeks of triple-digit temperatures, my home territory has been soaked in rain for three days running, and forecasts say it could last a few days more. The darkness of the afternoon provides quite a respite for my weary soul, having just finished my third day of Inservice in preparation for the opening of a pair of campuses. My college began its first day today, and high school will open Monday. Meanwhile, we educators are slogging through hours and hours of daily meetings. Thursday and Friday “promise” to be uninterrupted days spent in our classrooms putting things in order, and of course, the building will be open Saturday if we need still another day to get ready.

Time has not allowed me the luxury to paint at all this week, so instead of my recent watercolor activity I’ve chosen to post a photo I took recently while dining quietly one afternoon at the College Street Pub in Waxahachie. The temperatures that afternoon hovered around 103 degrees, and the floor fans on the porch were doing their best to cool off the patrons. I could not resist pointing my camera phone at the slumbering cat stretched out on one of the cafe tables. I was reminded of a Dutch still life composition of objects assembled to depict the good life as well as the notion of vanitas. 

While reading last night, I came across this line concerning Emerson that I posted above. The Richardson biography I read when it was a brand new publication, then alas, someone stole the volume out of my classroom about ten years ago. Having just purchased a new one, I have to read it once more, and underline once again the passages that resonate with me. I felt genuinely exposed when I read the author’s assessment of Emerson’s passion-driven life of the mind. I know the pain associated with having lived such a life, and am more conscious than ever of others I have hurt in the past as I’ve charged full-bore along such a path. One hates to come into the senior years with a sense of regret, but indeed I look back and regret that there are things I cannot re-do. When I approach my Philosophy class this coming semester, I think I’m going to explore some of these character issues from an existential framework. Jean-Paul Sartre argued that our character is the sum-total of our decisions in life: the good, the bad and the ugly.  We are what we have made ourselves to be, nothing more, nothing less. I wish someone would have talked to me of such matters when I sat at a high school desk. Maybe the teachers did, and I was just too indolent to listen. I don’t know. Now it’s my turn to talk to the next generation, and I’m grateful to have the chance once again this semester to try and get it right.

Looking back over this post, I fear it sounds more pessimistic than I feel right now. I’m tired from the three days of meetings, but not morose, not depressed. With a little rest, I anticipate I’ll regather some energy to face what lies ahead, grateful that I still have a few days . . .

Thanks for reading.

I paint in order to know.

I journal when I feel alone.

I blog to remind myself that I am not alone.

Dr. Pepper Painting and Thoughts about Purpose

May 13, 2014
Beginning of a Large Ghost Sign Watercolor

Beginning of a Large Ghost Sign Watercolor

Most of what we express creatively is prelinguistic.  The deeper insights are obviously coming from somewhere.  They are not logiclly structured in the mind, but it may take logic to get them expressed.

Ian Roberts, Creative Authenticity

Every artist has a central story to tell, and the difficulty, the impossible task, is trying to present that story in pictures.

Gregory Crewdson

Having finished the Kennedale clock tower, I’m turning my attention now to a subject I’ve tackled twice already en plein air.  This hardware store is located on Main Street in Maypearl, Texas.  I figured it was time to go after a large studio version of the composition.

Some of my students recently took up a discussion over life and its purpose.  One of the issues discussed concerns those who find life boring or without meaning.  I have to admit that I have not been able to sympathize with boredom.  For me, as long as I can remember, there has not been sufficient time to do everything I wish to do.  Any day that I have free time I have a fundamental struggle over whether to read or to paint.  I cannot do both simultaneously.  Even blogging takes time away from my books, my journal, and my art.  And there are many, many other things I like to do.  I had a long day at school, followed by a one-hour required session, followed by a school function.  When I finally got home at 7:30, I realized that the evening was nearly spent, and I had all these ideas I was wanting to uncover concerning Jean-Paul Sartre (our subject in tomorrow morning’s class).  I also had this Dr. Pepper watercolor on my drafting table, barely underway.  And I have found a renewed delight in the poetry of Walt Whitman.  Alas, too many interests, too little time.

Before I close however, I want to address this:  I never feel “blocked” as an artist.  I never feel that I go through spells of being unable to begin a painting.  I do acknowledge that my skill is not always “on”, that I don’t always “hit” when I attempt a new composition.  But that is not the same thing as a painter’s block.  I am painting, with joy, even if it’s not going well.  Instead of issues of being blocked, or dried up, I have issues of hot and cold: sometimes it seems I can do no wrong when I’m moving the pencil or brush; sometimes I am clumsy and obtuse.

Walt Whitman wrote “As I Ebb’d with the Ocean of Life,” when he felt that his second edition of Leaves of Grass was not as crisp as his original one.  As he walked the shores, watching the ocean tide advance and withdraw, he drew parallels with his creativity as it surged with renewed energy as well as those times when it seemed to ebb.  Before he closed out the poem, he voiced the conviction that the flow would return.  And that is what I try to keep before me when I feel that the painting is not going too well.  I think this helps me keep my sanity.

Thanks for reading.  I want to pick up the brush now . . .

I paint in order to remember.

I journal when I feel alone.

I blog to remind myself that I am not alone.