The book Goodnight Moon is strangely a bit of a lynchpin in many of my art projects. Goodnight Moon was a book I grew up reading when I was very young. I'm sure many of you are familiar with it. It features a bunny rabbit and his mom or grandma in a quiet house at the close of the day. It's dark outside and the mama bunny is knitting while the baby bunny lays in bed.
The narrator then does a kind of inventory of everything in the room as they say goodnight to it. "Goodnight mouse, goodnight house (there's a doll house), good night brush, good night mush" (there's a bowl of mush). We read the book not only saying goodnight to all of the objects in the room, but also, you get to find and pair each object because of how it's illustrated with little side images of each object. You look for the mouse in the scene, seeing it on the side, as well as the house, the brush, the mush, and so on.
I recall this as a very satisfying process, very engrossing and rewarding. I loved this pairing process, and I want to point out to you that in my artwork, I do this all the time, in part I now realize, because I found it such a joy when I was a kid. It's basically pattern recognition, but it's something we're good at as humans, and find pleasurable because it's how we're wired: Look for all the berries on the bush, or the gazelle on the ridge, or the bug in the soup - to keep us safe and fed and alive.
As you forage for a plant or a mushroom, or that perfect black skirt, see your lizard brain at work!
This same simple and gratifying process happens in at least five of my art projects:
Stand In, where I have a legend repeating the objects in the sculpture:
You Are Legend, where similarly a legend repeats objects in the room you are standing in. This project hasd happened as part of the Reflecting on the Sacred Exhibit at Babson College, and recently, this August I developed it further while in Vermont, on Turd Hill with an excellent group of artists.
My prayer books where an image is large on the left and small on the right. The image below is a page from the newest book, written just before the pandemic, which has new prayers and new images throughout, and was published under the original name Contemporary Prayers to Whatever Works by Simon & Schuster's Tiller Press in 2021. So two different books, same name, printed seven years apart!
In Offering Shelf, an asterix is in the object and on the label. The image below doesn't show that, but the label reads ' Every item on this pile is a thought, story, emotion I let go. ' and the pile is detritus and overflow of materials and scraps from my studio (as are the images from the second book Help me [ ], do the thing. (Offering shelf has been shown three times, at Millersville University, Lancaster PA in a solo show I had there in 2010, at 808 Gallery at BostonUniversity in a group show I was in prior to that, and in another form at 555 Gallery in the 2014 solo show there called Placeholders).
In Attendant there's a picture of the block in the label, and also in the image. This is Kim Cowperthwaite, at his desk at the Mass Institute of Technology, participating in the project while working. The photograph below is by Lisa Abitbol. Attendant has happened in many places and with many participants including Currier Museum in NH, MIT, the Urbano Project MA, Millersville University, and on Peddock's Island in the Boston Harbor :).
Again, it's just like in Goodnight Moon. It's amazing to me that a simple impression from childhood creates an indelible pattern of its own across several decades of my conceptual artwork. I asked you this in the Small Spark post a few months ago, and I'm still curious: Was there a specific childhood moment or insight that you remember affects what you do as an adult today? I mean of course, and frequently from pain. But any you feel comfortable sharing in comments below, please do!
There are a few calendars left! I will be sharing them locally at the TINY EXPO in early December, so get yours now if you are far away. Remember: shipping is free from my shop! See the whole thing here and n Get your copies here! It will be sent to you promptly.
Before I share about sparkiness, I want to extend an invitation to the WestSideArt Hop this weekend. Please join us if you are in the area (of Ann Arbor MI). Details here. Lots of new things to see!
Was there a small creative spark in your early years that became a vivid theme in the work that you do today?
I recently came across this little paper remnant from when I was a kid because it relates a lot to my artwork. I don't remember the specifics, but what I vaguely recall is that this paper was from a listening and noticing exercise I was invited to do for a class in middle school.
This is the piece of paper I wrote on. It had been folded into fours. It's something I keep on my bulletin board to remind me of how impressionable we are as kids and how simple things like this exercise can shape a life.
List making in and of itself has come into my work many times, most notably in Empty Full, in which I inventoried every single object I own as both a list, and as a single calculated volume of space, which then was shared as a hollow cylinder in the same volume, with the list of objects on the floor of the structure.
In Yardsale, while I was holding an object with all of the usual stuff for sale, I asked each customer to cross off of a list an item of their choice for every object they bought. The list was of intangible things I was, I felt, ready to let go of at that time in my life. The list has things like: "Taking the bigger piece of pie" and "laughing when it's not funny".
Visual Traces of Groups of Work. I and five volunteers observed what was happening in the gallery: minute repeating events that are a part of a group at work, that became a list as part of the work, and then got translated into different types of adhesive marks on the walls and floor of the gallery, exhibited along with the list.
Lists also feature heavily in my third book the Elements: a love letter to all thing everywhere. Here, the objects and areas in which each element is found, are listed for all 118 chemical elements, as well as their behaviors, qualities and uses. All of my books except the very first have Indexes, another kind of list and another way to explore and enter the content of the books.
Spot Count asked others to list their noticings in open public spaces like a weedy lot or a park, much like I was asked to do in school long ago, though they moved through the space like you would for a bird count, or for a forensic search, but in my project, leaving colorful marker wherever they stood and observed.
I'm also excited to share that this same theme is coming forth in a new book project that will be ready to fully to share in just a few months. It's a book called Field Guide to Ambiguity, and is about all of the situations in which ambiguity is present, as well as some of the strategies we use to deal with it. It is essentially a list of such ambiguous situations, paired with a new artwork, reflections and variations on each situation, as well as beautiful design by my collaborator Patrick Barber in Detroit. Patrick has contributed much to the building of this book, the structure and the editing process as a book designer and a designer specifically of Field Guides as luck would have it.
I can't wait to share it with you, but for now, let's return to the piece of paper that inspired this post!
Do you have something from your childhood that made a huge impact on your livelihood, artwork or other creative work in a significant way?
What small thing was introduced to you that became a seed, that then grew into something huge?
I recently came across a bizarre show on netflix called 'Old Enough.' It's a Japanese reality TV show where a toddler is given an errand to run, usually with one or two stops picking something up or dropping something off at a shop or with a family friend. It's an interesting look at rural Japan and working class Japan and just how different Japanese and American culture are in many respects. It's in moments very sweet and also disturbing. The other night in the middle of the night it occurred to me why it was compelling to me: All of us are toddlers on an errand.
Doesn't it just make sense?
When we're up at night trying to get sleep but finding that the mind won't turn off, it really does strike me that we're toddler sized in a big world, in the middle of a crowded fish market trying to remember which stall mom gets the sea bream at. Or trying to understand how to pull a cabbage out of the ground that is connected by this incredibly thick root system and it's getting dark and we have to walk home in the dark. Isn't that really just what life is like?
When worry is happening, when stress and anxiety are there in the middle of the night, usually somebody or some situation looms incredibly big in our thinking. In this way too we are like toddlers on an errand because as a little three-year-old tries to negotiate a grocery store counter or shop stall or people's big bodies while moving through a crowded space, it's overwhelming, and so can life be. In the morning when we wake up, what worries us is often right-sized again.
I don't know that I have more to say here but as you're going through your day, think of it: Toddlers on an errand. Everyone around you and you yourself. In the middle of the night, think of it: We are toddlers on an errand.
PS. In about the fourth episode, I decided the show itself is kind of dark. The kids, these two and three year olds, somehow know this isn't normal and that there's something off about the whole situation. This speaks to their purity and the way things just often are twisted around and you see innocence being lost in some episodes which feels sad. But yet, perhaps it's riveting because that is how it is for every one of us, in some way, and we have at our core that same clarity, that same innocence.
For you today, I have a brief talk I gave back in the fall of 2018 called 'Art Among the Elements.' at a local night club as a part of Nerd Nite - a story corp style gathering hosted by the illustrious Ann Arbor District Library. I talked for 22 minutes about the third book which was in process at the time: The Elements: a love letter to all things everywhere.
I share in this talk about why I make books, how I came to make this one on such a different subject than the two prior books (on prayer), and the distilled learnings and takeaways from the process to date.
I am sharing it with you here. It’s not the live talk, so you can’t hear the wild and untameable audience participation, but the sound quality is pretty good and there are some pretty slides. A note too that I have a few scientific facts *almost* right in this talk, corrected when I actually did complete and publish the book in 2019.* Please enjoy and thank you for helping make this book a reality!
All I had at the time of the talk was a prototype with a slightly different name. I was still working out layout and layering of the meaning and content of the book. Looking back, it’s amazing to see how many things needed tremendous time and patience to come into focus. I didn’t learn how to give them either until I was in the very end stages. In essence, this book taught me to slow the F down, care for my body, and to tolerate uncertainty better than I had ever been able to before.
To see the book in its finished form, you can visit its official web page, or find it for sale in digital or physical form at my shop. You will also find a grid poster, a set of prints and a set of postcards, as well as a curriculum to walk children and adults through the book scavenger-hunt and interdisciplinary-style, which is my teaching and making way.
Speaking of uncertainty, that’s a topic I am currently exploring in another decade-long book project that is underway in earnest today! I will share more about that soon.
*The primary factoid to correct is that Hydrogren formed not immediately after the big bang, but as things cooled down in the time that followed when atoms could in fact pull together at all.
Share with me your thoughts! What is sparked in the electric being that you are by this topic and this story?
I want to put in a plug for the awkward - especially as it relates to our relationships. Awkwardness gets a bad rap in our modern culture of the smooth and the glib, but to me it's a refreshing kind of honesty. What is awkward?
Please share your versions of awkward below.
Even the word itself is an awkward spelling. What other word has to Ws flanking a K?
The most awkward moments in my life are the moments when I was being honest. When I didn't look good, but was being true.
What has been awkward lately in your life? Can you see the humanness in it? What do you love that is awkward? Or what do you not love?
This is an image of the seam in a handmade book of mine, that included a castoff process xerox from artist Juliann Cydylo who was my studio mate at the time. This was a chance layout that I particularly enjoy. It has a lot of white space around it, and some mystery, much like the beginnings and endings of a year, which can also feel kind of like an upside-down time.
Below is a bit of a year in review for us both. Before I share how things unfolded to me, I'd like to invite you to pull out a journal and pen, make a cup of tea and settle in to reflect on your own year. I have included a list of simple reflection prompts at the end of this post, and I have spent many a new year's day with friends or somewhere in the week before Jan 1, considering what's gone on in our lives for the past 365 days or so.
What did you lose in 2021?
What came into your life in 2021?
What is different from a year ago?
What are you loving in your life right now?
What is not working right now, and what does that tell you about what might work better for you?
Three + favorite moments from your year:
Three things you can place on the altar and release from 2021.
What surprises you most about this past year of your life?
What is a constant in your life through this past year and beyond?
What qualities of experience do you want to invite in moving forward?
Please use the comments below to suggest other prompts as you are inspired to share them, and any insights into your year you'd like to share.
I started to write my year in review in a period of great striving. Since then, the duracell bunny in me has kind of run out of batteries for the season. There was a little sadness and concern about this at first, but then I started to feel the telltale signs of freedom and inspiration that come with any form of surrender.
I could just tell you how great it all was, and wish for you that your life was equally as great, with a wink and a smile. But I will not do that.
Here's how my year went, as I reflect on it now.
A book came out in March. It was confusing because it's the same title as my first book, but its a different book. It's a lovely little book, which you will really enjoy if you like my two other prayer books. I spent about six months contorting myself into pretzels to be ready for the launch, and then just felt a little lost and confused about why and what for.
My art studio is a complete bright spot, and now too a warm spot, as I finally figured out how to work the wood stove. I have the right wood and the right fire building technique. There is less soot settling on my drawings, and when I leave at night, I do a little bow because I can't believe that this space is mine to use every day.
I was very intent on doing a whole bunch of art book fairs and pop ups, really laser focused on this. And somehow with all of my striving, I have ended up participating in only one of the seven I had wanted to participate in, which comes up in early December. It's a wonderful little day-long pop up event and now I am happy that this is what I'm doing.
I set up a few talks online with bookstores and libraries, and saw how hard people work to facilitate and share these - staying at work into the dark hours, dealing with zoom, following up. Everybody works so hard. It's also very cool to see how these things always have the flavor of the group that ends up attending, whether there are fifty of us, or three.
I did a deep dive to figure out how to 'connect with my audience' and 'get my stuff into circulation' more, and have concluded that what is involved in this is a huge huge amount of lifelong, ongoing work that does not spark joy in my heart. I put all of it down, surrender that project, and await with curiosity to see what happens next.
I have begun to archive the work of Janet Gallup, a printmaker and the deceased wife of our friend Al Gallup here in Ann Arbor, who has all of it in a shed he bought for it, after he and his kids dispersed as much of it as possible. I don't know exactly what is compelling me here, but I am very interested in what happens to a body of work when the artist's body is gone, and Janet's is here to attend to - and it's a beautiful collection. I will share more on this soon.
I have made a few death books and will make three more soon, and made formalized this project in 2021.
So in this year where I feel more alive than I have ever felt, there is a lot of a theme of death, surrender and stopping. These are not new themes, but they are newly applied in ways that surprise and interest me, and lead to freer experiences of the life that's here to be lived. I have absolutely no idea what is to come in 2022, but I wish you a balance to whatever has felt like too much or too little, some quiet time in the wee hours of January, and a creative spark of joy in your heart.
I have noticed that when meditation comes up in conversation, I often hear the phrase 'I should...' followed by some description of how someone is failing to live up to some ideal way of doing it. After meditating in a group of people where there's some kind of check-in afterward, I commonly hear descriptions of either a difficult/disappointing experience, or a lovely, special state type experience. When you're learning to do something like say, skateboard, and you go out there and try your hand at it, and come back either having wiped out, dusting yourself off, or successfully land without wiping out - what a rush! A positive, confidence building experience. I always wanted to be that guy having the rush, not the one who became increasingly aware of the intense kink in her shoulder over the course of the sit.
Meditation however, is not a performance. It's worth exploring this because otherwise, it's another thing to make us miserable. Some kinds probably are performative. But presence isn't something that you do, and this term meditation is simply about presence when all is said and done, or "This" : whatever's happening right now.
Instead, it's what is never not there. You aren't doing being presence, or doing being. Like the sky, or say, noticing you have socks on, the presence of socks is not about you, they're just, well, on your feet. The sky is never not there, whatever your level of interest in, focus on, or idea about the sky may be.
The other day I heard great table metaphor that may illustrate this. There's a table covered with books. Lots of books. That's you - the table - with all kinds of interesting books on it. The books are the identifiers we have - the things that when we're gone and everyone who knew us is also gone, go as well, because they are a shared thought. This includes your history, your plans, your opinions, your life story, your nationality, your preferences, how you vote, your personality, your style, your body, your chronic pains, your psychology, your turns of phrase, your reflection in the mirror, what you love and don't love about your body, your closest kin, your habits, your address, your drivers license number, your social security number, your CV and resume, your skill sets, pedigrees, your successes, your failures, your traumas, what you overcome. Your memories, others' memories of you, your reputation, your good deeds, your misdeeds, your credit score, your best moments, your bank account balance, your possessions, what you've made, what you failed to make, finish, accomplish or complete. Also, time, objects and space can go there too but that may be another conversation.
When the 'books' are removed, like when you're tidying up in the living room, you find there's a table underneath them. It's always been there. It's never not been there. It's familiar to you, as it's what you have used to access and read these books, and to refer to your 'self' in the form of each of these books, these programs or information packets about yourself. You may put your feet on it or put your dinner plate on the table too. Meditation is just awareness of This, or you could say, awareness of what is the ground of experience. The big attainment is actually just - the table is here, where it's always been. How spiritual!
The idea of meditation as a performance is just another book or glossy yoga type magazine on the table, with a picture of yourself perhaps, doing whatever idea of your meditation performance is. It's pretty funny and incredibly amazing how thought co opts even just This - what's happening right now. The flow of one thing after another, a live stream of you.
To take the table metaphor a little further, it's not even 'your' table - with a style, with a level of wear, perfectly reflecting all the books that were on it. It turns out that everybody's books are on one table, one gigantic table, again, just a metaphor this table, but it's not actually an object, and nobody owns it, or dusts it, or made it. It's not a thing like a galaxy is a thing, or a pebble. It's just that we are built to see and talk about and interact with objects, so that's as good a metaphor as any: table.
This big wide foundation or ground on which all the objects form a fleeting impression of the story of you and your life, is always here, always offering up the next thing, and is in fact, you, and me, and this word, and the sound you're hearing, and the plans for the next hour, and the irritations and concerns, and the gratitudes and questions, and the dog and the cat, the wad of tissue that didn't make it into the trash can lying on the floor, and the tree shimmering out the window.
Nothing, no book, no passing object of experience, and the presence underneath, is not you.
Here's a suggested way to let this sink in a little further.
Cue up a song or two, get a glass of something, maybe a snack. Sit in a chair and look out the window. Five minutes we're talking. Maybe set a timer. Let the flavor of your food and drink mix with the sound of the music or the kids fighting, mix with the sight out the window, the movement, inside/outside blending, and constantly changing, coming and going.
OR When you get really annoyed, overheated, or suddenly tired and notice this, plunk yourself down with that - sensations, the litany of thought, sounds, the taste in your mouth, how your body is, the temperature. Nothing needs to change and no one needs to do. Like a piece of cardboard lying on the side of the road, just being.( In this case, an agitated or overheated piece of cardboard.)
When you are in conversation with someone, notice what that's like, what the body feels like, the sounds, the gestures, emotions, distractions, how space and arrangement of bodies and body language is. No need to put ideas to anything, just become curious without getting involved in thoughts about it.
That to me, is what they call - meditation - or even better - it's you - the one talking, the one listening, the one reading, the one writing, the weather outside, the weather inside, the flavors and the smells, the ungainly and the very compelling. The pull and the push away.
In a specific kind of meditation practice that's anything but a practice called Unprovoked Happiness, I encountered the suggestion to play with bubbles.
Unprovoked Happiness* is pretty cooky, and it's very simple. It's a non-practice of looking closely at anything, and getting absorbed in it. It's what kids are doing all the time. When they play with water, pick paint off a fence, or sing little ditties to themselves, they are actually having a pure conscious experience, which is one in which they aren't thinking, or aware at all, of themselves. Newborns do this too, or *are* this, as they stare at a fan or a light, or peer out at you, they are not separate, they are not registering a me and a you yet.
It's the same experience you can have at the beach or on a walk. You know those excellent vacations when time seems to go away, and a whole day goes by where no one is saying much of anything? Those are the moments in which the sense of self recedes, and no one is doing anything. This is in fancy terms zen mind: nobody there, everything functioning perfectly.
It's the very opposite of a world of becoming someone, which we all as kids in many respects have to go through, to learn to safely cross the street, communicate, be moderately clean. This kind of being is not a state of zoning out, but a state of being all there, out of the world of concepts, including time, personal identity, and self consciousness.
The recipe for a pure conscious experience is first of all, to be moderately relaxed. This can feel like a high bar at certain times. When there is a significant amount of stress, there's also a me that is stressed, a kind of basic contraction of a self under threat, and needing to do or undo something to feel safe.
Blowing a bubble is one easy avenue to invite enjoyment, a small dose of wonder, and a slowing the doer down a few notches. In the summer, it's fun to bring bubbles when I go out on a boat, watching them bounce on still water, wondering at how they do that.
You can also experience this kind of being when you do dishes or wash your hands, noticing the feel of the silky soap, the sound of the tiny relentless pops, how they all wash away just like that: a gleaming dish, wet hands, clinky sounds. Any sensory experience where there's a kind of basic delight, is this kind, and this is why it isn't a practice, because no one is there to do anything. When I say ‘ wow, I’m having a pure conscious experience’ that’s actually thought, and instead the next best thing.
The least real thing, when investigated, is thought, narrative, story, and the emotions that come with them. Thoughts and emotions will happen anyway, and only become painful when claimed as mine or my problem.
Anything you look closely at, even a pile of worms, an oil slick, a skittering empty beer can in the wind, a sock strewn just so across your floor, can be a doorway just like a bubble. Music you love, a strange sound, the taste and texture of foods, the sensory feel of motion, the way things pass by, the complexity of wood grain or water in basically any form or state, can all be regarded without the story, like a newborn sees them, before the world is chopped into labels and associations in reference to ‘me.'
Next time you're decluttering a closet and you encounter a bubble wand, stick it in your bag (tightly closed!) and bring it on a hike or to a gathering. Yes, you might look a little stupid, that is until you remember that you are much more than a self, and when you pause for a moment, it might just be delight that's there, with no one separate from it.
* check out this kooky website to get a good sense of it. I have not done exhaustiv searches, but if you're curious, this is a good starting point.
In August, I was sitting in a beautiful spot on the coast of Northern Maine with my partner Guy. It was a very foggy day. I had a tea and had brought down the bubble wand.
I blew some bubbles as one does. They floated left, some were very small. It was a pink, long bubble wand, the kind you can get at the dollar store. We kept talking, and noticed now and then that two bubbles were still there, having landed in a tuft of grass near my feet. I continued to drink tea, swatting at the occasional mosquito, and then noticed that lo - the two at my feet were still there. Next to me was a wild bay bush, and there I found a third, smaller bubble, about an inch and a half in diameter, that had also persisted from one of the two bubble puffs I had blown.
This was now at least five minutes since they’d appeared, and all three of them were still, swirling, reflecting the world upside-down and so crisply, iridescent, and rainbowy. Guy finished his coffee and went inside and got himself some breakfast. I decided to wait until the bubbles had burst before heading in. I heard the clinking of the spoon against the bowl, and still these three bubbles, now after about fifteen minutes, were there before me, continuing to swirl.
They began to change color. They started out rainbowy, but mostly bluish- a deep royal almost purple kind of blue. Slowly they became yellow, and after a few minutes, turned orange, and then pale. By this time my Guy had assembled his tackle to go fishing, which included affixing a jig to his rod, gathering a bucket etc. He walked down to the dock, about 25 minutes from when these three bubbles were still just where they'd landed. The largest one, after about 20 minutes I'm estimating, burst.
Just like that, it was not there anymore.
The smaller of the two in the grass, and the one next to me in the bay, stuck into a short and curved leaf, persisted. And then things got wild.
The colors faded to a very pale light blue, almost a white, and then they began to fade altogether. What remained very easy to see was the base of the bubble, where the extra soap pools. This became paler as well, while the upper part of each bubble began to completely disappear, to such a degree that all I could see was the swirling pool of stuff at the base of each one, about the form of a contact lense, confirming that there was still a bubble there at all.
There I was, no way of recording an image or the time, but sitting long enough that my husband was full on fishing, and the world was waking up. I was seeing just the base, which went from a kind of gasolinelike rainbow swirl to a monochrome pale whitish silver swirl, to just a few dots and trails of silver, moving, spinning, with no other visible evidence of the bubble above it, except for occasionally a tiny granule of that silver riding over the leaves, suggesting the dome.
The second bubble popped after about 25 minutes to 30 minutes. I have no way of knowing. It was the smaller one in the grass. Suddenly also gone!
The one in the bay, just to my left, continued. I noticed that I had so much excitement, that I wanted Guy to come back, and though I called for my nephew staying next door to come see, if he had, he would not have been able to see the bubble there at all, he may have even thought I was crazy. Also, as they were leaving that morning and in cleaning and packing mode, may have just wanted to know if I'd seen one of his sneakers or something. In other words, it appears, this bubble miracle was all for me, just my own. After about FORTY MINUTES the last of these three strange bubbles, did pop. There was a visible break of tension, tiny droplets in a corona and then just the bay bush as it was.
So, that's the story of the bubble miracle.
I wrote previously about the magicky bubble miracle that lasted forty minutes. I would like to share now about some interesting thought patterns I noticed at the time.
Initially, I was engaged in social patter, drinking of tea, trading thoughts and words, slapping at mosquitos, with Guy. The bubbles were a footnote, a silly kid's toy that I find fun to engage at times.
When these bubbles stuck around for an uncharacteristically long time, enthusiasm and curiosity, and a deeper level of attention and engagement kicked in. When Guy went away and it was just me witnessing this, there was excitement, amazement, and a deep desire to show others what was happening. I noticed thoughts about writing about the phenomena, and several attempts through shouts and whistles, to get Guy to come back. As the strange phenomena continued, and more developments in color, visibility and duration occurred, I felt a stronger urge to enlist others, to share and show.
When the bubbles didn't immediately pop as I've seen thousands upon thousands of bubbles do (yes), I noticed some impatience, boredom, and a desire to get on with the day. Thoughts came in like 'I'd love a piece of toast', and 'How long is this going to take? I have plans and things to do.' I find this interesting because I was literally witnessing something I'd never seen before and that didn't seem possible, and toward the end, the closest experience of invisibility - the phenomena of something being present that is also invisible, like a ghost or an apparition, that I've ever seen. Bubbles are already like that, right? That's why they are such a fascination for kids and delightful for everyone. But here I was, wanting to engage my story, wanting to just get on with being Hannah in her day, doing what she does.
It felt like a test of endurance to keep witnessing, to hold that tiny, rainbow style vigil for the time it took to see the bubbles through. I was also aware that those around me were in their stories, their days of jobs to be done and things to do, and had someone come by, their likely response would have been even more distractable than mine.
By the time the last bubble, and the second to last one, popped, they were essentially invisible, except for the swirling silvery base of each. It was 100x wider than a dew drop, but would have been near impossible to see. Which makes me aware of just how limited our perception must be:
If we can overlook something like a bubble, something I had made myself, what else are we not ever seeing, that's immediately and truly right around us?
I am sure there is a simple explanation for what happened with these bubbles. Likely the very humid, windless morning and all of the fog, as well as the tensile strength of the material in the bubble wand, would explain it. The changing colors and the thinning surface was likely some kind of evaporation or reaction with the salty air. There can be many ways to explain things. But in my immediate experience, this was something never seen before, a 'normal' and simple object doing something very out of the ordinary, revealing itself over time in the way that never has happened because they are so predictably fleeting. A bit like a solar eclipse.
I then galloped around telling various family members about what happened, hollered down to my husband on the dock IT JUST POPPED, with a very large popping gesture in case he couldn't hear me, frantically writing down all of the details. There is a great desire to hold on to this miracle, to found some kind of new religion around it. Or to found the Bubble Blowers Association with the founding date being today. So there's the other way that humans do, to try and hold something, so fleeting as a bubble, and to make it into something solid.
Thoughts also flashed in about 'Records' world records, not to try and have one, but how funny it is that there is always a biggest pumpkin, a fattest blueberry, an oldest living human, and how these things must have started with an act of recording, of trying to make permanent, and then become this way of trying for fame, or of besting and winning. Oh, we people are crazeballs. So yes, I suppose I am too, but it's not because I stared at a hovering bubble for forty minutes, it's that it feels crazy to get so excited about it.
I recently was asked to say a few words on ‘art as meditation’ and meditation as art by my friend in the Pioneer Valley Abbie Wanamaker. Abbie was having a two person show and there was a forum that she asked me to speak at. I’ll share a few of the thoughts that came to mind as I considered her work and process, and the idea of art as meditation and meditation as art.
First, the word meditation in US culture has felt loaded with a sense of personal shortcoming and obligation for many, to the point that it may not be a useful word to use anymore. In a similar way, the idea of art practice has with it for many a sense of should, haven’t yet….maybe someday, soon.
Instead of meditation let’s talk about presence. That thing you were when you were born and still are, without any effort, prior to any self idea. That thing that sparks between you and a small woodland creature when you stumble upon one another and hold the other’s gaze. Presence is what we make room for in a process of deep play, prior to the part of our minds that narrate or decide the merit of what we are doing or what we might be making.
I enjoyed looking at Abbie’s paintings, their unapologetic, straightforward and vivid qualities. I think too about resonance, and I know that Abbie has resonated with my work and ideas for a while. I can see why: in the directness of her process, her statement and how she figures out what’s happening after the fact, letting the doing, the activity itself and the textures and qualities of the materials lead. This practice is presence too and similar to what happens in my studio when things roll naturally. I see in her work that Abbie values the doing over the thing that’s made, turning art practice into a form of attention.
Consider the difference between the governed idea of creative action and cultivating presence, and the direct experience of these things: what you already are: the situation, what’s happening inside and outside of this skin envelope we call a body: the temperature, the textures, sounds, tastes, motion, exchanges with people, animals, elements like sunlight and wind and sounds, intersection of elements that will never intersect quite the same way again. To me that’s deep play, creativity at its best, and contemplation all rolled up into one. It’s a sense of belonging, or inherent value, or naturalness, the way a dry leaf becomes the forest floor or a child is held in arms.
A bubble is commonplace and ordinary. It's part of washing your hands, your hair, your car, and certain baths. Blowing bubbles is something many children do all the time, so it becomes very ordinary to some children too. So ordinary, that it's easy to overlook the tiny miracle that a bubble is.
Here's what I find incredible about a bubble:
Next time you are in the presence of a bubble, see it as a whole life, see it as significant as your own life, the floaty path it takes, your path. It's remarkable existence, yours. It's sudden disappearance, just like yours will be, the moment when you are no longer in the world, reflecting its details, swirling with changing tints and hues, perfect, fleeting, a marvel.
I've been trying to put my finger on something since my return from the Colorado River last week. It was a short trip. Hard even to recall and yet it's left an imprint that moves like a sun spot - always on the periphery of what's going on, but here still, adjusting everything in a way I can't yet place.
While there on the river, one thing presented after the next: floating, climbing, eating, chatting, hauling, organizing, snacking, getting ready for and floating out of the next or last rapid, covering up, cooling down in the water, caring for eyes in the dry hot wind, playing werewolf in the dark with eight people whose names I mastered just as I bid them goodbye. And the whole time trying actually to arrive.
We stopped at many bright and sacred oases, hidden waterfalls and water pools, places where ancient Puebloans left the mark of concentric circles or stored their grain way up high. Each of us rested on a warm rock in the shade, watched the glowing walls change as we floated up to, by and past their silence and specific set of magnificent scars.
I was rarely alone - normally I am alone more than half of the day. There I sat only a handful of times in solitude. The time I sketched canyon walls in the ninety degree blue white moonlit dark, too bright to sleep in. The times, each of them, when I was easily an early bird, rising before others to stand at river edge, or look out from the privacy of the 'adventure toilet', or to follow the hide and seek of a dawn bird call. The last time was in Deer Creek Canyon, sitting, awed by the height we'd climbed up over the waterfall, to the oasis behind and above it: cottonwood trees, carved pools, the sense of a thin flat plane of water appearing to flow uphill, the surprise of a place you didn't expect, and the overwhelming presence of grief love: when one's home in another has gone beyond one's physical reach, accepting the time had come for them or you to leap the ledge.
There and finally in Flagstaff when I shut the door to the hotel bathroom, were the moments I registered being alone, outside of the itinerary, the patter of family, short term plans and passerby, the flowing by of scenery unlike the familiar touchstones of my home address and agenda.
The main takeaway: This all slips by. It can't be held. It's vaster than can be comprehended or discovered, it's sometimes floating, sometimes shocking with cold or challenging with a heart-pounding climb. You can't stop it and yet it is saturated with tenderness, an intimacy that you already and ever are, that soft sand suggests and the small circle of a blowing weed traces in it. Just this is yours for just right now.
My dear friend Ron passed away in early May of this year. He had a form of cancer. We had been walking weekly, getting coffee, and when I moved, talking every few weeks. He read a poem at my wedding. He came to my art events. He taught me how to ground myself in my legs, to listen with my whole body, and to lower my expectations about human marriages, how they roll and how they feel, especially the first few years. In other words Ron was a good friend.
When he died, I realized I only had his cell phone number, and it took a bit to get his wife Patty's contact information. I called her to check in, see how she was. I know Patty less, but have spent a number of new year's days at their house, and she too, drove three hours to be at my wedding in 2017. I care about Patty. She was doing OK. I asked her about Ron's papers. She was happy to part with some of them, because she was in a cleaning and clearing mode. She sent me a box which I opened two days ago, with a few books and some of Ron's papers, so that I could make a book with them, one of the series I've made starting 20 years ago with my earliest handmade books. In this series 'Death Books,' someone's papers, after they die, get folded every which way and bound, so that you can see their thinking, their marking and their reading and writing, but it's now sideways, folded, upside down, only partly legible. It is a relic of a life that is now over. It is the data and the trace of the life of that singular mind.
Opening that box was something. Tender. An honor. First there was a little fat, laughing buddha on top of all the bubble wrap. Then Ron's inflatable zafu, meditation pillow, on which he did many a three month and one month retreat. Inside were his many notes, and his paper's from the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies. His letters of recommendation to join the retreat and have interviews with Joshu Suzuki Roshi, the stories about which I have heard many times. It's Ron in papers.
These books and the death of people, animals, chapters of life, or relationship, remind me that this art practice is just for fun, whether or not anybody else care's about it. It's just for a while. It's for while I'm breathing, inclined, and able to engage it. Doing something is more important, I feel, than doing it right, or looking good, or towing a line. I can turn a studio practice into those things for sure and I have, but engaging an art practice and making art, to me, is more important than most 'normal activities' in the following way.
Everything, every object in your world is a kind of icon. It's for doing something with. It prompts a certain kind of engagement. Like a file folder on your computer desktop is an icon. A bowl is to eat soup from. A file folder is to open to see files. A chair is to sit on. A book is to read. A dog is to pet. Icons.
An artwork is to...well what is it there for? What is it for? This line of reasoning kind of halts the automatic engagement, if one is really looking, and can loosen the automatic pilot of doing, responding, engaging. In fact anything. a chair, a book, or a dog, can similarly open things up, if one is really there with it. If one forgets it's name, or what it is associated with, or what you think about it. Somehow art is such a personal rendering with no obvious point, that it can be at times more ambiguous, and open things up. Other times, it's another symbol: of status, of fashion, of historic importance, or the kind I don't like. Art is to look at. Art is to buy. Art is to make. But as Anne Truitt said earlier:
...this process is mysterious. It's like not knowing where you're going but knowing how to get there. The fifteen years that David Smith thought it took to become an artist are spent partly in learning how to move ahead sure-footedly as if you did actually know where you are going. -Anne Truitt
Death Books is now also a service, which is described more fully on my art website: hannahburr.com/deathbooks. I will make one for you, from the papers of your beloved departed, if you like.
"In making my work, I make what comforts me, and what is home for me."
Are you comforted by making your work?
[I notice this question might be for the creatives reading, but consider that if you are reading here, my guess is that you are a creative whether you like it, know it, or not! In other words, this applies to anyone reading. So...]
Are you comforted by making your work?
I don't think comfort is a motivating factor in art-making for me. Perhaps the whole process of showing up to make, the routine of it, is a comfort, but the work is brightening and enlivening to me, sometimes disturbing to me, so I wouldn't say comforting. I don't make what comforts me, do I?
Sometimes making certain marks on certain surfaces, and finding the composition that is a YES to me, feels like putting things in order, or like straightening up the world. Putting it right. Perhaps that is a comfort to me.
There is also a discovery process, where for a long time there can be the same pile of materials, or the same kind of shape or process, and suddenly, by mistake or a loosening of something, or just paying closer attention to it and engaging it, the same 'stuff', in some new way or combination, has a new kind of pop or magic to it. That discovery is delightful to me. And then watching what happens to this discovery, or a new process, if it is sustained, or if it sort of fizzles out quickly. Exploring the questions of what sustains it, is in itself, quite motivating and engaging.
It's always felt really clear to me when something I make in the studio is valuable, though not always right away. Sometimes however, doubt gets ahold, some cloudy afternoon when it's cold, and the whole project seems lifeless or a complete lark with no value at all. I have also dreamed of some gorgeous things, while sleeping, and woken up besotted with interest, but not actually brought these things forward. Those are great dreams. Was I supposed to make that stuff? I don't know. Can you relate to this?
There was a period too where some of the marks that really satisfied me, didn't seem to hold up to scrutiny and I couldn't figure out what was going on. I think the intimate scale of making wasn't holding up to the more distant act of viewing a work from further away. In other words, my lines were falling apart from a distance, and I wasn't in enough conversation with others to realize it. This is where relationship, scrutiny, conversation, is so useful.
There are people like Henry Darger who hole up and just do their thing, and later someone realizes it was brilliant, in his own little world, so complete and unapologetic. And I think in a way, that innocence is the thing of letting your inner kid have free reign and knowing that this is where the brilliance is. But there's also the reality that for every discovered Henry Darger there's a rotting pile of papers on a landfill of someone else's world. And it will likely be mine!
There's a freedom in seeing how none of this ultimately matters. Even when a small mark or line also counts. That's a fine line I seem to walk, where there's a need for freedom to break a rule I had laid down, or to make a mess of something, and then there's the self curation, the conversation, the response of others, the asking of questions, and then choosing again. Nothing matters and everything counts.
In the end, it sometimes just comes down to color therapy. When I am surrounded by the colors, as well as the relationships of texture and forms, I feel fulfilled. Happy. Pleased in the most basic sense.
The rest of the art process: the part about jockeying for notice and applying and all of that makes me feel tired before I even begin. And so, I tend to not do that, and pursue other avenues. In part, this is because, when I do have a "show" where I put on a blouse and some boots and eat some sweaty cheese with friends, it often doesn't hold much magic afterall. It is however, truly a delight to meet people through the sharing of the work. To feel like my spirit and someone else's spirit meet through the resonance with my work, or their work, or the conversation that artwork ultimately can be is quite a thing. That is deeply valuable to me, and motivates me to write, to put things in print, to find other avenues to sharing that don't involve as much of a dog & pony show. Life is too short to be a pony or a dog.
Is what you make a comfort for you? I guess in some ways, it turns out to be for me.
Because of it's strong associations, I've spent a lot of time considering whether to use the word 'prayer' in my books at all. It's one of those hot button type of words, for many, and so I considered using several others instead.
Other words I considered using instead of prayer included:
Have I forgotten any that come to mind for you?
Writing all of these down makes me a) want to find an anneagram just because that sounds like fun (SPARPIAA? APRIAPSA!) and b) helps shed light perhaps, into what prayer is.
I always find this - that just translating, rewording, re-expressing something a different way, gets in between the labels and the lines a little more, into the experience of a thing itself. I know for me the word prayer is a label. It’s something that THUNK has a symbolic shape and feeling and form. For some, this symbol or label has a positive tone or feeling about it, or a mixed tone, or something aversive, irrelevant or negative about it.
When sharing about this book with say, museum shops, I avoided using the word in email post titles because so many people would just say NEOPE and delete it. Anyway, here’s what I learned from the consideration of and use of other terms.
Petition was not as religious of a word, and so might have been more descriptive or inclusive, and yet for me there is a pairing with politics, PTA meetings, civic dialogue. This kind of petition, meaning the kind you find in three of my books, is intimate, sometimes wordless, sometimes even embodied in gesture.
Supplication, to supplicate, is the ‘act of begging for something earnestly or humbly.’ Someone pointed out to me that that is one type of prayer you might find in my books, but it isn’t what all of them are. Some of them are more like ‘Hey thanks!’ or ‘I’m not cool with this’ and those are points of contact, but not supplications.
Affirmations do apply to many of these prayers. This is language more of Buddhism, freed up from religiosity in the traditional western sense. An affirmation by one definition is a form of emotional support and encouragement, and so when directed from me to me, or from me to someone else, may be like: ‘You’re doing great!’ or ‘You’re beautiful, don’t ever change.’ Some of the prayers in my books have this kind of tone, but instead they would be phrased like ‘Remind me’ or ‘show me that I am beautiful…’ which combines supplication or affirmation.
Requests would work, for sure. or even the word Bid. I like the word bid, popularized by the phrase ‘Bids for connection’ in the work of John Gottman, because a bid can take many forms, and I think prayer can be the way one lives a life, receives a gift, receives an unwelcome piece of news or a loss, or essentially, does anything. So I do like Bid. I’ll keep that one in mind. But on the cover of a book, it might relate more to the association with an auction and the Highest Bidder.
It has been pointed out to me that this series of books of prayers are essentially poems. Yes. However if I thought of them a poems, I would be twisting myself into knots, trying to wordsmith the crap out of them, and nary a one would have been published. So I’m glad that thought didn’t occur to me. But for many, I have learned, they look at these as books of poetry, and this opens things up even more.
Intention. Intention is a word I use a lot. It’s a word that gives shape to the nebulous. It’s a word from which things materialize. I find that prayer is a form of intention. It is an intention perhaps to connect. To widen, open, release, remember, rest, through a bid for connection, or a prayer. It has a great relevance to these books. These books as I see them at this moment, are a way to frame an experience, a way to shape or re-see and turn to a new view of what had previously been understood, thought of, or determined. It’s like a pulling back and opening up. And these are all a form of reshaping, intending. There is a collaborative aspect to both the prayers and to intentions. Intentions perhaps connote a more self oriented activity, but perhaps these prayers are similarly that as well.
Ask is just a term that I rarely use, but a fun alternate to throw in there: Contemporary Asks to Whatever Works? sure, but the grammar gets confusing!
Aspiration - a hope or ambition of achieving something. Yes, this does fit. An aspiration to whatever works, is like a bid or an ask, a form of reaching. And prayer is in a sense an act of reaching.
So, that’s my meander through a process of vetting terms for the title of my books. Incidentally, the third prayer book is called the same thing as the first. Originally it was going to be called Volume 2, with the same name, but the sales team decided that for new readers that would be confusing and so left it off. So I refer to it as the All New 2021 Edition for the purposes of clarity, because it is all new art and all new prayers.
Your thoughts? Other book title ideas for the future? Please comment below!
Find Hannah's other books for sale here.
I love this essay by painter Agnes Martin, and I love a particular passage in it for artists:
“You must especially know the response that you make to your own work. It is in this way that you discover your direction and the truth about yourself. If you do not discover your response to your own work, you miss the reward. You must look at the work and know how it makes you feel.”
from Beauty is the Mystery of Life, an essay by Agnes Martin.
Being in the studio alone can have many flavors to it. One can be relief, another freedom and delight, another is pressure to use this space your paying for, or have claimed, to do something “important” and unique and great and special. And, upon not feeling like that’s happening, there can be a feeling of existential dread. Do you know whereof I speak?
I investigated this feeling the other day. Meaning that I started with a funny twinge of discomfort, kind of like when you see a little sprout of a weed in the garden, and pull at it, and then discover this runner root zigzagging and netting all over the place, under and around all of the healthy plants. So, the little innocent weed was like a twinge. As I looked it took on more shape. It became stories like “I thought it was something and it’s nothing” underneath that was “I thought I was something and it turns out I’m nothing” or “I thought I was an artist but it turns out I’m a fraud” is another version people get. Underneath that was like a lizard brain ancestral kind of “Game Over” feeling, like the feeling you might have when lost in a desert, having run out of water, having been optimistic until this momentary shift to - Game Over - I thought I might just make it but it turns out I’m toast.
That’s what I mean about existential dread. Art making is so intimate, so ethereal, and so marginal in my culture - it’s not considered essential in the economy or the running of a civic society - and so it can be very intense sometimes, if you have planted a flag or hope to, to come up against generations, policies, and personal stories of - this and you, are a joke.
So, back to this lovely quote by Agnes Martin. In a way, what I think she’s saying here is: No one’s going to care if you don’t. This is an inside job. Strengthen your muscle of commitment to looking, responding, staying open, letting it not always work out, and be honest with what brightens and inspires and interests or even disturbs you, versus what you think others will think, or what will pass or look good, but has no juice for you.
I’m not Agnes Martin and I don’t know what she means, but I do get from this essay that you have to practice putting your own response first, because everything else is just smoke and mirrors. And in a way, you are just smoke and mirrors too, which can be terrifying to realize, but also liberating to discover that truly, none of this matters at all, but somehow too, all of it counts. How well you attend to yourself, or show up for these sprouts of fear that turn out to have a big old root system going back generations and years, is the special sauce of creative practice. It’s essentially like being on retreat with all of your demons, and all of your angels, and keeping steady, sometimes, in the midst of it all.
I marvel that in my 20s, I stumbled into an amazing situation: a great economy, an amazing loft space with artsists in downtown Boston, a good job, and time and interest to just make and make and make art, that people bought. I do also remember how acrid some of my time in the studio was, when the praise and the boons and the sales wasn’t enough. I hated myself underneath, mostly because I didn’t know myself, and I was hanging on to the idea that if you liked me, I’d be ok. But that’s a losing proposition, because everyone on this planet, as my friend Bryan likes to say, is third graders, that’s as skillful and mature as we humans get. So putting my self worth in the hands of you all on the playground is not so smart of a plan.
So eventually, as the cracks started showing: overdoing alcohol and boys and anxiety mounting, some of the root system began to get undug. Until the whole garden was just dirt and I was exhausted and apparently had lost everything. But the ground for things to grow, I realized, was purer and clearer and freer than it had been. So now a whole lifetime later, it’s a flourishing garden with other root systems needing balancing - and those little seedlings of “I’m toast” asking for my attention, which equals my love.
In the end, yes, I am toast. Inconsequential and nothing. Forgotten, maybe 50 years or sooner after I’m dead by anyone that knew me. Turned into something else by anyone who may have known of me. Nothing! Light as a feather. Lighter. Freer. Terrifying!!
Can you relate to the studio demons? Or are they keeping you from the very prospect of a studio in the first place? How do you ground and respond to yourself, your creative work, and your twinges of terror? What are you attending to? What’s growing in your garden plot? What would you like to grow there?
There are many forms of meditation:
Formal and structured
Open eye, walking around in the world types
Closed eye or soft eye meditation seated
Mystical and direct path practices
Loving kindness practice
and many different flavors, cultures and styles to how these are presented:
Zen from Korea, Japan and elsewhere
Vipassana from Burma and Thailand
on so many more
You may yourself already have a practice, have favorite books, a community and a personal philosophy. You may be sampling and learning.
Whatever your situation, I recommend that you do whichever one feels literally the easiest and the most relaxed. We don't need to tie ourselves into knots over something else in our lives. We have plenty of ways of doing so already. So do whatever feels effective and easy for you.
I love the simple exercise Ajahn Chah had listeners try in a talk he gave once. He asked: Do you notice that you are seeing right now? Just check.
Then he asked, how much effort does that seeing take?
That's the effort that is needed for meditation - just that little bit of noticing. No efforting, no big doing, or trying.
I love this. I agree.
Another kind of mess is not knowing. This feels very messy, though it is a very common experience on this planet. How will it turn out? Any project is full of such unknowns, and add to that a team of people you don't know very well, and multiply the unknowns by 2X the number of people on the project, and you have what can feel like a very big mess. How to interpret a silence can be messy in an of itself, and this is in so many places where silence is occurring: Did we get in? Will he call back? Do they like it? Am I going to get to keep this job? Am I dying? Are we ok? What happens next?
The good news is that every religion in the world, most philosophies and many spiritual traditions, as well as the content of most magazines and books, is in response to just this kind of mess, and is filled with explanations, theories, ideas, fixit strategies, processes, hacks and stories to help ostensibly with such a mess as the unknown. Which ultimately is the mess of your life unfolding, perfectly, but without your foreknowledge or a map, no matter what kind of an expert planner and list maker you may be. I won't try to wrap this up with a pithy platitude, just that I feel it too, about every other day, and you are not alone in this messy feeling.
Here is a related page from the new book: Contemporary Prayers 2021 edition:
Below I share my own background with meditation, as well as some lessons I have learned that may help you avoid some of the sillier sides to the industry they call meditation and mindfulness.
My own experience with meditation (skip this part if you don't care!):
I've always been a bit of a mystic, interested in religious rites and rituals of all kinds. I was curious and a little perplexed by those of the episcopal church I grew up attending socially with my family, tried to make sense of a child's illustrated bible my minister uncle provided upon my request when I was 8, and did a 25 page report on Haitian Voodoo ceremonies for an expository writing class in high school.
When I was in college, I ended up double-majoring in art and religion - the least practical two fields one could choose, and two that really were perfect for me. I chose the religious studies department at Brown University because it was a more 'happening' department at that time than the Anthropology department from what I could tell. I studied East Asian religions: Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, as well as Christianity, and a tiny bit of Judaism and Islam. I wrote my senior thesis on Jonestown. I was interested in the difference between cults and religions, how they form and who decides.
I didn't actually meditate at all until I was out of college for a few years, when a good friend, visiting me in the midst of a painful breakup (mine), showed me how. I spent the next ten years trying to attain sainthood by doing lots of meditation of various forms, having a couple of 'special state' moments, and a couple of cultish sidebars that made me wary of the whole thing and fairly confused. Suffice it to say, I learned a lot about what meditation is not, and what to do if you really want to hurt yourself.
After that, I found Vipassana meditation, also called insight meditation, and I liked it because I felt there were fewer bells and whistles, and less outward forms and rituals to adhere to than my forays into Tibetan and Zen buddhism had yielded. I also did some specialized yoga, went on a pilgrimage to south India, and almost gave up my life to go live at an ashram with a couple of kooks; I am grateful that I ultimately did not!
What all those years of attempting to perfect or fix myself and my troubles through meditation did, is to hone my bullshit meter pretty sharply. Here are my *fairly cynical* (you are forewarned!) takeaways or you might call it
Hannah B’s Rough Guide to meditation:
Meditation is being present for what happens. It is simply a form of attention. Attention is love.
There are many ways to be present, some of them are easier than others, some work better for one person than another.
Meditation can be used to calm and center the mind and body, and can be good for your health. It can also really F up your knees if you think it has to be done cross legged like on the magazine covers.
Meditation doesn't look a certain way. You don't have to buy special stuff or hold painful poses. You do not need to have a top knot or mala beads or a shawl. You can eat meat. You can be in therapy. You can enjoy wearing heels or vote republican. If you find yourself developing a new style or persona around your meditation practice, please notice this: it's got nothing, nothing, to do with actually being present.
Meditation doesn't mean that thinking stops. In my experience, you are not in charge of thoughts: the brain thinks like the nose smells, just doing its job. Thinking is not you but a function of the organ called the brain. The more you believe a thought to be you, and believe whatever ticker-tape thoughts come along, the deeper suffering may ensue.
Meditation is not one-size-fits-all.
If anyone tells you their way of meditating is the right way and only way, please do not believe them!
Everybody responds differently to different types of meditation, based on who they are, their genetics, personalities, learning styles and needs, and there are many options. That being said, I recommend keeping it simple and not getting too fetishy about it.
The whole thing, I’ve found, is an inside out process. How you look is just your ego trying to be perfect and liked. I spent a long time trying to 'do it right' and 'look good' because frankly I didn't like who I was, and I thought if I could be this saintly gal, I would have no flaws and I would finally be loved. What I had backward is that the only place where love is is inside, and the outer situation only reflects whatever that relationship is. If the teacher liked me, then I was ok. If I seemed sagely and selfless, then I was safe. Underneath was a really fraudulent feeling and I didn't think it was ok to have such a feeling, to be confused, to be a giant throbbing mess. But I was.
The good news is that, though you can hurt yourself with this "idea" of yourself as a meditator or somehow in a superior place, eventually your course will self correct, it can't not. It may just take longer if you are trying really really hard.
People often learn how to meditate from other people.
This is a little like the way electricity is conducted through metal. It seems helpful to be in conversation with others. In this day and age, such an interaction can be refreshingly down to earth. In my experience a good teacher makes you feel at ease with things as they are, and yourself as you are. Because in a way this is all a big mirror, if you feel like you are disappointing your teacher or getting corrected a lot, it may be because they are feeling disappointed and critical of themselves. Your boundaries are to be valued and honored, as well as your life experience.
If you feel like there's a level of fakeness in the air at a given meditation center, there probably is. A healthy community that forms around meditation is not hierarchical, does not involve prescribed dress and ways of moving, speaking or talking, or giving up all your cash. It may be you that's feeling fake. So see what it's like if you drop that. If it's not okay, perhaps you're in a cult! They are quite common. If you can't be yourself or make choices for yourself freely in that environment, there may be a problem there.
Sometimes there's this far out thing described as having an enlightenment experience, and somebody who has special status because of theirs. Also, be wary here. If what is being referred to is in the past, is romanticising a certain time or association, or a special state other than the present, including you and your experience, also this is something to avoid getting too enamoured of.
Any teacher sitting in front of you is a human being with their own conditioning, preferences, foibles and imperfections. If this is not acknowledged by the teacher, this is a flag. If they dangle something really special in front of you like waking up, and tell you that it takes a long time, decades of sitting on a meditation cushion, or lots of money and expressions of loyalty to the teacher, please run away! If there is like an inner circle, that too is weird. It is!
Some people may be fully awake and never have formally meditated, and never will. Often people who spend decades on a meditation cushion, like I did, do so because they have trouble getting along in the world, not because they've transcended it. Any claim I make, or another makes, to being superior is hiding a fear of being inferior. We certainly all, as humans, believe and sometimes outwardly make such claims, but remembering this can help you take any leader with a grain of salt. As my friend Brian likes to say, we are all - every last one of us, a bunch of third graders wandering around. No one can claim authority for another when we see this fundamental truth. So be scientific and skeptical. Ask the awkward question. Try it out, but trust your gut.
Just Sitting There
My Philosophy of Prayer
Or see the category: Contemplative Practice
Today is a special day. It is one of those days, like a graduation or a wedding, that has been emblazoned on my brain for about a year, because it is the day that the brand new 2021 edition of Contemporary Prayers to Whatever Works, is officially published!
Because this new title is not self published, the date is significant. With my self published earlier titles,* there wasn’t technically a launch date because I just received the shipment of books and then had to scratch my head about how to not ruin the suspension in my car or pull my back or ruin friendships with requests to help me move book boxes, storing them under my bed and using them as furniture in their own right, as well as how to let people know about them, and how to sell them. This is a lot for one person!
With Tiller Press, a division of Simon & Schuster however, I don’t receive the books, and I don’t sell them either. So what exactly happens today? On this the publication date, the book officially goes on sale, which also means more specifically that the book makes its way today through the distribution chain to those retailers that have ordered it.
Today is the day that my new book hits the shelves! I just held the first copy in my hands, and very relieved that the cover isn’t on upside down or something, and that everything is going as planned.
Also, because I was a one woman operation for so long, the fact that I have had a team of skilled professionals doing their sparkly magic in the background like sharing the title with a sales team, who then shares it with retailers, is all very abstract to me. But it’s darn exciting, because with my last books, there is like, no way to really get them into a distribution stream that isn’t very local and very painstaking to set up. There is a special dread to stopping into a shop to ‘let them know’ about my book.
So even though there is nothing particularly tangible going on over here right now, please celebrate with me! Better yet, please purchase a copy of the book, which you can do here. By so doing you help me be in good standing with the publisher and have the possibility of future dealings with them! All of this, truly is an amazing product of a community of people believing in an artist’s project and supporting it. My intention now is to be of service to anyone and everyone who needs some connection, direction and comfort, with a side of humor, some vibrant new imagery and no BS to tangle with.
Thanks again to all of you that have supported me getting to this moment, this is a celebration I share with you!!
much love, lots of gratitude,
*the original contemporary prayers in 2013, Help me [ ], do the thing. that followed in 2016 and the Elements: a love letter to all things everywhere, 2019
In just under a month, the third prayer book, which is my fourth book, and is also my very first book fully published by someone else (in this case Simon+ Schuster’s Tiller Press) arrives! As if by stork. It has in fact already been printed but I have not yet seen it. This feels a little like when you’ve given birth in the nineteen fifties and you are waiting for a nurse to bring you your child. But instead your child is going to arrive one of these days via the US Mail in 2021.
It’s in a very small way like that. The hard work is done - or is it? The sweat of creating the thing has been wiped from our brows, and now the book exists, they tell me, and I am excited! It will be fully out in the world on March 23rd 2021!
But for now, the news I have is that your pre-ordered book is within reach, and is available for purchase via the retailer of your choice at this link: bit.ly/contemporaryprayers
It is funny trying to get ready for something you haven’t ever experienced. It’s challenging to know what preparation matters, and what is just spinning wheels. Self publishing is a very different beast. A lot more control, a lot clearer information, a much smaller platform, and for me, a little more of knowing what to expect. Which here I do not!
Especially in the last year, I find that I am committed to having a reasonably day, everyday, wherever I have a choice in the matter. There is so much in this year that reveals how little control we have, and with this information, it’s become clear to me that being kind to oneself and to those around one is a priority. So I will plan on sharing with you in small bites, in palatable doses for both of us, with the intention of enriching your life and moment, and showing up to be a steward for what s arriving. Here are a couple of sneak peak inside pages for you, and some prayers to get a sense of it.
Hannah, why prayer?
When I share about one of the prayer books, this is one of the questions that comes up. Why did I write these books in the first place? Prayer was not a regular part of my life growing up, and nobody really modeled it for me. I was raised in an Episcopal church, the Easter and Christmas kind of attendance, where it was more social and obligatory than in any way personal. Church was a place where my mother got support and childcare when she was single, working, and struggling. Church was a place where I remember the toys in the daycare area and the beef broth scalding my tongue after the service. There were a couple of nice prayers, but the repetition en masse felt like I was in an army or something, and I was proving my allegiance for my peers, not in any kind of personal or conscious contact with anything.
I came across a more practical form of prayer from several close mentors I had in my twenties and thirties. I learned about things like a prayer for fear and a prayer for when you're pissed off at someone. I also learned there about laying off the whole 'what is God' type of conversation, as less important than actually being in some kind of constructive action, when the alternative is more suffering, conflict and resentment.
The prayer books I've written do not use a word like 'god,' which I see as the ultimate placeholder word, and instead use a form that is abstract, in other words, it doesn't look like anything specific, and that changes on every page and is part of the sentence. *
Why did you use a symbol instead of the word 'god' in your books? I did this because I actually don't know what it is that I'm praying to. I have no idea. I used to have lots and lots of ideas, studying religion and art at Brown University, but I had no experience of prayer, connecting, or feeling connected to speak of. Just a lot of thoughts and ideas about me and my beliefs. That didn't help in any way. Prayer itself has been incredibly helpful once I got desperate enough to actually use it.
Prayer for me is a kind of gesture that you make. It's a kind of connecting, like when the Buddha touched the earth when Mara was getting all up in his grill, or when a dog comes up for a stroke on the muzzle. It's an act of going into relationship. The weird part is, you can, in my experience only learn what you are going into relationship with by trying it out and seeing what happens. Testing the hypothesis in other words.
The issue that I find with religious forms of authority is that they describe something ineffable and then we're dealing with third hand information, and no personal experience whatever.
Why do you use the form of relationship like in a me and you kind of way, if you don't know what you are praying to? If I may be praying to Gravity, or the Universe, why am I using interpersonal language?
I use this language because it's how I as a human being am wired. I am wired for relationship. For a me and you kind of equation. So the you in this equation becomes anything and everything, when instead of a word it becomes an abstract form.
Why is there a picture instead of a word in your book of prayer? How did that idea come about?
I am an visual artist and also have a background in design. At one point I took Edward Tufte's course on the design of visual information and I learned about Galileo and the way he notated his observations of planets and their travel through the night sky. He used small pictograms or of planets right in a sentence, like symbols in a math equation, instead of a name for it.
This really stuck with me. (The image above is a screenshot from Edward Tufte's website). This is what inspired the use of an image in each prayer, rather than a blank or a word. Also, it was the only way I would ever write a book of prayer, because I strongly feel that every one of us has our own conception of whatever the shared ‘god’ is, even if we all belong to the same spiritual or religious or yogic organization. There is literally no way we all have the same feeling, image, or idea, even if the culture is extremely specific about the details. Everyone is doing some kind of translation process whenever language is used, to make sense of and meaning out of what is shared, just like you are doing while reading here. That I feel is no different for shared spiritual, philosophic or religious beliefs and ideas.
Drop the Props and Poses
There is no need to look or feel a certain way to engage meditation. You don't need an expensive pillow or to be flexible or to be able to sit on the floor. Take care of your body. Sometimes having low back support in a chair, or a little cushion to lift up you butt, helps the spine to naturally be relaxed and fairly upright, which allows a nice free flow of energy throughout your body. This helps parts of it not fall asleep and maybe helps you stay awake and be more comfortable.
Establishing a little space
By this I mean some internal space. Please don't try to get yourself to stop thinking. One way is to notice the breath, or perhaps notice sounds in the environment, that kind of a simple focus for a few minutes can help you establish a little internal ease and quiet. There are lots of ways to do this. Some people call it a concentration practice: just pick some version that feels easy and relatively natural for you, to establish this kind of quiet.
Widening the Field
After you establish a little steadiness as explained above, you can then set about to broaden your focus to include whatever happens to be coming up in your experience. This includes physical sensations, thoughts, emotions, sounds, tastes, temperature, areas of contraction, neutrality and density.
This isn't always easy, depending on what emotions might be present, but I strongly recommend looking at whatever comes up as human, natural and ultimately, just passing through, like a bird alighting on a branch outside your window. It might be a noisy flock of house sparrows or a huge coven of crows that hangs out for a while, or a buzzard looming, but it's just coming and going, and like a birdwatcher or even the welcoming backyard itself, recognize that it's not your doing, not your fault, and whatever kind of shitty bird alights, see it as just a visitor to be curious about and open to.
Drop the idea of practice or of yourself practicing
At some point, if and when things feel pretty peaceful, drop any kind of practice and just hang out. No one doing anything. Be the yard. Be the field. Without doing it.
Whatever happens, can you hang out with it? If not, can you hang out with what that's like?
When suffering, for example if the answer to the above two questions is No and Absolutely Not, see if you can sit with the one in pain, like a friend would, someone who loved you.
When, if you are sitting in formal meditation, the timer goes off or you finish the formal part, see if you can carry that same simple sense of observation with you into the day - no need again to look or feel a certain way, in fact better if you don't try to steer or manage that, just see what is happening now. And what about now? Who is here? What's present? those are a few questions you can play with to re acquaint yourself at intervals throughout the day.
Let it be a mess.
Rarely as humans are we all dialed in and buttoned up. Especially if we feel compelled to meditate, or are stopping to notice what's underneath all of the activity and motion, there are messy things to encounter. Unruly feelings, blotchy skin and stuffed up noses, runaway radio station brain activity, bodies that keep trying to get comfortable,or even songs that stick in the head and sabotage that nice mellow feeling we were after. That's to be expected. Please don't expect otherwise. Unless you are another form of life from human, there will be the smelly and the ungainly. Invite that in too.
A note about teachers
If you learn from someone else, please be sure they are not claiming perfection, please be sure to trust your own intuition if things feel off. Ultimately what you are doing when you meditate is paying attention to what is happening. Please let that be from the inside out, and not something someone else controls from outside. The best teachers give you their experience of how to unlock your own freedoms, your own insights, your own guidance. They should not at any point need you to do anything or respond any kind of way. Above all trust your own intuitive response.
On the verge of a brand new edition of Contemporary Prayers coming out on March 23 2021, it seems relevant to share my general experience with a philosophy of prayer. In related posts (upcoming!) I share about why prayer in the first place, about the “God” word and how it seems to me.
Of course, this is a philosophy of one, and whenever I am sharing such things, it is only for you to investigate and see for yourself. That’s kind of the point of the prayer books in a way, is to connect directly, see what happens for you, tweak it, leave it be, and know what your own response is.*
Here are seven ways that I find prayer works effectively
1.Don’t sugar coat a prayer: If you speak with a flourish because it’s who you are, that’s how I have found it best to pray: in your own language, and without filagree that isn’t genuine.
I’ve found my own language is a little less floral, and as a result, the relationship is also easier. Just think about other relationships and the language you use with the people closest to you. If it’s intimate, the way you speak is likely genuine and honest.
2. Bring especially, the petty stuff to prayer: It’s the petty stuff that sometimes really gets me. That’s the stuff that can grab hold of my system and not let go. So that’s the stuff I particularly set down through prayer. That’s how it feels. It’s like setting something down. That’s why in my first book, there are prayers about finding keys and turning down the heat. Sometimes we humans need help making basic decisions or remembering basic things.
I also find that when I do use these kinds of ‘set down’ prayers, I find that I don’t need to ‘hold’ the worry or the fear. I do remember, I do turn and pick up that book and lo, the keys are there underneath the book when I’ve asked for help in prayer with these details. That’s the only reason that I have shared these prayers. They have made things much easier and less thought-filled, created space for me to focus on what feels more important, and they have worked.
3. There’s no need for spiritual experience or special state to pray. What I mean by this is that, if I’m full of fear and I just state that I’m full of fear, it might not make the fear go away at that moment, I might not feel suddenly brave and confident, but it helps me to step back and to connect, and is the opening for a shift to occur. If I am in pain and just say ‘I am in pain!’ in the form of a prayer, or even just sharing with a trusted friend, that too is an honest offering, and I don’t have to look or feel any different than I do.
4. Praying for one specific outcome like Please make Joey get the measles, or Please make it rain so that I don’t have to go to that picnic, doesn't work. It is limited in imagination to what I can dream up for one thing, it’s trying to run the whole show for another. In essence, it’s more controlling than collaborative. It helps to drop the related objects: the people places and things in the situation, and then to see what’s going on underneath for you. Whatever is discovered, make that as an offering, or ask for another way of seeing.
Any kind of prayer however, is ultimately OK however, because its the act of connecting, of remembering that we are not separate, that seems to be the main point.
5. Asking ‘why’ gets you crickets. It’s a little like asking for very specifc and complex outcomes in prayer; asking ‘why’ is kind of a demand. Why did this happen. Why are you punishing me? that one’s an accusation and comes with a built in story: that you are being punished. I once got a strong intuition that really, it’s none of my busness why. I am not privy to the back room workings of the cosmos. I am making a kind of offering in prayer, of what’s here, what feels challenging. Asking Why is demanding an explanation, like you might with a naughty child. But that doesn’t mean you can’t get mad.
6. Offering is anger, rage, giving up, complete resistance or throw-down is a lovely, honest and intimate way to pray. That’s why I include prayers with swears in them - that’s how I’ve found prayer works. It’s part of the honesty thing. I think, as a sidebar, we’ve been told that we are supposed to act and look a certain way to be spiritual or religious. This is something I enthusiastically avoid. I once dropped some books off at a well known retreat center and there was so much soft toned namastaying going on, my bullshit meter was at 11. I couldn’t get out of there fast enough! There are many different flavors and styles of spiritual or religious BS, mixed in with genuine sincerity.
Strange as it may sound, the few times I have truly let my honest rage and despair flow, directing it straight to * and not to the people I felt were involved, or toward myself, I felt, palpably, when the dust settled, a deep and loving response. The offering is the rage, it’s taking it to the source, rather than dumping it on other fallible humans also struggling.
7. It helps if I’ve said prayers at some earlier point, to look back and see how things went, with curiosity. How did it go? You might call this a kind of gratitude practice. Here’s *, where I felt your presence in the day. That way you can see more clearly for yourself if the prayers had any effect, and you can express your awareness of and appreciation for what you’d like more of.
Solo Exhibition of new work by Hannah Burr
Ann Arbor MI
Sept 17-Oct 22 2022
This is a service and will soon be a course - in person and online. Let me know if you'd like to be notified when it's ready!
If you feel overwhelmed, confused or just plain excited by what's afoot in your life, and would like some excellent clarifying space and tools, try a session with Hannah! She's been a coach for 15 years. First 30 minutes is just to see what it's like...
Hannah Burr is a contemporary artist and author. Originally from Boston, she lives in Ann Arbor MI.