In the theme of messes, I introduce the topic of the insurmountable problem.
An insurmountable problem is one for which there is no present solution, no clear way around, and nothing to do about nothing. Something that is insurmountable is something 'incapable of being overcome'.
I would call an insurmountable problem a mess, in that it is something that grinds to a halt, like, for example, a movie theatre during covid. It's a mess because one is powerless to change that fact.
A smaller example has come up for me in the past several weeks that to me has felt big. Yes it is a complete luxury problem, and still, it's in my face and has been blocking my work. I have a new wood stove in my art studio. It was going gangbusters, and then suddenly, two months in, began filling the room with smoke whenever I opened the door. And I mean even when I was lighting the fire.
I cleaned the baffle, the lower chimney pipe, I called the manufacturer, I consulted friends about the wood quality, I lit smokeless fires with no paper. I cleaned the ash pan and the firebox out completely, and even the stove glass window. Still, smoke pours into the room.
So this, right now, seems like an insurmountable problem to me, a mess!
For about five days, I avoided the studio. It had soot dust floating hither and thither, and it was cold, and it reminded me of my insurmountable problem.
When I was imagining the studio finished, when it was just a rough shell, I knew that this amazing new space would be incredible, but eventually, in the manner of Pavlov's Dog, would become either ordinary or overlooked, or worse, the source of a problem or headache, or lots.
This is how it goes. A boon is often accompanied by stress from new responsibilities and new things to attend to. And this studio was a major boon for me. So, the insurmountable problem in my tiny world is the stove.
For an insurmountable problem, my only answer, and my very very best move, is prayer.
What prayer does, is it allows me to put the insurmountable concern down. To stop the obsessive anxious brain spin. To not worry this like a bone, lose sleep, catastrophize, try and force solutions, freak out, break something while exhausted and forcing things, avoid showing up, and lose all perspective. When I surrender it, I actually can stop thinking about it and focus on other things. And I have found when I do so, things shift without my trying to shift them.
I wrote or said a prayer something like this:
[ ], I place this wood stove situation completely in your care. I hand it over, I surrender it completely to you. Thank you for taking care of it, and thank you for inspiring me and directing me toward any small action to assist you in so doing. I am deeply grateful that you are taking care of this and I thank you for this beautiful stove and studio.
Instead of avoiding the place, which was feeling like a set jaw, or like a stubborn latch I didn't want to open, I prayed or in other words, set an intention to find myself in there again, enjoying and appreciating the space, thriving creatively, engaged and happy, this week.
As prayer, this intention looks something like this:
[ ], I would love the inspiration, willingness and motivation to be in the studio again, happily at work, engaged and filled with gratitude for what a lovely space it is. Help me to be warm and at peace with things just as they are and, oh yeah, again, that stove? I leave it entirely with you.
So today is Monday, and after avoiding the studio all weekend and praying when it started to roost in my thinking, I felt inspired to step in there with my tea and journal this morning, put a blanket down on a seat so my butt wouldn't get cold, and blasted the milk house heater at my feet. There I did some writing.
The other form of prayer that I engaged in this morning was a form of gratitude, to 'want what I have' rather than only see things as a SNAFU (which stands for Situation all fucked up in case you didn't know).
I wrote a list of everything that I love about the studio:
It's location, the light, the views out the windows, the white walls, the closet, the table space, the organization, the wifi...
and everything that I've done in there since I moved back in
Inventorying, completing lots of work, starting a new series, photographing and filming, completing the space, writing a lot, having an occasional covid-safe studio visit...
Both of which helped me see things in a new light, and give me a feeling of inspiration and accomplishment and gratitude.
To be clear, this is now an automatic process, that began in times when I was super stuck for a long time, and it is a process that I use not to be 'good' or saccharin, but because it literally blasts out the shitty cobwebs that yield more shitty cobwebs when allowed to hang around for long.
When the list was done, I found myself trying one more fire - NOPE! no change, just a smokey, shitty mess. I then found myself sweeping, dusting, organizing, rearranging, making a list of what I'm doing with what project, and then came three actions, a minor plan of sorts, for further troubleshooting the stove. By showing some love to the space, I also got out the soot and cobwebs, and cleaned up the flow and possibility in there as well.
As I write this, I've asked for help, spoken with my husband's friend Lenny, troubleshooted with him, and asked our good friend Al to borrow his chimney cleaning brush.
The next step is a little unclear, but I am likely to be shown what it is when it's time. The goal is to inspect the upper section of the chimney as creosote has likely blocked the opening as I've only gotten to the lower half.
So the tools at work here for insurmountable problem situations are - (not necessarily in any order, or looking or feeling good in the process)
This metal box is a bit not the right container for the teas and tea paraphernalia that I use in the studio because it is a) too small b) meant for more serious things, and c) ugly. However, it is *the* tea box, and has been for years. It usually and currently contains some dish towels, boxes and individual packets of tea bags, and a few tea cups and mugs. It sits atop a bookshelf, and carries with it the friendly anticipation of a studio visit where one might serve tea. If I have snacks, the fact that the tea box is metal with a latch means that a mouse would be less drawn to the box. Happily there are no mice as of yet in this studio!
When it is just me, which is most of the time, the tea cups are stacked in a jumble and most of them have the dried dregs of my own tea or coffee drinkings. Which means that when someone is coming for a bonafide studio visit, I will wash these, or swap them out for other mugs from my kitchen that are dishwasher clean. Sometimes it's a bit like camping in the studio when it's just me.
I currently have mostly tisanes: or herbal teas, in the manner of ginger, ginger turmeric and mint. A few green teas lurk, and if one requests black tea, I can dig some up in the house.
The studio for many years has been the receptacle for things I have discarded from my home, but can be handy anyway. The Q tip jar for example, which was a failed coffee cup, extra fancy china that no one else in my home likes to use, and the beer steins that I once started compulsively collected but stopped after I had 5 of them. I have two left, and they are actually part of a Stand In sculpture, though at times have been used for tea during a visit. Other objects from home that have a rag tag second life in the studio include favorite cashmere sweaters with too many moth holes, corduroy jean shorts and heavy messed up pants for dirty paint projects, plastic molded clogs, and lots of yogurt containers at one point, though not currently.
In a sense, the studio can certainly be an excuse to never let anything go, in the tradition of the New Englander who can find a use for anything, and as a mixed media artist I mean anything.
But these days, though there is certainly a lot of serious stuff in the studio, it has been pared down to only the more essential junk, and whisked away into what I hope will stay an orderly closet.
Finally, here is an image from an art project from 2007 called Tangle, in which contents of my Tea Box were wrapped on my head. To see more of this project visit hannahburr.com/tangle.
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
Yesterday, I was looking at a giant amaryllis bulb, one that doesn’t require any water or soil as it grows. It’s very prehistoric looking. How, we wondered, can it grow like that? We decided that they are a little like a slow bomb, containing all but the sunlight and warmth needed to explode forth in imperceptible increments, until quietly, POW, a graceful explosion of softly unfurling petals, stamen: perfect. Itself.
Consider the many amazing threads to this phenomenon: Nature as unstoppable force, everything always changing, and your very own life’s trajectory, similarly carrying itself out, according to the seed codes etched in each of billions of cells, that somehow get nourished and replaced multiple times while you move about the day, over and over again until one day, you no longer do.
I am looking at that bulb now, and it’s at least an inch taller that yesterday.Yet it’s the same bulb, in the same container, on the same table, in the same room isn’t it? Also, it’s Mine, right? My bulb, my container, my room. The mind makes up these rules, partitions territories, ‘things’ everything. The mind tells me it’s all Mine (my cells!) all the same as yesterday, and that yesterday is a thing, a real thing too. That flower bomb however, this slomo life exploding, is part of a going off that’s been underway since the big bang (or before?). That bulb is just a tiny nano moment of a spark of that event, as are you, all of this, even the strands of Donald Trumps combover are a part of this unstoppable sparking then fizzling.
What does that change, to see this as just an extension of one explosion? Every word spoken, hand squeezed, pie baked from scratch, expletive uttered, held gaze with a squirrel, burst of giggle? What if all of these are simply bursts of firework light, one and then another, an another, relentless, unstoppable, glorious, ablaze?
At this moment thousands of processes in plant bulbs in Trader Joe’s across the land, mysteries deep underground and in thermal vents on the ocean floor, in our bodies, corroding car bodies, weather cycles high up, the inner core of trees, plastics, stars burning out, moisture seeping into basements…: All are a part of this relentless event unfolding.
And yet, my story, and yours, of being an agent, a doer, in comparison to other agents and doers, is so convincing. It says, this story, that you are separate, a symbol or icon, as if surrounded by a white screen or page in a story book, or an object up for auction on Ebay, to be chosen or chosen over, forgotten or thrown away.
There is no such thing as a separate you. The trees are your very lungs. The tone of another’s voice can change the trajectory of your blazing, and that bulb on the table is a part of this burning, as is the table, the room, holiday food digesting, and the sensations in your hands. You are not, my love, an object, but part of a great blazing. Blaze on!
I’ve been in a temporary home for about a month here in Michigan. It’s a good serviceable place: it’s quiet and has a workspace for me and a nice kitchen. I’ve found that without a working art studio, which is waiting to be unpacked in a more permanent spot later in the fall, I’m not able to fuss about or work much with my hands, and I have meanwhile been working on two laptop-based, excel-based projects. The laptop screen is also where I see my Boston people during video conference visits, do my research, and connect with other virtual communities.
In my ‘productivity’ I have inadvertently taken myself out of active circulation. At the end of the last couple of days I’ve felt gross and stuck, my leg pinned underneath my body in a way that’s downright painful when I unfold it. It’s like I’m a little coagulating mass beginning to damn up an artery.
We all know that circulation is beneficial to the well being and health of any kind of system: a room, a body, a city. When I get fooled into the idea that my worth and value is in doing, and that the doing is somehow involved in being locked in a gaze with the glowing square orb of a computer or smartphone screen for more than half of my time, I am at that time starting to sink in the mire of stagnation. Stagance or stuckness happens in a variety of dimensions at the same time, and shows up in air flow, blood flow, traffic patterns, water flow, body movement, mental loops. When I'm stuck on the laptop, the legs tucked cozily under me may be getting insufficient blood flow, my breathing dulls, and the muscles in my back get weird and stiff. The space also gets a mucky vibe- it begins to get stuffy, cluttered and dead feeling.
Stangance can appear as clutter or sediment building in the eddy of a stream, carbon monoxide rising from miles of breezeless traffic, constipation, isolation, boredom, or repeating one path to and from the fridge, or fingernail to mouth, over and over again. Stagnance starts out sometimes as a needed break, and becomes the trance of one TV show after another, or one more excel spreadsheet to finalize.
My commitment to you, as a part of the larger earth body that we belong to, is to put myself back into circulation: walks, even in circles round the same four blocks, will be one way I circulate. Drives, turning down unfamiliar roads, biking around, bringing my lunch to a park bench, and getting up from this machine hourly, for a break for the eyes, the hands, wrists and body. Also I can circulate by stopping and looking out the window, checking in with eyes closed to sound, smell, taste, touch, and breath. Getting up to pick up some socks, tidying the eddies of objects that accumulate on surfaces, jumping into water, a lake, the tub, a shower. Wiping down the counters - picking something up, and placing it intentionally down somewhere else. All of these brief engagements arrive with a basic energy and aliveness.They remind me that this is what I actually am: basic energy and aliveness. The rest is just gathering on my surfaces.
Walking also leads to connections and discoveries. On my day 1 of circulation, I ran into a woman on the street I’d been playing phone tag with, and lo I had my calendar and we finally made a tea date. All because I set foot outside.
To circulate is to light up the thru ways of the brain, to clear them out and to trust and value yourself as an essential part of the wider world, this alive whole, without fanfare or specialness to gum up the gears.
The more you circulate and welcome circulation, the more the whole parade can simply flow.
Stagnation in the world:
unreturned library books, unpaid bills, piles of clothing or dishes, papers, mail, trash, appliances that don’t get used taking up counter space, unreturned phone calls and emails, the couch nest or the bed nest, sheets that need washing, a body or hair that’s past being clean. Eating the same foods over and over, sitting in one place, always spending time with one or two people, or alone.
Circulation in the world:
Standing up. Stretching, raising the gaze, moving the muscles of the face, shakin’ that behind, music, sound, walking, swinging the arms, slowly drinking a glass of water, taking a ride, walk or drive, showing up for someone else, attending something public, making something for no reason, getting out of bed, pulling up the shade, opening the windows and door.
Hannah Burr is a contemporary artist and author. Originally from Boston, she lives in Ann Arbor MI.