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
Look back, take stock, and celebrate.
While the first way: Stay in the Body is concrete and personal, the next two have a more contemplative and cerebral quality to them.
The question is then, how to do these things. There are a million ways. Right now what’s springing to mind is to suggest with a friend, or to set a date or two with yourself, to do these things intentionally. You might put on your calendar for a day of this weekend, or the one right before or after the bigger holiday events coming up, a two hour window at your favorite coffee shop or nook, to meet or factetime a copascetic friend or on your own, to come together write and share on the following.
A few guidelines:
Don’t force anyone to do this. Including yourself. No 14 year old kid is likely going to want to answer these questions. That’s ok.
If doing this in a group or with friends, let everyone be and respond as they want to. It’s not a time for advice giving or opining. This was everyone feels safe.
When I do this kind of thing with a friend, I find it helpful to share the questions and write on them, and then each person has time to share out loud what they wrote.
A little over a month ago, after 6 years of conceptualizing, researching, starting, stopping, presenting, sharing, reworking, building, editing, building, editing, refining, freaking out and head scratching, I finally got to meet the Elements book on its own terms. As my mother used to say as I was heading off to college: the biscuits are out of the oven! In other words, it's out of my hands now!
So now, after a complicated and exhilarating month, I have handed out and distributed all of the reserved copies, shared the book at a talk in Maine, a book pick up party in Boston, one in Ann Arbor, an art book fair in North Hampton MA and another in Detroit MI, I'm stepping back to marvel and reflect. The feedback, I believe, made the book more approachable, playful and easy to delve in and out of with impunity. My favorite part happens now, as I learn what this project means for others, how it lands for you, and what it wants to be in the world.
Here are some reactions I've gotten to Elements so far:
This is a book for poets married to scientists and engineers married to artists.
This is a book for the parents of scientists.
This is a book for families wanting a playful and awe inspiring entry point to science and to the world, objects, inner and outerspace. It's a wonderful learning tool for the whole family.
This is a book that can create access to a formerly expert, specialized subject, for more visual thinkers or people steeped in other subjects for most of their lives.
This book can be used as a meditation tool, a page a day, a random flip open, to shift perspective or go deep.
This book is for synesthetes and those loving a lateral view, a different cross section of our world.
It's been surprising and delightful to learn all of this, as people connect with it at my table at an art book fair, or emailed me after receiving it and sitting down with it for the first time. Hearing my retired uncle admit that they didn't know titanium was an element until this book. To watch my Waldorf teacher friend get super excited about it for a teaching block, my cousin Katie, an episcopal minister and teacher, send me a photo of it on her teachers desk as a dynamic entry point to mysticism. My 13 year old nephew start in from the first page, and get really into the paper legend and visual patterns hidden in the book. My favorite was a woman at the Northampton Art Book Fair, a biology major volunteering who happened to be sitting next to me. She asked to take a peek at my book, then clutched it to her chest, held it up over her head and shouted, I LOVE THIS BOOK! I need it! It's how I learn! And then too, discovering across from me at the Detroit Art Book Fair that Flower Press had made a bumper sticker that read: MORE TEXTBOOKS BY WOMEN. And I thought YES! That's also what this is!
So far I've broken down 25 boxes, as I send and hand out the books. That's 575 pounds of Elements book out in the world!
Upcoming are two more events to date: On November 10 in Ann Arbor, the book will be shared and launched along with 8 other authors publishing through 5th Avenue Press. I'll be giving a very brief presentation of the book.* And on November 9 and 10 in Boston, I'll be at the Boston Art Book Fair to share this and the brand new calendar, as well as the concept of WE AM, a collective in development.
*My presentation will be a recorded talk, and Guy will be there to share and sell the books, all of which will be signed copies.
Walt Whitman's writing arises itself from a very unified understanding of being, objects and the world.
On the eve of sharing my third book with all of you this September, I share this part of his epic poem Song of Myself.
17. Song of the Broad-Axe
The shapes arise!
Shapes of factories, arsenals, foundries, markets,
Shapes of two-threaded tracks of railroads,
Shapes of the sleepers of bridges, vast frameworks, girders, arches,
Shapes of the fleets of barges, tows, lake and canal craft, river craft,
Ship-yards and dry-rocks along the Eastern and Western seas, and in many a bay and by-place,
The live-oak kelsons, the pine planks, the spars, the hackmatack-roots for knees,
The ships themselves on their ways, the tiers of scaffolds, the workmen busy outside and inside,
The tools lying around, the great auger and little auger, the adze, bolt, line, square, gouge, and bead-plane...
I love about it that it's a list of things, that it's about the mundane, observing what's here, and just letting it awe one. The full title of the upcoming book is Elements: a love letter to all things everywhere. As you can see here, this poem is clearly a love letter to all things everywhere. And it is a song of Walt Whitman's Self. In this new book you will find lists of objects, arranged around each of the 118 known chemical elements that make all the stuff, all the shapes arising.
This part of Whitman's poem is not in the upcoming book, but there are other words of his included:
Every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
I was intrigued by Whitman's use of the word 'atom' because the atom as we understand it today in scientific terms, was not actually discovered during Whitman's time. It turns out that the word 'atom' is an ancient greek word meaning 'indivisible.' The smallest unit possible. Now for us, an atom is made up of smaller parts: protons, neutrons and electrons, and smaller particles including quarks. And we keep discovering that an 'indivisible' thing is made of other things, defying/expanding our understanding again and again. The concept and word 'atom' is ancient, and used by Whitman in his writing and poems, in sum.
An element, by the way, is a uniquely structured atom, with a set number of protons, and electrons, and its own atomic weight (based on these). There are 118 known such elements, or unique atoms, that bind and react (steam, smoke, fire, farts, fireworks, rust, yogurt and so on) and make all the things we are, eat, have, and see. The lightest one has one proton and electron and the atomic weight of 1 (Hydrogen H). The heaviest has 118 protons and electrons, and the atomic weight of 118 (Oganesson Og -recently discovered and named if you haven't heard of it).
Here are a couple of other Walt Whitman snippets that I considered including in the book because they hit upon these themes of awe, union, and inseparability that inspired my book:
15. To be in any form, what is that?…
I have instant conductors all over me whether I pass or stop,
They seize every object and lead it harmlessly through me.
14. My tongue, every atom of my blood, form’d from this soil, this air,
Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents the same…
18. Songs of the Open Road
The earth never tires,
The earth is rude, silent, incomprehensible at first, Nature is rude, silent, incomprehensible at first,
Be not discouraged, keep on, there are divine things well envelop’d,
I swear to you there are divine things more beautiful than words can tell.
I can't wait to share this book with you. Thanks for tuning in.
UPDATE! The Elements book is now for sale here.
There are three things in this post: A celebration, an outline of my ten learnings from Elements so far, and some actual dates for celebrating with me and getting your books in Ann Arbor and Boston. Read on!
This early June, the peonies are taking their luxurious time to open here in Michigan.
Yesterday, I finally communicated to the printer of the Elements book, the following phrase:
I approve this book for printing.
This is a big moment in printing a book.
It means that the book is complete: edited, proofread, spellchecked, gone through page by page probably 200 times, updated, and then sent off for proofing again. There’s the proof where you’re checking that no pages are upside-down or out of order, that no headers went mysteriously missing, and that the layout is as expected. That’s called the indigo or ozalid proof. The color looks like crap and there are weird inconsistencies in the ink, but you are supposed to ignore that.
For this project, I approved a wet proof as well. This one roll of paper, about the size of six posters, cost $800. The printer has to set the entire press up with the actual paper and actual ink and final settings, so you can see if the cover is the right tone, the text is dark enough, and how the ink sits/absorbs on the uncoated creamy paper stock I chose.
That in itself could be another round of proofing, but I decided I couldn’t front another $800 to see what a slight modification in the cyan would look like. Most projects don’t wet proof unless like this one, you’re using different paper and have a lot of color artwork in the book.
This book is 428 pages. Early in the process, I had to play about a week’s worth of tetrus to figure out how to consolidate down by about 12 pages. This process involved looking at other books, playing mental scenarios out, and drawing lots of page grids and sketches.
My last two books were 125 pages each, with a single line or two of text on most of the pages. To be honest, back in 2012 when I started working with my first overseas printer, I had no idea what I was doing, and was yes, using a lot of prayer to sleep ok at night and trust that it was all going to work out. I didn’t think much about the paper, I had no idea what exactly I was supposed to be looking at with the proofs that arrived, and I was too intimidated to ask many questions.
Comparatively and in hindsight, I now see that ignorance is bliss, and that a shorter book takes a lot less time to prepare!
On this project I had a book designer Amanda Szot from AADL offering guidance, ideas, and a lovely Periodic Table of Elements.Working with Amanda and learning some of her process made me aware of my very real learning curve with InDesign. I think back to Leila Simon Hayes working on the layout and cover design of the last two books, and how challenging it must have been that I was so fly-by-night and chaotic in my approach. Alas. But I am also fairly detail oriented and scrappy, which is how I probably got it to the printer at all. I’ve learned a lot from the people and process that become woven into the making of these books.
I asked for a lot more help on this project than I had before, and help arrived in very cool forms.
a) I met Patrick Barber, a book designer, at the Detroit Art Book Fair last fall, where he was admiring my paintings. He recommended the overseas printer I ended up working with using his recommended contact. We through books his publishing company had printed with this printer in his Detroit living room, as I scribbled notes and asked all the questions I could think of.
Later in the process, I proposed we barter: His expertise and consulting for artwork. Since then he’s been helping me decipher complex emails, strategize approaches in response, understand the focus and motivation of the printing team, and understand rich black versus straight black, the invoices and purchase orders, exports to PDF, and how to approach each round of proofing. All with enthusiasm, which makes me feel so glad I have work to barter!
Nicco Pandolfi took on an early round of editing, and was paired with me by Sara Wedell, the overseer of my publishing team at the Ann Arbor District Library. This was my frist experience with an editor or a publishing team (of which designer Amanda Szot is also a part), and it both raised the level of support, the bar for the finished product, and my awareness that my one month timeframe to get this book to press was wAAAAy unrealistic.
So, it’s been a LOT more of my life and time than I thought possible to bring this book to the point of printing (one month became five).
I have learned ten things. I have learned to
-ask for help (1)
-set up an ergonomic workstation (2)
-take care of my eyes and body with breaks and limits to my screen time (3)
-slow way down, take the time needed (4)
-consider that I may not know how to spell all words (5)
-put lots of mental emotional padding between me and emails that might otherwise raise up the hackles.(6) For example, the email where I thought the book was going to cost 2000 more than the highest quote (beyond all raised funds), because of a misunderstanding about the number of color pages.
-be curious and open where I might before have been a compact singularity of stress (7)
-tell the truth and extend a deadline which, up until this project I’d prided myself on never having done (8)
-handle things gently and with love, first and foremost myself, and everyone else from there (9)
-navigate around lots of technical stuff in Lightroom, InDesign and and way more about the business of printing in general (10)
...and maybe on the next project, make the book a tiny bit shorter!
In other words, I have changed in significant ways because of this project.
The peony next to my monitor went from deep hot pink to soft light pink like a fading curtain over the last few days. The petals have mostly dropped onto the table. And, there are more adventures ahead with this project.
One more proof, the F&Gs, are my opportunity to remedy tiny smudges or printing anomalies of the final, already printed book before binding, and then it gets delivered.
To be safe, we’re saying the delivery date is September. I plan to have a pick up party in Boston on September 7th, and another in Michigan on September 13th. I rest well in the knowledge I’ve done my best while taking good care of this project and myself, and I trust everyone who has invested their time, interest, money and expertise, as well as emotional support, to get us to these words:
I approve this book for printing.
[Originally posted in Spring of 2013]
A few weeks ago I was driving home at night through Brookline. In one of the town's many rotaries was a simple mound with many, many daffodils in bloom. It was raining and I noticed them on my left.
Normally, I'd cluck over their beauty with a heightened sense of goodwill. But in this instance, I was surprised by what I saw there instead. I had a similar sensation once while looking at stars in Maine. I saw depth in the night sky, where before I'd seen more of a blanket or curved plane of stars like in the planetarium. Seeing the flowers in the rotary gave me a similar feeling of vastness, or vertigo.
I saw while passing the flowers that the whole mess of them, the entire mound of hundreds, was actually one conscious presence or force, like a collective brain. Something far less diminutive or poetic than what I'd previously percieved. The green shoots, threading roots filtering the dirt, meet as a single mind under there.
Our lives are lived at times with the leaden feeling of no-one-gives-a-shit/sees me/understands. As a woman living alone turning 40 in a month, the daffodil revelation is important. The cars circling the rotary, people on a train platform, a group listening to a concert is the same. We get so caught in the mire of being individuals. The tangle of speculation, obligation, association, doubt and doom - Doing and aiming for a high perch on the hill, or we fear mediocrity and failure. I want to be a success, don't you?
When I can feel the ground underneath, or the weather as it mixes with the tiny hairs on my arm, use my senses to reconnect to the situation I find myself in at any given moment, just as it is and just as I am, recollected.
Those flowers don't have long. They get a few weeks if they're lucky to kappow in yellow. That depth and connection is also available to me and you, as is the profound beauty of our vulnerable, short lives.
My life has been included times of extreme, big, scary, and sometimes all-at-once change.
Three times, I’ve lost a job, a relationship, and had to move within the span of a week. Can you relate? Certain things have been constants. Family nearby and an art practice I’ve always had. Last year I moved half way across the country, and now family is far away too: The world itself appears to be going through relentless unfolding processes, losses, big shifts in understanding, incredible challenges: big effin’ change.
This summer I’m taking some major action on things I’ve dreamed about for several years, chewed on, but never seen a way to make happen. In the last month I’ve begun learning how I might Scale Up by doing these 8 things:
I’m sharing this post with you because this is one on a long list of scary things I’m doing right now to get honest and stay accountable. I’m managing my time in a more specific way, working up the nerve to share things via video, re-alphabetizing a lot of index cards and solving strange problems. I’m also listening to people to whom I can’t relate very much, who share what they did to find their audience, and taking their suggestions. I’m showing up to practice what it feels like to be seen going through this, instead of only sharing the finished product as if it was seamless and delightful to pull together.
7 Reasons Why I’m Doing This
1. What I have to share is genuinely, practically useful, tested and delivered uniquely.
2. I’m here to share what I make. Why not master the sharing part?
3. I’m curious and interested to see what’s going to happen. I know what happens if I do things the way I’ve always done them. What if I go about it full boar instead of half-assedly?
4. I like learning, and man, is there a steep learning curve right now! Every day, I’ve got about 8 new major questions to answer. It’s a self imposed boot camp.
5. It says in some 12-step literature I value: I can’t transmit something I haven’t got. Anywhere I’m staying small and Eeyore-esque, is an area where I’m not able to be useful to others.
6. Freedom. Did I mention? I don’t do anyone any favors by staying small.
7. My success is your success, and your success is mine. Somehow, it really comes down to my relationship to you. I don’t understand why or how, but it’s clear to me that I’m not supposed to, and can’t do this without you. We are deeply, all of us, interconnected. I’m swashbuckling through new territory and so are you. You can steer me clear of the ditches as I share practical process, metaphor and creative work to support you right back.
By sharing this with you, I’m taking a risk, but I’m also hoping that you will keep me accountable, human, and honest throughout. Sometimes I may have to be honest about being full of shit. Or thinking something was a good idea that turned out not to be. But I won’t be alone. We’re like a field of daffodils, all opening under the same sun, interwoven and strong in a root system that is our collective.
As I do this, I’d love to hear from you, support your conversation with one another, and know what you value. I want to be responsive and in conversation with you.
What edge are you working right now? How uncomfortable is it? What/who is supporting you through this transformation? How are you caring for yourself? Why are you committed to this change?
Looking back on this ambitious list, I notice a few things. Several items on it didn't happen and several of them did. I took a lot of actions and kind of twisted myself up in knots in the process, but also, some of those things bore fruit, and some of them didn't. That's how it goes. I think growing up as an artist and a business person means risking failure, or unfinished stuff, without giving up or packing up.
This update is from March of 2021. The Elements book became a reality, and also had a publisher of sorts through the local imprint 5th Avenue Press. That wasn't my goal, but it was a great new experience, following the successful crowdfund.
I investigated sales reps, and I ended up in that invesitgation being offered a book deal from a major publisher for the 2021 Edition of Contemporary Prayers, which comes out this week!! I could not have planned that. So none of my own sales reps, but a publisher with their own fleet of them, is what turned up.
The online school was a bit of a u-turn. I spent a lot of time on it, but I also wasted some serious clams on the endeavor, and it wasn't the right time. Maybe in the future, maybe not!
And I continue to coach, and to love it. I have begun working with a new mentor of my own and this expands very much how I think of this kind of one on one work. I am happy with things as they are, never finished, always in process, and never really in any way, about me.
The other day Guy brought home water balloons. He sometimes does this: gets something plasticky and colorful at the dollar store that brings him an inordinate amount of delight. He wanted to play catch with them after filling them up with hose water, as one does.
As we stood there, barefoot on the lawn, I had a visceral memory of being 8 or 7 or 10 with my cousins up in Maine, standing around absorbed in a mission, out in the grass and heat.
I had had a crappy day working on some new business strategies and feeling a little bit like a fish out of water. What I excel at is coloring, drawing, zoning out and looking out at the leaves fluttering in a tree; less so the roll-up-your-sleeves and get-in-there and fall-down-and-get-up-again attitude of much of the business world. And yet I am a business owner, and lately have taken seriously the notion that it’s up to me to care for and run the business as professionally as I can.
The game was to toss the water balloon back and forth, and to take a step away from each other with each turn, like a colorful and wet version of Russian Roulette. At first I noticed that my teeth clenched every time I went to catch the balloon, as if in anticipation of something bad. Not only does that make my neck veins pop out and my face look like a scary, cornered, feral animal, the clenching is unpleasant and a waste of valuable life energy. The body automatically reacted this way, but it's the mind's faulty logic that imagines this kind of contraction to be in any way helpful. It's saying to the body: Brace yourself, this could be bad...
So I began to play around with consciously doing something else with this face and body of mine. With the full threat of balloon breakage upon me, and the body on edge, I tried bouncing a little side to side, lowering the shoulders and softening the face a little bit, and even putting a something between a smile and a slack jaw expression on my face instead to see how that felt.
As a kid I was always the sensitive one: running away and crying, easily hurt, even though I was pretty tom boyish. Of my cousins I was probably the least rugged, as well as the youngest. I found myself often sniffling in a corner, feeling lonely, after an outburst.
Consciously softening and lightening my face muscles while reaching up to receive this water balloon that might instantly explode was a great metaphor for how to ‘be’ with all these scary new things I’m trying professionally.
I’m not sure if it’s true but right now I seem to be getting the message that I need to move out of my comfort zone if I want things to change. That includes the real possibility of visibly falling on my face, skinning knees, bee stings, and having the next water balloon explode all over me. And even the possibility of having bystanders point and laugh.
Giggles, camaraderie, and expanded sense of possibility may accompany that next bursting balloon.
'This summer is different. I don’t recognize the people, places and things that have been a part of my summers since I was about twenty. I thought christmas time was when I’d be missing home, and yes, it was. But this Michigan thing in summer is just plain different. Here there is a lot of water. And subsequently a lot of green. And birds, and a lot fewer traffic jams and cars. And black raspberries littering the sides of parks that no one cares if you pick. But the rituals of summer are nothing like what I’m used to. There’s no ocean here. Lake michigan is 3 hours drive away. Everyone is fishing, and doing lake sports. The boats are different. People aren’t inwardly tortured like Bostonians, more pleasant and open, but yet also still in their struggles like anywhere on this planet.
What I most miss is the friend stopping by, or meeting up in Harvard Square for a stroll, sitting and having an iced tea and swapping stories of the last few months: processing it all, as we do. So in other words, I miss you. Seeing you at BBQs, stopping by my mom's to lecture her about something that’s none of my business, and forgetting to pick up the ice before I show up. I also even miss my old smoking neighbor John, and his war to insist on assigned parking spots when there were none. It’s all filed away somewhere, but no longer right here.
So here’s another love letter, to let you know that what’s right around you, and me, right now, won’t stay this way. No matter how boring and forever-seeming it feels. It’s over in a minute.
Look around you like you were just born, forget the names of the objects and the people, like a newborn. I’ll do the same. That way, we’ll be together in that open field, no longer under the story and sway of small, alone, separate selves.
Today I found something unexpected while I was gardening. While flailing a hand scythe into clumps of grass and clearing out dead leaves in a neglected box garden, I discovered a baby bunny the size of an avocado sheltering under a head of lettuce. He was very still. His eyes were open. He did not move and didn’t appear to tremble. I was moved with cuteness and excitement. I went inside and got my husband; together, we quietly observed him, made supressed squealy noises, then went about our business doing other things. I moved to clear out the other side of the garden box, and there I found this bunny’s baby brother, even smaller (the size of an apple) nestled with his nose in the chives. As I stood there, I recognized a few feet away, a little warren that had been crafted with care out of our thyme bush: a circular tunnel, dusted on the edges with soft bunny fur. Just like that we had a nursery in the middle of our front yard. The whole experience lent a tenderness and a kind of sacredness to what would have otherwise been a glorious afternoon in the sun. It turned into summer just about three days ago.
Later this evening I went out to an art opening with my friend Kirsten. When she picked me up, I ceremoniously shared with her the bunny situation. When she got a peak at them, she also got verklempt with delight and excitement and tenderness. We were very careful not to remove a large dry leaf that I had placed over the first one for shade. There was a hole in the leaf through which we could see the bunny’s eye, still unmoving but very much alive. I went to the art opening and enjoyed it. I spent some time catching up with Kirsten, looking at the art, supporting our friend who had work in the show. It turned into a very social evening. I met a several really nice people. She dropped me off at home at about 8:45 pm, it was still light out here in Michigan. I checked on the bunnies, amazingly they were still right where we left them.
That these little bunnies had not moved in the time where I was networking, looking at art, handing out business cards, trading thoughts and ideas with Kirsten - in all of this human doing, that creature stayed still. I imagine in the bunny world, the mom must have said You stay, you stay right put, don’t make a sound, don’t make a rustle. And I’ll come feed you tonight after dark. It looked almost as if the bunnies were hibernating or in stand-by mode. Their eyes were open, there was an alertness, but there was no trembling, and no darting about going on.
When I came home, there they were. Presence itself. Just there. Like the face or the form of eternity in which all comings and goings are held. All over this neighborhood and town, bunnies are nestled, still, hidden - animals alert and unmoving, a wider presence than the mind can hold.
Greetings from Snowy Michigan!
The first thing on my mind is to let you know that I’m missing you. I have been in Ann Arbor Michigan, with a pit stop in Ypsilanti, and increasing forays into Detroit, for just over six months. I notice that the drivers are friendlier here, but the highway trucks and majority rust belters drive much more aggressively on the highways. Ann Arbor is a friendly place, welcoming and approachable. You can’t swing a cat without hitting some kind of festival or community event here. My favorites so far have been weekly motorcycle and car enthusiast meet ups in Ypsilanti, and families camping on the green of the local nature center for a night in August. The all-Tuba Christmas concert was also great.
But what isn’t here, is the easy opportunity to see you, at my studio, a Farmer’s Market, my sister’s house, for a cup of tea or a purposeful gathering. I loved those gatherings and chance encounters, part of my weekly, monthly or daily routines. Suddenly, without meaning to, you are just not there! not OK! So now that I’ve got my sea legs under me in a new marriage, a new town, new home, new studio, and fledgling communities, I bid you Happy Chinese New Year and invite myself back into your life.
It’s been very important for me to shake loose of Boston-brain, having been there my whole life, to experience easier race-relations, a DIY culture that involves reupholstering your vintage BMW or welding the best part of two cars into one super unique one.
I also find a familiar university culture with academic neurosis floating about here in Ann Arbor, similar to Cambridge.
I have been a little flummoxed about my blog. While this has always been true, it’s even more so now. Who reads it? Who am I writing for? Who cares? What am I writing about? Well, I still have no idea. However, I know more than ever that being in your life and you being in mine in whatever way is possible and sustainable is important.
One way I’ve kept in touch is through Instagram. It’s easier to post a picture than words. I follow artists and art institutions mostly, because it allows me to feel connected to everyone’s studio process and successes, and to feel like I’m at that opening or stopping in to ask a weird technical question to my studio neighbors. I also love sharing artist’s work and venues and studios here, pictures of my studio being built and small moments as this expanding neural/geographic orientation establishes itself.
It’s very cool that from here I can be in Canada in an hour, Ohio in an hour, Indiana in a few more, Illinois in about 3. Did you know that if you drive West on i90, you’ll reach me in just about 12 hours? It’s basically a straight shot.
When I do talk with people in Boston, I love to play the weather game. It’s often the same weather/temp in Ann Arbor two or so days prior to whatever’s happens in Boston. The only difference I’ve found is the snow in Boston seems heavier and slushier, and the weather altogether more dramatic: windy and petulant.
So, how can we stay in better touch? Here are some ideas:
1. I’ll keep you posted through this newsletter/blog situation.
2. I love the technology Zoom, much like skype or google hangout, but it makes it easier to share screens and to have as many people as you want in one place. I used to have focus group type gatherings in person…perhaps we can do it online?
[update: Note that this is a pre-pandemic post!!I am surely ahead of my time...]
3. Many of you I met through coaching. I’m still coaching! I work on the phone, so the experience is the same as it’s ever been. It’s an exceptional kind of sacred creative space for stepping into the unknown with intention, clarity, support and confidence. To see what it’s like, I offer a 30 minute session so you can try before you buy. Just lemme know.
4. Artists! I am excited for more and more kinds of cross cultural exchange. Come explore the amazing and otherworldly Detroit art scene! It only costs about $140 for a roundtrip airfare y’know…It’s a whole new world out here.
4. My favorite way of connecting is not through technology, but through that airwavy, no-separation space of bringing you to mind and sending you love (new post on this!). I’m doing so right now. If you think of me, that’s what I’m doing, one way or another.
Also check out the rest of the Goodbonfire blog. I’ve got a recent What’s Cookin’ newflash section for art stuff, and a few other posts you might enjoy.
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!
Sometimes I will be full of shit. And that's why you're here. I can't know myself without you, and similarly, without the ones in your life, you are the tree that falls in the forest - Did you make a sound, or was that just the sound that doritos make in your own head as you eat them?
You will never know unless there's someone else there with you.
In other words: Community.
Leaving Boston last year made me pull up the carpet tacks on so many lovely groups of people that week in and week out, I'd see and see again. It didn't dawn on me til I was all the way over in Michigan that I can't have those people in my life, you, like I did, by just braving Boston traffic for 45 minutes in both directions, anymore. Those communities are going on in other forms, as I show up to forge new ones.
My first attempt at community in Michigan was to go to a knitting group on a Monday night at the local cafe/brewery in Ypslianti. All of my needles were in storage, and I only had two small cards of thin repair wool on hand. I wanted to make a cozy for my reusable coffee cup, but more importantly, I just needed to get the F out of the house. I shrugged, and decided two ballpoint pens with scotch tape on the tips would surely work fine for needles, if only I could remember how to cast on.
I arrived, sat down, and thought, yes, I can do this! I know how to knit, I'm just a hen among hens here. And then I pulled out my ballpoint pens from Eastern Bank, with tape on the ends, my repair wool, and set about in a group of complete strangers, trying to remember how to cast on. It was at that moment that I realized: Dorothy Honey? you're not in Kansas, Massachusetts any more. You are as good as completely insane to these women. I do have a tea cozy to show for that brave effort, as well as the tender experience of accepting help, the loan of some actual needles, and even a couple of phone numbers. A young lass with a hip uneven haircut even complimented me on the cup cozy a week later.
Community for us humans is essential, like vitamin B or the sun. We're like grass blades. We don't do very well on our own, regardless of how independent we might think we are.
I want to create community with you, for you, that uses the incredible free and easy technology of the airwaves to be all over the world, in each other's livingrooms, and also still in our pajamas, together. I'm figuring out the details now, but I want to invite you to join me in your livingroom, in recorded form, all to yourself, or live with a group of gorgeous grass blades like you and me, with their own magnificence to spark yours and vice versa. Please check keep your eyes out for a new Creative Pioneering Institute with Hannah Burr coming soon! and encounter opportunities to bond with, support and learn from other genius grass blades figuring out this earth plane and how to cast on, eat doritos, and thrive in embodied expression and creation together.
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.
In a museum, everyone loves the white, spareness and purity. Perfect angles, controlled temperatures. A frame is like a small travelling museum - a tiny, somewhat controlled environment for the preservation and display of a work of art. The idea of something 'lasting forever' or accruing value is all quite silly when you consider the decay happening in and on every surface on the planet - the constant swappage of molecules.
I do however, appreciate the great preoccupation with perfection, presentation and essentially control.
Many years ago, I saw how art does this for us. I went to see a Ballanchine Ballet called Jewels, during a painful and disorienting break up of a relationship and a home.
Every act of the ballet was in reverance to the emerald, the ruby, the sapphire and the diamond. Every high pointed toe, kick and arc of a hand was absolute precision. The backdrop was a solid, shimmering, gorgeous color, reflected in the costumes, the sparkle, and the choreography, one gem/color for each act.
There we were within a dissolving partnership, looking up at the stage. I was sitting next to my roommate, love and friend, and the sad, tired mess of our valiant attempts to do better, talk it through, and make it work. Crying silently, mucus running out of my nose and a hand damp from wiping away this issuance. Up on stage was an impossible perfection, a million miles from where I sat, incomprehensible, orchestrated, perfect. It was heaven. I was earth. A primoridal ooze.
Sometimes, this is what art is for.
A few weeks ago I was driving home at night through Brookline. In one of the town's many rotaries was a simple mound with tons of daffodils. I think it was raining and I noticed them on my left.
I'll cut right to it: those flowers are one brain: one consciousness in full force - complete. For some reason I saw it this was for the first time. Not a 'look at those pretty daffodils! Spring is...' kind of thought. It was something revealed.
Our lives are lived at times with the leaden feeling of no-one-gives-a-shit/sees me/understands. As a woman living alone turning 40 in a few months, the daffodil revelation is important. The cars circling the rotary, people on a train platform, a group of people listening to a story or a concert, is the same. We get so caught in the mire of being individuals. The tangle of speculation, obligation, association, doubt and doom - Doing and aiming for a high perch on the hill, fearing mediocrity or failure.
When I can feel the ground underneath. the weather as it mixes with the tiny hairs on my arm, sounds and the situation I find myself in at any given moment, just as it is and just as I am, I begin to remember my home is just about noticing and presence.
Those flowers don't have long. They get a few weeks if they're lucky to kappow in yellow. The green shoots, threading roots filtering the dirt, meet as a single mind under there. That depth and connection is also available to me and you, as is the profound beauty of our vulnerability and delicate bloom.
And a few more things about Daffodils.
They won't all bloom at once, and not to the same extent. Some get pissed on, others blown off their stems and trampled, and others never quite bloom at all. They all get papery, spring passes. One or two, to a given eye - the dark eye of a crow or mine glancing from a car, catch an incredible moment of light and are seen. Some are cut. Is this better? It's not really up to the flower and it's incidental in the short scheme of things.
Grass, stands of trees, coils of thornvine and little trees in home depot parking lots, they all too share a brain I believe. When I send love to my friend across the world or stick around when I feel like leaving myself or another who is not at their best I too tap into that collective system.
You're in it. You may be cowering under the blanket, rooted to the nest of your bed, or couch. Your hair might need washing. Perhaps you're badly in need of a shower. People, people that love you and believe in you might feel like a fiction, a distant memory or a fluke. Lying through their teeth at the very least. Or maybe everything's pissing you off. The alarm clock, uncooperative coat button or bank clerk, the tepid tea.
So this is the little fire I'm building: A few sticks, maybe a little mossy, some crumpled pages of my own journal, and a lighter that's been in my glove compartment for four years at least. My fingers are brittle and cold. I'm blowing on this kindled thing, I believe in it. It's going to catch. When the wind finally dies down for a moment, it does! And then, in some minutes, is the plume of smoke that rises. It rises from this spot, on the side of an unfriendly road where the views aren't inspired. This is the spot where I stopped, would not go another mile. It will have to do.
The plume is going up, visible from over the ridge in a thin, messy, scraggly line rising straight up. This plume is just for you.
Would you like to know why I'm sending you such a plume? Because it's all working and I want you to know that. You are in the throes of transformation my friend and yes indeed, it is uncomfortable. It's not pretty either. And how do I know this with such certainty? Because so am I.
The experience of fear, doubt, insecurity, tossed in with some shame, and an ugliness we fear might be chronic, these are our old modes dislodging.
Sometimes what's foreign and new feels wrong and unsafe. Also, like it's our fault. In a way, it is our fault. We stopped, or if stopped, we chose to get up and take a first step toward that thing we wanted, toward the inkling of who it is we are crossing our fingers we can turn out to be. To really be!
People driving by, they're looking as they go past. Suddenly - it's come to this - what they think of me and my fire by the side of the road in the middle of an empty lot is truly and completely none of my business! It solves nothing at all. I have a fire to tend to. The fire is now brightly burning. My signal to you is now stronger. Look out your window, you'll see it. There's no mistaking it.
You are in it, you are exactly at the center of your life. You are alive and what you are stepping toward is stepping toward you. This is the tiding born by the rising smoke.
The fire that's now impressively burning? It's now strong enough that something else is also beginning. There is a stirring, very deep. A memory waking up, and recognition.
Your fire and my fire, they are the same. They are fanned and brightening with every breath in. My fire is strong in the company of yours. These fires, this fire, is the part of us that says Yes. The part that shows up, finds it funny - a little wierd - and shows up anyway. It's the same Yes everywhere. Courageous fire tenders tending.
You are squarely in the center of your life. You are welcome on this planet. Together, we illuminate the world.
A few more things about Daffodils.
[this post is second installment of the post One Brain]
They won't all bloom at once, and not to the same extent. Some get trampled, others blown off their stems, and others never quite bloom at all. They all get papery as they die, spring passes. One or two, to a given eye - a crow's or mine glancing from a car, catch an incredible moment of light and are seen. Some are cut and put in a vase. Is this better? It's not really up to the flower and it's incidental in the short scheme of things.
Grasses, manicured hedges, coils of thornvine and those spindly trees in big box store parking lots, they all too share a brain, I believe. When I send love to my friend across the world or stick around when I feel like running away from myself or another who is not at their best I'm tapping in then too. We are living out essentially one life in billions of minds refracted in infinite variation. You and I are just two of these, gathered up in recognition when I see myself in you and you see yourself in me.
The following is a practice for when you are feeling like a lonely satellite:
Sit quietly. Breathe. After a little while, bring in the image of someone that you care for (not the guy who isn't calling you back but an old friend say, or a favorite aunt). Imagine them having one of those moments of peaceful connection, the ones that just come upon one on the sly. Imagine them smiling and at ease. Even if they just had an unsuccessful brain surgery, imagine them floating on water, giggling, accepting, joyful. Then bring another person to mind in the same way. Keep going. Try some people you feel neutral toward, someone you can't deal with at all. See what shifts within you.
Hannah Burr is a contemporary artist and author. Originally from Boston, she lives in Ann Arbor MI.