Sunday, June 30, 2013

Ritual Resources: Making Friends with a Stone

"Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart, and try to love the questions themselves," said Rilke.

If you're anywhere near as much of a task-oriented head-tripper as I am, that's a nice thought, but one you're likely to file away as fast as you can in the Drawer of Worthy Sentiments.

The career decision that's looming; or the one that just gets endlessly postponed. The relationship that may or may not have a viable future. The leap it would take to move to a place where you might make a fresh start, or at least open a new chapter of your life. The decision you can't make, can't make yet, about how or where to let go of a dead partner's ashes. The request you know you have to voice for what you need, but your tongue cleaves to the roof of your mouth, every time you try. The gift you know you could make to someone else of what they've asked of you, but you can't yet bring yourself to answer that appeal with either a yes or a no. The elective surgery that might improve your life, but carries risks. The generosity you can imagine showing, but you can't muster the courage to let go of what you have to give.

Be patient? Love the questions? When instead I could flail around in a vortex of self-obsession and rising confusion as I grab at answers that are out of reach?

Here's a suggestion: put the questions out there, in a form you can see, touch, feel, hold.

Choose a stone. Not a small pebble, but a good chunk of rock, too large to hold with one hand, too large even to get your two hands around, heavy enough that it feels like an effort to lift it. Maybe its surface is smooth and even. Maybe it's rough and jagged. You'll know which feels right, which matches the state of your soul.

Set it on your altar. Lay your hands on it. Bear witness that to this stone you commit all that is unanswered in your heart. Mark it, if you feel called to mark it, with chalk or with charcoal. Tie cord around it, if you feel called to tie cord around it.

Sit with this stone in your hands, day by day. Meditate on its weight. Meditate on its impenetrability. Consider that if you hold it with tension, you'll strain yourself. Consider that if you pay attention to the effect it has on the muscles of your hands and arms, you can sit with it comfortably. Consider that you could break your head open with it, but instead press its firm coolness to your forehead. Carry it to the forest. Carry it to the beach. Kiss it in reverence. Jack off onto it in the light of the full moon. Raise it as you sit to the level of your heart. Take it again, daily, to your altar, and leave it there.

You'll know how long you need this stone. Maybe you'll need it for years. Maybe for a few weeks or months. Someday you'll let it go. You'll bury it, or throw it into the sea, or lay it back again where you found it. So far, you don't know that. Today, you don't need to know that. Today you need only make friends with the stone.  

“Try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don't search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live with them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now.”

(Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet)

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Starting with Irises

Last weekend I celebrated a beloved teacher's big birthday with about forty others at Easton Mountain. To be in community for a few days with that many queer men, some old friends and acquaintances, and many more new, in a place that brings out the best in all of us, carries for me the sheer joy of homecoming. The loose scheduling of the weekend was just what I needed: events I wanted to be part of, but long stretches of discretionary time when I could lose and find myself.
Outside the main lodge stood a bed of blue irises in full riot, begging to be drawn; the art supply cabinet held a fabulous cache of watercolor pencils. For the next two days, I couldn't keep myself away from the flowers, or my hands off my sketchbook. I fell into the out-of-myself absorption I've experienced so little of for months: the kind of state that reminds me I'm not so much an artist as somebody who needs to make art in order to stay alive.
The longer you look at, and into, a bearded iris, the more seductively complex you realize it is. Unruly petals define convoluted inner spaces. Light plays across diaphanous surfaces. The scent is one of the underappreciated wonders of the floral world. The flower will utterly defeat you as you try to translate all this into lines on the page and variations of colour to suggest depth. And the defeat is the best part of the experience, the "hook" that will bring you back again and again in happy obsession to try to get it the next time. 
I spent more time drawing than I have the last six months--and still had time for the sauna, for the erotic massage exchange that was the centrepiece activity one afternoon, for reading Tarot two or three times with friends. I came away with four drawings that pleased me more or less, and with a resolve that I'd take my obsession into the studio course I'd booked for afternoons the following week.
Being a student in the studio is always a challenge for me. I don't like producing drek in front of even the most supportive of instructors. I want success and praise on the first brushstroke. Given an exercise, I'm headstrong and want to strike out with it in my own direction. I'm too invested in what I produce and in how others see it. Showing a teacher what I've thrown myself into, only to have him take it as the starting point from which he'll encourage me to depart, is a tall order. So opening my sketchbook on Monday afternoon to say, here's where I'm at, was probably the toughest moment of the whole week.
I didn't go further into the irises as I'd planned. Instead, I spent the week pulling back from them, thinking hard about the backgrounds behind them, learning how to scumble color into the negative contours along their edge, coming back to the challenge of mixing the color I saw, then letting it go in favor of the color that pleased me on the palate; practicing the dance of knowing when to press forward with a line or patch of color that wasn't working, knowing when to leave a shape as it was, knowing when simply to move on. Trips back to the flower were starting points, not the place of repose I'd imagined they'd be. The flower into which I dove turned out to be the flower within.