Saturday, October 29, 2011

Work Those Epiphanies!!!

What epiphanies, intuitions and/or perceptions have you been experiencing lately?! Hope you're jotting them down...

My previous post edged us into one of the most hotly debated issues around the art world, and the spiritual world too for that matter (which I include here because the two worlds are so closely connected).

Can you spell ‘subjective'?!

The experiences I’ve been writing about have been very subjective and personal of course, and could easily be dismissed as the effects of an over-spiced enchilada. And while I have felt validated in discovering that others have written about this type of experience, I also recognize that there is plenty of room for error in the interpretation of these phenomena. But how rich the exploration!

Subjectivity—whether it refers to poetic or religious awe—is a hot topic. What do we do with writing (or religious experience) that is very subjective? Is there a place for it? Absolutely, but there is also a lot of confusion out there.

A few years ago, I got one of those great, clarifying, simple questions that help me think about such things, and in particular how to think about the strange, ineffable experiences we all go through. It came through one of my former pastors. I was grappling with the strange, ineffable experiences of a French friend, which had baffled my cognitive and theological constructs (as a lot in France did!). But this pastor wisely asked, “Is the person sharing this experience credible?”

Yes, she was. Did that make the experience credible? I know I certainly looked at it with a lot more care than if she had been a flake. And we got to the bottom of some things that were entirely credible. Credibility can earn a second look at the most incredible experience, which may be entirely valid and true, however subjective.

With that one question, and years of living in France, I learned not to dismiss things prematurely if they didn’t fit my paradigms, if the source was credible. Even our justice system, flawed as it is, runs on the testimony of ‘credible witnesses.’

Anyway, back to poetry and epiphanic moments: what was that epiphany and what did it mean? Can you write a poem or prayer about it? Make a piece of artwork from it? Write a theological doctrine on it? Is it personal, subjective, expressive, for you only, or can it benefit others? Is it art/prayer/doctrine for public consumption?

Yes, we are back to the question of what is art, with a new layer: public art vs. private art, self-expression vs. art for public consumption.

I gave you m y favorite definition of art last post. But we have lived for decades in a culture/artworld where self-expression is paramount, beauty is optional, and critique is “mean”— the cultural equivalent of bullying. For some, personal expression is far more important than adherence to any criteria for craft.

The clash arises when personal expression invades the public domain inappropriately. Let me give you an example:

You may not enjoy a poem I write raging against someone who offended me in some way, and correctly judge that it is self-expression. You’ll probably dismiss it for what it is (a rant); publishers surely will. What keeps my rant poem out of the publishers’ rejection pile? Working my craft. Working my epiphanies, not just blurting them out.

So if I take that rant, and bump it up to describe a journey from rage to resolution (even if only in my own heart), I enter universal experience, and that should resonate with you. You may not have dealt with the person I’m enraged with, but you have no doubt been enraged by someone else.

The well-crafted poem might give you the shock of recognition, the release valve of insight, possibly even a solution. The glimpse into your own humanity, and the companionship of common struggle might give you relief for the journey. You might just get an epiphany of your own, even some healing for your heart. This is why we need poetry, and this is why I will never stop working the craft.

But I’ll spare you the rants, and other personal expressions, which will stay in the notebooks! Time and place...

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Epiphanies, Intuitions & Perceptions

Leanne Payne, one of my heroes, describes an experience similar to mine in one of her books, which I can’t cite at the moment, but which I read somewhere in between my two epiphanic moments. (I believe it is in The Healing Presence.)

She would call it a ‘seeing’—Perceptions of the Unseen Real—the quintessence of poetic awe, that phenomenon whereby the poet, the artist, sees past the visible into deeper, invisible realities. Keats the poet complained that Newton the scientist had destroyed the poetry of the rainbow by reducing it to its prismatic colors. But that ain’t necessarily so. The scientist is merely approaching the rainbow from another perspective of awe, and trying to describe it with his mathematics, tools, words, telescopes.

The artist’s task is to select his medium, master his materials, and produce in tangible form that which is intangible. To ‘eff’ the ineffable, as Brennan Manning so wonderfully puts it. So my poetic awe of the moment might move me to write a poem one day, and not just call my brother and say, “Guess who I ran into at the post office today?”

No small task. Do I have time? Do I care to write about that moment? Did I ‘get it’—can I identify the epiphany in the encounter with an old neighbor in my home town? Did I even notice it? What is the metaphor?

In my poem “The Girl Scout Badge”, what moves it past another scout earning another badge? In “Navy Dentist”, what moves the poem past just another disagreeable session in the dentist’s chair, to the epiphany that we are prone to vices destined to earn us more disagreeableness (clue: answer in the last two lines of the poem)? What drives us to do the things we do?

One needs a lot of time to think and to be for this stuff. You may have noticed how loathe we are as a culture to think and to be.

So I only write a fraction of what I ‘see' in the frenetic pace of today's society. I wish I could capture more, stare out the window more, write faster, with more lucidity. But it sometimes takes me years to find the time to unpack what I ‘saw’—to identify the epiphany, find the metaphor, and choose the words that capture the ‘seeing.’

In the meantime, I jot down my Perceptions of the Unseen Real, for those days when I can sit and stare out the window and wonder what they mean. One of my favorite pastimes, one of my favorite definitions of art, and one of my strongest challenges in writing.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Incident on a French Beach

I love epiphanies, don’t you?

Writing about this epiphany at the post office quickly segued into the memory of another epiphany I had had, years prior, during my first summer in France.

I had traveled to another region this particular summer, from my language school in a southern suburb of Paris to the beautiful region of Brittany. As I arrived at the beach with some others, the earth shifted slightly under my feet. I was ‘home.’

Impossible, I thought, shaking my head. Must be some sort of culture shock experience, I decided (now in my 6th month of living in France). But I couldn’t shake the feeling.

I looked around. The beach, the gulls, the boats…

The music drifting out of a shop on the French version of a boardwalk was decidedly Celtic. That must be it, I reasoned, the combination of music, salt air and squawky gulls. I was just experiencing a bit of nostalgia.

But the whole time I was there—two weeks—I lived with that eerie feeling of being home. With or without the Celtic music, with or without the gulls. I couldn’t explain it. My roots were Irish, not French.

Imagine my awe, then, when I returned to my Paris school, and discovered a package from my father, who had been researching our roots in his retirement. The trail led him to France, and…yep, that exact region I had just been in.

He sent me all the info, with maps, family crest, and a wine label with our name on it—Bouteiller—which was translated “Butler” when the family arrived in Ireland, during the days of William the Conqueror, in 1066.

Like, wow.

How does one explain such things?!?

Sunday, October 2, 2011


So there he was, this old neighbor, and I recovered control and smiled. We chatted as if we had just seen each other yesterday, while I downloaded the epiphany: home was not just the United States, but a specific geographical location: Oyster Bay, NY. The vague ache I had lived with for years overseas finally felt relief. Returning to the States wasn't enough; I needed to return here.

But home is larger than just a geographical place: it is also the community of people with whom you lived while growing up--the neighborhood an extended living room. Home was the people who waved to you from their cars, whose kids you played with, who you bumped into at the post office and supermarket. They become your extended family. Nobody knows you like these people.

I had gotten that later part--which is why I thought anywhere my friends and family were was home enough for me. We found the local beaches, boatyards and clamshacks in our new geographical locations. But here was a new aspect of home I hadn't ever experienced: a particalar geographical location. Something 'in the blood' recognized it with one simple greeting from a former neighbor.

This man knows me from early childhood. His son is still my brother’s very good friend, at all the weddings and funerals. He knows more than I even know about myself in some ways. And though he knows nothing of me now, that didn’t matter in the brief exchange we had. I had a new definition of ‘home.’ With people who knew my nickname, knew the house I grew up in, knew my father had been building a boat. They knew how long I wore braces, and how I played with the redhead up the street. I didn’t have to explain any of this history to him.

This came at a time in my life when I was a tired foreigner, tired of explaining who I was all the time, to a people for whom personal history mattered. Probably this is true for every culture, whether they know or not. Ancestral worship, genealogy and in America the "Roots" phenomenon of the '70's attest to this longing to know who we are, where we are from and who we belong to.

Every person I met in Lille was so curious as to why on earth an American—especially a New Yorker—would choose to move to their city. They wanted to know my background, about my family, and the geography of my locale. Not in a nosy way--they usually dug these facts out of me with the utmost discretion. But they were curious. They didn’t get the chance to interact with too many Americans, and I was happy to oblige. I was just getting tired after several years of it. Wouldn’t it have been nice to just hand them an autobiographical DVD?!

The relief of not having to repeatedly create history for myself washed over me. Perhaps only ex-pats know this feeling. For some, it’s probably a non-issue. For others, I know they go an entire lifetime with the ache for the homeland throbbing. Now I understood why (although I was dismayed to learn that this opened a new ache; how do you ache for something you didn’t know you didn’t know?!)

Some need to get away from the stifling constraints of home; for others, home created a launching pad into the big wide world, creating the healthy desire to encounter new neighbors, wherever they lived. Good stuff, but a return to roots so often necessary for the soul to breathe.

One of my favorite definitions of home was written by poet Robert Frost, in Death of the Hired Man: "Home is where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in."

The little time warp with my former neighbor opened and closed in a matter of minutes. We moved on to our next errand. I left with my epiphany, the basis of all good poems. Funny…I still haven’t written that poem...