by Susan Leem, associate producer
Last Wednesday, the artist Meredith Monk joined our host Krista Tippett for a 90-minute conversation via ISDN. We live-tweeted highlights of this interview and have aggregated them below for those who weren’t able to follow along. Look for our show with her in the coming weeks, and follow us next time at @BeingTweets.
For those not familiar with Ms. Monk, she is an American composer, performer, director, vocalist, filmmaker, and choreographer who has been creating multi-disciplinary works since the 1960s. She is best known for her vocal innovations, including a wide range of extended techniques.
Also a practicing Buddhist, she is a member of the Shambala sangha. Her most recent album, Songs of Ascension, is inspired by a Zen abbot who described Songs of Ascents — songs which Jews were believed to have sung in biblical times on pilgrimages to Jerusalem and to the top of Mount Zion.
Photo of Meredith Monk by Jesse Frohman.Comments
by Nancy Rosenbaum, producer
The holidays are over and there’s no getting around the fact that it’s January and bitter cold in the Upper Midwest. The days, while inching longer into light, are still short. Now is the time of deep winter, when a touch of light goes a long way.
Last week, as I caught a glimpse of holiday lights being dismantled from an indoor public tree display, I thought, “Already? It’s not even New Year’s. Now’s the time when we need the light the most.”
The good people of Portland, Maine understand this need in their watery bones. From Thanksgiving through Valentine’s Day, the city is bedecked in glorious light sculptures designed by local artist Pandora LaCasse. For over a decade, Ms. LaCasse has been transforming public parks and buildings into canvases for her light art.
Ms. LaCasse, a native of Maine, says that place matters in her work and that the state’s landscape inspires her creativity. As she told one interviewer, “I’m always trying to get the essence of a place. I think people like the lights because it’s the middle of winter and they respond to the color and light. And it’s accessible.”
Ms. LaCasse’s color-drenched creations feature abstract shapes found in nature, like teardrops and orbs. They’re not the stuff of Santa, candy canes, and the nativity. I once lived in Maine and now make my home in Saint Paul, Minnesota where my neighbors festoon their homes with holiday lights. As much as I admire these wintry displays, I do so as a non-Christian outsider, who’s observing them from afar. Pandora’s lights were different. I could love them without feeling excluded. They were a balm for my soul in deep winter and I miss them.
by Judith Dupré, guest contributor
Photo by Shandi-lee (Flickr, cc by-nc 2.0)
How many times have you heard someone say — I can’t draw, I can’t sing, I can’t dance — with the case-closed authority of Solomon? Probably dozens of times, more if you yourself happen to be an artist blessed with the painting, flamenco, or woodworking gene. But have you ever heard anyone sheepishly confess, as they backed away palms up from an evergreen tree, Oh, not me — I can’t decorate Christmas trees?
Most of us dive into holiday tree trimming with gusto. We’ve got our methods, materials, and secret techniques down pat — from anchoring the tree so it stands straight to untangling strings of lights with a finesse that Houdini would have admired. Charlie Parker could have learned something from our daring as we coax familiar ornaments into different compositions each year, sentimental riffs made anew as a crystal angel is paired with a Santa made of plastic gumdrops or a tacky beaded lobster, to name some of my family’s favorites. Could Jackson Pollock outdo any of us tinsel-lobbers as we throw sparkling handfuls with random abandon? Or perhaps you prefer the single-strand-at-a-time method, placed with the en pointe precision of a Russian ballerina. I’m working the tree metaphor here, but feel free to substitute holiday crafts, baking, decorating, caroling, or gift-wrapping.
It’s your thing!
More good news! Remember Charlie Brown’s scraggly Douglas fir? The one with three spindly branches and a single bulb that weighed it down like a lead onion? Was there anything more pathetic or endearing? Pathetic attempts are not only okay at Christmas, they’re entirely fashionable. Call it folk art. Unlike the rest of the over-achieving calendar year, trying, if not actually succeeding, is acceptable during this season. Because, really, it’s not a question of what you are doing, it’s how you are doing it. The smallest of art projects becomes luminous with awareness and love.
For centuries, until recently, art was a concrete and widespread way of expressing one’s faith. Artists and artisans conveyed their devotion to God through painting, verse, and music. With the advent of the industrial age, abetted by myriad other factors, making art became the impractical pursuit of a chosen few. This is the great, unspoken loss of contemporary life. Creativity at its most transcendent — the moment when the work of art takes on its own life, when there is no separation between maker and object, when the artist is being re-formed by the very thing he or she is making — is comparable to the pure, blissful connection achieved in prayer or meditation.
We cherish Christmas because it presents us with weeks (months!) of artistic expression that is usually kept under wraps during the rest of the year. Christmas is a time when everyone has the opportunity to create — an act of transformation that mirrors what is most sacred in each of us. The works of our hands give glory to our Creator as they reveal us at our most human and most holy. Each of us was created with the same inexhaustible delight and diversity found in nature, and we are free to create with similar abandon. Perhaps this is the true magic of the season: We don’t question whether we should, or judge whether we can, we just create! I’d venture that we’d be more fully ourselves, as human beings and as spiritual beings, if we allowed ourselves that freedom more often.
This season let your spirit shine forth in the tree you trim, the candles you light, the songs you sing, and the cookies you bake. Let every ribbon you tie tie you more closely to your loved ones and to your own beautiful creative soul. While you’re in the Christmas spirit, why not consider giving yourself the gift of creativity, surely the gift that keeps on giving, all year round.
Judith Dupré is a fellow of Yale University’s Saybrook College and the author of several books. Her latest book is Full of Grace: Encountering Mary in Faith, Art and Life, a collection of stories about everyday spirituality and the nature of personal transformation.
We welcome your reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication for the On Being Blog. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.Comments
by Susan Leem, associate producer + Trent Gilliss, senior editor
The son of an Israeli nuclear physicist, the artist Hanan Harchol moved to the United States with his family when he was two years old. And it’s his father’s accent that Harchol impersonates and argues with in these two humorous and enlightening animated shorts for the High Holy Days.
But, these illustrated videos mining a deeper understanding of the Jewish concepts of teshuva (repentance) and slicha (forgiveness), Harchol says, weren’t inspired by a personal sense of devotion or religiosity. Just the opposite, in fact. The requirements of the project stipulated that he immerse himself in the texts, and through studying them he reevaluated the essence and spirit of Jewish teachings he had ignored or rejected for many years:
"I spent my life gravitating towards, and making, narrative art that explores the human condition from a psychological, philosophical, and existential perspective. While Judaism offers thousands of years of wisdom on the human condition, I avoided it as a source because of what I perceived to be its preachy, judgmental, and shaming tone.
Then, in 2009, I was commissioned to create a short artistic animation that interpreted the eating of bitter herbs during Passover. As part of the project, I was mandated to participate in a monthly Jewish study group under the leadership of a dynamic and brilliant rabbi named Leon Morris. To my surprise, I discovered that the human themes we were discussing and wrestling with in the study group were precisely the kind I had always been exploring in my personal artmaking. Even the process itself of sitting around a table, debating and wrestling with these human concepts (a process I did regularly with my friends and in my artmaking) proved to be a fundamental part of the Jewish study and learning process.
I became filled with questions about how much my Jewish heritage had influenced how I was raised, how I behaved, how I thought, and even who I was as a person and an artist. What I discovered was a wealth of wisdom. Within the Jewish texts were crucial teachings and lessons that applied as much to our contemporary lives as they did when they were written. By avoiding the Jewish writings because of their religious nature and tone, I was missing out on thousands of years of deep thought and study on the human condition itself. I had thrown the baby out with the bath water.”
by Rita G. Patel, guest contributor
"Beauty and Its Possibilities" by Rita Patel
I once saw a simple fish pond in a Japanese village which was perhaps eternal.
A farmer made it for his farm. The pond was a simple rectangle, about 6 feet wide, and 8 feet long; opening off a little irrigation stream. At one end, a bush of flowers hung over the water. At the other end, under the water, was a circle of wood, its top perhaps 12 inches below the surface of the water. In the pond there were eight great ancient carp, each maybe 18 inches long, orange, gold, purple, and black: the oldest one had been there eighty years. The eight fish swam, slowly, slowly, in circles—often within the wooden circle. The whole world was in that pond. Every day the farmer sat by it for a few minutes. I was there only one day and I sat by it all afternoon. Even now, I cannot think about it without tears. Those ancient fish had been swimming, slowly, in that pond for eighty years. It was so true to the nature of the fish, and flowers, and the water, and the farmers, that it had sustained itself for all that time, endlessly repeating, always different. There is no degree of wholeness or reality which can be reached beyond that simple pond.
Not only is the description both vivid and beautiful — conjuring up a lovely image — but the emotion from actually seeing and being with this beauty in nature is profoundly powerful.
If I am open, moments where I can deeply see, feel, and be are available in all sorts of so-called common places and interactions. And what happens is that I don’t just observe with my senses and my mind, but I commune with the beauty of it in my heart — that is where it happens, where I actually feel it. The feeling doesn’t stay but the feeling about other things afterwards is always affected. And the more I experience this beauty the more I realize that it does not disappear but is always present. Available to connect to when I am available. A wonderful thing to wake up and remember and make a habit.
"Radiance belongs to being considered precisely as beautiful; it is, in being, that which catches the eye, or the ear, or the mind, and makes us want to perceive it again."
We welcome your reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the Being Blog. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.