Freedom of the Heart

Driving from Aberdeen to Olympia here in Washington State, I see a sign in a field beside the highway that reads, “If you give up your liberty for security, you will lose both your security and liberty.” The owner of the field has erected this baseline libertarian view for all to see, read, and contemplate. While I vote democrat, this is a sentiment with which I have to agree. But I’m not concerned with this dichotomy at just the political, digital, and corporeal levels; I’m also curious about how it applies to the heart.

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Libertarian sign beside highway (Grays Harbor, Washington)

The sign no doubt refers to politics in the United States of America. The supreme example took place when, within minutes after two commercial jets flew into New York City’s Twin Towers, no one in the country but the military could leave the ground for days. Due to the fact that Americans had no idea if the attacks were over, most Americans did not grumble too much about not being able to fly or carry on business as usual. Another, more controversial example is the Patriot Act. The idea here is that, in order to protect us from attack, the government has to monitor or curtail the movements of a few suspicious people, which then enables the government to keep a closer eye on the citizenry at large and suppress dissent in general. Then along comes a “transparency patriot” like Edward Snowden, who revealed recently how the government is collecting innocent law-abiding citizens’ phone calls. It seems that countering security with liberty is an ever-shifting (and shifty) business.

Wire house allows small birds to feed freely and securely

Small birds free to feed securely…

The paradox of freedom and security applies in other realms and at other levels of our existence in this country as well. Corporations are gathering megalithic quantities of personal information in order to invade our lives with incessant hard sells. I find this kind of assault as problematic as the governmental kind. Freedom (privacy, in this case) and security is an issue in cyberspace as much as it is in our airspace. Information about American citizens can easily be viewed, gathered, and used to target our pocketbooks, bank accounts, and credit cards (the question comes to mind whether the government might find reason to access the data that corporations and associations have collected about us). The only way to avoid being so vulnerable is by never accessing the Internet, which means never owning or using a computer, which in this day and age amounts to living in a cave. Privacy is at a premium in a world in which we share our identities, credit card numbers, and purchasing habits. Using computers online requires we set up accounts, use passwords to access them, and then keep these passwords close to our chests like poker cards so no one steals our identity or money. And there are frequent breeches of security in which citizens’ information is compromised, the most recent incident being the so-called Heartbleed bug.

Seeds hiding from snow

Seeds hiding from snow (Cle Elum, Washington, February 2014)

Then there are our physical selves—our bodies. There are government regulations, state laws, religious tenets, and corporate policies that control or seek to control what we can and can’t (or must) do with our bodies. Abortion, women in the work force, death with dignity, same-sex marriage, and drug testing are common examples. Some chauvinist churches require that married women not work outside the house. Various religious sects, political organizations, and cities work to make abortion illegal. Some companies require that all employees submit to drug urine tests. Hospitals keep some brain-dead patients alive against the will of the family while medical bills drive caregivers to bankruptcy.

Sayulita, Mexico, December 2013

Heart outside its ribcage (Sayulita, Mexico, December 2013)

But how does the concern with liberty and security apply to our emotional, intellectual, and spiritual lives? Is there a corollary? What do we hold hidden deep within our hearts? With what password can we access the soul? What do we too willingly or carelessly share about our selves? Is there a healthy balance of freedom and security in what we reveal about ourselves to our friends, family, and colleagues? Or is the goal to be so free as to have nothing left to get off our chests? How much passion can we get away with in expressing our love, interests, views, and beliefs? What do we risk by expressing our feelings? Are we at an advantage in this competitive world by not revealing our tips and insights? Should we be glib or taciturn, open or closed? Is the ego all about finding the advantage in the game of life, or is it about baring our soft underbelly in order to be loved—or both? And if the ego is all about winning, getting ahead, or being loved, then what role does the superego play? Does the superego seek enlightenment? Does the superego seek to rise above such concerns as security and freedom, a duality that otherwise tears us apart? Or is the battle between freedom and security the very conflict that keeps us alive—that keeps the whole human enterprise up and running? Do we have any idea how much we are the products of our parents’ ways or of society’s expectations? Do we have any sense of how little we’ve shaped how free and secure we are or might want to be?

Full moon screened

Full moon partially screened (Sayulita, December 2013)

Such a basic human conflict is inevitably complicated and brings up endless questions, should we be so brave as to pursue them, but more often than not we don’t actually think about this issue as an issue. Instead, we act as circumstance, intuition, and habit lead us to act. We grope along in a kind of darkness when it comes to how free or secure we are or should be. Yet how we approach freedom and security in the political, digital, and physical world might well provide clues as to how to approach freedom and security in our emotional, intellectual, and spiritual lives. We could conclude that there is no freedom without security, but the sign in the field suggests that if we give up our heart’s liberty for security, we could lose both our heart’s security and liberty.

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Grooming Chaos

Being an artist—a creationist—finding and expressing beauty and meaning in new and established forms and mediums—requires developing an attitude or state of mind that’s probably measurable on an electroencephalograph. As a creative writer, I “groom chaos.” Chaos is the ground of our creative being, but in our orderly, scheduled lives, we forget that every new order is built on what was once chaos and that, if we want to create the new and beautiful, then we need to get back in touch with chaos.

Edge of Vastness (Cannon Beach)

Edge of Vastness (Cannon Beach)

In this clock-driven, technological, rational world of calendars, business meetings, deadlines, spreadsheets, square rooms and city sectors, desks, books, computers, buttons and keys, digital readouts, folders inside folders inside folders, ad finitum, ad nauseum, an artist or writer may find her mind so blocked and squared and programmed and ultimately tethered to the human system (rather than to the human problem) that she can hardly find space, juice, stimulation, or support to create a piece that’s wild, new, exciting, and interesting—that pushes the personal and cultural boundaries and stands at least a short test of time under critical scrutiny.

Grooming chaos involves a few very important ingredients:

Time and Space: One must make time and space for being creative, for writing, painting, taking artistic photos, etc.—a time and place to get wild, to explore, to excuse oneself from the world’s expectations as we perceive them. Without time and space (studio, forest, Photoshop) there’s little room for creativity. An artist inevitably creates nothing but frustration and may be forced to sell her soul to the “program” in the face of beckoning truth and beauty.

Chaos Field

Mental Space: One must be able to clear the mind of daily, practical, mental activity, of deadlines, worries, and old habits—in other words, make room not only in time and space but also between the ears. Ironically, some “postmodern” artists have made art using the stuff of daily life in order to make the point that even artists in this day and age can’t escape their own busy thoughts but instead find in them the compost for new statements about what it is to be human. For example, there are several artists today who use trash to create meaning, which harks back to Andy Warhol’s use of advertising in his pop art or Picasso’s use of a broken bicycle’s handlebars and seat to sculpture a bull. But even here, one needs a moment’s mental space to see the new in the old or daily. There needs to be enough mental space for this germination to occur.

Warhol's Campbell's Soups

Warhol’s Campbell’s Soups

Picasso's Bicycle Bull

Picasso’s Bicycle Bull

Belief in Self: We must believe we are capable of creating new images, visions, ideas, connections, and juxtapositions. Many of us find ourselves stuck in an attitude about ourselves that art is bourgeois or that art is too far outside the mainstream to be worthwhile—that it doesn’t make us much money and is therefore worthless. Or that it’s self-indulgent. Or that we as individuals are lacking talent, or a parent, teacher, or friend said, “You have a tin ear,” “You lack imagination,” You can’t write because you’re a terrible speller,” “You’re color blind.” We have to move past these stereotypes, labels, and shallow, mean, vindictive judgments in order to find that in fact we do have interests, talents, and skills that we haven’t explored or developed because of them.

Chopra quote

Getting in Touch with the Mind: We need to get in touch with how the mind works (once we’ve created the time and space, cleared the mind, and broken through the negative thoughts)—how the mind responds to what it sees, hears, smells, tastes, and feels, both within the cranium and without (is there really a difference?). This is why I like to refer to Richard Hugo’s “triggering town” in order to promote the idea that we always start from something. There’s always a triggering subject or image in art making. This could be a person, a dialogue, a place, an event, an action, an image, a dream, a feeling, or someone else’s work. Richard Hugo drove to a small town, took a room in an old hotel, went out to the local bar, met strangers, had interesting experiences and conversations, then went back to his room and wrote his poems, many of which are based on the places and people he experienced on his forays. The mind associates and, if the mind associates freely, associates by way of what I call “sideways” leaps or connections (see Robert Bly’s Leaping Poetry). In other words, the mind tends to get in the habit of associating in a linear, forward, productive, time-driven, cause-and-effect way and needs to learn to leap sideways to associate freely in creative ways. Picasso’s bicycle bull provides a succinct example.

Triggering Town Leaping Poetry

In literature there are many precedents: James Joyce and others in his milieu, such as Djuna Barnes, developed and practiced “stream of consciousness,” Rimbaud explored “derangement of the senses,” and Jack Kerouac developed and promoted “automatic writing.” In other words, these artists sought chaotic states of mind in order to discover and express new literary materials and forms.

James JoyceDjuna BarnesArturRimbaudJack Kerouac

When I groom chaos, I usually give myself permission to drink a little beer or wine, doodle on my fiddle, stare out the window at the birds playing, the leaves fluttering and clouds streaming by, or the moon rising out of the forest, and let my thoughts reel out as they may. Sometimes my thoughts strike me as interesting or as having value or use, so I make notes on my voice recorder or on a piece of paper. Then, when an idea, line, thought, or image intrigues me, I work up a piece in my notebook, or on my computer, starting with that “triggering town” to build a poem, essay, or blog post. I have an enormous backlog of lines, titles, images, paragraphs, and poem or essay drafts—way more that I can keep up with, which, let’s face it, is much better than not having enough and scrounging around for ideas as if we aren’t already full of such riches. I call this backlog “compost.” I generate so much compost that the plants of my mind grow wild—twining, billowing, and blooming out of control. I begin to see patterns that reflect who I am and what I really feel deep within.

Pussy Willows

Pussy Willows

And it isn’t until I’ve come back to a piece several times that I allow the stern judge to enter the courtroom of my mind. Yet, interestingly, even the great, harsh, dismissive judge seems to have a creative knack, simply because the judge can’t altogether throw out an initial creative impulse that came so naturally, freely, powerfully, and insistently.